November 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
Yūgen is a Japanese word pertaining to a profound awareness of the universe which evokes feelings that are inexplicably deep and too mysterious for words.
The word itself is like an extension of awareness, the aesthetic perception which allows us to conceive of the vastness of the universe but carries it beyond into an inconceivably mysterious realm. The feeling of Awareness is induced by confrontation to the brevity of life, and yugen is initiated from the awareness that even ‘aware’ itself is an ephemeral thing.
Zeami Motokiyo’s description portrays a medium through which one may experience the unspeakably deep, stirring, feeling of yugen:
“To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.”
October 23, 2012 § 6 Comments
…Over The Hill
It’s been the most beautiful of days.
From sunrise, a fishing boat blinking past Port of Ness harbour, the sky grew from peaches and pink to ever-changing blues. It was frosty and hundreds of spiderwebs strung between the spikes of the croft reeds shimmered with fat beads of dew.
The air was sharp and cold and the nearest house, down and across the village road, was already puffing out peat-smoke which filled the air with its reassuring reek. As the sun rose so did a mist, settling into the hollows of croft land for miles around and Venus, alone, pinpricked the sky.
The rest of the day was cloudless and still, just sunshine, which burned off the fog and frost, and I worked outside all day just to be in amongst it.
And tonight everything reversed, the sun set in familiar deep colours, those eerie clouds of moisture rose again, the moon appeared.
As I locked the hens in their coop for the night I spotted the cat perched on a fencepost, silhouetted against the darkening sky, just taking it in also.
I’ve had more happy days in recent memory than in years of Glasgow living and for no other reason than nature provides.
I feel privileged to be here.
October 13, 2012 § 7 Comments
Last year I organised Glasgow’s first Tweed Ride and such was the demand for another one in 2012 it would have been rude not to oblige.
Being so far from the city meant that this time around I took a back seat / saddle and placed the event in the hands of two Glasgow chaps I knew would make a sterling job of it.
And that they did…
October 9, 2012 § 1 Comment
I’m not a rich man and know now I never will be, there’s no trust fund or money made on property booms to play with. Only graft, turning what few skills I have into resources and remittances for all the work rendered. But I relish the challenge and the hard work, because the gains are truly my own and noone elses.
Such is crofting.
“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal – that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods
October 8, 2012 § 5 Comments
We (the dog and I) got back to the croft as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon. That perfect time of day when the northern latitudinal Lewis light, so beloved by photographers and artists, takes hold, casting high contrast shadows across croft land, fence posts turning to sundial arms, streaking the golden grasses of Ness.
The fridge was full, so after Mac was fed the menu options were multiple thanks to the butchers of Cross stores, the local emporium that supplies everything from a needle to an anchor as well as good meat. There were lamb shanks and liver, local eggs and marag dubh but I had a big bag of mussels to use so that was to be devoured.
Olive oil, garlic, white wine, pepper, parsley and slosh of cream and they were done in minutes. The rest of the wine washed it all down. And as a case of decent red had been delivered earlier another bottle was cracked. It would be rude not to.
I built a fire in grate. Rolled and knotted pages from the Stornoway Gazette, kindling chopped from old wood found in the byre by a Finnish axe, a pair of split logs and a little coal to maintain the burn. The lit paper flared and the rest of the little pyre takes care of itself.
Weasels the cat arrives, popping in through the slightly ajar kitchen window looking for food and an armchair in which to spend the evening. He and the dog have been really wary of each other but seem to have found an uneasy truce based on non-interference of each other’s dinner arrangements. He gets fed a packet of cat food I keep in for when he shows his ginger face and then settles himself into the chair opposite mine.
I stream music from Spotify on the iMac next door, loudly so it carries through to the living room and over the crackle of the open fire. Alan Lomax stuff, old Americana and folk tunes. I catch up with old friends on the iPad, by email, Facebook and and a Twitter, happy to be connected to two old friends in particular, one in New Zealand and another heading for India.
