I’m finally back with another in the Portraits of Scotland series! While in Scotland, we spent several weeks on isles, with the sea visible or within easy drive of where we stayed. Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull, was no exception. We stayed in Harbour Guest House on Tobermory High Street, which is the main street that curves around, hugging Tobermory harbour. Tobermory is the capital of Mull because, with a population of 700, it’s one of the few places large enough to be considered a town rather than a village. You may remember mention of it in my post about the Leather Artisan. Well, having spent so much time around the sea, and having eaten fish and chips to our heart’s delight, I hoped to find a fisherman who would let me paint his portrait.
Our very last day on Mull (even as we were packed up and ready to drive back to the mainland), I stopped in at a shop to pick up a glass fusing piece I’d made the day before. When I came back to the car, my mom said, “Mollie, weren’t you hoping to paint a fisherman? I’ve been watching this man climb nimbly down a narrow metal ladder to his boat. I can’t believe his agility! He must be nearly 70, but he’s up and down that ladder in the blink of an eye! This is your chance! Ask him whether he’d mind if you take his photograph.” So, I approached the fisherman. It was a quiet morning, still fairly early, and he was alone – no crew with him. I figured he had simply been checking on something in the boat, and I was right. Funnily enough, his first response when I asked about taking his photo was, “Does my hair look alright?” This is the same question Alan (the Leather Artisan) asked before I photographed him!…must be a Tobermory thing. Well, the fisherman’s white hair was blowing in a harbour breeze, so I laughed and said it looked fine. Like several of the people I approached, he was surprised anyone would want to paint his portrait. Perhaps the tourist-painter intrigued him. Perhaps he was merely complying with an odd request. Whatever the motivation, he agreed. And, while I took a few photos, we chatted.
I asked about his work. We’d eaten fresh lobster the night before. Had he caught those lobsters? He said that all of the lobsters his crew catch are actually shipped overseas…makes more money than selling it locally. I asked whether he had children who’ve followed in his footsteps career-wise. He said he has no sons. But his two daughters married fishermen, and his sons-in-law work with him. It was a short conversation, a brief glance into his life. But each of these portraits has opened doors for me to learn something of the people of Scotland. They are humble, yet proud; hospitable and friendly; they work hard and value tradition; they highly value family and community. Possibly because their towns and villages are so small, a sense of community is inevitible…for better or worse, everyone seems to know everyone else. I asked whether he knew Alan, and he said, “Aye, of course! I know him well.” My favorite part of this particular portrait is the fisherman’s stance. Hands are jammed solidly into his pockets. Weatherbeaten and ruddy, his face holds the wrinkles of sunshine and wind, laughter and life. His eyes are used to peering out across the water, whether through glaring sun, storm, or fog. No fancy airs or moment taken to brush his hair…the wind would blow it again anyway. He is a man’s man, a working man, a provider for his family, comfortable in his own skin. The stance says, “Here I am! If you want to paint a portrait, you’re welcome. Just make sure my boat is included. For my boat is part of who I am.”
This illustration is actually a compilation of several photos taken during our days on Mull. The jetty where the fisherman stood was lined with lobster cages. Beyond those you could see the panoramic view of iconic Tobermory shops. The red, yellow, and blue group of shops in particular is well-known. Apparently, they appear in a BBC children’s show called Balamory. I’m a little old to watch the show now, but the Scottish accents are fun! In designing this scene, I took the photo of the fisherman with his boat, combined it with photos of the panorama and lobster cages, then added in a couple seagulls for good measure. Huge seagulls are the other “fishermen” of Tobermory. Whether swooping and diving below the water’s crest, or scavenging bits of fish left by the pros, they’re always interested in the day’s catch. Just a few feet from this scene (kind of behind and to the left) was the fresh fish-&-chips vendor. This tiny trailer sold fish that had been caught fresh that morning. You’d tell them what kind of fish you wanted (halibut, cod, etc.), they’d pull it out of the fridge, dip it in batter, and fry it right there in front of you. Then they’d toss it onto a bed of hot chips, and you could add vinegar or ketchup before carrying your treasure home to feast. It was so good, Mom and I literally ate there 3 out of 4 nights on Mull! If you look above the Tobermory shops, you’ll see one more iconic building. The Western Isles Hotel, up on the hill, is one of the filming locations for the 1945 Wendy Hiller movie, I Know Where I’m Going. Wonderful film! If you’ve never seen it, check it out!
