Monthly Archives: June 2015

Borders Country Day 17

'St Abbs'. Acrylic on 20x16" canvas

‘St Abbs’. Acrylic on 20×16″ canvas

St Abbs (detail)

St Abbs (detail)

Today’s painting – St Abbs Bay on the east coast near the Border.

Those rocks really are as colourful as they’ve been painted. This part of the coastline is quite famous for its beauty, but also it’s near to where Professor Hutton made his discoveries about geology at Siccar Point


There’s a trail named after him which takes you all along the east coast from the Borders to Dunbar, where you can see the faults and intrusions which proved Hutton’s theory that our planet was much, much older than first believed.

The pink, yellow and purple rocks above are igneous  and the grey lower rocks, called Greywrake, are a remnant from the Silurian era – the former beach basically – you can see the bleached effect of tides from an earlier era, which also shows up the colour of crystal clear water. Apparently there would have been more tropical climes then, not unlike today’s weather – we have a mini heatwave in Edinburgh today, and though I know a lot of people hate this mugginess I’m quite enjoying it!

Borders Country Day 16

'Scots Pine near Coldingham'. Acrylic on 20x162 canvas

‘Scots Pine near Coldingham’. Acrylic on 20×162 canvas

'Moffat Hills 2'. Acrylic on 20x16" canvas

‘Moffat Hills 2’. Acrylic on 20×16″ canvas

Today’s paintings – a second version on canvas of the hills near Moffat, and Scots Pine near Coldingham Bay.

Earlier version on 10×10 inch wood –

'Moffat Hills', Acrylic on 10x10" wood panel

‘Moffat Hills’, Acrylic on 10×10″ wood panel

I love these rolling hills with their velvety green grass. A friend observed that the hills look like a sheet being shaken out and I see what he means, with their folds and creases.

I’ll be painting more Scots pines on a larger piece of canvas in the next few days, their elegant shapes were quite often a feature of Japanese prints (example below) from the last century -partly inspiration for today’s painting, though my painting is much looser.



My exhibition The Green Woods Free is in just three weeks!




Eigg Paintings at the Flaubert Gallery

Many thanks to the Flaubert Gallery for featuring the Eigg project on their website (link below) – paintings by myself, poems, J.L Williams and music by Atzi Muramatsu.

The feature includes a link to our collaborative video made earlier this year, one of those projects I can truly say I feel proud of! I still find it very moving – beautiful work by Jen and Atzi.

The paintings ‘West’, ‘North’ and ‘East’ are available to buy through the Flaubert Gallery where they’ll be on exhibition until later this year.

Flaubert Gallery

Flaubert Gallery

Borders Country Day 15

'Hawk. River Tweed 2'. Acrylic on 20x16" canvas

‘Hawk. River Tweed 2’. Acrylic on 20×16″ canvas

Today’s painting – a larger version of ‘Hawk (River Tweed)’ on canvas.

This is the version from last week on 5×5 inch wood..

'Hawk. River Tweed'. Acrylic on 5x5" wood

‘Hawk. River Tweed’. Acrylic on 5×5″ wood

As this subject seems to work at a larger scale I might paint it at 40×40 inches on wood.

I think the wood background maybe suits this subject more than canvas. The highlights on water are  easier on wood, which I prime with white gesso and paint so it’s easy to scrape into the top layer of paint to create nice, sharp light effects. On canvas I usually make those sharp white edges with white paint and palette knife, which can somewhat take away from a more expressive line.


This weekend we took a trip to St Abbs Head in Berwickshire, which was a nice destination for Father’s Day combined with a spot of sketching and photography on the east coast of the Borders. And it was a suitably beautful, sunny day for the summer solstice.

Coldingham Sands

Coldingham Sands

St Abbs used be called Coldingham Shore (Coldingham Sands – are just a mile or so along the coast).

It’s popular with divers and surfers but it was only in the 19th century that people settled here, though it’s always been a place to fish.


In the 7th century, a monastery was set up near St Abb’s Head, by Aebbe of Coldingham, a former Princess turned Abbess. She was originally from the North of England but after her father was killed in war, she, her mother and brothers fled to Scotland. While there she converted to Christianity. When the conflict was over, she returned to England, then later set up monasteries in England and at Coldingham.

She was politically astute and helped prevent several conflicts (no doubt a valuable skill given the Borders history of violence!). I imagine her childhood must have taught the harshest lesson in the painful outcomes of violent conflict. After her death the monastery was abandoned and became a ruin, but her memory wasn’t forgotten..

