Driving down American highways, I rarely (if ever) stop and pull off to the side of the road, thinking, “I’ve gotta take a photo of this scene!” I mean, what are we going to photograph?…a Wendy’s? Indiana corn fields?…maybe. Blue Ridge Mountains?…okay, I have stopped to photograph that. Perhaps I’m just too used to American scenery. And, having grown up in a large family where we drove cross-country twice a year, I’m very familiar with the landscape rolling past my car window.
Then you get to Scotland. People who haven’t been there don’t really believe me, but the scenery seems to change every 10 feet! Part of that is the lighting. Clouds rolling across a blue sky, skimming cobwebs of shadow and light over highland hills. Part of it is the stone walls. Rocks dug from earth to make way for farms and homes. Too many rocks with no place to put them. So, what to they do? They build rugged walls and homes out of stones pried from the yard. Part of it is the coastline. Having grown up on the south-east coast, I’ve always been a sucker for water (sorry, not Lake Michigan…but brackish water, oceans, seas). And a majority of Scotland is coastline.
Well, Mom and I were driving along the coast of Mull back in 2016 and passed these abandoned boats. I pulled off to the shoulder and walked back with my camera to take a closer look. This painting is from one of the photos taken that day. I’m not sure what the story is behind these beauties. Mom’s probably researched it by now and found out. But what amazes me (and is typical of Scotland) is that no one has defaced or damaged their remains. They lean, one against the other, with a few old tires strewn nearby. Quiet, weathered, serene. Abandoned yet not really alone…because people stop regularly to visit and photograph (simply Google “Abandoned Boats, Mull” and you’ll find TONS of photos from people who were just as attracted to them as we were). Sorry to say that in America it’s hard to find abandoned beauty like this that hasn’t been tattooed with graffiti from at least one stray spray can. I was driving down a highway near my house just last week and saw a cool 1960’s VW van with rust and grass growing up around it…and grafitti all over it. That’s one of the things I appreciate most about Scotland: that people there tend to care more about preservation than littering and destruction. Our large land-mass takes too many things for granted. Those little British Isles don’t.
About the Artwork:
This was started over a year ago as an oil painting demo for my Painting 2 class. It sat, half-finished for a year until I taught another oil class this spring. I like the pale aqua and greys balanced by pops of rusty-red. I don’t work in oils often, but I actually prefer that medium for scenes like this one. Oil works well when texturing the ground or blending light and form in the wooden beams of the boats. Here’s a shot of the finished piece framed and hanging on my reclaimed wood wall. I may change the frame. But I like it hanging against the wood back-drop.
I’m back! Feels like forever since I’ve posted on this blog. It’s not that I haven’t been creating. But I’m in the middle of a couple of paintings and under contract for a picture book. So, nothing completed that I could post recently. More to come on the picture book when it’s finished…
In the meantime, I’m continuing my Scotland series with another drypoint etching. Neist Point is the western most edge of the Isle of Skye. The lighthouse was designed by the Stevenson family. You’re probably more familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Kidnapped and Treasure Island), or D.E. Stevenson (one of my favorite female British authors of books such as Miss Buncle’s Book or The Tall Stranger). Well, the Stevenson family in general was widely known as lighthouse engineers. Starting with RLS’s grandfather in the 1790’s, Robert Louis Stevenson’s father, uncles, and cousins proceeded to design over 90 lighthouses throughout Scotland (as well as a handful in Japan) from 1791-1937. In fact, RLS greatly disappointed his father by choosing to become a writer rather than carry on the family tradition of engineering. You can read more about Stevenson Lighthouses here.
My visit to Neist Point was on a gorgeously sunny day. We followed signs from the main highway to what seemed like a tiny road leading nowhere. West, west, west you go until you come to a parking lot near a cliff. The lighthouse isn’t even visible when you park. You must trust that it’s there and be ready/willing to walk a couple miles to prove you’re right. Of course crowds of tourists with cameras around you help confirm that there’s something worth seeing down below. The trek to Neist Point is not for the faint of heart! From the parking area, you hike down an extremely steep “stair case” of something resembling steps carved into the cliff-side. There is a railing made of metal pipes. The thing seems safe enough, as long as you hang on and don’t let gravity cause your feet to get too far ahead of the rest of your body. Needless to say, we left my mom at the parking lot. She would have to enjoy this excursion vicariously through my photos. Once you get to level ground, the next mile or so is easy! A lovely walk along a path with sheep sunning themselves amongst the boulders. If you get close enough to the cliff’s edge, you will see seagulls swooping out from crevices in the cliff-side, soaring along the sea breeze, then diving down to catch fish in the foamy waves below.