Well, this concludes our tour of Tobermory. Of all the places we visited, this is a top one on my list to visit again. If you’re ever there yourself, keep an eye out for my friend Alan and for his neighbor, the fisherman.
Opening the window of your apartment on the Royal Mile, you’re met with sights and sounds of a bustling city. Tourists and lorries, street vendors and shop owners create a chatter of activity. This cacophony is part of the music of Edinburgh. However, it’s merely the backdrop for a ribbon of song that floats and weaves through the city street. For, on several corners stand Edinburgh pipers whose bagpipes screel the notes of the nation.
During the several days we spent in or near the Royal Mile, we saw (and listened to) pipers of all ages. Each wore a traditional kilt, some in full regalia. And most played traditional Scottish bagpipes. Then, one day we came across a young piper whose music carried more harmonies, without the shrill drone of Scottish pipes. I asked the young man, whose name is Rex, whether these were Uilleann pipes – an Irish form of bagpipe I’d heard once in college. The Uilleann pipes look a lot like those Rex played. Turns out I was on the right track! Rex was playing a lesser-known instrument called the Scottish smallpipes. In preparation for this blog post, I emailed Rex, asking for more information about smallpipes and his experiences as a piper. Rather than summarize what he said, I’ll share his responses here:
Specifics: The ‘Scottish smallpipes’ as played when we met are a less commonly played form of pipes. The more traditional ‘Highland Bagpipes’ are most common. They have a huge link with Scottish culture and are referred to by some as an ‘instrument of war’. The ‘Scottish smallpipes’ are more quiet and usually played in pubs and at local gatherings. Very few people play these and so it takes around 6 months to a year to get a good set from a maker. They have the same finger work as the highland bagpipe although look and are played differently (with a bellow instead of a blowpipe). They are great for playing with other instruments, particularly the guitar whereas the highland bagpipes are more of a solo instrument (unless of course played with drums) The Uilleann pipes, also known as Irish pipes are, in my opinion the holy grail of piping expertise. There is a saying which is: “7 years learning, 7 years practicing, 7 years playing”…21 years to master. They are usually played sitting down and have 2 octaves with wrist actions to hold chords at the same time as playing. These are extremely complex to play and indeed make, which is why it can take several years to get hold of a set.
One of the leading industries in Scotland, tourism employs over 210,000 people and rakes in almost £6.4 billion annually (according to scotland.org). Not hard to believe, considering B&Bs, self-catering rentals, and guest houses line the streets of every scenic village…and in Scotland, nearly every village is scenic! Where the terrain is too rugged for a B&B, camping tents cluster along streams and cliff-sides. My parents and I stuck with the more conventional housing options. So, during our month’s travels, we encountered a wide variety of hosts and hostesses. Some were chatty, some shy, and others business-like. Many had moved from England to Scotland because they loved the land and its people. Others had been born and bred in the area. A few learned the hospitality gig from their parents. Others left the “dog-eat-dog” business world for a more relaxed lifestyle. But whatever their age, disposition, or background, they all share certain qualities: a knack for hospitality, the ability to organize and run a busy household, tremendous cooking skills, deep love for the country around them, and a breadth of knowledge about their home’s history and the surrounding town/village.
Nine years ago, my parents stayed at The Victorian Townhouse in Edinburgh. This trip, Mom and I decided to return there for our Edinburgh stay. Mom remembered Aileen (pronounced Ay-leen with emphasis on the first syllable) as a friendly hostess who took great care of them in 2007. She was right! Aileen took wonderful care of us. She rents out 3 rooms on the lower level of the house. The upper level is occupied by herself (and previously) her son. The accommodation and treatment were fancier than anything we’d come across previously. High ceilings and window looking onto a back garden, ornate fireplace, large bathroom, and a sitting area with tea and snacks on-hand. We enjoyed getting to know our hostess and the other guests at breakfast each morning. And, upon request, Aileen took us upstairs to visit the Victorian parlour. This room has tall windows looking out onto Eglinton Crescent. The ornate tray ceiling, rich wooden wainscoting, and Persian rug with brushed tassels all harken back to quieter times. This particular townhouse was the childhood home of one of our favorite Scottish authors – D.E. Stevenson. Dorothy Emily was the cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson. While not as well-known as Robert Louis, she has a wide fan-base even to this day. Her books are novels about family life in England and Scotland, written from the 1930s-1970s. My personal favorites are Miss Buncle’s Book (recently made into a play, and possibly going to be made into a BBC movie), The Tall Stranger, and The Five Windows. During our Edinburgh stay, Mom and I actually stumbled across a treasure-trove of D.E. Stevenson books! They were tucked into a corner of an establishment called (appropriately enough) Edinburgh Books on West Port Road. The City of Edinburgh placed a plaque commemorating her birthplace at The Victorian Townhouse this very month! Seeing Aileen’s Victorian parlour, we could imagine D.E. Stevenson as a small girl…peering out the front window at people passing in the cobbled street, sitting by the large fireplace on chilly nights, ringing the bell to summon servants for tea. Our stay with Aileen was the perfect end to a memorable month in Scotland!