Aebbe’s story was recorded and written down by 12th Century monks so that her legacy of peace remains to this day in the name of the village and headland – St Abbs.

Tomorrow I’ll begin paintings of this coastline.

Some photos from yesterday..

P1240864 P1240714 P1240895


Borders Country Day 14

'Scots Pine and Overhanging Rock (River Tweed)'. Acrylic on 20x16" canvas

‘Scots Pine and Overhanging Rock (River Tweed)’. Acrylic on 20×16″ canvas

'Forget-me-nots (Keslo) 2'. Acrylic on 20x16" canvas

‘Forget-me-nots (Keslo) 2’. Acrylic on 20×16″ canvas

Today’s paintings – a beautiful Scots Pine at River Tweed near Peebles, and forget me nots in a sycamore grove in Kelso. These were a joy to paint, especially the river and pine.

You can somehow sense, looking at these trees, that the Scots Pine is native to Scottish Forests (hence the name!) and that Sycamores are a later addition. Although sycamores have been around for about 600 years, the Scots Pine goes back to ice-age times. Both are beautiful, as all trees are, but sadly the Borders has very few areas of native wild forest, in comparison to the rest of Scotland. Partly because the landscape is lowland and fertile, so farming practices have almost completely changed the original forests, save for a few pockets here and there.

The Borders Forest Trust (along with many other forest/woodland trusts across the UK) are changing this by re-introducing native plants and tree saplings so that the original diversity will eventually return. Its a fascinating process which can quite radically alter the eco-system for the better.

The original champions of Scotland’s wild forests were H.M. Steven and A. Carlisle, who in 1959 created an inventory of native plants as they were concerned at the loss of the original ecosystem, and its effect on landscape.

Glen Affric

Glen Affric

Their work was followed up by Finlay Macrae, who was seen as an eccentric at the time; a bit of a hippy probably. In fact back then re-introducing native plants and trees was seen as regressive or anti progress, but McCray, who worked for the Forestry Commission, persevered and began re-planting in Glen Affric, which had large areas of native Scots Pine forest. This was often at odds with Forestry Commission policy.


Nowadays though, the landscape of Scotland is slowly, gradually being brought back to its original beauty and diversity. The Borders Forest Trust have several projects on the go near Talla Reservoir, the Devil’s Beeftub and Carrifran Wildwood.

If you’re interested in these projects throughout Scotland, I highly recommend the excellent series by Dr. Iain Stewart – ‘Making Scotland’s Landscape’. I’ve attached the first episode and the next four can be found on You Tube. I learned most of what I know about Scotland’s forests from this wonderful and moving series!

Borders Country Day 13

'Glentress Forest 2'. Acrylic on 20x16" canvas

‘Glentress Forest 2’. Acrylic on 20×16″ canvas

'Forget-me-nots (Keslo) 2'. Acrylic on 20x16" canvas

In process -‘Forget-me-nots (Kelso) 2’

Today’s paintings – another painting of Glentress Forest and a work in process – forget-me-nots in the forests of Kelso

I’ve finished reading ‘The Steel Bonnets’ by George Fraser at last. The conclusion brought tears to my eyes at many points. The Borders Reivers, as mentioned elswehere in this blog on Borders Country, were lawless familes that lived on the Borders of Scotland and England, and who made their living through a combination of theft, cattle and sheep raiding, blackmail and general skullduggery!

They were at their height in the 16th century, but James 6th of Scotland (1st of England after Queen Elizabeth died) decided after the Union of crowns in 1603 to ‘pacify’ the Borders. In prinicpal it made sense that there should be no rivalry between the two countries, but as mentioned, the Borders Reivers were a law unto themselves, quite seperate from Scotland and England.

Their lifestyle (I can’t emphasise this enough) was brutal and at times cruel, but the callous and cold hearted methods that King James deployed in bringing the Reivers way of life to an end, make, as Fraser describes it an ugly story. The aim was to wipe clean the Borders of any Reivers activity, and in fact to wipe out entire families involved in it. The term’ Breaking the Border’ is more accurate.

The practice of encouraging confession to obtain pardon, then hanging guilty Borders Reivers families anyway, came to be known as ‘Jedart Justice’ – conviction and death without trial. Also, as mentioned before, some of the Borders families had amassed titles and wealth with which they offered to help King James’s cause.