The lighthouse station itself is more like a barracks, with several rectangular “cottages” placed around the perimeter of the main building. I believe these were once rented out to tourists. However, when we were there, they were abandoned and run-down. Paint pealing on the window sills. Broken panes looking into empty rooms. An old lace curtain hanging at a window, one of the few signs that the place had once been a home. The lighthouse is owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board and has been run automatically since the 1990’s, when the last lighthouse keeper was withdrawn.
Etching cliffs was a new challenge for me! I feel like I had a better sense of shading with the scribe tool this time. I tried to vary my marks to represent each surface/texture: rocky patches, vertical ridges, shadows and ripples in water, and the flat expanses of grass. I’m also gaining a better feel for wiping the plate to maintain a haze of grey across the water. If you’d like to read more about the etching process, take a look at my previous post: Eilean Donan – Etching. Below are a few photos from our visit. Look closely at the top right photo to see a seagull nesting in the cliff side. If you’re ever on the Isle of Skye, this lighthouse is well worth the drive…and the walk!
Leaving Edinburgh in June of 2016, we drove through the highlands towards Skye, stopping to visit 3 castles in 3 days along the way (Edinburgh Castle in the city, Sterling Castle south-west of the city, and Eilean Donan near the new bridge to Skye). Though rain had hit in Glencoe the night before, locals continued to express concerns of drought. For Scotland, I guess this means it rains periodically instead of every day. Lush green around us, with flourishing flowers, would seem to say that the land had seen plenty of water! But, I’ll admit that the fact that I could wander with my camera beneath the bridge at Eilean Donan confirmed lower amounts of rainfall than the area was used to seeing. Around 5 p.m. (according to my sketch journal), I walked a good ways out onto rocks beyond the castle and sat down with my sketchbook to draw. The panorama (in the photo montage below) was taken from that vantage point. It was interesting to see and sketch the castle from this less iconic angle. Just as I finished my sketch, large drops of water began to plop onto the page. Stowing away sketchbook and camera, I scrambled back over the rocks toward castle and proper land.
As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, Eilean Donan is one of the most photographed castles in Scotland. In fact, a photography contest was going on while we were there! People from all over the world had sent in their favorite and best shots of the place, seen from various angles, including from boats out on the water, or gorgeous sunrise shots with pinks glowing on the horizon, and nighttime shots with castle lit by star and lamp. These photos were posted all through the cafe where my parents and I ate lunch that day. Winners of the contest had been decided days before our arrival.
Fast-forward to present-day. I was prepping a new unit for my Drawing 2 class – drypoint etching, and decided my demo piece would be a good chance to pull out photos of the castle and try something new in the Scotland Series. Drypoint etching is actually a technique I had never tried before, though I’ve heard plenty about it and seen samples of Albrecht Durer and James McNeill Whistler through the years. It’s a form of etching that doesn’t require acid. Instead, you use a metal scribe (looks like a sharp metal pencil) to scratch your marks into the plate surface. In Whistler or Durer’s times, copper plates were common to use. But, for cost-efficiency and ease of procurement, I picked up Plexiglas sheets from the hardware store and cut them down to size for my students. We actually started the process simply using nails (also from the hardware store), and sharpening them with sandpaper. For my etching, the side buildings and bushes to the left of the castle were all done with a nail. But, once we were a few days into the unit, I determined that it was worth the cost of ordering a class-set of traditional scribe tools. Boy, what a difference! You get much better control and cleaner/deeper marks with the scribe than with a nail.
Though this was my first etching, I’m pretty happy with the results! After a test-print, I tweaked minor areas, adding more hatch-marks, making some transitions more subtle. I’ve also begun to experiment with the inking and wiping process. In printmaking, you can change the look from one print to the next merely by adjusting the amount of ink you apply to (or wipe off of) certain areas of the plate. On my plate, there were bushes that tended to soak up too much ink. So, I’ve begun to wipe those more thoroughly before running it through the press. I’ve also been playing with leaving smudges of ink in the sky to accent clouds there. This is the type of thing Whistler would do with his prints as well, leaving sky or water virtually empty, but using a hint or smear of ink left on the plate to give subtle shading to those smooth surfaces. My kids are really enjoying this unit! They love getting to use the printing press (which looks like a metal dinosaur with a captain’s wheel to steer it). Perhaps I’ll get permission from a few of them to post results of their work on my blog. If you’re an art teacher reading this blog, I’ve been very happy with the Akua Intaglio inks and Akua tarlatan for wiping plates. The inks have an oily consistency but are soap and water washable, which makes for easier clean-up. Having tried drypoint etching, I’ll definitely keep using this method/media. There are several other shots from the Scotland trip that would translate well into printmaking. Now that I have a feel for using the scribe tool and creating shadows and texture with cross-hatching marks, I’ll work on improving depth, shading, and subtleties within the technique.
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.