Authors and afternoon tea

A refreshing highlight of lockdown life is an engaging series of online gatherings hosted by the Society of Authors at which established authors and other members of the writing community gather for afternoon tea and chat.

What a joy to sit in on the easy conversation between Joanne Harris and Nicola Solomon, Chief Executive of the Society of Authors. Joanne was taking tea and questions in the ‘shed’, a creative den in her Yorkshire garden that she references often in Twitter posts.

Joanne spoke of how she is managing lockdown life as the the Covid-19 pandemic nears its peak in the United Kingdom. The acclaimed author of 16 books draws much resilience and daily discipline from her previous career as a teacher. Days take shape around a timetable that caters for an early morning run, creative work, attention to her garden and interaction with loyal followers, friends and connections on Twitter. She describes the social media platform as her ‘staffroom’, a place where she hops in and out to ‘reboot’ and connect. The solitary process of writing makes many of us hermits to some extent.

Apart from her own books, Joanne continues to connect with the work of others and finds herself currently returning to old favourites like Donna Tartt’s Secret History for ‘comfort reading’ and Georgette Heyer, for bath time indulgence! She is also reading non-fiction to ‘reset’ her fiction brain.

Nicola describes Joanne as an ‘incredibly generous’ writer who does much to advocate for others, especially through her role as the Chair of the Society of Authors. Considering the changes that a global pandemic may bring to our communities, Joanne hopes for good things among the many challenges. She feels passionately that small presses and small bookshops will need vital support especially. And while many authors are asked to share their work freely, Joanne cautions that exposure must not be regarded as a living for an author and those who issue invitations expecting authors give their professional time and work for free are urged to reflect that harsh truth is that while exposure can lead to a living, an unpaid author may also die from it.

Life in lockdown is impacting the creative community in many ways; while some feel in flow, others are frozen and struggling with poor mental health. Joanne’s advice is wise. “Writing doesn’t come from a place of stress and anxiety, it comes from a place of calm and joy and reasonable mental health. Self care comes first. “If you can get out of this feeling ok then you are already doing very well.”

Joanne’s warmth and compassion shone through the afternoon tea party and her final words to the gathering were deeply encouraging. “Be kind to each other. Be kind to yourselves. Writing will come when it comes. Don’t worry if it is not starting.”

Catch Joanne’s chat in the shed here; a Vimeo recording of this special lockdown event.

Lockdown life: seeds of hope

In the throes of a nation-wide lockdown across Britain and also throughout the world, the spectre of Covid-19 wraps itself around anxious hearts and minds.

This ruthless invisible virus has humanity in its breathless grip. As key workers and health workers labour under awkward protective masks and gloves and clothing, supplied too late and too scarce by the government, it is the moral obligation of the rest of us to stay put in our homes, with the opportunity of breaks for exercise in the outdoor world once so familiar to us and now eerily alien and emptily sombre.

Never before has my garden oasis been so important. While this private outdoor space always been precious, now it is my well being sanctuary more than ever, and I am full of gratitude for it. The opportunity to leave the enclosure of the house and step into the freshness of the spring garden is supporting my mental health, well being and creativity immensely.

Deep inside my cream painted shed, happily decorated with rusty running rabbits and festoon solar lights, were forgotten seed packets, discarded in boxes of good intentions grown thick with cobwebs and rediscovered with fresh zeal. Compost, pencilled plant names on ice lolly sticks, watering cans and bamboo canes are part of the armoury keeping fear and hopelessness at bay during this lockdown experience of pandemic.

Planting for the future melds with memories of the past; I celebrate the blossom of the cherry tree, bought from a supermarket and planted in hope of shiny red fruit. I recall buying the small souvenir envelope of giant dill on my last trip to the United States and marigold seeds harvested from the community gardens around Windsor Street in Toxteth, and I remember a glorious day and the perfumed stately white sweet peas in the garden of the Castle of May in Caithness. Each packet brings me joy and hope. And as for the cherries, the snowy blossom softens the blow of losing the fruit to the birds.

My garden energises my spirit and I love this quote attributed to Seamus Heaney, so resonant and so apt for this extraordinary time in the history of humanity.

2020 The Year of Coasts & Waters

A favourite road, a favourite view, and a favourite part of the world! This is Assynt in the far northwest highlands of Scotland. A magical kingdom where mountains tiptoe to the sea; a perfect place to discover the Scottish Year of Coasts and Water.

This is a landscape I have known intimately since childhood. My family roots run deep here. I have experienced these far flung highlands in all seasons and I remain decidely under the spell!

My best selling book North Coast Journey, is illustrated with my photography of this enchantment! And I share inspirational ways for you to discover gently the people, the places and experiences that make this bewitching territory so special.

With my very best wishes for 2020! May this new year be kind to you!

Tree Time!

The festive season arrives early. I struggle with the onslaught of commercial Christmas activity that kicks in soon after the August bank holiday. For so many of us, it feels like overkill.

And so when I come across something that brings together a community in a creative and meaningful it way, it feels hugely uplifting. That’s what happened when I visited the Lochbroom and Ullapool Parish Church Christmas Tree Festival.

The small village on the west coast of Scotland welcomed the challenge of creating a Christmas tree festival with gusto. For four days there were 46 beautifully dressed trees on show, each revealing something significant and relevant to the makers, something to be shared with their community.