I can handle solitude. I was slightly obsessed about Thoreau’s Walden and this move has proved interesting in many similar respects, despite the stigma associated with loners and hermits it doesn’t phase me in the slightest to go a day or few without socialising. After 15 years of non-stop big city hedonism, part and parcel of working in the music industry and licensed trade, this peace and quiet feels like a relief. But I’d struggle without an Internet connection. Thankfully, the world doesn’t feel too far away despite the remoteness. I can live without the usual male banter about football, birds and techno but lack of female company is rapidly becoming a drag…
The bedroom is lit by candlelight, warmed further by 13.5 duck down togs and a Harris Tweed blanket. There’s a book pile beside the bed and I dip in and out of a few on charcuterie, guga, sea fishing and a little Steinbeck until drifting off.
As the day draws to a close I can see the flash of the lighthouse nearby through the uncurtained window, intermittently, and I reflect on just how simple a day it was. Nothing of particular note happened, there was no drama or big event, no endeavour to brag about, no great achievement to speak of. Nothing but a profound happiness, a series of humble occurrences that added up to a perfect day.
Perhaps the bar is set low on my satisfaction scale?
But there was no pressure to do or be anything, life unfolded at its own pace and in doing so revealed a great many truths, beautiful things whispered so discretely they are seldom heard, so untuned to them our ears usually are.
It was a good day, I went to sleep glad and grateful to be here, looking forward to whatever tomorrow might bring, aware this might not last but willing to take it while I can.
October 7, 2012 § 1 Comment
The long arc of beach at Eoropie is probably my favourite place in the world.
I’ve been here a thousand times, at all times of year, in all weather and seasons and it always feels a very vital place. Once upon a time Viking longboats were hauled ashore here and it takes very little to stretch the imagination far enough to picture the sight today.
Legend has it the Vikings liked the islands so much they tried to drag them home to Norway from here, the loops of their rope fastened through what we call The Eye, a natural arch in the rock to the far north of the beach, seen easily from the sands, a peephole of light through dark Gneiss to the Atlantic beyond.
I feel a profound connection to this place.
My great, great Grandfather drowned in these fierce waters aiming for this very shore in the Cunndal drownings along with other relations and men of the community. In more recent times I have buried hopes and dreams with an old flame in the machair land nearby, a wee time capsule lost and buried after a special holiday a long decade ago. The family croft is but a stones throw from here.
Tonight, as Mac and I took an evening walk, the place was as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it. So hard to put into words really. The sea was a tumult of incoming tide, breakers nine or ten deep, cresting prematurely far out to sea, rolling and roaring in wave after wave on to the sands. The beach faces directly west and the sun was beginning to set and as it did so it fought through clouds of such epic size and scale, cumulonimbus’ of fat, deep, greys all pregnant with rain, beginning to glow pink with sunbeams.
And the sun beamed through, great swathes of rays, ramroddings of light piercing their sky, stitching air to sea. It was just glorious.
I’m not a religious man but sometimes it’s hard not to feel in the presence of God. Or at least a higher power, a bigger picture, the great tapestry of LIFE.
As we walked towards the beach across rabbit hewn green grass the whole scene just revealed itself. A fresh wind blew every cobweb and the salt sea air cured the soul with every breath. The beach was empty save for a lone photographer, wrapped to the nines, a fancy camera on a tripod and a second DLSR stuck to his eye.
As we passed, we both grinned, nothing needed to be said, just an exchange of looks to say “fucking wow!!”
I threw stone after stone for the dog and just soaked it all in. The sun had cut through a huge rain cloud in the bizarrest manner, for all intents and purposes there was a mile high and wide Acid Smiley Face leering over us, as if a tripped out God was grinning at his own handiwork, eyes all ablaze at his creative madness.
As we turned for home the horizon filled with two shadowy clouds, shifting shape and moving erratically, far too quickly to be wind borne. As the disparate patterns in the air drew closer we saw geese, Grelyags most likely, fighting their own currents as the sea below them ripped. A duplicate pair of V-shaped formations converged right over our heads in a cacophonous crash of birds that emerged from the collision in an even bigger arrangement of black silhouettes, squawking loudly heading for who knows where.
The camera guy had spun 180 to capture the fly past and I just craned my neck and laughed in guilt free joy.
The dog, oblivious, padded towards home, a stone still clutched in his broken toothed maw, sandy, salty and as happy as I, despite missing the point completely.
October 6, 2012 § 5 Comments
Apart from weaving, I do a bunch of other work to earn a wage, mostly to do with writing words for people. Which is pretty much a perfect paying pastime for me.
