These are the dark months out at the end of the road in New Tolsta, dawn at half eight and sun up if it appears over the hill shortly after ten. Dusk is around half three and its dark by four. If it isn’t raining heavily then shortly after seven in the evening there is a knock at the door. I’m ready to join a neighbour Donald in a torch or moon lit dog walk as far as the bridge to nowhere and back. We walk for an hour most evenings, occasionally in driving rain or having to gingerly navigating the icy road surface but always find a topic of conversation. Strange to be walking in the dark you might say, but if you’ve never seen a moon rainbow there’s your answer. Twelve months ago I was delighted to be revelling in a very different walkabout during a visit to Western Australia; camping on deserted snow white beaches and sleeping under the stars. It seemed quite normal then to spending time with friends on the other side of the world. How quickly times change as I now I wonder if I really do need to go into Stornoway this week. I was ten weeks back on the Isle of Lewis before the needle on the fuel gauge had dropped below quarter full. If I had an internet connection I wouldn’t need to go anywhere at all, just order everything on line, even the coffin. Travelling has become an uncertain and complicated affair, so very different to those care free days when we only had terrorists to worry about.
While many during this very strange year found their salvation in continuing their trade on line, I walked somewhat predictably in the opposite direction and closed down my website. After twenty years I was still waiting for that first response from someone other than slick Sid and his mates who wanted to redesign the site for only £200 a month, and that would keep me at the top of the page. I am pleased to announce that my astonishing talents are for the most part still a well-kept on line secret, and I am able to get on with my work without the distraction of sales. I spend an increasing amount of time talking to myself and usually find arguments more effectively conducted in French. However there still remains that niggling little irrational need for feedback. So a few years ago I started my blog, Hebridean Dreaming, where I allow myself to believe that people are actually reading what I write. The self-deception sort of works as I am still publishing posts. I fear the subject matter is a little dull for anyone under eighty, and the text too longwinded to attract the younger sensation seeker. I marvel at how anyone manages to get anything done with the constant snapping, liking, twittering and chatting. Although I still don’t have a phone of any sort I do write a few letters, but my main, and perhaps now rather outdated means of communication is by email using the village shop Wi-Fi.
Back in September 2019 I held a major show at An Lanntair, entitled “All that I do”. It was a tremendous success. All that’s left now are memories and a short seven minute video on line, (Tom Hickman, All that I do). It’s quite normal for me to earn nothing for months or even years; stitching being a slow process and as the creative work continues I stock pile. My studio is crammed full stuff collected over the years and at present I can safely say that what I create is made entirely from recycled materials. These are the times when I start scavenging, producing from my own garden or harvesting from nature. Shortly after my return to Brittany in early March the first period of confinement started. I opened a small local exhibition in the nearby town of Huelgoat which ran for only one day before it had to close due to lockdown. Despite this, and surprising the owner, sales broke all records. I constantly heard it said that embroidery was a real benefit to mental health and for a short while even the Radio 4’s arts programs found good things to say about craft. Being unable to travel back to Lewis I organised over the summer months a small creative sewing group. I also decided to start rediscovering my abandoned garden in Brittany. It had been neglected for the past decade but with a liberal digging in of goat manure from the neighbours it became very productive.
The summer saw a borrowed freezer and preserve cupboard fill up, but by August I was yearning to be back in the Hebrides. Travel was possible, just, and it was evident that the apples and hazelnuts would be early this year, so I made the decision to harvest and head north. Loaded with potatoes, onions, beetroot, butternut and pumpkins, plus jams, pickles and a large jar of sloe gin I began the journey north to Lewis, doing a further two weeks confinement on arrival. It didn’t take me long to realise my garden here had done well, the growth had been significant and while I was pleased to hear from neighbours what a picture it was, I could only imagine the riot of colour that the now withered flowering stems must have displayed. I set to clearing up after the party, somewhat irritated that I hadn’t been invited.
I have always felt a sense of escape when crossing from Ullapool to Lewis, that they can’t get me now. An illusion I know, but behind that self-deception is the reality that living disconnected without todays accepted norms of communication is regarded as a form of escape. The world certainly proceeds at a very different pace and to a large extent I have on a daily basis reduced my interest in it. Information filters through despite trying to avoid all radio news. I make an effort, perhaps not a great effort, to keep in touch with friends but there seems little of importance to impart. I lost a good friend this year. Mats was my most regular correspondent as well as visitor to New Tolsta. Arriving each spring in time to help with the peat cutting, and then heading off on his cycling tours of Scotland. His bike and camping equipment remain in my barn, he will be missed.
I have another friend now who when I whistle will join me in the garden or on the front door step. He seems to enjoy our little chats even if it is me doing most of the talking
There is an art to living alone and so perhaps it’s just as well I chose to be an artist, but how strange to not have touched another human being in almost ten months. There really is nothing that special in being an artist, at least not an artist like myself. I play, and make stuff from stuff, that’s all it is, no mystery. On cold grey days I stay close to the Rayburn, no need to light the fire in the studio when I can work at the kitchen table whittling miniature stick-back chairs for a dolls house, or winding shuttles with reclaimed end of bobbin yarn to freestyle weave on the Harris table loom.
I usually have several projects on the go plus many more churning around in my head. News updates of my creative work can be seen on the Hebridean dreaming blog. The big one this year has been to stitch a book, which I started planning back last January, each page in itself has been a project. I now have only six more pages to complete, which will most likely take me full circle round to summer.
While in years gone by people managed to squeeze ships in bottles, I am currently miniaturising sheep to be displayed in small glass fronted drawers. There is no pattern to my day beyond riddling the stove, taking out the ash, and searching through the peat stack for more dry fuel. Back in October I replaced the old Rayburn with a newer model, which has proved far more efficient. I buy no prepared foods and do all my own home baking. This year I made some small concession to Christmas with mince pies and a cake, plenty of marzipan but no icing.
I heard that we should be encouraged over this past Christmas period to telephone older people living on their own. Yet another reason for not have a phone I thought as I made a point on Christmas morning of putting out washing on the line before finishing off the last glass of sloe gin. While others sought in a last ditched effort to celebrate the past year on a festive note, here at the roads end there has been no tree, no lights, no cards, no presents, nobody and still no phone. Just me steadily becoming more decrepit, carrying on life, looking for and still discovering those unexpected joys of nature. If I have learnt one thing during the past year it is not to make plans, and so my studio and gallery remain closed. My pre-Christmas show down in London was thankfully postponed until December 2021 but hopefully over the summer months I will once again be able to open in New Tolsta.