Buccleauch for example (their descendents are now probably among the biggest landowners in Scotland) at first gave Borders families a fighting chance by sending them all off to America where they were enlisted in the war against Spain. Later though, on his return from the war, he was more active on behalf of King James:

Scott of Buccleauch, home from the wars, was briefly active in hunting down and destroying his former fellow Reivers on the governments behalf, hanging and drowning without trial, and burning towers and houses, for which like Cranston, he was granted full immunity.(George Fraser, The Steel Bonnets)

He wasn’t alone in taking a side against his own people, many of the more influential families did the same. The Kerrs for example (some Reivers Kerr descendents also own vast tracts of land and property in the Borders) would also have made deals and supported ‘Jedart Justice’.

I’m still interested in finding out more about my own Kerr descendents, and hope to drop into Hawick soon, which has an excellent centre for finding out more about your descendents. I’ve no idea what I’ll discover, but I suspect that my descendents were poorer Kerrs, who simply melted away, or were banished, as many families were, to other parts of Britain or America. Who knows what I’ll discover though.

Throughout ‘The Steel Bonnets’, Fraser (in complete contrast to the romantic history written by Sir Walter Scott) is impartial almost at times to a fault, carefully laying out a balanced history, based on records and evidence on all sides. At the book’s conclusion though, having just described the harrowing events during the ‘Breaking of the Border’ he ends with these words:

But there is very little to remind the visitor to these quiet fields, humdrum little towns and villages, lonely hills and lovely valleys, that there was once a fierce and bloody frontier. Strife and raid and burning and murder seem so out of place and remote, that it is hard to imagine that they were the daily business of the people of the Border. Only now and then, if your romantic imagination is sharp enough, there can come a little drift from the past-in the Cheviot wind, or under the vast stones of Carlisle Keep, or among the sad trees by Liddell Water, or most of all, perhaps in a little fellside village at night, when there is a hunter’s moon and a strong wind, and the black cloud shadows hurry across the tops, and beasts stamp in the dark, and an inn door down in the village opens and slams with a blink of light, and the rough Norse voices sound and laugh and die away.

But this is just sentimental imagination. The old Border is buried a long time ago, and there is hardly a trace now to mark where the steel Bonnets passed by. They would have no quarrel with that.

A Borders Reiver being brought to justice. (Artist unknown)

A Borders Reiver being brought to justice. (Artist unknown)


Borders Country Day 12

'Blue Canoe (River Tweed)'. Acrylic on 10x10" wood panel

‘Blue Canoe (River Tweed)’. Acrylic on 10×10″ wood panel

Today’s painting –  a blue canoe on the River Tweed.

This is probably the last in the series of smaller studies for the upcoming Borders Country exhibition The Green Woods Free. Today’s painting features again our family canoe. I won’t give the name away of the person rowing, but he’s the son of a friend who took to canoeing like a duck to water!

The canoe itself is quite vintage, my dad built it back in the mists of time, and it’s still going strong. It’s more difficult to capsize (a good thing since both my dad and I are hopeless swimmers!)

Despite my instinctive fear of falling into deep water, I still love being in boats; boats of all sizes, whether ferries, speed boats or our humble canoe. It’s so peaceful.

There are still 8 paintings (including the one above) available from the small paintings of the Borders on wood viewable Here) I’m now tackling work on bigger canvas. Wish me luck!


Borders Country Day 11

'Glentress'. Acrylic on 20x16" canvas

‘Glentress’. Acrylic on 20×16″ canvas

Sun shining through trees in the Forest of Glentress (in process)

It’s a just a quick post today, as I want to get out and experience some of this sunshine, while it lasts!

I was inspired by the the bright red glow of sunset lighting up the edges of trees. I have a bit more work to do on this one, it’s the first in a series of bigger paintings for the upcoming exhibition. The Green Woods Free

Borders Country Day 10

'Wood Cabin, (Leithen)'. Acrylic and varnish on 10x10" wood

‘Wood Cabin, (Leithen)’. Acrylic and varnish on 10×10″ wood

Today’s painting – a mysterious hut near Leithen, in the gardens of the equally mysterious Leithen House.

I’m very partial to cabins in the forest. They have a Hansel and Gretel magical-ness to them and there’s always the sense that someone intriguing lives there.

