Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Parts Eleven and Twelve.

Telling Stories

Miss Richardson was Northumbrian born and bred, and had a great fund of old Northumbrian stories that she’d slip into our lessons as pointers to how the world worked. She knew we’d shut our ears to anything that smacked of preaching and so always told her stories accordingly. I still remember some of them. One was about the couple from Netherwitton who are asked to adopt the son of the king and queen of the fairies. The man is then blinded in one eye when he catches the king stealing. She had begun by asked what we thought of old stories about fairies. When we didn’t know how to respond to what seemed to us a silly question, she suggested that if people can’t criticize authority directly, they invent stories that allowed them to draw attention to the injustices they suffer.

The story I remember best was one she told us older children just before I left, about the treasure in Broomlee Lough. The treasure should have been recovered long ago, but a link in the specially forged chain needed to pull it up had broken. I can still feel the pleasure of the shock of her explaining that this was because the smith who had made it was not the seventh son in an unbroken line of smiths as his father claimed. It turned out his father had gone away to Willimoteswick to gamble with the drovers and, while he was away, a bold young tinker had visited the farm. Nine months later his wife had given birth to the boy who became the smith who made the link that broke. She said we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be impressed by people who claimed their family or birth made them special, because everyone has their faults.

Another story, which I appropriated and retold one evening in London when talking politics with Desideria, Giulia, Francesco, Mario and Simon, was ‘The Faa’s Revenge’. It’s about what happens to the people who forget that ‘their’ land is taken from the people who previously tended it; their wealth acquired at the expense of others’ labour. People who fail to respect the basic laws of human compassion. Being the amateur historian that she was, this tale was mixed in with information about Kirk Yetholm, for centuries the headquarters of the ‘Egyptians’ or Gypsies in Scotland. (We’d not then learned to call them Roma). Their king, John Faa, a contemporary of King James V, had been granted a letter under the Privy Seal that confirmed his authority over all his people in Scotland and required all sheriffs in the country to assist him in maintaining the laws of ‘Egypt’.

In my mind, I always link of this story to the old Border ballad I associate with John Faa’s people: which Child calls ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’, but is also known as ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies O’, ‘The Gypsy Laddie’, ‘Black Jack Davy’ and ‘Seven Yellow Gypsies’, but I know next to nothing factual about Faa himself. There is, however, a story that presents a very different tale to that in the songs. Namely that Faa ran away with the Countess of Cassillis and that her husband followed them and caught them at a ford over the river Doon, still known as the Gypsies’ Steps. He then forced his wife to watch from an upstairs room while he had Faa and his followers hanged in front of the Castle Gate at Cassillis. She was then said to have been imprisoned for the rest of her life. While Faa’s role as king of ‘Little Egypt’ is historical fact, there is absolutely no evidence to support the story of John Faa and the Earl of Cassillis’ wife.

‘Jan. 1979’



Iain, even now I find writing about Laura difficult. The facts are straight forward enough. Laura was Hamish’s imaginary friend and, apparently, my ‘lost’ twin sister. (Just how or why she was lost I was never told, but she was supposed to have disappeared soon after we were born.) Literally speaking, then, Laura was simple a fiction. But, because of being a shared secret I never participated in first hand, because of things that happened and didn’t happen between Hamish and me later, and because she became all too real in my dreams, it’s all rather more complicated than that.

I can’t find the James Hillman quote in the first Debateable Lands book just now, but the gist of it has stayed with me. That we don’t die alone but join the ancestors, the little people, the whole multitude of compound souls who inhabit our nightworld; the various complexes we talk to, the invisible friends who pass through our lives, all with their gifts of desires, fears, regretful sighs, surprising ideas. The multitude who accompany us all along, both angelic and demonic figures. Both angelic and demonic accomplices who, like the beasts in Rilke’s first ‘Duino Elegy’, are aware that we’re not really at home in this interpreted world but, as with habits, liked us and lodged, never gave notice. I think many children, like the animals they often feel closest to, notice how literally, reductively, adults take the world. Literally, of course, in large part to avoid having to acknowledge the ancestors and accomplices who give the lie to our belief that we are self-contained, self-sufficient monads. All of which is a way of saying I’ve come to think differently about Hamish, so haunted by his feared father’s obsessive vocation, and by all the ghosts of dead priests and academics who created the family library going generations back. Haunted too, I suppose, if only for a while, by me, Laura’s supposed twin sister. But all this relates, strictly speaking, to the time when Laura had gone to ground after my arrival in the village.

Hamish had been a sickly, and an unhappy, child. His maternal grandmother cared for him much of the time when he was small because his father insisted his wife put parish business first. His grandmother had worked as a librarian at Edinburgh University until she married a Classics professor twenty years her senior. When the Professor died, she moved south to be near her only daughter. Mrs. Laidlow read Hamish fairytales and all manner of poetry, including Petrarch’s The Canzoniere, which is maybe where the name ‘Laura’ came from. She knew perfectly well that her son-in-law regarded fairytales as an irrelevance in a properly Christian culture, and thought secular poetry was produced by unbelievers and degenerates. I like to think that’s why she read them to Hamish.

Hamish never spoke to me about Laura and I never asked him about her. I think he must have been afraid I’d tease him or challenge his story. I know, however, that before I arrived, Laura was the great secret he shared with a select few: Patsy, Cat, and two other girls at school, Mary Bell and Barbara Dunne. She became the central figure in their imaginative lives until my arrival broke the spell.

This seems to be what happened, pieced together from what Cat and Patsy later told me. They all somehow missed the announcement that a little girl called Flora was to join them next term, all except Patsy, and she misheard it. In high excitement, she told the others that the teachers had said Laura was coming to join them at school next term. I don’t know what Hamish made of this, only that Laura’s imminent arrival ‘in the flesh’ caused some consternation.

Hamish had enthralled the four girls with stories of Laura’s adventures for several months. Although Cat always insisted she knew perfectly well they were ‘just make-up’, Patsy insisted they all wanted very badly to believe in Laura. At that time Hamish had that pale, slightly unreal, aura of someone recovering from serious illness, so it no doubt it seemed entirely possible to them that he’d know about a mysterious girl who lived alone in the moss. Someone adults mistook, if she appeared in their peripheral vision, for a vixen, a roe doe, or a brilliant dragonfly.

Laura lived in Lady Moss and the surrounding woodland.

Later, when I learned ‘Long Lankin’, I used to imagine Laura and Long Lankin sharing a shelter there, with her listening to his muttering about the wrongs done to him and the terrible revenge he’d take. But Hamish was talking about our moss, one of the rare places that, as primary school children, we were expected to stay away from. Not, as far as I remember, forbidden because adults thought it was particularly dangerous (it wasn’t), but because it was simply somewhere they’d rather we didn’t go.