About the artwork:
For many illustrations in my series, I simply asked the person in passing permission to photograph them for a portrait. In Aileen’s case, I wanted to set her up in the Victorian room and do a more formal photo-shoot. While her cooking clothes and apron might have represented the everyday aspect of her position, The Victorian Townhouse hostess should have a chance to show off her string of pearls and stately sitting-room. Mom and I chatted with her for nearly an hour while I snapped photos. The photo-shoot itself was as fun as the actual painting of her portrait!
Tucked away, merely steps from Tobermory Main Street, is a small store where old meets new. You enter a shop where the walls, paint, carpet and furnishings are modern, clean lines. Yet behind the workbench stands a man whose craft dates back hundreds (if not thousands) of years. Alan Willetts taught himself leatherwork as a hobby. But the deeper he got into the craft, the more dissatisfied he was with his regular job. So, he opened up shop. Now, with both a store-front and an online site, he can be found working long hours at what he loves best. I stepped into the store out of curiosity. But both the artisan and his skill quickly caught my attention. One wall is a rainbow of earth tones, belts of all lengths and colors. In front of the workbench hang a row of leather bracelets with tooled or embossed designs. By the window are tables of wallets, journal covers, and other items, each hand-stitched and completely hand-crafted. We asked Alan if he might show us the tooling process. His eyes lit up as he explained various thicknesses of leather, demonstrating how to carve, emboss, and paint a leafy vine. He’s even designed a map of the Isle of Mull, made from his vine and leaf pattern. Mom and I would be leaving town soon, but we ventured to ask if he could finish a couple items for us if we placed an order. He was able to complete the order, and had both items ready by the following evening! Not long after we left the shop, Mom said, “You should see if he’d let you take photos to do a portrait of him!” So, when I returned to the shop to pick up our order, I brought my camera. Alan’s one comment was, “How does my hair look?” I assured him it looked fine! And we set up the shots that became the above illustration. I love that the photos (and painting) caught his intensity of expression as he concentrated on carving. This is a man in his element who puts ingenuity and time into every inch of every piece he creates. In a world and time where mass-production factory output is the norm, it’s refreshing to visit a place where time slows down while an artist hones his craft.
When I told my friend that I’d toured 3 castles during my first 3 days in Scotland, her thought was, “If you’ve seen one castle, haven’t you seen them all?” However, having visited several of Scotland’s castles this month, I can safely say that no two are alike! No one can accuse Scotland of lacking castles. I’d be interested to know what the ratio is per square mile. Some castles are mere ruins; others have been occupied by families and/or clan leaders longer than America’s existed as a country. Urquhart Castle (pronounced Er-keht), which looks out over Loch Ness, was purposefully blown up by its owners to keep Jacobite forces from taking control. Many castles are simple fortresses to claim or protect territory. Others were built as protective walls, with a village of people or armies living inside. Some were built for glory, (then torn down and rebuilt even larger) to declare the owner’s wealth. Each is famous in its own right. But a few are famous for their gardens. When a family has lived in one place for generations, they have time to cultivate trees, flower-beds, walled gardens, waterfalls, in some areas of Scotland even tropical plants. Think of it as “Let’s plant a bush for Mom for Mother’s Day”…then times that by several hundred Mother’s Days.
One garden especially well-known on the Isle of Skye is Dunvegan Castle garden. When you walk down Dunvegan paths, you feel as though you’ve stepped into a scene from The Secret Garden. Natural waterfalls tumble into streams, with foot-bridges crossing them. A fence constructed of sawn branches lines walkways, blending in naturally with its surroundings. The Walled Garden houses more protected plants, including a lily pond with deep pink waterlilies gracing the tranquil surface. Meanwhile, the Round Garden has sections of open lawn and monkey puzzle trees stretching up to the sky. Everywhere color explodes around you in flowers of all kinds, each labeled with name and Latin classification for those who care to know what they’re seeing.
