This second mixed media work is based on another photograph also taken on the way up the river to Perth in the Ultimate Predator (see previous post).
I photographed the Tay Railway Bridge from the deck of The Ultimate Predator, an Arbroath boat, up the river to Perth in June 2017. This mixed media image is based on my original photograph, superimposed on locally sourced slate.
I choose each slate carefully to allow the image to emerge from the natural material. The slates vary in size and shape. Many slates have been reclaimed from the roofs of Scottish historical buildings. Each one holds a history – the natural formation in the ground, craftsmanship, industrial and domestic use, and interaction with the weather and seasons over many decades.
Each piece requires different stages of preparation; I identify an image and slate that complement each other. The slate is then thoroughly cleaned and any moss or debris removed with hot water and brushes. Next, the natural lines and contours are exposed by gentle sanding, which also smooths out any rough edges. A light wash of acrylic paint is then applied, accentuating the slate’s reflective properties. Finally, the photographic print is transferred carefully on to the surface and discreetly enhanced with acrylic paint and a protective gloss.
Each finished piece is unique, responding to the specific texture of the tile, its natural and man-made history, combined with digital imagery of the Scottish landscape and environment.
Scotland and fishing. Synonymous words indeed.
My teenage grandson Stan, a keen fisherman, had come to stay. He was booked for local North Sea fishing trips but this year had his eye on more than mackerel and cod. He wanted to learn to fly-fish and was dreaming of carp, bream, roach, rudd, perch, brown trout and salmon. This challenge required careful thinking and planning. I’ve flown kites, ridden horses, cycled, and scuba dived but I’ve never fished in my life. Think lochs. Think salmon. Think boats. Think reels. Think licences. Think rivers and rights. Think big money.
So where to dip our novice rods? – The Kingdom of Fife, Tayside or Perth? Applehill, Butterstone, Frandy or Orchill? Sound local knowledge came from Arbroaths’ fishing tackle shop – Geordie’s Pond in Angus.
Think inexpensive. Think small stocked ponds. Think skylarks, and warblers. Think bragging and laughter. Think huge skies. Think fish. At £7 a day we were spoiled for choice.
We hatched a plan and on day two, with a packed lunch and plenty of sun tan lotion, we drove along the winding coastal road, past the turn off for the old fishing village of Auchmithie and along towards Lunan Bay. As we rounded a corner ‘Smiley Fish’ road-signs and arrows indicated we were close to our destination and fulfilling Stan’s ambition.
Our first glimpse of Janet was of an older woman skillfully whip-cracking her line backwards and forwards into the deep blue pond. She had poise and confidence. She claimed she’d recently returned from Tasmania where she’d won the silver medal at the Commonwealth fly-fish and was delighted at the prospect of sharing her joy of fly-fishing with an enthusiastic teenager.
Before I knew it I found a rod placed in my hand and I was part of the action. We began in a nearby field casting the lines without hooks. The tic-toc action of moving the rod rhythmically backward and forwards was mesmeric, and challenging. Too far back and the line hooked in the hawthorn. Mayhem! Too much effort and it landed in a heap at your feet. chaos! Carefully cast and with the right rhythm it landed straight ahead. Success!
Finally when our arms were getting weary we were allowed to graduate to the pond and, with great ceremony, hooks and glittering iridescent flies were attached to the lines. Using the same tic- toc technique we cast and observed the hooks taking the lines down beneath the rippling surface to lure any lurking fish.
The sun shone, clouds spun overhead and skies expanded into infinity.
The whistling, rhythmic sound of lines being cast was spellbinding and exhilarating. The subtle technique of moving the fly to attract the fishes’ attention totally absorbed us.
Local fishermen encouraged us with stories about monsters they’d caught and ones that got away; moorhens came to investigate and the hours slipped by.
Sadly that day the fish weren’t biting but somehow that didn’t matter. It was such a rewarding experience to learn a new skill and enjoy fishing with my grandson.
Janet retreated into her caravan and monitored our progress from a distance. We never actually saw her ‘silver medal’ and as one fisherman remarked drily “One can never be certain about things that people claim”. However, we still believed we were coached by a winner and the encouragement she gave to two novice fly fishers was outstanding.
As the sun finished its downward descent and the swifts started to gather I asked Stan, “What would you like to do tomorrow?” He looked at me in utter astonishment. “ Why, fly fish of course” he said and smiled with pure satisfaction.
So, we did.
The recent storms reminded me of one of my early experiences here in Arbroath, so I decided to share it today…..