This, of course, made our going there essential if we wanted to earn the respect of our peers. There was, however, a ritual to be observed when making such a visit. You always told a friend you were going to the moss, you went alone, and you marked your visit by adding a little stripe of fabric with your first name written on it to the old tree right in the heart of the moss. Judging by the amount of old, decaying cloth there when I was a child, this ritual had been observed for a long time. Whether the moss was originally home to a ‘clootie’ tree I simply don’t know, but its name suggests it might in some way have been connected to either the Virgin Mary or to the Queen of Elphame.

Located between a big Sitka spruce plantation on one side and a string of small upland fields, our wooded moss lay just to the north of a flat, meandering section of Black Burn. With its dim light, numerous moths, tangle of stunted birch roots, dark pools, and sense of almost uncanny stillness, the moss was a perfect place in which to imagine Laura.

Patsy later told me that, after I turned up, Hamish quickly explained me away by saying the grownups had made a mistake. I wasn’t Laura but her very ordinary twin sister, and that I didn’t know a thing about her because she’d been stolen away.

When I was a girl, I tended to assume that Hamish was just naturally quiet, since that’s how he usually was when we were together. Later I wondered whether his silences weren’t the result of his being deeply preoccupied, working out how to locate me in relation to Laura, his first and perhaps deepest, all-be-it imagined, love. Did he really see me as her twin, or as her pale shadow or, later, perhaps as her uncanny, uncertain double; perhaps even as a dubious, ultimately illusory, seductress sent to make him forget her? Our imaginal life works in such odd ways any of these seems possible.

Quite some while after we split up, a figure I just knew was Laura started haunting my dreams, my ominous darker-haired, sharper-faced doppelganger. Her persistent presence eventually became frightening and, in the end, I had to exorcise her by making a ‘Laura’ mask for a little ritual where I ‘became’ Laura. (Why this took the form of a stylized fox’s head I don’t remember, but no doubt it was suggested by the dreams.) I got a friend to photograph me wearing it, to evidence the fact that I had finally ‘become’ Hamish’s Laura. But still, occasionally, there’s this young girl’s voice in my head that tells me I’m just imaginary, an invisible part of someone else’s kith!

I have wondered about Laura and her animal forms since I learned of the widespread folk beliefs that a person’s spirit can take possession of an animal, often to help the living in some way. You’ll remember our discussing the idea that children have a sense of themselves as emerging out of a field of forces and materials too big for them to grasp, only some of which are captured in their current, human, form? I suspect Hamish was just such a child, somebody who was troubled with illness and an unhappy home life and didn’t make the conventional absolute distinction between humans and the animals and insects he saw around him on an almost daily basis. So, Laura could also be a fox, a roe doe, a dragonfly, as well as a girl. Just as like so many girls in old songs who take animal form and then, as often as not, are killed accidently by their lovers.

I’ve also linked all this to A.’s comment in your book that he was all for permeability, which he linked to explorations of various figures from old folk cultures: the Mistress of the Animals, the Women from Outside, Artemis, Richelle, the Mistress of the Game, Oriente, and the Queen of Elphame. All these powerful figures who could move between the visible and invisible, the worlds of humans, animals and the dead. After his beloved and awe-inspiring Nana’s death, maybe the poetic figures she’d evoked leaked into Hamish’s world, a compound that took the form of Laura?

Sarah Aitcheson wearing the Flora / Faun / Laura mask.

Walking as Conversation (from a response to Judy Tucker)

My friend Judy Tucker  is currently writing a book chapter about walking in contemporary art practices and thinking about the links between these two activities in ways that go beyond the usual, obvious, connections (Richard Long et alia).

In that context, she asked me to note down a few lines about my current work, my move with, and beyond, ideas of deep mapping, and about the way I ‘walk with’ and collaborate. (We have known each other a long time, worked together in teaching contexts, and are joint co-ordinators for LAND2 with Mary Modeen). What follows is a slightly extended version of my response to her questions, which is I think relevant in the context of this blog because of the growing importance of walking as a relationship to the multiple layers of our environments.

I began by saying that I’m puzzled, and challenged, by the way the relationship between walking and art practice has been fragmented by very literal (and consequently divisive) notions of ‘process’ in relation to ‘product’. This is an aspect of my growing impatience with the way in which so much discourse on art still tends to work against a proper sense of its wider relationality. Because of that lack of a fuller sense of connectivity, it’s much harder to think about the roles of a poetics of walking in the work of a painter like Eamon Colman and the work of of Hamish Fulton than it should be. Since 1972 all Fulton’s work has, like Colman’s, been based on the experience of walks. But while Colman translates his experience of walks into the highly condensed form of paintings, Fulton translates his into a wide variety of media. This process of translating what is experienced through walking is, however, central to both men’s work and also an important aspect of my own deep mapping work. (Much could be said about that act of translation and it’s possibilities and difficulties, but that’s nay concern here). Anyway, Colman is one of the painters I’m looking at carefully now as I try to convert my experience of deep mapping into a new way of working.

Notitia 3: Birch Moss 2017

So, for about a year now I’ve been trying to make small, lyrical ‘micro-mappings’ that, in a compound and condensed form, evoke a rich sense of place, drawing on Edward S. Casey. (Casey identifies our experience of place as, notwithstanding its normally settled appearance, “an essay in experimental living within a changing culture). Specific places, many in the English/Scottish Border country I’ve been exploring for almost twenty years now, continue to play a key role in this. To Casey’s understanding of place, I’d add Doreen Massey’s insistence on what she calls: ‘a global sense of place’, all its connectivities out into the wider environment. So, part of walking in a place is about noticing, even conversing silently with, the traces of its wider life. The washed-out chocolate bar wrapper that is the slowly fading ghost of the multiple journeys of organic and inorganic substances (cocoa beans, pulped wood, metal foil) through the innumerable processes that feed the global consumer market. Or the curlew as it starts its migration from the upland Borders moors towards its wintering ground, perhaps even on some part of the Severn estuary that I’ll visit with my wife on one of our weekend trips out of Bristol to walk. Walking, conversation (internal or external) and noticing (notitia is the series title of the body of constructions I’ve been working on) are perhaps inseparable, at least unless you’re a Zen practitioner on a silent walking meditation.

Although, for a variety of reasons, I can’t walk as much or as far as I would like nowadays, I continue to ‘walk with’ people, for reasons that are related to what academics call fieldwork or research. (The difference lies in the fact that my reasons for ‘walking with’ are only partly instrumental, to do with ‘gathering facts’ or ‘getting at sense of the place’.  Other, less academic reasons, are sheer curiosity and the simple pleasure of walking with a congenial companion.

A while back the performer and artist Marega Palser (who recently contributed an invited post to this blog) invited me to walk with her in Newport. This invitation grew out of her interest in the possibilities of deep mapping, but when we walked together that became absorbed into her evident love of the town, its particularities and idiosyncrasies. In a sense that walk was undertaken simply in the spirit of seeing walking conversations in and about places as the most fundamental form of creative collaboration. As such, it was a truly memorable experience. But, of course, I can also ‘walk with’ people who are not present in any literal sense. In my case, when I’m walking in the Borders it’s often with favourite singers of old ballads, writers of various kinds, the spirit of the old farmer whose pronunciation of my name sounded like ‘iron’, with cultural geographers, and so on.

