Monday, August 04, 2014

A Hebridean Odyssey

It was something we had always intended to do, one day.  But there were always other countries, far-off places to discover, strange paths to tread, and so it was put off and put off.  However, last month we finally did it.  On a fine July morning we left West Cork, travelled diagonally the whole length of Ireland, caught a ferry across to Scotland, drove up past Glasgow, and took a left turn for the sea.  We were on the Road to the Isles.  And not just the near isles but the furthest ones - the Outer Hebrides.  (That's if you discount St Kilda which is so far out, and so difficult of access that is really isn't funny.)

Some idea of the distance can be gauged from the fact that even when you'd got, at last, to the jumping-off point at the busy and jolly little harbour of Oban, the ferry (oh wonderful Caledonian MacBrayne, how nice to see you again, haven't been with you since student hitchhiking days) took a full five and a half hours to reach the tiny island of Barra, southernmost of the inhabited Outer Hebrides.

The hotel's dining room looked right out over the harbour at Castlebay and you could watch the morning ferry docking while enjoying a full Scottish breakfast (very sustaining and ideal to keep you going for the day.)

On the tiny island of Vatersay to the south, linked to Barra by a short stone causeway, the ground was a carpet of wild flowers.  Really.  It is the first time in my life I  have actually walked on carpets of orchids.

It has a lot to do with the remoteness of these little islands and their reliance on old-fashioned traditional farming methods.  No weedkillers or chemical fertilisers here, just nature and plenty of time.

Was particularly excited at getting to Barra for two reasons:  one, it was the home of Sir Compton MacKenzie, the noted writer (his famous Whisky Galore was made into a film here), and two, it is the only scheduled air service in the world that has to take account of the tides.

Here is the 12.30 from Glasgow coming in to the beach.  What a way to arrive in the Hebrides!  

It was lovely to see the passengers disembarking and hauling their bags up to the tiny terminal.  Friends who had come to meet them in jeeps (four wheel drive is a distinct advantage here) called and waved as they came into view behind the plane, and then whisked them off to exchange gossip and chat at their holiday homes.

The Tour de Fleece was in full swing during this trip, by the way;  for those of you not on Ravelry, this is a spinning event which runs in conjunction with the Tour de France and requires you to spin every day.  It wasn't really practicable for me to take along a wheel so I made good use of a tiny lightweight drop spindle whenever I got the chance.

That included waiting to see the flight take off again from Barra beach.  After all, how often do you get an experience like that?  I know the breeze and the sunshine and the white sand and the sky and the effortless soaring of the tiny plane are all twisted into the yarn I made that morning.

Island-hopping was the keynote of the trip.  To get across to Eriskay, we had to drive at least twenty miles up across Barra to catch a really tiny ferry.  But then, Eriskay is a really tiny island.  About three miles long by one mile wide.  Change up a gear in the car and you'll be off the other end before you realise it.  So green and gold, so sunshiny when we were there, so adorable.

This is the Prince's Beach, because it was here, on this white stretch of sand that Bonnie Prince Charlie landed, in his ill-fated attempt to establish his right to the English throne.  And it was from Benbecula, a little further up the island chain, that he eventually managed to escape imprisonment and almost certain death with the aid of Flora MacDonald who disguised him as her Irish spinning maid, Betty Burke, and brought him to Skye.

Carry the lad that's born to be king
Over the sea to Skye...

The island is also home to the sturdy little Eriskay pony, said to be the ancestor of the Icelandic version.  Now that I've seen both, I can well believe it.  Small, but tough, as they need to be to survive here, with wonderful manes and tails.

This little fellow was busy seeing off a pretender to his throne.  Once he had chased the miscreant across the hills, he came back to see if we were going to make trouble.  Once we had assured him of our peaceful intentions, he returned to his harem of mares, and chivvied them away to a quieter location with many snarls and nips at haunches.  Hard work being a king hereabouts.

The younger members of the family, though, were extremely friendly and willing to talk about interesting things like carrots and apples.

From Eriskay you can drive across to South Uist, and then on to North Uist by another of those helpful stone causeways which are making life much easier for the islanders.  Just imagine what it must be like to have a severe toothache or a broken leg at midnight on Christmas Eve or some such inappropriate time.  Now at least they can get to another island where the necessary facilities may be available.