We drove through Leithen a while back, stopped near a river to explore and discovered Leithen House, which had beautiful natural grounds; huge ancient trees, a small river, pond and dense woodlands over a stone bridge.

No one seemd to be around except a small black & white dog who appointed himself as our guide, but eventually we spotted a gardener several hundred yards away, standing still and staring at us in a slightly hostile manner. I plucked up the courage to walk over and say hello and ask him where we were.

‘You’re not supposed to be here’ he answered tensely.

‘Oh? Why’s that?’ I asked, smiling

‘It’s private’ he hissed.

I said I didn’t know, but thanks and we strolled away. Only the black dog seemed to want us to stay so we ordered him ‘home’!, We’d seen no signs marking the place as private. (I’d definitely looked, as I have a mostly irrational fear of some aggressive owner’s rottweiler biting my hand off! ) Anyway, when I returned home I did a quick search online and discovered it was a luxury retreat hotel. I still couldn’t see what the gardener was so up-tight about mind you.

I’d love to say it was owned by a famous recluse or eccentric but the truth was quite ordinary. Nonetheless, the atmosphere inspired me!

Leithen House

Leithen House

My sister Catherine and friend Donald, dad in the background, trespassing at Leithen

My sister Catherine and friend Donald, dad in the background, trespassing at Leithen

Black&white dog and Cousin Kerr

Black&white dog and Cousin Kerr

Borders Country Day 9

'Hawk. River Tweed'. Acrylic on 5x5" wood

‘Hawk. River Tweed’. Acrylic on 5×5″ wood

'Glentress'. Acrylic on 5x5" wood

‘A Rainy Day in Glentress’. Acrylic on 5×5″ wood

Today’s paintings – a hawk swooping down to the River Tweed, and mist through the trees in the Forest of Glentress.

I’m nearly at the end of George Fraser’s ‘The Steel Bonnets’ – a book about the history of the Borders Reivers. It’s been harrowing reading.

The first chapters cover the lifestyle of the Borders Reivers and the final chapters deal with the wars during Henry the VIII’s time when devasating wars wrecked the lives of people in the Borders and beyond.

Engraving, showing Borders Reivers raid on Gilnockie Tower

Engraving, showing Borders Reivers raid on Gilnockie Tower

Accounts of the Reiver families have been difficult reading in themselves, never mind the later descriptions of  war. The Reiver’s life was one of constant feuding, raiding and violent conflict, across both sides of the Border. This was partly due to previous wars which wrecked the landscape and therefore the livelihood of Borders familes, but also it simply became a way of life, and despite authorities on both sides of the border appointing Wardens to try to calm the conflicts, the chaotic lifestyle became entrenched. (The Wardens themselves often became Reivers!)

It was lucrative too, and for those who’d perfected their Reiver skills it led to the accumulation of vast wealth; some of the titled landowners, whose estates line the Borders today, are their descendants.

The status of each Borders family or clan was diverse though, and within for example the Kerr family there would be everything from titled land owners in huge castles with an army of thousands, to people living in broken down hovels.

For the battle hardened Borders Reivers, violence and war were normal, they were described as ‘scared of nothing’ and their outstanding skills in warfare were utilised by Kings on both sides. Also the feuds between Borders families were manipulated to form allegiances. Scottish fought on the English side, sometimes changing tactics mid-battle if that seemed a better plan.

P1230602While reading ‘Steel Bonnets’ it was thinking about ordinary Borders people that I found harowing. Fraser describes a widower with her children burned in their peel tower, the starvation of countless thousands of poor people because of the wrecked landscape. They’d plough fields during the night to avoid attack, but after ten years of war it must have been a bitter, miserable struggle. Also he describes, very briefly, the group of monks who held out bravely in Kelso Abbey during attack by Henry VIII’s army, but didn’t survive.

When I visited Kelso last weekend the ground was festooned with forget-me-nots, which seemed to me as symbolic as poppies; in rememberance of the ordinary people who never sought war and conflict.

'Forget-me-nots. Kelso'. Acrylic on 5x5" wood

‘Forget-me-nots. Kelso’. Acrylic on 5×5″ wood

Woven throughout the stories and Borders ballads though, references to hills, rivers and ‘forestes greene’ bring to my mind the image of a rich, medieval tapestry, and suggests the presence of faith and love of familiar landscape amidst war and fear. One Borders ballad titled Erlington made me smile, amidst all the grimness! The last line of this ballad inspires the title of my upcoming exhibition The green woods free