Of course, these gardens don’t take care of themselves. Acres of manicured beds, trimmed hedges, and weed-free paths require work. So, today’s portrait is dedicated to the many gardeners working behind the scenes to maintain a castle garden’s majesty. This particular portrait is a woman who works part-time at Dunvegan. In the few minutes I spoke with her, it was evident that gardening is both an enjoyment and a labor of love. She seemed a quiet individual; perhaps shy, but happy to talk about the plants in her care. Each gardener is given a particular section of the grounds to maintain. Her segment includes Rhododendron hedges (Scotland’s famous weed), spotted with pale pink blossoms. It also includes several beds with springy green heather tucked amongst the flowers. As I photographed her, she was trimming the heather. When I asked when the heather blooms, she told me that this is a garden-variety heather that blooms in spring. The wild heather which transforms Scotland’s hills to gorgeous purple will bloom later this summer or early autumn. An old wheel barrow with tools and extra flowers stood nearby. And as we finished our conversation, she paused to put on “midgie gear,” a net-like head covering to protect her from midge bites. For those who don’t know, the midge is the national bird of Scotland. Just kidding! However, they are like tiny gnats that swarm and leave you itching. In a garden that looks like paradise, midges remind you you’re definitely on earth. With her midge protection in place, the Dunvegan gardener continued quietly and happily, content in her work.
When you’re in the highlands, you may live in a village with houses clustered together, or your home may be tucked into a hillside at the end of a cart-track. Whichever the case, your nearest neighbors are bound to be hundreds of sheep. These neighbors can be found gamboling down the road next to (or in front of) your car. They camouflage with boulders on the hillsides, making you think: “I could have sworn that was a rock, but it just moved!” In rain or sun, high wind or gentle breeze, they seem to be forever grazing, head down, munching and roaming and munching again. If no sheep is within view at the moment, just listen. You’ll hear the “maaa” carrying across from a loch or hill behind you. After visiting the highlands, I now understand why streets in Edinburgh are lined with shops advertising Harris Tweed, lamb’s wool scarves, cashmere sweaters, and haggis. In a land of rocks, boulders, and turf (where even houses, walls, and barns are built from those very materials) farming sheep is both a way of life and a necessity.
Having grown up in the church, I’ve long been familiar with passages comparing humanity to sheep. Jesus grew up in a land like Scotland, with rough, rocky terrain well-suited to sheep-farming. I grew up in the wilds of Naperville, where soybeans and sod farms are pushed aside by shopping centers. Sheep are scarce, if non-existent. If you pause and listen, you’ll hear the rumble of a semi-truck, not the bleating of lambs. So, while Jesus’ listeners could easily relate to his parables about sheep, I’ve had to use my imagination. Visiting the highlands has breathed fresh life into the realities of his comparison.
This Sunday my family visited a church in Carloway (Isle of Lewis), where the pastor was preaching on Matthew 18:1-14 & 19:13-15. The passages focus on Jesus’ interactions with children and how we must become like children (as regards faith) in order to enter God’s kingdom. Pastor Davis talked about how children don’t know what they need, but they know who they need. A baby may refuse to eat because she’s gotten so worked up about being hungry. In her anger, she doesn’t realize that what she needs is being offered to her. Yet, from her earliest weeks she knows her mother and father’s voices (she’s been listening to them for 9 months in the womb). So, even if she’s too upset to know what she needs, she knows who to go to for comfort and provision. Pastor said that as adults, we have a pretty good idea of what we need. But we don’t know where to look or who to go to for provision. Instead of going to our heavenly Father (who knows and has what we truly need) we look for fulfillment in relationships, success, binges, etc. I confess I’m guilty of looking/searching for the next ____________ (fill in the blank) of life…the next stage (marriage/family), the next success, or the next book publisher. I often feel God tapping me on the shoulder, saying, “Mollie, slow down. What’s right in front of you – what I’ve provided – is all you need for now. Enjoy it! Be still in the midst of it. Stop searching for more when you’re not even sure what ‘more’ implies.”
