My two-week summer holiday this year was with my family to the Scottish west coast and islands. We first stayed on the edge of Loch Morar for a week and then took a ferry to Skye, which we travelled across on the way to catching another ferry to the Outer Hebrides.
This was a holiday I had been looking forward to and needed. With starting a new job and working towards publishing some new books it has been a busy year so far. A chance to kick back, have fun with my family and explore some of the places I love the most would clear my head out a little. I would run up some mountains, bike about them and also get out and about with my children, kayaking and playing on some of the beautiful beaches of the west coast and Outer Hebrides.
Whenever I get away like this I find my mind recoiling. Away from the immediate day‐to‐day, into a different place that is more relaxed and often creative. This is a different kind of creativity from the sort that comes from the everyday tensions of juggling family, work and everything else (perversely I think that if I had all the time in the world to write and paint I would have no inspiration to do so). I try to store the ideas I have from this time away and come back to them through the year when I am back at home in Yorkshire. I also try to keep an open mind to what I will be inspired to do ‐ last year it was oil paintings but I did not see that coming until it popped up from my subconscious when I was climbing a remote mountain in Glen Affric.
I rarely do sketches of things. My background in art is kind of non‐existent ‐ I started painting a mountain one day eight years ago and went from there. No teaching or training of any kind ‐ I think that is probably evident at least some of the time! One thing I think I do know is that sketching is surely one of the foundations of learning to both draw and paint. Back in the day of course it was the only quick way of an artist capturing a scene to take back to their studio or home to further develop, unless they stayed there in situ on the mountain or in the wilds with an easel and paints.
The artist and climber W H Cooper is one of my favourite painters of mountains. Based in the Lake District his whole life, through his art he expressed his love for the Cumbrian mountains and rock, the shapes they make and the ways light contrasts upon them. He would sketch in the mountains, often after climbing a rockface, and return to his studio, where his sketches inspired his great water-colour works. As I write I am thinking of Esk Buttress in which he captures light on the crags of Upper Eskdale in an ethereal way that takes my breath away with its feeling and beauty. He must have loved that place.
Instead of drawing or painting outside, I generally paint slowly, at home, working from photographs I take when I am out and about running or cycling. I have often thought about doing the artwork faster and the thing I am working from slower, if you see what I mean.
I would love to sketch more when out in the mountains but the time I have available (and, if I am honest, my patience when I am outside) means I rarely do. These are the days of digitization ‐ immediate gratification from photographs we take on our omnipresent phones. I wonder what Cooper would have made of that ‐ it is certainly a less romantic prospect than pulling out a sketchpad, pencil and paints on the mountainside like he did.
A couple of months before my holiday I brought 20 sheets of hand-made paper. A5 in size, I got them from an art shop on impulse, thinking I could do something with them, exploring a bit of a different medium and texture. I also packed them for my holiday on impulse, stowing them away next to the water-colour paints I assumed I would find myself using whilst away.
On our up north, as we travelled further into the Highlands, driving across Rannoch Moor on the edge of Glencoe, I found myself gazing over to the Black Mount range of hills. The classic view from the A82 you always see one or two parties stopped in the lay‐by photographing, at least when its not raining and you can see the mountains. I had last climbed them four years ago when three-months pregnant, and had memories of walking them on a stunning early autumn day. That day we had taken a route that for me was linear - I finished at the café in the Glencoe ski station, eating mushroom soup and chips while my friend ran back to collect the car and drove around to meet me. As we sped past on our way to Morar, I opened my car window and took a fleeting photograph with my phone.
Later that afternoon we arrived at the cottage where we would stay for the week. It was in Brocara, a collection of crofts scattered around the dead-end road on the northern side of Loch Morar. Grey and raining, we unpacked the car as our children attempted to burn off some of their energy pent up from a long car journey in charging around exploring the house.
In the evening, after everyone else had gone to bed, I found myself listening to the wind and rain outside (hoping it wouldn’t last solidly all week), sat in front of the khadi paper with an ink pen in hand, sketching my fleeting photograph of the Black Mount. It was the quickest picture I had done for years and felt like cheating, I have gotten so used to pictures taking me a long time to do.
