Now back at 9 Torrin to dry out the tents, sleeping bags and humans. This has been the most physically difficult bit of the trip.
Quiraing is such a compelling place – I felt most vulnerable and exposed here. The walking is harder and you feel unstable and unsafe. Bill described it as more precarious, like it could all come tumbling down on you at any minute. Glad he told me that now we are safe back in 9 Torrin – at the time I asked him about the big rocks that had clearly fallen onto the trail. ‘What happens if one lets go now?’ He replied ‘It wouldn’t hurt for long’. In his journal he wrote ‘Quiraing is fantastic, a blasted, precarious jumble of unlikely spires set amidst impossibly green sheep pastures on steep, STEEP slopes.’
Where the Cuillins are resistant, embedded plugs of hard granite this place felt altogether more fractured, tortured and twisted. Hard shards of bare rock with slopes covered by scree and big rocks loosened by frost and rain. Everything is toppling over, humans just don’t stay around long enough to see it happening. We were working higher up too, so the wind felt colder and more gusty. This meant I paid too little attention to proper kit and wet feet, stayed still for too long and then wasted the best part of the day trying to warm up in my sleeping bag. Bill sorted me out with a dry pair of woollen socks and a hot water bottle made of his drinking flask. I felt so ashamed, a proper city boy who had gone on holiday by mistake. Bill has been working outside for twenty years and he just keeps working through the weather. He has evolved a very impressive working method that can set up and sustain the beginning of an exhibitable painting just about anywhere.
I am just beginning to get the idea of making an outdoors workspace. Bill lent me his wonderful Thermarest seat so I didn’t get backache. This led directly to my best day in a strange field of broken rocks, by the cave of bones. I’m so excited by using oils outside where the stimuli are so direct and compelling. Bill has a handful of pieces that are not far off from being exhibitable. For me there will need to be some thinking back in the studio, I’m still reeling from the strength of this place.
I’ve never had a life or career strategy apart from getting in over my head just to find out what happened next. This time what happened next is a really important working partnership with Bill and some fully felt records of a proper journey. The real work starts when I carry back the energy, the subtle alloy of certainty and uncertainty, back into the studio.
Just back at 9 Torrin for the evening after six days working above Lock Coruisk. The most amazing camping, between sea Loch Nan Leachd and freshwater Loch Coruisk. Off early tomorrow for another week working in Quiraing NE Skye.
The weather was magically kind, looks like Hurricane Bill had finally got bored and left us with some high pressure weather. Loch Coruisk is really special. So much to look at, impossible to know where to start. From where we camped we could see 40 seperate mapped features that people had taken the trouble to name. Visually intense. Waterfall sounds. Strange crows that live in the cliffs above. That wonderful electric smell of kelp. Weather that totally dominates your mood and the practical dispositions of your world.
Hard red-grey granite, sometimes sharp sometimes sinuous and scored by glaciers. Clouds that grasp and beckon like fingers. Old, old rocks, marked by fire and ice, the two extreme forces that shape landscape. As Bill said, most mountain ranges that are old are also worn down. These definitely are not, despite being some of the oldest rocks on the surface of our world.
Bill cracked right on, I went rather quiet for a day or two. It was also a challenge to work with oils in the open but I slowly learned to make a workspace on a rock and to start settling my dancing eyes. But it was so exciting to just be carried by the visual torrent that was unfolding right in front of me. Really exciting to be handling colour in such variable light. My little glass palette turned into an anvil where I was hammering out the grey-reds that make up these extraordinary rocks and the blue greys that mark the weather. And the greens – I used shed loads of prussian blue and lemon yellow. Good enough for Turner (he did a really balletic watercolour of Loch Coruisk) and definitely good enough for me.
Waiting for the boat back we met two climbers Adrian and Charles, who nonchalantly mentioned they had ‘walked’ a traverse of several peaks, including the Monroe Sgurr Nan Eag and Sgurr A’Choire Bhig. Looked like a lot more than a walk to me, more like tightrope walking (without the rope). It’s amazing how respect and admiration for this landscape can bring total strangers together so quickly. They gave Bill some Avon Skin so Soft – because his Alaskan insect repellent called Deet was being totally ignored by the Skye Midge. Here’s my answer to them inglorious varmints : dress flamboyantly and rub myself with Tiger Balm :
This midge really impressed Bill, even though mosquitos once took two pints of blood from a drunk passed out on the banks of the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks.
When we got back we visited Elgol school, to show them our work and to find out what it is like to live in a place as beautiful as this all year round. We showed our work, and were both totally bowled over by the fresh curiosity of the kids. I gave thenm some blank pages from my leperello sketchbook and they promised to do some work in it. We ended up doing a long drawing together, lovely vigourous and colourful marks. The sort of effortlessness that adults really have to work on. I wish my primary school had been as nice as that.
