Immediately obvious is just how many barnacle geese there is on the Isle of Islay, they are everywhere, on the sea lochs, the flooded pastureland and the fields, these are birds seeking the relatively mild weather of Islay to spend their winter, before returning north to breed in April. The sound that these vast flocks make is extraordinary, each keeping in touch with their family groups within the flock, and it surrounds you from ground and sky level. Stopping at the head of the sea loch Indaal, there were several thousand, along with widgeon, curlew, dunlin and greylag geese. Squalls were increasing from the southwest and after a brief stop at RSPB Gruinart, we parked up at Ardnave close to the most northerly point on Islay. Almost immediately upon leaving the car a flock of around 20 chough got up with their distinctive ‘peeow’, like a child’s pretend gunshot. They circled us before flying directly overhead, silhouetted dramatically against the grey sky. It was like looking up at a completely finished lino print, stark and bold. I make a hasty note that this should be a new large print, too large for my small press back in the studio, and so probably making it necessary to be printed by hand. The chough on Islay number around 60 pairs, there only being less than 300 breeding pairs in the whole of the UK, this represent a sizeable proportion of the entire countries population. The farmer at Ardnave overwinters his cattle outside specifically so that there are cowpats all year round! These are essential to the choughs food supply as they feed on larvae laid within the pats. The weather drives us back to the car, heavy rain and wind is now coming in, the weather changes very rapidly on the island.
After desperate weather forcast from the previous days, it was a surprise to wake to windy but dry conditions. Heading back towards Bruichladdich we spot two otters just off shore moving along the coast. Hurriedly unloading cameras and telescopes we watched them from the shore, an adult and youngster, the latter almost riding on its parent in the water. They briefly come out of the water to cross some rocks, we can see that one is much larger than the other, almost certainly a mother and it’s pup. I shoot off some rapid photographs, hoping some may be ok and record something of this excitement. A good start to the day
Driving north we past some large white birds grazing in a field, we cautiously stop and check them – whoopers ! A small family group, the adults with their distinctive yellow bill, the younger birds still a grubby brown, yet to get their brilliant white feathering of their parents. Some are asleep creating flowing, curving forms, the lookouts watch as steadily with their necks straight and erect.
The weather had been steadily closing in and it really was becoming too wet to continue outside, the only option was the hide at RSPB Gruinart. Teal, widgeon, little grebe, lapwing, godwit and European White-fronted geese were a few of the thousands of birds spread out in front of us on the flooded fields. Then a shape rose up that we had been searching for since arriving on Islay, the unmistakable silhouette of a hen harrier, a female juvenile with the distinctive white ‘ring-tail’ marking. Only visible for a short time, she sent panic amongst the smaller more vulnerable birds.
There had been regular reports over the last few days of snow bunting at a small bay on the coast, so as the light dropped we made this the last search of the day. The small burn where they had been seen proved fruitless, so we moved to the less likely wind hammered beach. Sand hurtled past us at ankle height creating complex ribbon patterns as it disappeared down the open expanse of beach. The light was going, the wind rising and we were getting damper by the minute, either the bunting had moved on or they were staying very well hidden – the day was done and it was time to get shelter.
Our last full day on Islay , our dilemma, the rugby world cup final was being televised; the weather was fine however and if Islay had taught us one thing it was to make the most of any dry weather – we went out. Parking on the shore of Loch Indaal we walked towards Bridgend. Large flocks of barnacle geese were in the bay, the still conditions allowed their calls to carry well. Amongst them was Brent geese, Pink footed geese, golden plover, dunlin, curlew and redshank. Closer to the shore rock pipits sparred with linnets over terrain. Skeins of even more barnacles were constantly arriving from the south to join the huge mass on the loch. New Zealand won the rugby by a single point, but we saw some great birds in a fabulous location.
The ferry trip back was stormy, a few hardy souls ventured on deck and those that did were rewarded with the sight of Northern Divers floating, unperturbed by the stormy seas.
At this time of year some birders have reported seeing over 100 species of bird on Islay in one day! We had only managed 68 in 4 days; it mattered little, I had been back when the geese were there and there were 38,000 of them. Back in my studio in Derbyshire, still excited by this wildlife rich, dramatic island I am about to make a start on the new large ‘chough linocut’.
PS. You may also be interested in my Islay Distillery series of prints
So now considering embarking on a puffin lino cut, though as usual I am finding it difficult to decide on compostion and colour printing sequence.
Gill was certainly a controversial figure and many only know him for his somewhat extreme sexual drive and inclinations. Reading more of his life beyond this however does reveal a fascinating artist who has left an extraordinary legacy, from his 'Gill sans' font, still used throughout the world, not least of all by London Underground to many large public sculptures. Gill was a strange and complex man. He was certainly guilty of many sexual improprieties and held some extreme and unorthadox views; he was also a person capable of profound ideas and startlingly beautiful sculpture, wood engravings and typography.
I ran a modelling class this week at The University of Derby with some of the BA(Hons) Fine Art students. Working from a model each student sculpted a life size head in red clay. No one had worked directly from a live model in this way before and I think most were surprised at how much visual information is encapsulated in a real head, this then having to be translated into clay. Working the soft clay onto wooden armatures, everyone worked for 2 days producing lively, strong, if not always anatomically correct sculptures. The plan at a later date is to make a flexible mould from this clay original which in turn can be used to produce a wax, plaster or bronze version.
I will be running another class of this sort privately in the near future, if you are interested in knowing more about this this just drop me an email with 'subscribe' as the subject and I will send out details to you once they are finalised.
One of the most recent commissions has been unusual and rather interesting. Silversmith Anthony Elson asked me to model a swan for the top of the stave carried by the current Bishop of Lincoln. The swan will eventually be cast in silver and mounted on a silver staff which will be around a metre long. The swan is about 14cm high and I have modelled it in an oil based clay onto a small armature (a wire support embedded in the clay to support it.
The intention was to give the swan the appearance that it had either just landed from flight or had just got up.
So why a swan? Bishop Hugh of Lincoln (1186), apparently had a swan that was very attached to him, following him everywhere and even standing guard over him as he slept. So the staff and swan is a nod to this past Bishop , now a patron saint of the sick, shoemakers and of course swans. When cast in silver and finished I shall of course post more pictures.