You can't always rely on basic creature comforts when travelling in the Western Isles.  We were yearning for coffee one morning and thought ourselves very lucky when we found this Last Homely House at Lochboisdale on South Uist.

It is actually the post office, but it also managed to cram in souvenirs, knitwear, coffee, home baking, and a few other things - all in the space of a fairly restricted shed.  Very jolly though.  You would like to post your letters in a place like this, wouldn't you?

But there was evidence everywhere that it isn't always possible to live your life in the Outer Hebrides.  Ruined cottages, deserted fields, old old stone walls that now sheltered nothing.

Every time we passed one of these I would cry, 'Oh it needs someone to love it!'  Just as well we didn't have unlimited funds at our disposal.  It would have been so tempting to restore this to what it should be.

Or this tiny one by a loch?  It really does have a window at the side there, so it's a house, not a shed.  Just a new roof of split stone, some strong window glass, maybe wood panelling inside.... you think there would be room for an Aga maybe?

Look at this little tumble of stones. 

Doesn't seem much, does it?  Yet a notice nearby records that it was from this simple hut that two local women sold the very first tweed fabric ever woven on Harris.  That was back in the early 19th century.  And so of course I had to gather a few strands of fleece from around and about, to bring home.

(Actually, that became a bit of a habit on the trip.  If the fleece was soaking wet - as was the case more often than not - it got spread out on the floor of the car, wherever there was a space, to dry.  Which led to a distinct but not altogether unpleasant aroma.)

From North Uist another ferry took us over to the island of Harris, which is more or less joined to the northermost Outer Hebride of Lewis.

Harris is mountainous and craggy, very different to green and gold Eriskay or Barra.  And the clouds were sitting low on the mountains as we approached.  Fortunately, as always, our hosts at the guest house were warm and welcoming and it's quite fun to explore in dark gloomy weather when you know you will come back to hot tea and home made shortbread.  Plus there was always the chance you might see a golden eagle plunging down out of the grey mist (we did!)

And finally, at last, we came to Lewis and I fulfilled a lifetime ambition, that of visiting the Stones of Callanish.

These really do take your breath away.  Out on their own, on the westernmost fringe of Lewis, gazing across the Atlantic waves, they are silently magnificent.  While the huge central stones dominate, every single outlier seemed to have a character of its own too.

I particularly loved this one and felt that she is surely the stone embodiment of the Wise Old Woman of Callanish.

And naturally, despite a force 8 gale and driving rain, I had to incorporate some of the magic of Callanish into my spinning too.

Even the St Enda Aran sweater which was specially started for the trip got its turn on one of those ancient stones, to give a good twist to the intricate cabling.  After all, the designer, Alice Starmore, lives on the Isle of Lewis, so what better place to bring it?

It was hard indeed to leave the Hebrides, but there were things to look forward to on the journey home as well.  Like visiting the old spinning mill of J. C. Rennie in Aberdeenshire.

It's been here by the river in Mintlaw for generations, and the current member of the family running the business, Christian Rodland, was courteously welcoming, allowing me to run wild amid the glorious fibre treasurehouse.

Oh the benefits of having your own car on a trip!  So many times in other countries I have had to pull back from going absolutely mad because the baggage was already crammed to bursting! On the other hand, it's less hard on the credit card if you do have a luggage limit.  Suffice it to say that the stash has been augmented more than somewhat.

And at Mintlaw we had arranged to meet up with a good friend and fellow Raveler, Aurelie, who drove up from Aberdeen  to see us.

What do you know, she had brought a copy of De Book especially for us to sign!  That was a total surprise and so sweet of her.  We had a lovely time chatting over coffee, comparing our spinning for Tour de Fleece (Aurelie also was working on a mini drop spindle, but we were talking so much we forgot to take pictures!), and exchanging all the gossip.  Happy journeys indeed that end in friends meeting.

And so we retraced our steps across Scotland, across the sea, and down through Ireland to West Cork where the dogs and cats were delighted to welcome us back.  But the memories of our Hebridean odyssey will long remain.

