Winter Violets

Violets do this – flowering randomly any time from October to April. Back in the day there was a whole industry forcing violets to bloom through the winter so that flower girls could sell posies on the streets of London. I have never seen enough violets in bloom at once to make a posy, but even the single unexpected blooms lift my heart. In spite of the fact they are a beautiful deep, rich purple, (like no body of water I have ever seen), they have a luminous gleam that always makes me think of sunlight on water. So I was very interested to find this article on twitter this morning

where a calm sea is described as ‘pansy-like’. I totally get this in one way, and yet in another, not at all.

This is the violet patch in the new look herb bed. This one focuses on scent and colour, with lavender, rosemary, purple sage southernwood, myrtle and costmary, for pot pourri, and the dye herbs – bog myrtle, dyer’s greenweed and woad to come next year.

I have finished the last big garden job before the winter, which is to plant the new rosa gallica officinalis here:

fortified with bonemeal and mulched with last year’s leaf mould, just in time, as we have had the first frosts, and it is time to think about work indoors.

Although setting up my plans for the colours and stitches projects I’m working on has been new and exciting, the two biggest concerns in my mind at the moment are the workshop I’m planning at Taigh Chearsabhagh, and the launch of Haggards next year. I am putting together some sensory experiences, some plant associations, and some very diverse ways of writing about herbs as ways of thinking about home, landscape, healing, femininity, wildness – and many more. We’ll have to see what comes out of it, but I’m very excited.

I’m putting together a newsletter for Haggards, which I hope will include news of events still at the planning stage – do sign up, if you would like to hear more.



We have made Landfall!

Last Saturday the Federation of Writers (Scotland) launched their latest anthology, Landfall. I was so proud to edit this – fifty-four authors of prose and poetry, some well-established, like the first Makar A.C. Clarke, some experiencing their first taste of publication. The design, layout and typesetting was carried out by my daughter Naomi Rimmer – no link to her site, this time as she is taking a sabbatical for a while. And here it is:

Copies can be obtained from the Federation for £10.

The First Colours

Here they are, my first dyed yarns. It’s been an exciting time. I was lucky enough to find dyestuffs locally – acorns, a branch off a cherry tree, which I stripped to make bark chippings,

and, most unexpected of all, some privet berries. Most privet bushes are clipped within a inch of their lives, don’t flower, and therefore don’t get to produce berries, but we were a bit less vigilant this year because of nesting birds and so I got a jar full of a murky inky liquid that looked like this

Following instructions from Helen Melvin in a craft book by Kirsty Alsopp (because she works on the small amateur scale which is all I can cope with, I set up a dye bath

and eventually got this bunch of beautiful colours:

Left to right, they are privet berry on an alum mordant, which is a very pale duck egg blue, privet berry with an iron modifier, which is closer to a wedgewood colour, cherry bark on alum alone, a very pale apricot, cherry bark with added iron, a kind of oatmeal, and acorn , a surprisingly yellow straw, and acorns with iron, a greyer beige.

They are quite pale, almost ghost colours, which is probably because I got too excited to simmer them for the length of time required, but I’m very excited by them. Fortunately every experiment yields something I can use, even if it isn’t what I wanted or expected. Trying to describe the colours has been interesting, as they don’t reproduce on the screen very clearly, and trying to thinks of designs to use them in is quite productive too. I’m thinking sparrows and blue tits, which is sparking ideas for poems as much as embroidery. And I’m fascinated by seeing what happens when you add the iron liquor to the dye pot. It doesn’t just change the colour of the bath, like washing out a paintbrush – the yarn changes almost instantly, like alchemy.

I’m thinking about translations, as I often do, recklessly, because time is short, and I have too many ideas, but I had a conversation last summer with a friend who translates poems from German, which made me think about translations and transformations, and the gaps between, and what desn’t change. Only now, I have a whole cluster of new images to write about it. When you submit a manuscript you often have a fallow time after it where you don’t write and sometimes wonder if you’ll ever write again; it looks like this fallow time is going to be shorter than I imagined!

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

In June Mandy Haggith recommended this book to me, saying it was one I must read, and she was right. When I wrote Ways of Knowing I was looking for a way of thinking about and transmitting knowledge that would encompass both the academic and the intuitive ways we get to know about the world we live in, and this book does exactly that. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist, Professor of Environmental Biology, and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and this book discusses the human relationship to the land from both the perspective of her scientific training and the traditional wisdom and practices of her family. Intellectually and ecologically this is a great achievement, and the book is well-written, approachable and engaging. I Love it, and it will be on my shelves forever, so you can take this as a heart-felt recommendation.

It throws up a few issues, not of contention, but requiring further thought and development from a European perspective. (By which I mean simply someone living in Europe – in the book Kimmerer uses ‘European’ and ‘Western’ as cultural groupings, which is reasonable in an American setting, but less so from here).