Broadband here is surprisingly good, I get 8mb speeds easily which is a huge relief as my previous abode in another part of the island was a super-slow 1.5mb which is barely enough to surf but impossible to download large files, stream film or music or do anything that most of UK takes for granted.
Some villages on the island struggle even to get those speeds, having to rely on a sort of wireless broadband which costs a lot and generally has a bad reputation. The importance of getting good broadband here should be the number one priority for any and all campaigns. Never mind wind farm and Sunday sailing debates, connecting to the rest of the world at decent speeds is vital if the islands are to have any chance of thriving in the future.
With good broadband you can do good work, young, creative folk can return home and set up shop, design, make music, do everything they can do in a city but from a far nicer place to live.
I digress. All this is for another post on another day…
The rest of the afternoon was spent at the desk, a huge plinth of beautiful wood on trestles in the window of the front room, a view overlooking fertile croft land and three big Highland Coos grazing dolefully. A nice shiny iMac sits there among fairly neat piles of random paperwork and a wall of books.
I write a couple of blogposts for the Harris Tweed Authority website and line them up to go live at set times. Some time is spent, as usual, exploring what waves Harris Tweed is making on various blogs and websites, Twitter and Google searches being plundered for anything of note. And anything that looks good is posted to the Harris Tweed folks’ social media, part of my monthly remit to keep their online presence active and interesting.
A few emails are batted back and forth with colleagues in Glasgow helping to organise this year’s Harris Tweed Ride event, enquiries from this blog are responded to, visits from documentary makers and a brand collaboration’s director booked into the diary for later on in the week. Since setting up here ne’er a week goes by without someone planning a visit to observe life in the back of beyond. I’m happy to share even though it does cut into weaving time, it’s great to have visitors and their enthusiasm always leaves me happy when they arrive and lingers after they leave.
I log time spent on various things in a notebook to keep track of hours to be billed to clients at the end of the month, usually erring on the conservative side, none of this feels like work but I have to top up the bank account despite enjoying the graft.
And then that’s it…working day done…
It’s around tea-time I think, I don’t have a watch these days and the only clock in the house is on the computer. Mac the Collie, my parents old dog who I’m looking after while they swan off sunbathing in warmer climes sits looking at me in his “I’m a good boy” pose, head cocked to one side, eyes implying he wants either walked or fed, preferably both and in that particular order.
The sun is much lower in the sky now, starting to crack the clouds which don’t look like releasing their rain so we head for Traigh Shanndaigh a long, wild, windswept beach just a five minute drive from here and probably my favourite place in world.
October 4, 2012 § Leave a Comment
What to do with the rest of the day was decided for me as I stood at the back door looking over the croft.
I’d taken on six six week old chickens and a similarly aged cockerel recently and had them safely ensconced in a new hen run. 5.5m X 5.5m of sturdy nylon netting, with holes 5cm squared to a height of 24 inches and then 10cm squares hioles to twice that height. The bottom of the netting was securely pegged into the ground by over a dozen tent pegs and weighted down by stones.
Their new wooden chicken coop was fenced in further by some green, plastic netting on all sides and above to keep the chicks safe until they grew old enough and brave enough to venture further without being lifted by airborn predators like crows, seagulls and our local birds of prey.
So I considered it to be a Fort Knox for fowl and lazily looked on from 30 yards away as they squeaked and pecked in their well protected haven, feeding and drinking from the three bright orange feeders I’d placed in the run…
There should only be TWO.
And there, just inches from the new birds, separated only by the inner wire of the green plastic mesh was Weasley, the feral ginger cat I sometimes give bed and board to. The wee blaggard had somehow got through the first perimeter and was now studiously assessing how to get through the second and help himself to some fresh chicken.
So I legged it down the croft waving my arms like an irate rooster, yelling at him to get the fleek out of there and watched in wonder as he leapt onto the roof of the coop and bounded clean over the netting, landing on a raised bank of turf on the other side. The raised bank was the weak spot, by standing on it he’d given himself another couple of feet of height. And the chicken coop roof was right on the other side at a similar height and so it took no great leap of feline imagination to make a great leap into the run.
My thinking had been that the bank of turf would provide some shelter from the wind and had moved the coop close to it so it lay in its lee. As it was it simply gave sly ol’ Weasley a launch pad for his hunting endeavours.