When I was working with the poet, artist and geo-mythologist Erin Kavanagh on the collaborative project that became The Crow Road, is wasn’t simply a collaboration with her. It was also very much about walking back in conversation with my childhood self into memories of a childhood landscape and then re-viewing it with Erin’s poem in mind. (Although, obviously, she and I also exchanged material of various sorts as well). These days, I’m starting to work as much out of ‘walking with and round’ old and familiar landscapes in memory as I do from fieldwork.

Notitia 7: Tamshiel Rig 2018

The current Notitia series, each a hybrid form made up of collage and painted construction, draws heavily on walking as conversation, along  with photographic documentation, in the English/Scottish Borders. That’s the underlying ground work. But they also play with notions of conceptual framing (echoed in the literal use of a frame incorporated into each work), and develop an earlier, quite shameless, borrowing from Polynesian stick charts. (Which I love as a tactile form of mapping). What I am aiming for, perhaps still rather uncertainly at present, is to make a richly polyvocal object/image that can interweave visual, tactile and conceptual evocations of material in and around a specific landscape, in the tradition of deep mapping, but while still finding the necessary degree of coherence to ‘work’ as a small construction hung on a wall.


Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part ten – Something elusive

Something elusive

 One August morning in my childhood I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom with my chin on the windowsill. A great flurry of rooks and jackdaws wheeled out over the big field behind the cottage, which had been cut for hay late into the previous evening. The field was dappled by swift shadows as a succession of small clouds blew past high above. I absorbed this unthinkingly, with the sun’s warmth, much as a cat might. The quality of these northern uplands that are, and yet are not, my home, was already settling into my marrow.

Now this is all bound up with a sense of something I can’t name but recognise as related to Don McKay’s notion of ‘wilderness’ as ‘the capacity of all things to elude the mind’s appropriations’.[1] But as soon as I write this I feel doubtful. In the past, London friends have interpreted my reluctance to talk about my northern childhood as indicative of some lack; an oblique reference to a problematic exile following the loss of my mother.

I think that’s nonsense, but ….

I suspect my not speaking about certain aspects of my childhood relates to something more complex and elusive than that loss; to my unruly love/hate relationship with the brooding and beautiful land in which I’ve lived and worked most of my life. A relationship that is also bound up with my intense dislike of a system of land ownership and management, based on a largely unacknowledged history of violence, that still determines so much about this landscape.

However, that child with her chin on the windowsill might, if you’d persuaded her, have admitted that her reluctance to speak about such things also had to do with her fear of glaciers. She imagined glaciers as vast implacable and deadly cows’ tongues, slowly rasping away the big salt lick of the world. She must have picked up on something Miss Richardson said at school and glaciers and ice fields haunted her imagination for years. She had nightmares about them freezing and eating everything living in the whole world. This seems so strange now, in a world of rapidly melting ice-caps, but was vividly real to her then. In that nightmare, vast sheets of rough ice came oh-so-terribly-slowly down the valley in the darkness, inexorably crushing and freezing everything in their path as they headed for our cottage. And with them came an overwhelming sense of an icy death without rest or stillness.

So perhaps Mum’s death had a part in my reticence after all.

There’s one other thing that may relate to the glacier business and my associated fear of the cold. I was a beanpole of a child who said she was hungry all the time.[2] (I’m sure now that wasn’t true.) Perhaps it was my way of protesting against being landed in this cold, wet, and windy place where I always seemed to have to find the energy to walk up yet another hill. I do remember early on enduring weeks of cold, unending, near-horizontal rain that so lashed the valley that the sheep and cattle seemed permanently huddled in the lea of whatever afforded them shelter. A rain that rattled on our roof and could even be heard over the sullen growl and rumble of the river, which normally ran so quietly some fifteen yards from our front door. So maybe it’s no wonder that the warmth and bounty of Mrs. Oliver’s Homehaugh kitchen looms so large in my memory. While it’s certainly the case that, as a child, I grew fast and did feel the cold, Miss Richardson was right when she told me that saying I was always hungry was ‘just a habit’. But, writing this now, I wonder less about the habit than the question: ‘hungry for what’?

Mum died when I was nearly seven. She and Dad were work partners too and, I believe, very happy despite problems with Mum’s foster parents. She was twenty-two and Dad thirty-one when they married secretly in a registry office the day after she graduated from the veterinary college where he taught part-time. Her wealthy parents, her adopted father the last of an old Catholic family, were appalled. Dad was a godless Scot of humble farming stock and, to add insult to injury, I came into the world three months earlier than was expected by respectable people.

I used to pretend I don’t know how Mum died so as not to have to talk about it. In fact, Aunt Claire told me what happened. Mum got an infected cut that didn’t respond properly to antibiotics. She developed a fever and then became seriously ill. After eleven weeks of inconclusive diagnoses and progressively longer periods in hospital, she died from complications resulting from a neurotropic virus. It sounds clichéd, but I think part of Dad died with her. As far as I know he never so much as went out with another woman. But then I suppose his only daughter might have been the last to know if he had.

I owe a lot to Miss Richardson, but I took her entirely for granted then. She taught me to look, listen, and think carefully about what I saw and heard. She illuminated our lessons with her knowledge and enthusiasm as a highly competent amateur naturalist and well-respected local historian. She could be stern, even frightening (she needed to be, given some of the children she taught), with a brisk matter-of-factness that almost hid her essential kindness. But whatever our various quarrels with her when we were under her charge, I never heard an adult she taught speak ill of her.


I always enjoyed her stories and, when I heard she’d died, I came up from London for the funeral. Everyone turned out to pay their respects, including lots of former pupils who’d moved away. Her funeral gave me a sense of our community here that nothing before or since has matched. It helped me decide to move back north.

[1] The reference is to Don McKay (2001) ‘Vis-à-vis: Field Notes on Poetry and Wilderness’ Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Gaspereau Press MMI, p. 24.

[2] This once led to a strange exchange that Flora didn’t understand at the time but which stayed with her. She wrote in a letter to me that Miss Richardson had an eccentric woman friend, a regular visitor to the village, who was a folklorist from the Highlands. She would often come into the school to talk to the children and, on one such visit, overheard Flora complaining about being hungry and called her over. Flora vividly remember her saying, very seriously: ‘be careful what you say lass, or a just-halver might hear you. You don’t want one of them’. This stayed with Flora because she had absolutely no idea what the woman meant, seemed to be entirely serious, and so frightened Flora. The following passage is from Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan’s Scottish Fairy Belief (2001): “Humans who ate a lot yet never seemed to gain any weight were believed to have ‘a voracious elve’ called ‘geirt coimitheth, a joynt-eater, or just-halver, feeding on the pith and quintessence of what the man (sic) eats, and that therefore he continues lean like a hauke or heron, notwithstanding his devouring appetite” (p. 63)].