Scallops are associated with pilgrimages; those who undertook arduous journeys like the Camino de Santiago would often return with a souvenir scallop shell

This lovely seashell tree was made by Ullapool Sea Savers, a group of passionate, articulate, well-informed & dedicated young people who celebrate and raise awareness of marine life in an area where fishing is a vital part of the economy.

Mike and Peggy, with a warm welcome and the impressive Direct-tree…geddit? Groan!
Heidi, the minister, hoping for snow!

This stunning creation below was another of my favourites! So good to see how the young people of the area brought the issues that deeply concern them so creatively to the festival.

I loved this fabulous recycled bottle tree made by pupils at Ullapool High School!

This beautiful bare winter tree stood out.

Offering winter nourishment for wild birds, this display was created by people from neighbouring St Mary’s Episcopal Church

From the birds to the bees!

A quiet buzz promoting the value of beekeeping in poor and remote communities

Mike explained how well behaved Jack Russell Peggy had been when Gaelic broadcasting station BBC Alba came to visit the magical trees. Moreover, one of the creations, Give The Dog A Bonio, was her own work and funds raised would be donated to Munlochy Animal Aid shelter.

The importance of libraries in our communities is immense. Our libraries offer an opportunity beyond reading, they are a place to learn, to meet, to share information, to stay warm, to receive support and inspiration from compassionate staff and so much more. How lovely to see the Ullapool Community Library tree of stacked books. My author heart would swell if I saw my own work in such a pile!

Even the local chipper, The Seaforth, got in on the act with takeaway food cardboard boxes reminding everyone to Keep Scotland Beautiful.

The Ullapool Forget Me Not cafe will be a welcoming and social place for people with dementia to gather with their families and carers. I was especially moved by these simple words that express hope for people impacted by dementia.

The little church was beautifully decorated throughout. These coat-hook decorations caught my eye too! My congratulations to all involved the very first Ullapool Christmas tree Festival, it was a very special visit.Thank you!

From Mabou, Nova Scotia to Ullapool and beyond

When impoverished Scottish families emigrated from the highlands to make new lives in the ‘new world’, they took their traditional music and Gaelic language with them.

The opportunity to see the descendants of those emigrants return to Scotland and perform the music that binds far flung communities is a really special treat! And that’s what happened last night when the Blas Festival celebration of Scottish culture brought Canadians Dawn and Margie Beaton from Mabou, Nova Scotia to Ullapool in the northwest highlands of Scotland.

Mabou is small rural community in Inverness County on the west coast of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. Celtic traditions are strong and the Gaelic language has been on the school curriculum for thirty years.

Dawn and Margie Beaton

The sisters are massively talented women who have been step dancing since the age of 4 and playing fiddle since the age of 5. And, as they told their wowed audience last night, they were taught Gaelic by teacher who emigrated from the Isle of Eriskay.

Here’s a short clip of them performing a sweet, two fiddle, wedding waltz that enchanted the crowd. Dawn and Margie’s talent and warm humour make the sisters great ambassadors for Cape Breton and, if, as they travel the world performing at Celtic Festivals, they come your way, do go and experience the magic! You’ll hear traditional fiddle tunes interspersed with beautiful pieces they have composed, an uplifting blend of old and new.

For more information about the special links that exist between Canada, Nova Scotia and the Scottish highlands, check out Ullapool Museum and especially the story of The Hector a creaky ship that sailed to Pictou, known as the birthplace of New Scotland, with the first wave of brave Scottish families hoping to make new lives in a faraway land at time when the Clearances were sweeping their birthplace.

To discover the beautiful landscape of Ullapool and the wider northwest highland experience, check out my illustrated book North Coast Journey.

Shore Thing!

I am especially happy wandering along the shore. I am fascinated by different approaches to the sea. Sometimes the beach is backed by a dense forest of skyscrapers and the bright lights of a vibrant city, sometimes a sprinkling of rickety wooden shacks, sometimes nothing but nature.

Here are two of my favourite beaches. The first is in the northwest of England, the second is in the northwest of Scotland. Both are without the company of a concrete jungle. Both are not immediately obvious, they require a little effort to discover, and so the peace is deep and the journey worth it.

The Dee estuary, standing on the English coast, looking across to Wales
The white sands of Achmelvich beach
Off the beaten track, a hideaway cove known fondly as the Skinny Dip beach because someone forgot her swimsuit!
There is magic on the lonely shore!

Spirit of Moray

I was honoured to be invited to speak about my work as a writer, to share my stories and landscape photography at The Spirit of Moray Book Festival, a prestigious event in the historic Royal Burgh of Elgin.

Thank you to everyone in the team from Moray Council who made me so welcome. And to all the great people who came along to my event and shared their own stories of the far north highlands too. It is a joy to meet people at book signings; I appreciate hugely how kind and patient people are as they queue to have their book, or books (many are bought as gifts!) signed. It is most humbling.

I especially enjoyed chatting with a couple happily purchasing several copies of my North Coast Journey, including one intended as a gift to their dear friend from Tennessee, who has named her children, Sonny and Cher!

Elgin library
Elgin cathedral precinct, though the romantic cathedral is not truly as squint as my photo!