It was also one of the most satisfactory ‐ far from perfect (I do know that perfection doesn’t exist and I certainly feel that with my artwork!) but an expression of the mountains that held my memories as well the light on the hills. I decided that while on holiday I would try and do a sketch a day, make a collection of the scenes I saw as I travelled around these Highlands and Islands.
We were staying in the Rough Bounds ‐ the area of the western Highlands encompassing Moidart, Arisaig, North Morar and Knoydart renowned for its remoteness and relative inaccessibility. During the week I would explore the hills of North Morar, travel into Knoydart by boat with my bike to climb Ladhar Bheinn, kayak on Loch Morar with my daughter and explore the white sanded beaches of Arisaig, rock pooling and rain dodging. We found that each morning a sea eagle would fly from the hills of North Morar, over the cottage we were staying in, towards the loch. One evening we fished for our tea in Mallaig harbour ‐ much to our surprise as first timers we quickly caught enough mackerel. When we tried again the night after we learned this was beginner’s luck.
It was a fantastic week that in time I will write more about. In the short term I sketched some of it. The view to the Isle of Rum, the top of Ladhar Bheinn, the North Morar hills and more.
After a week we moved on, a short ferry hop across the Minch from Mallaig to Armadale on Skye. It was a fine morning for a boat ride, we saw pods of dolphins playing around, leaping from the water. From Armadale we drove past the Cuillin and Trotternish ridges on our way to Uig to catch another ferry to North Uist. This time I would be looking to these mountains rather than running and climbing over and along them.
My aunt lives on South Uist and we stayed with her for a few nights in her croft, kayaking with the seals in the Loch outside her house, exploring the beaches on the west of the island and the machair. I have been visiting the Uists for more than half my life. The difference between them and other parts of the UK is palpable as soon as you leave the ferry. They have a pull that for some is irresistible.
Then we headed north, to Harris and Lewis. The weather worsened and we did not get to see much of Harris as we travelled across it, the mountains were always shrouded in cloud. A shame as I know these are amazing hills. Whilst I have cycled around them on some of the amazing off‐road trails on Harris, I have yet to climb The Clisham and explore the island’s beaches, paths and other mountains on foot. Another reason to come back sometime.
Carrying on to Lewis we stayed in Callanish for a few nights, close to the stone circles that bring in the crowds, including us. Out of the mountains the weather improved, we explored some of the beaches, went crabbing and fishing (again affirming the luck we’d had during our first go in Mallaig harbour).
Half‐way through our second week away I ran out of ink. It’s not easy to get any in the middle of nowhere. While my sketching every day was curtailed it was quickly replaced by the commencement of me knitting a jumper (my first ever) with some wool spun from Hebridean sheep I had brought from a wool shop on Skye.
The holiday and pace of life I felt in the Highlands and Islands succeeded in relaxing me. Exploring the land ‐ the geography and history of the places we visited reopened my mind. This state of mind takes a while to reach and is unfortunately all too easy to slip out of. I am writing this blog on a train back home from the City of London having spent the day discussing data innovation and its applications in places that feel wholly artificial. Which is more real? The croft sitting quietly next to a loch on South Uist or the still‐being‐built skyscraper in a sea of other false mountains that only proves how little we humans care about our natural world? When I am in London travelling to meetings I cycle around town, occasionally marveling at what I see but most of the time being completely dispelled by it.
But when I get home later tonight I’ll knit a few rows before I go to bed. After I have finished the jumper I will finish off the oil painting that has been sitting on my easel for the last few months (it has been neglected as I have been getting a new book ready for publication). Exploring my creativity relaxes me. Sketching every day was cool, and made me think of other, new, things I could do next. I will keep it up, although probably not every day. Maybe sometimes outside like W H Cooper, other times back home after my adventure, wherever it may be. I sat down to sketch close to the summit of Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart. Before long the midges descended and started biting, I ran off the hill and finished the sketch over a pint in the Old Forge in Inverie, waiting for the boat back to Mallaig. So I did at least try to be a bit more like W H in my habits but the wee beasties got the better of me.