So out came the spade and scythe and I set about levelling the offending turf. Pretty soon it was flattened and I tensioned the netting even further to make sure it was at its full height all around. Then I grabbed some more tent pegs and secured the bottom even further. All the while Weasely sat watching passively, waiting for me to finish. And when I had done so he set about trying his luck a second time.
For the next hour, in full view of me, he paced the fence line looking for chinks in the armour. Time and time again he returned to the spot where the turf bank had been, head swaying from side to side to analyse heights and distance, slowly raising up on his haunches to see if the larger holes were within reach. He chewed at the nylon and tried to poke his head underneath in dozens of spots, all to no avail. At the point I thought he’d surely have to give up he paced away some half dozen yards, a supposedly defeated cat, but before I could raise a smug smile he turned and ran full tilt at the netting…
With a leap that had to be seen to be believed he pounced himself through a netting hole some 36″ off the ground. Clean through, front paws first, head and shoulders and up to his rib cage. With his claws he grabbed onto the roof of the coop, which was still within a few inches of the fencing, and hauled the rest of his skinny body through. It was like something out of The Matrix. A gravity defying jump of pinpoint accuracy, perfectly finding his mark with the form of an Olympic diver. Within a few seconds he was back in his spot, staring at the final barrier to his prey, trying to work out how to best me a final time.
Again I seized him and threw him out of the chicken camp and set about moving the wooden coop well away from the sides of the netting. Again he watched.
By now he was clear on the effacy of his method but knew he had nothing to grab hold of on the other side. Could he make the leap again and get himself through alone? He weighed his odds, found them worth the risk and went at it again.
This time the jump was the same, millimetre perfect, an arc of grace and aplomb, beautifully executed and scarily accurate in its aim. But with only half his torso through the hole he quickly found himself undone. With nothing to help pull his second section through the small hole he just hung there, trapped like a herring, wriggling and meowling in great discomfort, completely caught.
Mercifully, I walked over, laughing all the while, to release the sad feline from his ignomy, pulling him backwards by his back legs like a breech birth. Free again, he sheepishly padded away into the long grass, defeated. Triumphantly, I returned to the house, pleased that once again man had bested beast, the human genius outwitting the lowly animal, the greater mind had won.
The next morning I found a very cat-sized gap under the netting at the spot of Weasles last stand, the tent pegs lifted clean out of the ground. Touché Weasely. Thankfully the chickens had been locked in their coop for the night and until such time as the cat fathoms how to undo a door catch and open the dashed thing then they are safe, at night at least. However I suspect it won’t take him too long…
October 3, 2012 § 11 Comments
It was a weaving day. Probably the most satisfying and literally liberating part of this new life is the freedom to do what you want to, every single day. There are no time cards to punch for anyone, no set hours to satisfy any employer, no meetings, managers, bosses or staff to tell or be told what to do. I rarely plan ahead, the days work is determined by the weather and what grabs me that particular day. Of course there are obligations, animals need fed, larders and wine racks need stocked, bills are to be paid…but how I go about meeting these obligations is entirely in my hands.
And so to weaving.
The loom shed is around thirty paces from the back door amd thats the morning commute. From this spacious old byre I can saddle up and turn 100% pure new woolen yarn into yards after yard of genuine Harris Tweed. And the tweed I make gets turned into luxury goods by designers all around the world. And into money for me. Some days I can’t believe my luck, to be one of only 130 weavers able to do this. And all from this humble croft in the back of beyond. Amazing really.
The first task of the day was to prepare the loom, finger pumping a little red oil can to lubricate all the moving parts, a lick of paraffin to ease the passage of the rapier and a sheen of WD40 on the drive belt. A handturn of the main cog, just a click, to maintain tension lost overnight, a quick check of warp and wefts and we’re ready to go.
The loom is running really, really well in its new home. After months of hitches and glitches it just sings, all of its faults seemingly ironed out and any that remain I can remedy myself now I have a greater feel for the beast and a little more knowledge. The first turn of the pedals and the loom springs into life with its familiar ta-tickety clicks, a little stiffly at first but warming up quickly as friction and oils begin to work together. The temperature can affect the looms feel some days, assuming it’s to do with the viscosity of the lubricants and the tiny expansion and contractions of the metal parts. Today it feels good and yard after yard of a grey plain twill begins to form before my eyes, the rapier flying, reed beating, rollers turning yarn into cloth.