The storm had been brewing all day and as night fell it raged unforgivingly.
Experienced locals had retreated into their houses, battened down the hatches and were having an early Tea before watching something on the telly. I’d watched the sea from the safety of my study window; seen the mountainous waves advancing; surveyed the awesome avalanches of water breaking over the harbour walls; observed the skies deepening with a crimson fury as the sun descended. As darkness arrived and the wind howled even louder I could resist no longer. It was time to experience this storm at first hand. Pulling on my waterproofs I headed into the black wild night.
I was sucked out of my blue front door by the ferocity of the gales on the Shore Head. I battled along the cobbled quayside, keeping an eye out for loose flapping ropes, and avoiding the lobster pots piled high for the winter along the edge of the quay. The yachts, tethered to floating marina berths, bucked and kicked like young colts, the percussive clink of their masts barely audible above the shrieks of the wind. I turned sharply at the end of the quay. The lights of the Harbour Design Shop were still on. I love this place and enjoy browsing and getting my fix of designer goodies. Tonight it was a port in a storm. I fought my way in and like a bedraggled water spaniel, shook the rain off.
A young man, perched on a tall ladder in the corner, was stretching forward and hanging trinkets on a display. As I stepped forward to admire his handiwork a deafening alarm went off in his pocket. Simultaneously a klaxon almost ripped my eardrums apart. I started back with shock as the young man leapt from his ladder, threw open the door and raced into the howling gale leaving me bemused.
Curiosity overcame me and I moved towards the open door. There was no sign of the man. Outside, the sky was pitch black. The Klaxon continued to shriek and strobes of light were sweeping over the quayside. As a townie my first reaction was that it was a bomb scare. The beams of light were heading towards the harbour; cars, vans and four wheel drives all screeched into the car park, men leaped out and raced towards the noise of the Klaxon – the Lifeboat Station!
Most men wore jeans or work clothes. Many, like the young man on the ladder, were without a coat. They had stopped whatever they were doing and come from all over the town. This was an emergency call out. A vessel was in distress at sea.
Lights were going on in the lifeboat station; men were grabbing their jackets, boots and helmets. In the darkness the sea continued to crash onto the harbour wall. Quietly and efficiently the lifeboat house door slid open and the lifeboat was launched down the slipway into a hostile sea.
I recognised some of the men. I’d seen them around the town with their wives and children; some of them had businesses – the painter and decorator, the fish seller, the local builder, and the young guys who enjoy the music in the pub next door.
As I watched the boat head into the darkness my heart was in my mouth. It was terrifying to stand on the quayside and see the lifeboat disappear from sight as huge waves crashed over it. What it was like for the men on the lifeboat didn’t bear thinking about.
I retreated to the safety of my cottage, which had been the home of fisher folk over the last two hundred years. That night I identified closely with the fear and worry families must have gone through on similar wild nights when their husbands, fathers and sons were caught in storms at sea. My maternal grandfather was an Icelandic trawler skipper and I suddenly felt a deep affinity with this powerful sea.
The lifeboat returned safely later having successfully fulfilled its rescue mission. It hasn’t always been so. Many families still have the memory of October 1953 when the Robert Lindsay lifeboat overturned on its way back into the harbour and six of the crewmen were drowned. The sea is powerful and unforgiving at times. The courage of the lifeboat crew is awesome.
As I sat by my fire I felt a pride in the town where I’ve begun to put down roots. I live in a town with individuals who care about others and have such selfless and generous values. For them it was just another day.
and ….. in calmer seas the Arbroath lifeboat comes home.
On a cold Scottish day a good hot sauna is bliss. Think pine cabin. Think heat. Think water sizzling on the red-hot coals. Think limbs getting rid of toxins. Think relaxation.
But that’s not all. Think gossip. Think indiscretion. Think secrets.
There’s something about the dim light of a sauna that makes people think they’re invisible and no one can hear their conversation.
Quietly recovering after a gym session and a dozen lengths in the swimming pool, my body is ready to lie down in the heat and relax. But, these days, my mind is alert and ready because my local sauna reverberates with local gossip. I never know what’s in store – the inane, the profane or the insane.
The men start with football and pointless replays of alleged ‘fouls’ and penalties. Gossip soon takes over with details of footballers’ misdemeanors, local government scandals, politicians’ activities, fraud, extra marital affairs, not to mention the intimate details of individuals’ medical conditions. I lie transfixed. Occasionally a party of right wing infiltrators will rant about overseas aid, immigrants or ‘benefit scroungers’ and I sweat profusely. Eye contact with other sane and level-headed sauna users is reassuring – I’m fascinated by the indiscretion of some conversations and horrified by others.