Sunday hiking with Bill in Quirang NE Skye. Coast all churned and sliced, the track slipping away from a scarp that overhangs the sound of Sound of Raasay. Glimpsing Rona and Wester Ross on the mainland through the weather. Not much drawing but lots of looking and “Oy vey ! will you look at that”. Reassuring to see what a strong impression this place I love is making on Bill, who is used to 40 mile long glaciers and 20,000′ high mountains. There is something happening here, even thought we don’t quite know what it is yet.
Monday, proper hiking and painting with Bill and Susi along the S edge of Loch Brittle. Working on the cut edge of a waterfall, all roar and rumble with more fluidity than fixed things to look at. Similar feeling to a freight train roaring past when you are standing three feet away on the platform. Susi made a beautiful mark study of the big sweep in front of us and then, being a jeweller, went in for a close up study of a sedge clump. This was the first time I saw Bill working out in the open. He was perched on the edge of the biggest drop, pinging up and down and working on a horizontal panorama in rapid brush marks. He somehow has the capacity to claim the whole picture, whereas I chewed away at segments and had a lovely time working the charcoal into the paint and vice-versa.
Tuesday we visited Elgol, SE Skye, on the recommendation of my mate John Dyvig. Elgol is at the end of the road at 135517, overlooking Loch Scavaig. A wild SE severe gale with spindrift flashing over the breakwater, Soay Island looming in and out of the grey wall of cloud and spray. We could barely speak in the open but now have a plan to get a boat into Loch Coruisk as soon as the weather calms down.
Wednesday Last day with Shug and Susi, wisely spent visiting the Tallisker distillery. Now all packed up and ready to set off tomorrow from on Elgol for up to a week camping around Loch Coruisk We are sailing on Misty Isle with Seumas macKinnon.
Thursday I’ve only just got time to post this before in an hour’s time, and will be off the grid for around a week, will post proper pictures of the place and the work when I get back.Here’s some really links I’ve picked up along this really wonderful journey :I was pointed at an interesting blog of artists who work with water, called Watermarks :We got a really friendly reception from Ian Chard in Broadford Books and Gallery. When Bill went in to buy a piece of plastic to repair his broken pallette.Got a lovely mail from Nigel and Kathy, a couple of kayakers I met in in Orkney. Working the tides and dodging the winds in that magical island.
Four intense days drawing, painting, camping, and dodging gales in Orkney. The most uncompromising and welcoming place I have ever been to.
Working with oils in the open for the first time – though with the rain they sometimes turned into a rich and strange emulsion. But all worked fine, just as Bill Brody said they would. That insight is now in the Lessons Learned archive, in the biggest file which is marked “just get on with it.” Now in Edinburgh with Shug, precious time with my philosophical best friend.
The first proper days work on Orkney was at the Ness Battery, which is just S of Stromness. Part of the defences for the W approaches to Scapa Flow. It’s almost exactly 70 years since the Royal Oak was torpedoed in Scapa flow, she went down with 833 crew. U – 47 was sunk in the Atlantic as well, with no survivors. My neighbour Len Sage worked as a deck gunner on the Murmansk convoys, these gathered in Orkney too, although Len went past rather then stopped here.
Orkney is too big and overpowering to tackle except with the corner of my eye, four days is a crazy amount of time to work in a landscape so hard and deep and demanding. Took me a couple of days to realise there are no trees, they were all taken away by the Atlantic gales. Didn’t feel that ready to tackle hard landscape panoramas or work on canvas (would have got soaked anyway) but did a lot of cloud studies on the second proper day of work at Car Ness. This is NE of Kirkwall.
That was a magic day, entirely because I met this charming Orcadian man on an electric bike. I was all parked up and perplexed and trying to map read my way to the coast without going through a farmers front garden. He first appeared as a speck on the horizon on a very straight road, like in the westerns. After we greeted each other he offered to take me there. He cycles every day, to keep his knees moving through the arthritis, but today he timed his ride perfectly for me. We went together to Car Ness battery and had one of those conversations I shall remember for my entire life. He remembered the explosion at 00hrs16 on 14 October 1939 when the Royal Oak went down. He must have been a child, but still clearly recalls the morning when they looked out and saw all the activity and realised what had happened. He also remembers the Murmansk convoys gathering and setting out in those frail lines. As Susi said it’s one of those times a when a sound recorder would have been so much better than a camera. I hope there is a reminiscence archive for the Orkney people, and I hope his story has been held safely.
I can’t sign off without mentioning the first random magic event, (they only ever happen when you are travelling) which was stumbling across the totally fabulous Orkney Wireless Museum. They were helpful and welcoming and really well informed about the Scapa Flow sites, I couldn’t have got so much done without their help.
This site answers the question: "What is it that you do?"
Watch the film Such Stuff a requiem for all that redundant media and all those forgotten messages