What I love especially are her ideas

  • science as relational knowledge, not as detached observation
  • the speaking of a language as connection with the past and with other speakers, not as an assertion of identity (Gaelic activists here will get this connection – I get the feeling that people who disapprove of the use of Gaelic see it simply as creating barriers and ant-establishment acting out)
  • the reciprocity of the ‘honourable harvest’ where a disciplined use of natural resources is repaid by care, and this care is valued as genuinely nurturing the environment we profit from.. If we might see traditional cultures as tending towards the anthropomorphic and magical, we might want to recognise that this is in deference to our needs as humans; we behave much better when we are in caring relationships than when we try to follow rules.
  • seeing the earth as nurturing rather than functional, as organic and alive rather than as property
  • her ways of relating to key plants in a region as a way of belonging to that region. I thought about my territory and I’d say the key plants are ash, willow and alder, meadowsweet, comfrey, hawthorn, bramble and red clover. As it turns out, most of them have a place in Haggards. Alder doesn’t, but I have plans —-

I see some parallels between traditional Native American culture and Celtic practices, and even Biblical ones – the idea of jubilee, for instance, or leaving the gleanings of the harvest for wanderers, of gratitude and restraint. I can see parallels between what happened to First Nation Americans and what happened in Ireland and in the Highlands – the same lies, the same exploitation, the same refusal to understand the existence and respect the validity of other, less pragmatic world-views, which makes me wonder about how Western culture got to be the way it is (too big a subject). I don’t want to be too simplistic here, some of the Scottish and Irish who suffered so badly here went and inflicted exactly the same treatment on others when they got to America, but it does throw up some thoughts on why we can’t simply import ideas from other parts of the world simply because they seem sensible. So much of traditional Native American knowledge is conditioned by long knowledge of landscape and climate, soil types and wildlife. We can’t just copy and paste ideas, especially if we don’t have the same grounding – and we mostly don’t. Roger Deakin, in Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, deplored the damage well-meaning developers did to watercourses in his area for want of detailed local knowledge, and I have become aware of controversies among permaculturalists about importing ideas such as herb spirals, which work when in some countries, in places where neither the soil nor the climate make them appropriate.

We are aware of attitudes that seem similar – profit as motivator, the market as the only regulator of industry, the earth as inert resource to be exploited (along with the self-serving opposition of jobs and environmental protection). But things are different here. We are, despite the ‘get on your bike’ mentality of governments, a much more settled country. People feel they belong to their place of residence, town or countryside. People feel, mostly, some obligation to their locality, even if it means being thought a ‘nimby’. It can narrow us, make us selfish when we go to other places like the National Parks, but it’s something we can build on, and we do, sometimes.

It means our residual land-lore is closer to us and more extensive than we think, and perhaps environmental organisations could be less dismissive and paranoid about unqualified people doing damage, and more willing to co-operate with residents, rather than taking such a missionary position.

It means that in this country, questions of class need to be more carefully looked at before assumptions are made about consultation and new initiatives, because we can create conflicts of interest unnecessarily in one direction, and turn a blind eye to others. This especially applies to the issue of land ownership. There’s a lot of over-simplification in these discussions, mostly because we’re importing models from places where the issues are much starker.

This book is a great place to start those conversations!


Colouring the Autumn

Not quite so big on poetry this week, though the outlines of my ‘red yellow blue’ project are falling into place. The herb beds are getting cleared and rearranged so that plants have more room to spread themselves about. All the plants I have moved seem to be thriving and the violets have even thrown up a few blossoms in this unseasonably mild weather we have had.

In the space to the right I have planted the first of the dye plants, a bog myrtle, which also has the merit of being an insect repellent, and there is plenty of room for a new rosa gallica officinalis

as the old one – which was about twenty years old, so probably not going to last much longer – had a lot of problems with rust and throwing up suckers with vicious long thorns that were hell to get out. There will also be dyer’s greenweed and woad, I hope, and madder, which will have to go into pots, as it is seriously invasive in the ground.

The greenhouse is clean and tidy – I don’t know when it ever looked so tidy –

and the more tender plants are going in for the winter. There are still bulbs to plant, and then the indoor work will begin.

There will be a serious amount of research going on; I have Wild Colour by Jenny Dean for the practical stuff, and The Colour Cauldron:The History and Use of Natural Dyes in Scotland by Su Grierson for the historical references. Oddly, though it was written and published in Scotland, I’ve had to import it from the USA, but is a fascinating record of the many plants, both local and imported, used in Scotland. In a very satisfactory development, some of the worst weeds in my garden can be used this way – horsetail and nettle for yellow, and ivy for greys and dark olive greens. If I could find a use for ground elder, I’d be sorted! And I have scored a copy of the iconic The Subversive Stitch by Roszika Parker for a take on the place textile art has had in the lives of women through the ages.

And this week, I’ll be trying the first dyes, using acorns, cherry bark and ivy all gathered from the territory, which has given me a new awareness of what is happening in the landscape around me, and some different ways of interacting and creating a homage to my home place.


It’s been a busy time, and as befits the equinox, it’s been divided between wrapping up old projects and planning something new.

