another magical place in the space of four weeks – Orkney – and a wonderful retreat led by India Flint and Alison Mountain of Big Cat textiles in Newburgh (where I have been for several really good courses, taught by the likes of Michel Garcia and Larry Thomas as well as by India)

arrived in the dark after a flight from Aberdeen to Kirkwall which caught the last of the light with views of the Moray Firth, Caithness, the Pentland Firth (complete with ferry ploughing a pale blue wake) and the interlocking islands, sounds and firths of Orkney, so when I parted the curtains at seven am and saw this out of my window I was in love with the place.

we stayed and workshopped in Woodwick House, an Edwardian very Scottish looking country house with a kind of tower attic and stepped gables and crenellations wherever possible. it still has its beautiful but draughty sash windows, but also bits and pieces of more contemporary text and some quite good paintings, in a simple plain decor that felt comfortable and un-posh, not imposing anything except an awareness of the Orcadian tradition of ancient and contemporary art and poetry.

the fact that there are quite tall and old trees in two shelter belts running down each side of the garden to the beach of this little bay (“wick” means bay) is unusual on these bare and windswept islands. they are mostly sycamore, salt-hardy and tough, a non-native tree which thrives all over the UK. the pool in the photo is part of an installation of sculpture and poetry (not sure when this was made) and around its rim are words written by George Mackay Brown, one of Orkney’s most famous poets. some letters are sadly missing, but part of it reads –

drink here voyager about to depart
on the salt sound

Eynhallow is one of the smaller islands in the group just off the main island here.

we began with a fancy-restaurant-standard supper made by Alison and India, setting the ball very high for the rest of the week.

the next morning down to the serious business, working on paper with Alison, splashing vegetable dyes about on paper,

and continuing to layer up with pastel, oil pastel, gesso, more paint until the whole thing a bit soggy, then we folded our large sheets into books

put more onto the nicely reduced and framed sections

I discovered that pastel in layers with the translucent dyes and also darker ink-depth mark making

and then working over the top with more pastel

gave very pleasing results. I am wondering about a bit of fixative when I get home though.

for the first textile phase, led by India, we were given a strip of old wool blanket to stitch and add more fabrics to.

I was really quite minimal in my stitching compared to most. one had no idea where this was leading, by the way!

by the end of the morning however far we had got, our rolls of blanket went into a pot or rather a huge fish kettle of burn water (a burn runs down under a bridge at the entrance to the garden and along its edge, the water a coppery clear caramel from the peat) and a little “iron water”, to steep and relax in some heat.

we had the afternoon to wander, and bring back leaves, seaweed, stones, twigs and anything else we found to add to the stitching.

bundles duly went back in the kettle for an evening boil-up

identified by tied on additions which make these little objects full of character before you even start

by the morning they had cooled down and we had our christmas present moment of unwrapping, with many oohs and aahs, much excitement.

as India fished them out

starting to unwrap mine

then they all dripped on the line

you can see how much of the landscape is imparted

eventually dried in the boiler house

we made bags. here is mine, a tsunobokuro bias-stitched envelope or sack on our expedition to some of Orkney’s ancient sites later in the week.

the stones of the Pictish broch at Gurness

their lichens and weatherings

echoed in the colours and textures we were able to obtain with the dye processes and the pigments and paints on paper during the week.