I’ve begun to reflect on saunas of the world, sauna ‘types’ and sauna etiquette. The joy of saunas on mountain tops after hiking and skiing; the bliss of rolling in virgin snow to cool down; saunas by lakes; ice cold plunge pools; saunas in the moonlight; and hot tubs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
By comparison this Scottish sauna could appear quite tame, if it weren’t for the local ‘Rules’ and the cabin entertainment
- It’s unisex
- Swimming togs are kept on at all times.
The occupants are a mixed bunch:
- Sauna Enthusiasts. We embrace the joy of a well-designed pine cabin with an efficient heating system.
- Sauna ‘wimps’, who survive for two or three minutes before rushing out red-faced and gasping for air.
- ‘Hot Air Wafters’, who appear indecisive about leaving. In order to have the last word in a conversation they frequently stand by the half-open door (lowering the temperature several degrees). I lie on the top shelf, my blood pressure rising in direct proportion to the drop in temperature.
- This week a 20 stone, heavily tattooed, Italian man amazed us all by pouring a bucket of water onto the coals and then sitting on the bottom bench and pouring another bucket of water over his head. He then stood up and became a ‘Door Wafter’. Then after a few minutes of indecision he waddled off and collapsed on a sun lounger.
- Bottom Shelfers. Today there was a women’s brigade who preferred to ‘glow’ rather than sweat. The temperature was very low so I asked if anyone would mind if I put more water on the coals. One of the bouffant haired “glowers” immediately responded, “No. I certainly don’t want any water putting on. I don’t like hot saunas.”
I almost told her that if she didn’t like the heat she should get out of the sauna but I was feeling too relaxed after my first swim of the year. So I lay back and listened to more raunchy gossip and tales from the sauna.
This week I looked back and thought about my first experience of Burn’s Night in Scotland. I was new to Arbroath and was invited by neighbours to join the festivities in one of the local church halls.
We gathered in the early evening and sat on hard stackable chairs at trestle tables. I remember thinking this would be a very authentic Burns experience.
Suddenly the chatter in the room was silenced by the penetrating wail of bagpipes. It was as if a reluctant sacrificial animal was being dragged screaming from its lair. The volume of the pipes increased and our haggis, (a seemingly wee timorous beastie ) held aloft on a silver platter, was ceremoniously carried around the room. Displayed in all its glory it appeared ready and waiting for the congregation to worship.
An upstanding chieftain of the town stepped forward, addressed the haggis respectfully and, with one spectacular thrust, plunged his dagger deep into its heart. The deed was done. The haggis was carried away and the revelry began.
Double doors leading from the kitchen were thrown wide open. A small army of elderly ladies, wearing their Sunday best pleated tartan skirts and hand knitted jumpers tottered out carrying trays of plates piled high with haggis and dollops of neaps and tatties.
A plate was set down with enthusiastic firmness before each guest, knives and forks were lifted and the beastie was devoured.
There was poetry and then we lifted our plastic glasses for the toast to Burns. As the orange juice drained down my throat I smiled with bemusement and enjoyed the curious spirit of the evening.
There was a beautiful interlude of Celtic singing of such haunting quality I was moved to tears. I recognised the soloist as the young nurse from my local doctor’s practice. This was a truly local community Burn’s Night.
The mood changed and an accordion and fiddler began the first chords of a Scottish reel. The room was filled with latent energy; sedate upright people surreptitiously tapped their feet, pensioners nodded their heads in delight, kilts swayed rhythmically on chairs and a troupe of young girls danced enthusiastically.
I enjoyed the fellowship of the celebration and this feeling of community but, there was one thing missing. I left quietly and headed down the High Street for the Commercial Inn.
“I need a whisky “ I said to the land lady. “I’ve just been celebrating my first Burn’s Night and it was ‘Dry’” She looked at me with incredulity and poured me a generous double. I’ve enjoyed many Burn’s Night since but I always look back with great affection to the spirit of that first one.
I read an article in the local newspaper article about a water diviner, Tom Pate, who lived in Angus in the 1950’s. Tom was a local farmer and had been asked to use his divining skills to find an underground water resource for a house that was being built on a remote Scottish hillside.
Seventy years ago knowing a good water diviner in Scotland was as useful as having a good plumber’s mobile number. Nowadays with the advent of pipes, running water and flushing loos, this skill is less in demand but nonetheless intriguing!