Like the placid way Hebrideans regard traffic control

The splendour of an island sunset and cloudscape

And, perhaps most of all, the tranquil beauty of another world, living on another time scale, far from cities and commerce and frantic rushing.  A good place indeed to spin your yarn.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Wherein Ferocious Frogging Is Interspersed With Sea Air, And An Ancient Road Is Discovered

It comes to all of us.  That day when you look around and realise with appalled horror that things have got completely out of control.  For some it's the garden (we won't even go there right now, OK?), for others it's the housework (what's that?)  For an obsessive crafter, it's the day you open a cupboard and a hundred projects in various stages of incompleteness fall out, you rummage round on a sofa to find a ball of yarn and seventy-seven previous Brilliant Ideas set up a cheeping and a begging for attention, you try to extricate a perfectly innocent scarf from a corner and it's being dragged back by angry Works in Progress.

Chez Celtic Memory we did try to ignore the growing problem for as long as possible (how long have I been blogging now?  About eight years, I reckon.  We won't bother excavating back beyond that, will we?  Some things are better left in peace.)  If a particular size of knitting needle or hook couldn't be found, oh well, it was time to buy some more.  But when you start a delicious new project and then discover the crumpled remains of that pattern, already marked up in your own hand, and you don't even remember starting it before, then something has to be done.

And so it was that this past weekend consisted of Ferociously Finding and Frogging Friday, followed by Savage Sorting Out (plus Swearing) Saturday, and Serious Stowing Away Sunday.  May feel better soon, but still in the appalled state.  How, how, HOW ON EARTH could I have started and failed to finish so many projects?  Worse still, what was I thinking for most of them?  Wrong colour, wrong style, far too ambitious, far too simple, utterly boring, won't wear it in a million years, don't know anybody who would accept it, even as a gift... ye gods it was depressing!

I had intended to photograph each condemned project, the better to hammer home my depraved habits, and that's the way it went for a little while.

The crochet cowl in brushed suri alpaca, intended as a Christmas gift for a friend (made her a shawl instead). The combined machine and hand knit gansey, the main body done on the machine with the more complex patterning to be completed by hand.  The delicate shawl in two shades of green silk where the silk got tangled and I remembered that green just wasn't my colour in the past, present or future.  And dozens more.  What am I talking about?  MYRIADS more!  The upstairs sitting room began to resemble the glory hole at a jumble sale.  The ball winder was going full tilt and my arms were starting to object.

Oh yes, forgot to mention the arms.  Made a double-sided kimono in Shetland yarn for the Ravellenics this year.  On the knitting machine.  Which involved not just hours but days of bashing that carriage back and forth.  Should have known, should have taken care, but wanted to finish by the closing ceremonies.  Which I did.

Lovely warm and wearable thing, ideal on chilly evenings.  Took it down to one of my favourite places, Brow Head above Crookhaven in West Cork, for a really nice picture.

Let's digress for a moment.  I'm sure you'd like to.  It was only when we'd finished the photo shoot and I had time to look around, that I realised just what a spectacular place this is.  We'd managed to climb down the cliffs through the gorse and bracken quite a bit further than usual - almost to the spot where the local fishermen used to sit and watch for the transatlantic liners in centuries gone by.  The liners would drop a drum of mail and newspapers, the fishermen would row out to retrieve it, and the mail would then be sent up to Cork by donkey cart and train.  In that way, the Cork Examiner often had the latest overseas news before the London Times, which gave them a very comfortable feeling of superiority.

But the scenery, you cry, the scenery.  Well yes.  I got DH to take a special shot because this was an angle you couldn't have seen from the narrow winding road that leads to the top of the hill, nor from anywhere normal really.  You have to clamber down the cliffs to get this one.

But it's worth it.  It's the kind of vision that literally shakes your heart.

Oh the kimono and the over-eager use of the machine.  Well, as soon as that was done, it was time for Sock Madness again, one of my favourite online annual events ever since it began seven years ago.  Our first pattern was Brucie, a lovely design from Amy Rapp.  I wanted to finish these in double-quick time, to qualify for later rounds, so some long knitting sessions were put in.  Towards the end the elbows, already complaining from the machine sessions, started some serious throbbing, but the socks got done.