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Parts eight and nine

Many Selves

I can quite easily name some of my day-world selves. There’s the practical and pragmatic ‘countrywoman’ who is intermeshed with Lizzy’s local and regional worlds. Then there is her intellectual sister, the somewhat brittle ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘European’ who learned her politics (and no doubt her tendency towards disdain) in London. Then off a bit to one side of them, and always slightly detached, there’s the ‘Mender and Maker’, on whom we’re all economically dependent. Back from these three there’s the ‘Listener /Respondent’ who first contacted you and who, I suppose, is the dominant voice in all this writing. She hovers uncertainly between my day-world and the night-world selves, who I’m far less certain about.

Maybe because we only find each other on the edge of reverie, catch each other’s eye at twilight, ‘between the dog and the wolf’, and then whisper to each other while playing games of hide-and-seek in dreams. There’s certainly a girl like the thin, uncertain schoolchild who loved Cat and Kate so fiercely. But then there’s her brother (?), a strange boy who might be the double of Dad’s uncertain little daughter as she was on the cusp of puberty. There’s a gaunt, older, woman who sometimes wakes me at night, whose yearning for a helpmate and bedfellow still unsettles me. And there are many others, odder and more elusive. For example, a woman dressed all in green, young or old is hard to say, someone I once tried to paint. In my painting she was thin-lipped, angry, righteous, and pale as death. For reasons I no longer remember, I called her Our Lady of the Roadkill. There are also numerous other, shadowy, beings (human and otherwise), many of whom have stalked me since childhood and, maybe, before. The shadowy revenants and composites, including a person who’s somewhere between Mike and Hamish, and various doppelgangers of friends like Richard and yourself.

All I can be certain of is that all these figures are somehow part of myself and none of them quite what they seem. They’re one reason why I’m writing all this.

Familiar animals

I sometimes wonder which animals would act as familiars if I were the ‘skinny little witch’ Lizzy once named me during a schoolyard quarrel? I imagine there would be at least three.

The first is called Finn by his owner. He’s a large white dog belonging to an ex-soldier who I greet regularly as he passes me on his bicycle. He and Finn live in a homestead made up of small sheds and a caravan, all set back from the path through the lower pasture beside Home Burn. Finn has the shed nearest the path but only barks if you go too close. He and his master appear disinterested, self-sufficient, uncomplaining. Both seem beings of considerable intelligence. I recently watched Finn as, untethered, he hunted rabbits across the low meadow and among the broom bushes that fringe it. He’s a swift and terrible killer. Mostly, however, he watches over the valley floor, its guardian and familiar.

The second is the large black cat who lives with Barbara Graham, a young widow, and her two boys in the end-of-terrace cottage next to the graveyard. The small steep fields above and below the terrace are his fiefdom, although occasionally I glimpse him much further away. (I assume from his swagger that he’s male.) I often notice him at dawn or around sunset, those in-between times. Then he haunts my peripheral vision, a lithe black presence suddenly animating some otherwise taken-for granted corner of land. He’s a mercurial figure, happy to mediate between my day and night worlds, moving purposefully or idly as suits him, out there at the edge of the human order and, sometimes, vast, shadowy yet soaked in moonlight, through my most private dreams.

I don’t know this cat’s name. He watches me speculatively when I past him, as if calculating something. Once he came slowly down the top of a wall and invited me to rub his head and under his chin before moving on. The quality of his purr was astonishing, a skin drum full of bees. He too is a skillful hunter and extraordinarily strong. I’ve seen him jump from the roadside to the top of a dry-stone wall with the corpse of a fully-grown rabbit in his jaws. I think he knows he has my greatest respect for this and his other qualities.

During our single face-to-face encounter, I was struck by the rough, luxurious density of his fur. He appears at a distance to be black but, in sunlight and close to, is a dark chocolate brown that shifts in intensity as he moves. The density and luxuriousness of his fur reminded me somehow of pubic hair. (I hear Kate say questioningly: ‘really, pet’, followed by her pirate’s dirty chuckle). That’s to say of the time when, a little girl of maybe five, I walked in unannounced on Aunty Claire to say I couldn’t sleep. She was standing with her back to me, quite naked, in front of the full-length mirror. Everything was dimly lit and smelled lovely and, in the mirror, I saw this thick luxurious dark triangle under her belly where I had only my little pale purse.

When I asked about it she quickly covered herself with a towel and laughed in that way adults do when they’re about to lie to children. She said: ‘Mummy will tell you all about it when you’re older’. But, of course, Mummy didn’t because by then she was dead. Ironically, it was Aunty Claire that Dad asked to explain the ‘facts of life’ to me. I’d known them for some time by then however, mostly thanks to Kate, but pretended I didn’t so as not to disappoint her.

There’s something uncanny about this cat with his dense black fur, something that differentiates him from solidly literal Finn in the meadows below. There is absolutely nothing uncanny or liminal about Finn. What you see is what you get. The cat, however, while he is preternaturally present and so invites me to be the same, is equally familiar in the shadowed between-spaces that link day and night, insidious memory and lucid dream, together; as much a carrier of sleeping souls as of dead rabbits over seemingly insuperable obstacles.

There is a third familiar, one I find myself strangely reluctant to write about because I feel its silent presence as being close to the void of death. I identify ‘it’, (I cannot provide a gender) and, indeed, there may be a pair, with the great ‘white lands’ of the high hills, the bleached expanses of Molinia and other rough grasses up there where the hares dance and have their forms. Unlike the other two familiars, I see it in a space now almost entirely outside the realm of current everyday human concern, a creature of the night wind and half clouded moon.

It’s a great white barn owl that hunts among the tumbled walls and collapsing sheds either side of the top road. I usually see it gliding somewhere along the stretch of road that runs up under the long gray outcrop before it climbs the last ridge and takes you over into the next valley. I suspect this spectral bird nests in the last of the old quarry sheds left standing. I’ve seen it no more than a dozen times in almost as many years, although I drive that way at night at least once a fortnight during nine months of the year. But I always sense its presence there, wondering if the headlights will catch its feathered bulk in silent flight out over the night landscape.


Marega Palser – guest post

One thing leads to another…

For this sharing of words, I’d like to talk about living and working in Newport – the South Walien one as opposed to the one with the softer edges of Pembrokeshire.

The Newport I live in is often referred to as ‘a Shit’ole’ , ‘Rough as Fuck’ , and seen as a place you pass through on the train or coach on your way to other places. It lies on the banks of the River Usk, once busy with boats and ships, dating from when the Romans were ‘resident’ at Caerleon to the Industrial Age of coal and steel. 