In the midst of Jesus’ teaching on childlike faith, he interweaves a comparison to sheep (18:12-14). This comparison got me thinking about the similarities between sheep and children. Children implicitly trust the parent who loves them. Sheep implicitly trust the shepherd who cares for them. Children wander off, need guidelines/boundaries to feel safe, and sometimes need rescuing from foolish mistakes. Sheep are the same way. Children can identify their parents from across a crowded store, simply by hearing mom or dad cough. A sheep knows the shepherd’s voice and will ignore or run away from a stranger’s voice (John 10:4-5). This last comparison has gained new meaning for me here in Scotland. I’ve always heard that sheep run from a stranger’s voice. Yet, I will stand with my camera on the hills of Skye and call out to a sheep…trying to get it to look up from its munching so that I can take a good photo. I’ve even tried talking the sheep’s language (not Gaelic but “maaa”…and, yes, I’ve seen tourists from Germany and China doing the same thing). Inevitably, the sheep ignores me. If I approach her, she shows me her backside and walks away. That sheep knows I care little for her, beyond a photo opportunity. On the flip-side, I met a shepherdess last week. When I asked Linda if she would be sheering any sheep in the next day or so, she replied that the weather was awful and “the girls wouldn’t like it.” Linda knows her sheep. She loves, protects, provides for each one. Just as a trusting child, those sheep could identify her voice in any crowd.
In wrapping up his sermon, Pastor Davis concluded: as we approach God, our mindset must be that of a child. We should approach Him in humility, understanding our inability to supply our own needs. We should approach with a trusting heart, as children run with open arms to their parents’ protective embrace. We should seek to obey our Father’s voice as children who understand that rules aren’t about constriction but simply provide safety. And we should honor our heavenly Father as a child would brag about the strength of his dad. May I have the childlike (and sheeplike) faith to always trust that voice I know so well. May I always remember who to look to, even when I think I know what I need.
When traveling, you meet many people along the way. Some are faces in passing: the friendly young woman in a dress shop; an Irish gal who visited Edinburgh for a month and decided to stay a year; a young rugby coach who serves Subway sandwiches; the Edinburgh native who shared stories of her city as we hopped on a tour bus. Others we’ve been in contact with for several months and may stay in contact with long after we leave…such as the lady who owns our tiny rental home on Storr Loch. Each face is a Polaroid snapshot of our time in Scotland. A snatch of conversation here, a smile or word of advice there; all lives colliding, intermingling, then going our separate ways. I suppose daily life is like that back home, but I notice the people and remember the conversations more here because they’re connected with new sights and experiences.
Today’s portrait is one of those passing faces. In fact, I only know his first name because I happened to ask the receptionist at our hotel. Charles performs at Glencoe Inn several evenings a week. If I remember correctly, he was a drummer in a band that traveled ’round parts of Europe. But he felt that drums drowned out easy conversation. So, he picked up a guitar instead, where he can play and sing more as background music in the local pub. Simon & Garfunkel; the Beatles; Peter, Paul & Mary; and several other favorites are now part of my Glencoe memories. We talked of guitars – the tone difference between a Taylor and a Gibson. My dad has a 12-string he’s played since I was born. Charles has a 6-string, specially made for his left-hand playing. Mom and I will pass through that area again at the end of our trip. So, perhaps we’ll see him perform once more!
My brother and sister-in-law gave me a pocket-sized Winsor & Newton Cotman watercolor set for my birthday this year, in anticipation of this trip. They also gave me a couple of watercolor sketch pads. So, I came to Scotland prepared to paint! Winsor & Newton is the brand I’ve used since high school. The colors are rich; the texture is creamy. They cost more but are worth the investment if you plan to work long-term in watercolor. When you’re purchasing paints, cheaper brands tend to have a duller color and dusty texture as they dry. It’s as though they sit on top of the paper and don’t want to soak in or blend properly. My Cotman watercolors have never disappointed. And the pocket set is wonderful, including a tiny paintbrush that holds its tip shape and carries pigment well. The above portrait is approximately 7″x7″, all done with a Winsor & Newton sable (round, size 4) brush and the tiny brush from my new set. Sable brushes can cost anywhere from $20 – $60 each. However, if you take good care of them, they’ll easily last you 6+ years. This painting is completed almost entirely with blue, Alizarin crimson, yellow ochre, and burnt umber. My pocket set doesn’t include Payne’s Grey (my students know this is one of my favorite colors) or black, but I can get by without those…mixing burnt umber with blue to make a grey. I hope to post a few more “Portraits of Scotland” in the next few weeks, so stay tuned!