Aren't they lovely?  Trouble was, by this time I couldn't pick up a needle, let alone knit a stitch.  Suffered in (partial) silence for several days and then went shrieking to my pet therapist, who specialises in pulsed signal therapy.  This is an incredible non-invasive technique which can cure even slipped disc agonies, let alone RSI.  She gave me several treatments and then sent me home with stern warnings Not To Knit And Especially Not To Machine Knit for at least a week.  Which is where we are.

Frogging and winding and the retrieving of long lost treasures aren't really knitting though, are they?  And look at the rewards!

Here is what has been retrieved in the Great Sort Out so far (I don't think we're done yet).  There are approximately two dozen circulars there, of every size from sock to chunky, five or six crochet hooks, a stitch marker or two, a pair of snips I'd given up for lost, and dozens of those handy padlock stitch markers that I'm always trying to find.

And here are just some of the project bags returned to usefulness and public life again.  Up there at the top is my absolute favouritest one of all, with blue cats on it.

No, I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to do with all the yarn frogged, rewound, returned to storage.  Some to the Ravelry stash for trade or sale, I imagine, others to eBay, others to anyone who loiters near my gate with empty pockets.  And then it will be clean, fresh, air-blowing FREEDOM chez Celtic Memory.  Freedom from guilt, from untidiness, from that awful pressure of too little time, too many projects.  Freedom - oh who am I kidding?  I know perfectly well that as soon as things are reasonably tidy, I'll be back out there with renewed vigour.  Forgiven, cleansed, ready to start all over again.

YES I CAN HEAR YOU THERE AT THE BACK, WINIFRED WAGGY-FINGER!  You are saying in that smug tone of yours that you absolutely never start a second project before you have completely finished, sewn up, washed, blocked, aired and worn the one you're on at the moment.  You never (perish the thought) buy more yarn than is immediately required.  You never, but never, yield to temptation, were it even Wollmeise waltzing past at half price, or Madeline Tosh murmuring gently from a shop window.  I would bet you vacuum your house daily too.

Well let me tell you something, Winifred Waggy-Finger.  You work that way because it suits you.  You actually like having only one thing to work on at a time.  You positively enjoy a daily bout of dusting and cleaning, even if it isn't necessary, and will only have to be done all over again tomorrow.   A place for everything and everything in its place is your mantra.  That's your way of living.  But it isn't Celtic Memory's.  For those of us who multi-task as a matter of course, there is nothing more exciting than suddenly leaping off at the glimpse of something glittering in the distance, swerving from the main road to follow a winding path through the woods to a sunlit glade, and never mind that dinner will be late on the table. The possibilities over the horizon, beyond the hill, in this new yarn shop we've never explored before are boundless, and who knows where the next step will take us?

I am trying, though, to make a few basic rules.  Say just seven or eight projects in active service at one time. Some knitting, some crochet.  You don't always want to do the one when the other beckons.  And some with fine yarn, some with bulky.  Silk and wool, cotton and bamboo.  And then there are new baby friends expected any moment, and a friend who needs a comfort shawl.  Maybe a dozen on the go at one time?  No more.  No, really.

Speaking of winding paths and sunlit glades back there reminds me to tell you of a wonderful find yesterday evening;.  I'd at last tired of winding up frogged yarn (or my wrists had) and DH commanded that we take the dogs out for a run in the countryside.  We headed for the wilds of the Kerry hills, far away from the popular main roads.  Magillicuddy's Reeks 'twixt Glenbeigh and Kenmare, sort of.

It's a wonderfully forgotten region, with just the tiny stone walls and hints of ruined cottages to remind you that large communities lived and worked here before the Famine.  Can you see the green lane going up by the gable end of a tiny stone cottage behind the sheep there?

The primroses were carpeting the woods everywhere

and the wood anemones were nodding their delicate little heads.

And then, pulling in by the side of the narrow lane through some very deep woods, we came across something entirely unexpected. We took the dogs out, and wondered if there was a way through the almost impenetrable growth of bushes, trees and shrubs, not to mention rocky outcrops.  Then we stooped under some trees which were lying across our way, and found ourselves -

- on an old stone road.  A hidden, secret road, that you would never suspect as you drove by on the main highway.  Straight out of Tolkien.