Because of the huge tidal range of the Usk, it has the ability to totally transform the appearance of the city – from a watery reflective ( depending on weather ) state, to a thick mud bath ideal for wading birds. ( someone once described it like “looking down on a mini Atlas Mountains” ).

Years ago, if anyone had said to me –  one day  you’re gonna live in Newport, and what’s more, you’re gonna like it ! . . . I would not have believed them – No fecKin’ way !! I grew up very much with Cardiff and London in my blood, and as I just mentioned, Newport was a place you passed through.

My first encounters with the PorT – as it’s commonly referred to – was in the early “90’s, coming to rehearse with a band I was in at the time called The Terrorist Ballet Dancers from Hell. We would rock up at a house in York Place and spend hours in the Basement getting stoned and playing music. It was here I got to meet a handful of Newport’s creatives – fresh (ish) out of Art College who’s one of many creative outlets was putting on happenings known as UFO nights, usually at TJ’s  night club. The club would be decked out in a plethora of materials and dead foliage which would then be projected on, to create a pretty trippy backdrop for the soundtrack of the evening. 

It was through my adventures to the PorT and getting to know a wonderFuLL combination of people that would partly inform the next chapter of my life – meeting Paul Burwell who was one of the founder members of Bow Gamalan.  

Paul Burwell was a true maverick – mouthy, stubborn, and a person who got truly excited by noise, and anarchic energy. There was no hierarchy involved in the Gamalan and the very experienced played alongside the less so… it felt like a right of passage, a place where you were allowed to try things out , a testing ground of finding who you might become…

When I started writing this sharing of words, I had no intention of writing about Paul Burwell ; in my minds eye I thought I would quickly skip to the Newport of the Now … but I guess this is a great example, and a way in to getting at the heArT of what I would like to write about – for it seems to be that when you are not looking for the direction in which you are going that you seem to find the direction,  


Empty Shops.

If it had not been for the Ryder Cup being held in Newport back in 2010  I wonder if the Empty Shops Project would have come in to being as quickly as it did. This sounds cynical I know, but…

Around this time I think it is safe to say that there were as many  dying and empty shops as there were shops ‘Open for business’ ( a term later coined by Newport City Council to remind Newport’s inhabitants that despite the outer appearance of the city looking semi-derelict , everything was … ‘Open for Business’ and indeed, ’Open for Pleasure’….

The time leading up to the Ryder Cup became active in the respect of making Newport more aesthetically pleasing to the eye and one of the solutions was to give the empty shop spaces over to artists ( local and beyond ).

The new residents not only gave the city a new breath of life and colour but most crucially became spaces where you could meet other artists and people both interested and curious about art. For many, it became a life line.

It was in one of these shops where I first worked in Newport ( along with my husband / partner, Gareth Clark ). As the performance duo Mr and Mrs Clark, we were asked to ‘activate’ a shop space to host a project called ASSEMBLY initiated by National Theatre Wales. The idea behind the Assembly projects was to gleen information from locals about themselves and where they lived and then to make an evening’s event in which stories and scenarios would be shared.

It was through this experience of very much making it up on the spot that we started to engage with the eclectic mix of people that live and pass through Newport city centre.

I remember the waves of trepidation and fear as ideas that had til that point resided in the head, were now going to be tried out – in the flesh. Our first day of StuFF involved offers of a 30 second portrait ( of which I did many ), a lunchtime installation which was housed in the shop window,  in which Mr Clark was wrapped in bubble wrap, and E. ( entrepreneur and expert in experimenting with narcotic mixes ) sat in a deckchair, and someone else might have been wearing a rubber cows head…. ( if it wasn’t on this occasion, it certainly happened at a later date ). This window of visual stimulation offered a different experience to the usual consumer experience and was the first step in what would be the beginning of many creative acts in the Port.

We got to meet the many artists and people who are creatively minded through putting on events like this, often using a cabaret format where all art forms and creative endeavours were given full license to bang up next to each other.

If the term Outsider Artist/s applies to those outside of the ‘art establishment’, then Newport is rich in Outsider Artists. – This may also explain why it is so difficult to pin down what exactly the ‘art scene’ in Newport is, because it is many things to many people ; it is an independent, many headed animal that seems to fly under the radar, seeking out the gaps and spaces created by others.

The Empty Shop project provided the foothold into further collaborative adventures  both in and out of empty shops, and it was through these experiences that I started to get a true understanding of how arts practise can start impacting on the everyday rhythm of a place. It’s when people start to stop you to ask what are you going to be doing tomorrow ? that you know you have caught their attention, and more importantly, their curiosity !

TOP TIPS for creating art in places that do not have a visible ArT space.

  • Think of everywhere as a play space.
  • Make it Accessible ! 
  • The word accessible is terribly over-used, and will usually be applied to target ‘minority groups’ for funding purposes. The use of the word in this case means :
  • Make work so it is visible
  • Let people stumble across it, get curious
  • Talk about it – answer questions and ask questions
  • If you are working inside, have the door open – even if it is cold outside
  • Look at what is there ( and not there ) and use it as a playground, a set, a canvass 
  • Involve people in the making and direction of what it is you are doing
  • Be the Bridge between the passing punter and the art work.
  • If you can’t gain access to empty shops, use the front of them to display work or make a pop up space – the worse thing that can happen is someone will ask you to take it down !


If I had a dog, I would walk it regularly. I don’t have a dog, so I walk my inner dog instead.

Walking through Newport, especially if you follow the river, it is not too difficult to spot its industrial past. Tracks and man made, mud worn docking areas still follow the river down stream, and walls still hold remnants of metal hooks and rings, evidence that the industrial age was very much part of the fabric and making of the then town – now City. 

It is a place where things, people and events nudge and bang up to each other. There is a feeling of defiance about the place and an air of independence. 

Today, the tide was on the out breath, revealing wave patterns, reed banks and seaweed patches – good fodder for waders. It goes without saying there was the token shopping trolley, a couple of bikes, off cuts of trees…

The breakfast bar ( slang for the riverside peeps who like an early morning tipple ) is in session … ( we are familiar faces to each other and wave a Hello )…

Stepping off the feeder road, the rhythmic banter of the car auctioneers voice weaves between passing lorries. 

At the Transporter Bridge I meet an Irish man on a bike. He has time on his hands ; reason for being in thePorT is due to football – the beautiful game. He’s been here to interview the manager or spokes person at Newport County, who recently beat Leeds Utd. He has an hour before the train back to London and we end up following the River back into town. It is through his questions about the place that I realise what a gateway and Junction Newport is – There are entrances and exits to many geogrphical possibilities here… 

Usk, Abergavenny, Brecon, the old canal routes, mountains…

Iggy Pop once said, ‘Always know where you Spiritual Exits are…’ , this has always resonated with me and might have an added explanation of my love of the Port… you are never too far from getting out of it…literally.  