I’ve been doing a few readings. This is a picture from the Falkirk Storytelling Festival (picture by Sweet P of the Write Angle), a great event, and one of four I’ve been at in the last ten days. The biggest was the National Poetry Day event organised by the Federation of Writers (Scotland) at the GOMA

where Andy Jackson unveiled a patchwork poem composed by members on the theme of freedom. You can see the poem here.

In between times, I’ve finished giving this website a makeover, adding pages for workshops, readings and newsletters, updating the poems on the poetry page, and generally putting my house in order before the launch of Haggards, which will be at the Scottish Poetry Library on 10th February next year.

Last time I had a book out The Territory of Rain didn’t get as much love as I would have liked because my family were busy exploring the wilder outreaches of the NHS (I now know a lot more about neurology than I ever wished to!). This time, I would like to do a bit better. Haggards has been a long time in the brewing and I would like to give it a bit more care and attention, organise some events, take it to new places, share it with some new people. There will be a little more about it in the coming months, but hopefully, not too much.

That’s because I’m also building on it to develop something new. As well as making over the website, I’ve been making over the garden, clearing and tidying, deciding what each plant needs to thrive. I’ve discovered problems with rust and thrips and aphids, and I need to up my game to grow my herbs well. I’ll be growing fewer plants, but choosing the ones that have some special resonance. As well as the herbs for scent, for healing and cooking, I’m going to grow some traditional dye plants, bog myrtle, madder, woad and dyer’s greenweed, easing my way into the colour and craft poems, and bringing together all the work I’ve done on inhabiting this small territory.

The wind has been fierce today, after the wet of yesterday, and we are well into autumn. The bird feeders are out and the hedges are alive with sparrows and bluetits. The last field has been mowed and I’m dealing with the apple harvest, making cakes and rosehip jelly, and mincemeat for Christmas. The last of the summer birds have gone, and the geese are beginning to arrive. The tomatoes are being harvested and the bulbs for spring are going in. It isn’t quiet, it isn’t the end. Autumn is a season that faces both ways, and I love it.



Updates to the Website

I’ve made a few changes to the layout of this site, adding some new pages, and streamlining some of the old ones. There are now pages for editing, readings and workshops, as, thanks to the help and encouragement of friends on FaceBook, I am in the process of developing a workshop which will be given for the first time at the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre in December.

Signs of the Times, the new anthology of the Burgh Poets, is now available to buy on the Books and Downloads page, and some of the older pages have been updated or rewritten.

Next week I will refresh the poems on the poetry page, and reorganise the news page, but just now I am about to get ready for the Falkirk Storytelling Festival tonight. Helen Boden, George Colkitto, Finola Scott, Ian Maxtone and Colin Will are reading as well as myself, besides fiction writers Suzanne Egerton, Kate Donne and Emma Mooney. It’s going to be a great night!

Winter is Coming

The robins are active in the garden, and though there are still swallows and housemartins about, last week there was the winter landfall of starlings all in their speckled feathers. The first geese are about, and the black-headed gulls have their white winter heads on.

The summer windowboxes

are almost done, and yesterday I planted up the new one for winter

It will sit in the sun for a week or two to get established, before I move it into place. I’m planting bulbs, putting out the bird feeders again, harvesting tomatoes, and tidying up in the garden,

and in the house, I’m getting to grips with the new central heating system and a new cooker

which, being electric, requires a whole new way of thinking and some new techniques.

This is a very visual post, because I’m pretty much worded out. This year’s anthology for the Federation of Writers (Scotland) has just gone to the printers’ and I’m planning for two readings in Falkirk at the Storytelling Festival next weekend, and two more on National Poetry Day. There will be more information about this in my next post, but meanwhile I want to thank Janet Crawford and Ian Maxtone for so generously inviting me to what looks as if it will be a varied and fascinating weekend.

Signs of the Times

This is a project I’ve been keeping quiet about until the time was right – and here it is! A book of poems inspired by signs and notices.

The Burgh Poets are a group of poets who meet in the Burgh Coffee House in Stirling once a month, George Colkitto, Sally Evans, Neil Leadbeater, Helen McLaren, Ann Murray and me. Through the last year, which, though full of excitement and new experiences and happy things, has been a very difficult year for me personally, the Burgh poets have met for coffee and to write, and sometimes it was the only new writing I was able to do. At least four of the poems in Haggards were written there, as well as the five that are in this collection, and I’m not sure how I’d have got things done without them. This is my chance to thank them for their support and friendship.

So this weekend, we are launching the pamphlet at the Callander Poetry Weekend, which starts tomorrow, the 1st September and runs until Sunday afternoon. There will be eighty poets there, music and films and discussion and food, and a lot of washing up.

And among other wonderful things, the launch of the long-awaited first full collection by Judith Taylor, Not in Nightingale Country. It is published by Red Squirrel Press with a fabulous cover by Gerry Cambridge.

Signs of the Times costs £3, and you can buy it from any of the poets after this weekend – I’ll add it to the site next week so you can buy it from me online, should you wish to – and you will be able to hear the Burgh Poets read from it on National Poetry Day 28th September at St Ninian’s Library, the Mayfield Centre Stirling at 12:30.