It is a road, certainly.  And an ancient one.  Whoever laid those stones did so many many centuries ago.  It wandered off in front of us, through light and shade, a mossy causeway across bogland.  Rushed back to the car, extricated the relevant map and studied it keenly.  No, no road, lane, track or byway whatsoever was marked.  It wasn't there.  But it was there!

They shut the road through the woods
Hundreds of years ago
Weather and rain have undone it again
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods...

We followed it as far as we could.  At intervals little streams meandered across, and here old stepping stones pointed the way.  How many feet had passed this way before us, in times gone by?  And where were they going?  What were their stories?  The dogs, fortunately, took the stepping stones in their stride.

At last the fallen trees made it impossible to go further.  But we'll come back another time, and make another try.  An old stone road should not be forgotten, and I for one won't rest until I know what purpose it served, and who might have used it.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Of Storms and Strudel, Felted Toys and Fallen Trees

And a joyous New Year to everybody!  2014 is being ushered in here in West Cork rather violently, with storm after storm tearing across the countryside, downing power lines, flooding low-lying lands, disrupting travel and generally making us feel like our ancestors, huddling low in our caves and hoping against hope for spring.

Fortunately the storms hadn't started when we took a brief trip to Vienna early in December, to do a feature on the Christkindl or festive markets.  For a change, we decided to stay out by Schonbrunn rather than in the city centre and it really was rather nice out there, away from the crowded revelry around Stefansplatz and Karntnerstrasse.

Personally I think the utterly charming little Christmas market they set up outside the royal palace is cosier and more in the spirit of the original than the jazzier larger ones around the Rathaus in the city.  During the day this more rural one is crammed with excited groups of schoolchildren who have had a healthy walk in the grounds before being allowed to spend their pennies on gingerbread and small toys at the stalls.

As the sun sets, the children have gone home, and the older folk take over, sipping mulled wine and gossiping with friends as they stroll from stall to stall.

What do they sell?  Every kind of Christmas decoration you can imagine, from featherlight hand-blown glass baubles to hand-made wooden creches.  It's the kind of place you need to keep a firm control on your will power, not to mention  your purse.  It would be all too easy to dash from one bright little booth to the next, gathering basketfuls of the prettiest things you could imagine.

Look at these intricately wrought tiny metal ornaments.  Even the tiniest black cat was pretty expensive (as it should be, given the work that went into these very Austrian traditional pieces) but I did covet that wonderful tree with the doves on it!

Most satisfying to the heart of an inveterate crafter was the range of hand-made, hand-felted decorations.  Whole stalls of little mice, elves, angels, deer, snowflakes... clearly Austrian imagination is wide-ranging when it comes to felted miniatures.

Look at these lovely little elves.  One of them came home with me.

As did one of  these really beautifully made wild men of the woods (or so I christened them).  Didn't even realise DH had stealthily purchased one until I unwrapped the little package on Christmas morning!

No, we didn't spend the entire time wandering around the stalls.  (Although it would have been all to easy so to do.)  You can't go to Schonbrunn without clambering up the steep slopes to the Gloriette and getting the spectacular view of the city spread out below.

It was jolly cold up there, with a wind whistling straight from the Ukraine across the Hungarian puszta and losing none of its chill on the way.  Sadly, the cafe tucked right into the heart of the Gloriette was closed, but serious remedial treatment was needed if we were not to suffer from frostbite or worse.

Fortunately, you're never far from serious remedial treatment in Vienna.  Kaffee mit schlag, und apfel strudel.  Gosh, there are times when I wonder why I don't live in Vienna.  Imagine being able to indulge in that whenever you felt like it?  No, on second thoughts, perhaps better not.  Are Viennese weightwatcher clubs always full to overflowing, one asks?

The most wonderful thing about wandering around the vast grounds of Schonbrunn though is the sense of the past you get, of the time when the Hapsburg Empire ruled supreme, the Emperor's word was law, and the fortunate could spend whatever they wished on whatever pleased them.  I'm thinking particularly of the gigantic conservatories, each one a symphony in wrought iron and glass, which must have demanded a positive army of gardeners and handymen just to keep them in the kind of order Franz Josef or Elisabeth would expect as they strolled the gravelled walkways before returning to the palace to dress for some grand gathering.