It is an interesting time to be living in a place like Newport. For so long it has been in the shadow of cities like Cardiff and Bristol, unable to compete with its Big consumer heavyweight neighbours. When the shopping centre was still in its paper form, we did suggest to the council that it may be better to think about creating an alternative centre, one that would house a public square in which veg could be grown, surrounded by smaller, independent traders. Alas, they did not go for it. . .  Quel Surprise !


About Marega

Marega is a performance based artist living in Newport, South Wales. Originally trained at the London Contemporary Dance School , and later studying Fine Art at Howard gardens ( then UWIC ) in Cardiff, she has worked and played solidly in the grey area that lies in between disciplines since the mid-eighties.

She is one half of the performance duo Mr and Mrs ClarK.


Photo taken outside the old elysium gallery in Swansea.



Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part seven: The respondent

[This the seventh of forty-nine narrative sections that make up Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3, the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project. The complete work is now available on request as a pdf. If you would like a copy, please contact me at:].



The respondent

Iain, I kept a copy of all my responses to you from our exchanges about the first ‘Debatable Lands’ book. You’ve probably long since forgotten them, but I think there are a few that still seem pertinent to what I’ve been struggling with in writing this. They are as follows.

 1]. You identified A. as a personification of questions about the world in which you earned your living. That identification was obviously central. You also called him a constant companion, which to my mind makes him equivalent to an invisible friend who accompanied you as you moved on from the world you conjured up in ‘Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig’. But it’s his role as the voice addressing the circumstances of your inability to reconcile your daughter’s long-term illness with the Apollonian attitudes of the medical world and, increasingly, of the academic research world in which you were enmeshed, that seems to me central to what’s been going on right across your work all these years.

This relates, it seems to me, to a powerful point of contact between the two of us. There are I think parallels between the, sometimes tense, role that A. played in your writing and the tensions between my ‘cosmopolitan’ self and the ‘country woman’ self who, sometimes grudgingly, participates in Lizzy’s world as seen by the local community. (There’s another Lizzy who is troubled and fragile and altogether different to the one the community sees). I would need to give more thought to this parallel but wanted to put down as a marker for myself about our relationship.

My provisional view is that A. was an aspect of yourself, a separate, even quasi-independent, entity who has a degree of distance from a situation you sometimes found almost impossible to live with. And I now suspect that I’ve taken on something of that grumpy old bastard’s role.    

 2]. I think you’re at least partly right about the working people here in the past living in multiple interpenetrating worlds; as interacting with, as I think you wrote, the familiar earth of animals and plants, the celestial world of God’s heaven, the demonic world of Satan, and the preternatural world of the planets and the stars. That although officially God sat spider-like in the center and governed the whole, in practice people lived among a multitude of contending forces located in an uncertain relationship to Divine Law.

Also, that ritual action, prayer, and chant or song might be employed to magically affect the interplay of contending forces. I liked your reminder that magic had different forms: ceremonial or angelic, natural, artificial, or demonic, the first two often blended with spiritual disciplines and prayers indistinguishable from the rituals of popular Catholicism. Of course, (she says!) this was associated primarily with women as practitioners of a magical form of healing, conducted out of motives of neighborliness, paternalism, good housekeeping, Christian charity or simply self-help. I’m sure many villages did have their nurses and wise women well-versed in herb-lore and in secret brews and potions, so that their medicine often blended into white magic and, as you say, sometimes verged on black. I still know people who can assume a certain authority locally based on a (perhaps misplaced) sense of that tradition and all that had once underwrote it. After all, I’ve heard an old man in Ellingham say that it was only when the railway came that the fairies stopped dancing on the Fairy Hill!

Who else but women would take the time to attend to all this, then as now? …

3]. You can imagine my delight at reading what you wrote about women’s lives on the Western Marches between the Twelfth and Sixteenth Centuries. The part of me who revels in the distaff Borders heritage I shared with Kate whooped with delight that in 1327 women on the Western March took part in raiding like some of their Gaelic-speaking sisters in Ireland. How very practical to carry off the shorn wool and linen that the men disregarded! No wonder they were characterized as independent-minded, courageous, absolute mistresses of their own houses, and concerned to dress well by foreign observers in Protestant Edinburgh. I do wonder, however, what the authorities there thought? I suspect they saw them as, at best, badly behaved and, at worst, ‘whores’. I particularly like the Italian ambassador’s comment about they’re being bold and not distinguished for their chastity because they gave their kisses more readily than Italian women gave their hands. That’s perfect for Kate, somehow.

You write that we have no equivalent woman’s penitential testimony to match that of Geordie Burn. But the Kates of our world in their earlier incarnations would surely have matched him, hopefully not in murdering, but quite possibly in drinking, stealing, taking deep revenge for slight offences, and in sexual adventures. I think of them as the Borders contemporaries of the Nurse in ‘Romeo and Juliet, Margaret in Much Ado about Nothing and Audrey in ‘As you Like It’.  Anyway, on a practical level, Geordie Burn never have found about forty men’s wives to fornicate with if there’d been no wives willing to oblige him! So, where are their voices now?

I’m sure that the repertoire of Borders singers in early Stuart times would have consisted of far more than Riding ballads about feuds and raids. You’ve only to think of the diverse repertoire of the early Bluesmen like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton and Peetie Wheatstraw. They all had to earn a living and did it by singing what people wanted to hear.

Furthermore, why would James IV pay the Carlisle girl twenty-eight shillings (which must have been a fortune then) to sing ballads that dignified the very way of life he was campaigning so hard to end? It’s easy to forget that ballad collectors like Scott and Child had their own presuppositions based on class, propriety, and gender. I doubt they were any more tolerant of bawdy than the pious folk who condemned the Blues as the devil’s music and I’m sure their collections represent only a fraction of the songs known to someone like the ‘Carlisle girl’. (I say this knowing something of the repertoire of her modern equivalents, the singers among today’s Scots Travelers.) 

Woman working at the Tar Heel Mica Co. Inc., in Plumtree, North Carolina.

(photo. Elizabeth Turrell)

I was very moved by what you wrote about Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles meeting with Cis Jones. Lovely that she sang them versions of the old ballads: ‘Long Lankin’, ‘Barbara Allen’, ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender’, ‘Lord Bateman’, ‘The Elfin Knight’, and ‘Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard’. Moving too that she was sometimes accompanied by her two daughters and her granddaughters. Good for Maud for seeing through Sharp’s claim that Cis was of sound English stock and for acknowledging that about one third of Appalachian songs were carried on Scottish and Irish (I’d guess Scots-Irish) melodies! Interesting too that the supposedly English singers were mostly of northern English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish descent. So that Appalachian song culture, from the early C18th on, must have involved constant cross-cultural exchange between different European migrant groups, Native Americans, Melungeons, and Afro-Americans.

