Hebridean Autumn

Ardivachar-October morning Falling leaves, pumpkins, bonfires, conkers, mists and mellow fruitfulness, classic icons of autumn. Now add the adjective Hebridean and the picture becomes minimalist, the colours fade and the flames of autumn burn with a different hue. Here the smell of wood smoke becomes the softer, sweet odour of burning peat and the pungency of fermenting seaweed replaces the delicate, decaying aroma of wet leaves and ripening fruit. The echoing call of migrating geese and the roaring stags are more strident heralds of winter than the duet of the winter songs of robin and the blackbird. The rustling of the wind through the leaves is silenced by the bluster of a westerly gale and the beat of the rain against the window.Scotvein , Grimsay autumn cloudsOn a monochrome morning I watch a herd of whooper swans, pure white against the indigo waves, low over the water, wings beating hard against the head wind, seeking a winter sanctuary on the island. The evocative call of the curlews on the beach and the pee-wit of the lapwings in the field has replaced the ethereal song of the larks; the sublime aria of summer is now the haunting lieder of autumn. Melancholia arrives on the wings of the storm and whispers of the approach of winter.Ardivachar October dawn

Tomorrow the sun will rise above the hills of the east, conquering the wraiths of the morning mist and burnishing the grasses with gold. These are the glory days of the northern autumn, as sweet and as sharp as rowan berries, as complex as the golden fragrance of an old, mature, single malt. A time to savour and add to the store of memories, a talisman against the demons of winter.Scotvein, Grimsay
Lokking east towards SkyeIn these distant islands the images of autumn may be different but the metaphors for change, loss and remembrance still cling to this season. A symphony of change, a borderland between light and dark, the journey from summer to winter.Berneray Ferry to Harris


A change in the wind

FennelLast Saturday I knew that our idyllic autumn weather was coming to an end. The weather forecasters were predicting the retreat of the high pressure allowing the intrusion of  Atlantic weather systems. Rain and strong winds were on the way. So it was time to remove the tender perennials, the scented-leaf pelargoniums, salvias, hyssop and convolvulus, into the polytunnel for the winter.
It is always a dilemma whether to cut down the herbaceous borders or leave the foliage and tidy up later. Usually the decision is taken out of my hands as the autumn gales always arrive more rapidly than anticipated. This is feeble reasoning, I know that in most years if the autumn gales haven’t started by early September they will be on the way very soon. I’m always reluctant to cut down plants which are still in flower and are providing food for the insects. With such a short growing season, I, like the bees, want to enjoy every the flowers for as long as possible.
With the garden continuing to delight until mid-October, there was a rare opportunity to photograph the flowers at the end of the season. The blooms may be a little faded and ragged but there is beauty in the imperfection of ageing. As the days shorten and the warmth of the sun fades the contrast between light and shade is heightened. As the petals fall there are the sculptures of seed heads to enjoy, from the delicate airy heads of fennel to the smooth contours of capsules and pods and the contorted heads of the calendulas. As the season draws to a close the garden becomes less harmonious as shape and texture begin to dominate and with the strong colours of the horned poppies (Glaucium flavum) and calendulas adding discordant elements.

Men and Sheds

big-shed-extensionI have serious doubts about the title of this post – should it be “people and sheds” ? As I contemplated the subject matter I began to envisage a whole minefield of political correctness opening before me. If I’m going to be gender neutral do I use the term spouse or is that too elitist? Should I play safe and use partner? Definitely not “significant other”, or even “better half”, how about companion or soul mate? Perhaps not. I prevaricate and digress into whimsy.
Originally I was going to declare 2015 the “Year of Projects”, not quite as good as Scotland’s “Year of Food and Drink” but better than “International Year of Light and Light-based Technology” or you can choose from  “Strong Women”, “Mud”, “Design”, “Soils”, or “Consecrated Life” and the list goes on and on. A bit like our projects, but in the end I settled on “Year of the Shed” – a celebration of sheds in all their glorious diversity. The secret can now be revealed – this summer we have been building sheds (with a little help from our builders to do the heavy lifting and Himself as Project Manager).
Now sheds, like people, come in many guises and the island has it’s fair share of unique and innovative designs. More Hebridean character than architectural merit, but that is probably natural selection, as anything too fancy is likely to last only until the next gale.

So starting at the heritage end there are the old blackhouses, often restored with poured concrete and complete with a rusty corrugated iron roof and matching door, windows are optional but rarely glazed. Next, but now quite a rarity, are the old Nissen huts and we will gloss over the materials used as they are likely to be a health hazard. The most common form of small garden shed is the shipping container, again of various vintages (degree of rust is usually indicative) and often secured with straining ropes. Traditionally agricultural buildings, or big sheds are adjacent to, and often dwarf, the croft house. This is a development from the traditional blackhouse when the byre was integral and the central heating was provided by the kyne. Agri-sheds vary in size and design, but the modern trend is for breeze block and corrugated, coated sheets of metal. Using a redundant trailer and discarded rope to tie down the roof panels is a design feature.

Loch Boisdale Post Office

Loch Boisdale Post Office

Island sheds have a multiplicity of uses, everything from weaving to calving and storing bits of tractors, creels and lobster tanks, housing miscellaneous pieces of junk, lawn mowers and bicycles, serving as art and craft galleries and accommodating the local shop and Post Office. As well as being part of the landscape and our vernacular architecture they are also havens and places of refuge. The ability to escape to the shed to do whatever, is an essential part of being human. A shed (or an allotment, but these tend to have sheds too) has probably saved many a relationship and is now recognised as being fundamental to our well-being. In fact you can probably get one prescribed by the local community mental health team, it is more cost-effective than sectioning.
Traditionally sheds have been a male preserve, especially when the kitchen was seen as domestic territory ruled by “her in-doors”  and the man of the house need a refuge from the hurly-burly of family life other than the local pub. Socially things may have changed, but the popularity of the shed remains. They are now less of a male preserve and accordingly have metamorphosed into home offices, hobby rooms, greenhouses or conservatories. I doubt if this gentrification will be the death knell of the traditional garden shed, but how long will it be before the first shed becomes a scheduled listed building, preserved for posterity and nation?
Obviously you can never have too many sheds, a small shed (shipping container), big shed (workshop and produce store), a greenhouse and polytunnel should be adequate. So why build  an extension to the big shed and to double the size of the study?

naturalists studyFortunately we do not need multiple refuges to maintain domestic harmony or to house an excessive amount of bits of tractor; it just seemed a good idea at the time!
The secrets of the big shed extension will be revealed soon. As for the study, it has metamorphosed from a cramped alcove into a laboratory suite. Not exactly mission control, but this is South Uist.
The polytunnel is my shed equivalent, as I do not have exclusive rights, I have an alternative refuge. It is mobile and is open for use anytime I desire. Like most sheds it is cluttered with junk and trivia, but it is capable of infinite expansion so that it can hold a lifetime’s memories, hopes and dreams. It is the perfect place to practice mindlessness (the opposite of mindfulness) and also houses my muse, when she’s not on holiday. The door of the shed has to be opened with care lest the thoughts escape as words or take flight as poems! We all have mind sheds, take a look inside yours, you might grow to like it.