The past seems closest at sunset.  You can almost hear the whispering of silk gowns along the paths, get the scent of a cigar, the perfume of hothouse flowers gathered for the royal boudoir.  Theirs was a world that was to change utterly in the early 20th century, never to return.  The last Hapsburg heir died on - was it Madeira?  I know I saw his tomb there years back.  Sissi, however, will never be forgotten.  Like Diana, Princess of Wales in England, only more so, she is remembered everywhere and pictured on everything from chocolate bars to books, in paintings and poems, throughout homes and hotels, street signs and subways.

It was a lovely if very brief trip to Vienna, but once home there was Christmas to prepare for and as usual lots to do.  The knitting machine was practically smoking with the speed at which wristwarmers were being cranked out, while Works in Progress were littered everywhere, each in a bag or basket to keep it safe from predatory cats and dogs (ha ha, fat chance!  The two species have now worked out a satisfactory arrangement whereby the cats will knock down the desired receptacle and then make off with one or more balls of yarn, while the dogs fall upon the actual knitting with rapture and proceed to restructure it with the aid of paws and teeth.  Probably very good for their creative skills, but distinctly detrimental to the giftgiving list.

And then the storms started to strike.  We got warnings of strong winds and heavy rain but didn't take much notice.  We're always getting those.  But this time they really meant it.  One morning I was looking out of the study window here  at a particularly tall eucalyptus which should have been topped during the summer but hadn't been.  It was whipping wildly to and fro in the gales.  A few minutes later I looked again, and couldn't quite believe what I was seeing.

You know how it is - your mind can't quite take it in.  'But - but it was standing a moment ago,' you say stupidly, still staring.  That's a fairly large lawn, and a good thirty foot of tree.  Thank the Goddess it fell precisely as and where it did, missing both my study roof and the delicate little magnolia tree to the other side.  You can see the white scar of the broken trunk on the right, where the tree was snapped by the wind.

DH claims his picture is more effective, so I'll put that in too.  Either way, it was a lucky escape.  And yes, it did give a rather dreadful feeling too.  Admittedly we'd intended to top it, but seeing a beautiful tall tree lying snapped like that is - well, it calls to something very basic in us, I think.  We can't help but mourn it.  Maybe the remainder will sprout again.  We'll summer and winter it, and see (always a good gardening maxim to follow when things look done for).

The stormy weather has continued ever since and shows no sign of abating.  The weather forecast hardly varies.  'Heavy rain giving way to widespread showers.  Storm force winds abating slightly but strengthening from the south west later.  Flooding expected.  Structural damage expected.  Don't go out unless you have to.'  Strewth, will the spring never come?

And inevitably there were some leaks, necessitating trips into the roof space to see what could be done to ameliorate the situation (certainly no time for going up on the outside.  Ni he la na gaoithe la na scolb, as we say in Ireland - 'the day of the wind is not the day for the thatching'.)  Polliwog in particular found these activities most engaging and began to spend a great deal of time on the wardrobe, waiting for the trapdoor to be opened again.  To see that cat make the leap from the bed a good eight feet upwards to the top of the cupboard is incredible.  I don't know how they do it.  (DH is still trying to capture it on camera but Polli won't do it if he thinks we're looking.)

And of course, once the trapdoor was opened, The Great Explorer was up in an instant.   To wander and explore for an hour or more, until the rattling of a food bowl reminded him of dinner.

The dogs have been very distressed by the thunder and lightning that has been part of the stormy conditions, all crowding into whatever room we're in to get comfort and closeness.  The cats aren't so bothered (Polliwog in particular is setting up some complex wires and metal rods to experiment with) but have been spending more time than usual in the cosy warmth of the general living space rather than off on their own.

They have even developed an interest in nature documentaries, often sitting up very close, the easier to be able to reach out and gently pat the screen with an inquisitive paw if really fascinated.

May 2014 be good for you and yours.  Make it the year you finally go for that ambition, achieve that result, get whatever it is you've always longed for.  Write out a notice in large letters, 'Have You Really Tried?' and put it where you can see it every morning when you wake up.  (Well of course I'm going to.  Why do you think I'm mentioning it?)