I’m also interested that Cis Jones’ belonging to the Holy Rollers religious sect didn’t stop her singing ballads, given how often they intervened to prevent the collectors from hearing ‘love songs’. I’d give a good deal to know what was in Cis’ mind when she said she was sure Sharp and Karpeles would make no bad use of the ballads. It makes them sound like spells, part of the lore of ‘granny women’ and ‘yarb doctors’. Maybe the other singer Sharp and Karpeles were particularly interested in, Julie Boone, was rarely at home, and wandered all around the country bare-footed staying wherever she happened to be when it was dark, because she was out collecting ‘yarbs’? Anyway, you’ve given me an appetite to discover more about all this and, when I do, I’ll report back.[1]

Re-reading these old thoughts again today made me think about the many different persons that make me up. I’ll come back to this another time.

[1] Flora was true to her word on this and, among other things, obtained an extraordinary set of photographs taken at the Tar Heel Mica Co. Inc., of Plumtree, North Carolina by the ceramicist Elizabeth Turrell, (see colour image above). Flora wrote to me that she’d like to think of the women in them as the granddaughters of people like Cis Jones and Julie Boone, although she doubted they still shared their beliefs.


Luci Gorell Barnes – guest post

I am passionate and curious about what the arts can bring to academic research, and I have worked for many years as an artist researcher mainly with women who are in the UK as refugees or seeking asylum. I love arts-led research processes but I find that striking a balance between hands-on practice and academic theory can be tricky. The truth is that although I am drawn to academia, I am cautious as well. My main concern is that – despite professing to be open to different forms of knowledge – some academics can disregard the embodied learning discovered through creative practice.

A second concern of mine is that the nuanced understandings we seek often require us to tolerate periods of time when we feel quite lost. It can be hard to hold your nerve in these wilderness phases, and trust that by following your nose you will find your way to the things you need to discover. Moreover, when this unknowing runs alongside a path in which the desire to know is very strong, subtleties can be overwhelmed and deep understandings lost.

My third concern (for now) is that insubstantial fragments of practice can be smothered when too much meaning is made from too slight an event. It is tempting to extrapolate from what seems to be a meaningful moment of practice, and in our enthusiasm we can reach conclusions that lack rigour. If you add to that all of our different agendas, the different knowledges we possess, and the many languages we speak, then our deductions can seem precarious at best.

In creative research practice, as in many other aspects of life, we need interpreters; hybrid practitioners who can translate across boundaries. We need to widen our gene pool and move away from the spindly, breathless features that are present when things become very specialized. We need robust, conversational ways of working; work that isn’t finished; work that is still in transit. Maybe, above all, we need to resist thinking that we know anything very much about anything.

Companion Planting allotment project, connecting people through creative practice and organic gardening.

About Luci

My professional life began in the world of physical theatre but I gradually migrated to the realm of visual arts. My work revolves around themes of childhood, place and belonging, and I work with people who find themselves on the margins, developing flexible and responsive processes that allow us to think imaginatively with ourselves and each other. Issues of access, inclusion and engagement are integral to my work, and I see my practice contributing to a community of disciplines that embraces family support, health services, academic research, and education.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Part 6. ‘The Two Kitchens’.

The two kitchens

Almost the first thing Mrs. Oliver did when she moved in with Lizzy and Sarah was to ask if she could hang an old photograph from Homehaugh on the kitchen wall. When it was up she’d regularly glance at it, fondly but reverentially, as a devout Russian Orthodox believer might at an old family icon.

In that photograph, she’s about fifteen and looks assertively out from the middle of a group of bell-ringers. A rather short, serious-looking girl in school uniform who is already becoming the woman I’ve known since I was eight. On her left a taller, thinner girl with glasses, Millie, identically dressed but for white ankle socks. She looks as if she’s about to giggle. There are eight older men and one younger, who wears an ill-fitting double-breasted jacket. Finally, there’s a schoolboy about the age of the girls. Everyone looks very serious except Millie and the younger man.

This photograph now hangs in Lizzy’s kitchen next to an old child’s blackboard where farm and household tasks are written and erased daily. It overlooks the big kitchen table with its dark green legs, draws for cutlery, and ridged and knotted pine top. The house revolves around this table, located as it is between the yard beyond the back door, the farm office and passage that leads to the sitting room, and a shabby utility room dominated by a big old washing machine that’s always busy. It’s the hub of a working world-without-end, now watched over by Mrs. Oliver’s bell ringers. They used to face the kitchen window at Homehaugh, the house where Lizzy and her sister Kate were born and grew up. There, from opposite the massive double sink, they looked out across the narrow back lane, the small home field and churchyard, towards the high hill above.

That photograph is also witness to a lifetime of Mrs. Oliver’s cooking. To thick yellow scones, large uneven loaves of brown bread, crusty meat pies, and the almost black rich fruit cake that always appeared in our bait-boxes on holiday trips, walks or rides out. To eat that cake again now is to return to childhood, to meals in the hidden river valley or the hills, the taste of many expeditions. And to drinking sweet tea out of chipped enamel mugs in the big shabby back room at Homehaugh itself on wet winter Sunday afternoons. The smell of cooking would waft in to where we all sprawled, us girls chatting with half an ear on the boys’ squabbling and to whatever music James was currently playing: Dylan, Them, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Leonard Cohen.

Mrs. Oliver cooks less now and Lizzy is reluctantly stepping into her shoes. Reluctantly because she’s so busy on the farm, but also because she knows she’ll never cook as well as her mother and has a competitive streak. Mrs. Oliver helps her cook weekdays and, at weekends, teaches her granddaughter Sarah. That, along with her regular glance towards the bell ringers, suggests she’s feeling her age. I see these things because I’m in and out of that kitchen all the time.

I learned from Lizzy that her mother met Elizabeth Aitcheson (then Elizabeth Reed) as a canteen manager in the WAAF. Lizzy is named after her and because of that friendship they moved to Homehaugh in 1954, shortly after old Mr Oliver died. Elizabeth Reed’s older brother, a bomber pilot, was killed late in the war and her younger brother, a soldier who became a Japanese prisoner-of-war, died in 1947. At that point, Elizabeth Reed left home. (The locals always assumed there was a man involved, something Mrs. Oliver dismissed as empty gossip.) Elizabeth only returned after a car accident that left her permanently lame. Her father, old Mr Reed, never recovered from losing the boys and wanted to make a male cousin his heir. There was a monumental family row of the kind we specialize in on the Borders and have done from time immemorial. In the end, a formidable great aunt of Lizzy’s brokered a compromise whereby the estate was put in trust, although this involved certain conditions that put Elizabeth under pressure to marry. She left home again when she could and only returned when her father was dying. (Her mother had died four years after her younger brother was born.) Then Elizabeth suddenly married Sir William Aitcheson. Handsome, titled, a decorated war hero, well-connected in both the business and political worlds, he was considered by the Reed clan to be ‘a very good catch’, not to mention ‘a remarkably good fellow’ for marrying an eccentric, if wealthy, cripple. It was clearly a marriage of convenience from the start, since they mostly lived apart. She up here, him in York or London. He got his big country estate and shooting parties each summer; she her sons and a loosening of the trust’s hold on the estate.