I usually do 29 meters a day, half a standard tweed, which can take anything between 6 and 8 hours depending on how well the loom is running and how many breaks interrupt the flow. Today the loom is flying and the day passes quickly. I break every hour, usually after a pair of warp bobbins runs empty and head back to the kitchen for a cuppa. While I weave there’s usually an audiobook burbling in the background, today it’s Gilead, perceptible, just, over the cacophony of the machine.
I finish up for the day around 3pm, sweep the floor of yarn threads and wool fluff, pack away the various tools that had been fished out during the day’s activities and wonder about what the rest of the day might entail. Mac the dog sits at the gate, thick coat ruffled by the prevailing south westerly and watches to see whether he’ll be included in the remains of the day’s plans.
I suddenly feel hungry so need to fix some lunch, there are half a dozen scallops in the fridge gasping to be cooked so after mashing a tin of anchovies through some butter they all go into a pan until caramelised and brown. Tipped onto a plate with lots of the butter and accompanied by a guilt-free glass of Sav Blanc it proves to be pretty decent late lunch…
October 2, 2012 § 2 Comments
The mornings are darker for longer but sunrise is still before 8am. I’m dog-sitting my folks’ old collie at the moment and he’s used to a walk at 6.30 am which is a bit of a stretch for me, never been a morning person but I’m working on it. So today’s alarm call was the belt and braces combo of the cockerel next door and some slabbery dog breath at 7am. On rising, I dress in the splendourous outfit of:
First order of the day is coffee, brewed on the stove in a 6 cup Bialetti Moka, the kitchen radio switched on and the dulcet tones of the presenter of Radio Nan Gaidheal (I have no clue what she is saying) reading what I assume to be the mornings news. Something about golf and Alex Salmond I discern so my incomprehension is of no great loss. I like the gaelic radio in the morning, the music is good and the voices remind me of mornings in my grandparent’s house, their radio always tuned to that same station.
The coffee pot puffles and plops on the hob as I open the back door and take in the view over the croft to Port of Ness, the sea and further on the low cliffs of Skigersta. It’s a view I will never tire of looking at. There’s a ship out there, I look it up on the Ship AIS website and see it’s a Norwegian vessel and heading for Loch Roag. The three Hebridean ewes are grazing happily and look up when they hear the door open. Calan the Ram is standing at the gate looking at me expectantly. For what I’m not sure. Maybe he thinks today’s the day he gets let loose on the ladies on the other side of the fence. He’s going to be disappointed today anyway. About a dozen Greylag geese have landed and are busy pecking away at whatever they peck away at.
Half of the coffee pot is poured into a mug and sweetened before being returned to the hob. Mac The Collie wanders out the door, nose in the air, sniffing something in the wind and I check the days emails on the iPad, waiting for mind and body to caffeinate and wake up. The mug is drained, I follow Mac outside, pulling on rubber boots as I go and we walk to the road and towards the harbour nearby.
The sun is climbing but behind broken cloud, brightly dappled, it’s windy too. The tide is coming in, little fishing boats, bobbing behind the safety of the concrete breakwater walls, clunk when they get too close to one other. We don’t see a soul on the road to the harbour although the light is on in a weaver’s shed at number 12 but no clatter of a loom yet. There’s a little beach at Port, getting smaller as the tide pulls in, and we manage to get halfway along it before executing a swift volte face to avoid getting cut off from the only steps on and off the sands. Enough time for the dog to get wet and gritty however.
Walking back to the croft the air is full of starling chatter, a huge group of them sitting on a weird old house I can’t work out is long abandoned or still inhabited. A car passes, a wave from the driver, I don’t recognise him but we all wave at each other here as we pass, on foot, in tractors, on bikes. It’s friendly, a recognition of an implied connection, even between strangers, something that never happened in Glasgow.
Two thick slices of Ness marag, topped with two fried eggs from a local croft for me. And the remainder of the coffee, still hot on the stove. The dog gets his usual food. The sheep get a few handfuls of Clover Crunch. The six week old hens now out in their run get theirs. Everyone fed and watered? Then the day can begin, it’s around 8am.