My friend Jenny’s father was called Tom Pate and I casually asked if this other Tom was any relation. “Yes” she said, “He was my grand-dad and was a well-respected water diviner in this area.” She then added casually, “My Dad’s a water diviner, and so am I.”
Wow! I knew two water diviners.
I wasn’t quite sure exactly how water diviners operated but it was time to find out.
Jenny’s dad Tom was a ninety-year-old retired farmer. I’d met him on a gardening club trip to a magnificent Scottish castle. The rain had been unremitting and as we peered at flowering gems through curtains of water, we’d needed Tom’s dry sense of humour to keep us going.
Later, as we steamed in front of a log fire in a local hostelry, Tom entertained us with stories of the Glens, his animals and his farming days. But, he never mentioned his water divining skills.
He was thrilled to see the newspaper article about his dad, and offered to show me the ropes or, in this case, the twigs.
I arrived at his cottage to find him waiting with a freshly cut elm tree twig. This was shaped like a letter Y with one central branch that divided into two smaller branches.
Tom explained that water diviners hold the handles lightly in their hands with the single end of the Y pointing ahead as they walk forward. When the twig is directly over a water source this pointer moves upwards of its own accord in what can be a quite dramatic movement. I was ready for anything.
Tom held out the twig and walked slowly and deliberately along the farm track. Suddenly the twig ‘twitched’ and moved in an upward direction. I peered closely. Was he having me on? Was he moving the wood himself? But why would an old farmer try to fool me? The wood jerked sharply and forcefully and almost did a 360 degrees turn in his hands. He smiled “This is the ‘Old Way’ we farmers found water for our animals in the hills.”
There may be no shortage of the ‘wet stuff’ in Scotland but high up in the mountains there were often no water pipes and no visible drinking water for the animals. Faced with these kind of conditions, farmers would use the ‘Old Ways’ to source safe underground water for their thirsty animals. It was also a way of discovering clean drinking water for the home before the days of piped water and taps.
Now it was my turn. Tom handed me the twig which seemed just like any other small branch from a tree. I held the wood lightly and walked slowly and expectantly. There was absoutely no response. The wood was lifeless and my hands began to get cold. I walked to different areas of the track. Nothing. I was disappointed maybe I didn’t have the magic or the genes.
Tom decided that the wood, which had just been cut, could be a little too fresh and I might have better results with metal rods. He went into a barn, came out with two metal stakes like coat hanger wires and bent them at right angles. They were nothing fancy, just old stakes lying around on the farm.
I held the two rods with reverence. It felt as if I was taking part in some religious ceremony and I’d been given the role of carrying the precious relic. I walked slowly holding the rods lightly, my thumbs resting on the top to prevent any unnecessary movement.
Without warning both rods swung inwards, like magnets, pulled towards each other. I watched them cross each other and my mouth fell open in amazement. I stood stock still and then I moved forward. The rods, of their own volition, moved back to their original position. I took a step backwards to check and the rods swung towards each other. I really had located a water source. This was definitely a ‘Wow’ moment.
Tom smiled knowingly from the side of the field.
“Let’s try the wooden ball” he said producing an old one attached to a string – rather like a big conker. “This belonged to my father and it’s a different divining technique”.
He held the string up high in the air and began to swing the ball smoothly and rhythmically backwards and forwards. After half a dozen swings the ball seemed to have a mind of its own, deviated, and began to rotate in a clockwise circle. “There’s a water pipe here” said Tom.
Now it was my turn. The ball swung backwards and forwards, gradually losing height and becoming slower and slower until the movement was almost finished and the ball was about to come to rest. Then, without warning, it gathered momentum. Quietly and mysteriously it began to move in a clockwise direction. I held my breath not wanting to influence any movement. I have never held a string so still in my life. The circles increased in diameter. It seemed I had struck another water source!
I was declared a fully-fledged novice water diviner. This has been noted and I’ve thought of adding it to my CV.
There was one final twist. As we moved back to the farm-house, Tom stopped and asked me to swing the ball again. As I now expected, it ended up rotating in a clockwise direction. He then told me to stop the ball and before re-starting it place my free hand between the ground and the swinging ball. What happened was unexpected and mysterious. The ball now began to rotate in an anti-clockwise direction. I was mystified. Tom explained. “If the ball changes to an anti-clockwise direction when your hand is placed underneath (between the ball and the ground) this indicates that the water isn’t clean or safe for drinking.”
“How can you prove that?” I asked. “You’re standing over the septic tank,” he laughed.