Lizzy’s parents were uneasy about Sir William from the start. They felt he took too much for granted and, while Mrs. Oliver wasn’t entirely immune to his considerable charm, she thought him untrustworthy. Mr. Oliver disliked him from the start as a smooth Public School man, a snob, and an ‘incomer’ (conveniently ignored the fact that the Armstrongs have always been a Name to reckon with in the Borders.)

Personally, I think Sir William was predictably true to type, but with the savvy to find new ways to underwrite his traditional presuppositions about family, class, and entitlement. But then Lizzy would say I’ve always been unnecessarily critical of our landowning class since I went to London.

Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3. Parts 4 and 5: ‘Fragments from genealogies’ & ‘Richard Kerr’

[These are the fourth and fifth of forty-nine narrative sections that make up Convergences: Debatable Lands Volume 3, the concluding work of my Debatable Lands deep mapping project. The complete work is now available on request as a pdf. If you would like a copy, please contact me at:].

Fragments from genealogies



Richard Kerr

Richard had rented a cottage on the southern edge of our high moorland for several years before I discovered he was there.

When Dad and I first moved north, Richard was studying at university and often visited us in the summer. I didn’t see a lot of him then because he stayed in the old caravan in the garden, although he sometimes ate with us in the evening. But I often heard him, talking with Dad downstairs late into the night, or singing when he came in for a bath. I was rather shy of him because his occasional appearances at breakfast, still glowing from his bath and dressed only in shorts, gave me my first, somewhat bewildering, taste of the mysterious attraction of the male body. I do, however, have a very fond memory of us all playing tag out in the back garden early one morning the year we moved north. Me rushing around on the wet grass playing the fool, and the two men so bent up with laugher they’d no chance of catching me. It was the first time I remember Dad laughing properly after Mum died.

After Richard graduated we got snippets of news from Christmas cards. He got a First in Earth Sciences, did a Masters in Environmental Studies, and then a Ph.D. on something involving the Forestry Commission. He was overseas when we had Dad’s funeral and I lost touch with him after that. So, when I heard where he was living I got his number and rang him. We agreed to meet for lunch at a pub after I’d made a delivery, suggesting neutral territory in case, after all those years, we didn’t hit it off. As it turned out, we did.

He was a little late. He’d helped with a stray bullock hit by a lorry and then needed to clean up. We talked over a ploughman’s lunch and then went back at his cottage and continued over mugs of tea. We walked a big mongrel called Mike, who Richard shared with a neighbour. Then he made soup and we ate it together with bread, cheese, pickle and his own small sweet tomatoes, grown in a little ramshackle greenhouse behind the garage. We were still talking when I noticed it was almost midnight and that I needed to drive home.

Richard had worked full-time for the Forestry Commission as a ‘field scientist’ and then diversified. He studies, and occasionally culls, roe deer and acts as a consultant. He also records data for various long-term environmental projects on forestry for two different universities. The cottage is full of books, the garden of vegetables and bees that, like Mike, he shares with a neighbour because his work involves traveling. When he’s at home he also does odd jobs around the village, mostly gardening, walling and other handyman stuff. He says it’s to supplement ‘the pittance’ he gets for his work, but I suspect it’s just as much because he’s gregarious, likes to gossip, and enjoys the physical work.

Richard is tall, lean, with a weathered face and crow’s feet around his eyes. His hair is thick, cut close, flecked with grey, and starting to recede. He has powerful arms and big expressive hands – the hairs on their backs are ginger brown but go almost blond in summer – with which he gestures as he talks. His voice is no less deep, lively or edged with laughter than in my childhood memories. When he gave me a farewell kiss on the cheek he smelled slightly earthy, with a hint of wood smoke, well lived-in wool, a touch of sweat, and a hint of garlic from the soup. As I turned I felt a faint tug of desire and, for the time it took me to walk to the van, turn, and wave back to the figure in the doorway, I wondered what he would be like as a lover. A mistake. But I made a resolution to visit him when I could.


As it turns out there wasn’t that much time for visiting. I saw him twice that spring and maybe four or five times over the summer and into the autumn. In early November, a community forestry group on the Isle of Mull hired him as a consultant. He met Margaret there and sent an email announcing that they were engaged and he’d be moving to Mull. The significant bit read:

I’ve met someone called Margaret McDonald, a wonderful woman who lives here with her son Ben, a boy who sings like a lark and has given all their hens Gaelic names. (Ben’s father was drowned at sea when he was three.) Margaret is fifty per cent of the post office here. She also helps run an internet repair business for the north end of the island. A pillar of the local community in the best sense, who has helped negotiate me a part-time job here on a highlands and islands community forest initiate. Despite my advanced age, she has also graciously agreed to marry me. Wedding invitations will follow in due course and, as soon as I can sort myself out, I’ll move to Mull.

I was invited to the wedding but made my excuses. I sent them the little yew box I’d made him as next year’s Christmas present, along with a copy of an old photo of Dad with myself, aged about ten I suppose. I last saw him when he and Ben drove away with the remainder of his possessions. He had spent a week sorting out his lease, saying goodbye to friends, collecting up the last of his books, furniture and so on into his van and a horse trailer he’d borrowed from Margaret’s brother. Mike and the bees had already gone. Sarah Aitcheson helped me entertain Ben while Richard was busy. A thin, darkly beautiful boy who said little, but smiled his dazzling slow shy smile to make up for it.

Richard, Ben, Lizzy, Sarah and I squeezed around my kitchen table for supper the night before they left. We had a grand evening together and, despite my sadness, I enjoyed watching Sarah, then just turned sixteen, try out her already considerable charms on young master Ben. She was wearing her big black DMs, red tights, short sleeveless blue dress over a black tee shirt, with her long dark hair tied back and up. Very adult-looking but still also just a girl – that wonderful combination of not quite knowing what to do with her body, of ready smiles and open laughter, the odd blush, and those almost savage little surges of energy that ensure she’s never still for long. Ben, probably a year or two younger, was clearly smitten. Watching them flirt and laugh together I remembered her aunt Kate at Sarah’s age. When we said goodbye outside his cottage late in the morning the next day, I had the sinking feeling in my stomach I get now whenever someone who matters to me goes away.

After the goodbyes, Richard started the van and, opening the window, passed me the white glazed ceramic bottle he’d kept among assorted oddments on the old pantry shelf. I’d said, the last time I called in, that it was a little white sentinel, keeping watch on the home road. As he gave it me he smiled and gave a little nod. Then he reversed the trailer around the yard and headed down the lane. Sarah, who had come to help load but spent most of her time flirting with Ben, forgot about being grown-up and jumped up and down, waved wildly, until they disappeared.

I went straight back inside to shut windows and start locking up. I needed time alone to still my heart.