Tricks to get myself moving when the body says ‘I want a nap.’
Striping, by Carol L. Douglas
I felt fine when I got home from Scotland. Two days later, I wasn’t so sure, and I spent most of our lovely holiday weekend in a lawn chair with a book (except when canoeing, of course). This week, I ran an errand to Bangor with a painting student. By the time we came home, he was concerned enough to suggest that maybe he should drive.
I can’t decide if I’m suffering from a cold, allergies, fatigue or the ennui that sometimes settles in when I’m shifting gears and restless. The barrier between our mind and our bodies is whisper-thin. Like many Americans, I’m so trained to keep moving that it’s hard to recognize when I’m sick.
Parrsboro sunrise, by Carol L. Douglas
The only way I can tell is by testing my body. Over the years I’ve developed strategies for catapulting myself out of a fog. Most important is routine. Every morning I write this blog, make my bed (so I can’t crawl back into it) and fold clothes. These tasks wake me up. Then I go down to my studio. My brain and body are conditioned to start concentrating at the same time every day.
I cannot overstress the importance of this; it’s why your lawyer, doctor, and insurance adjustor don’t have anxiety attacks every time they approach their desks. The human body loves settled routine, and thrives on regular sleep, exercise and work habits.
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
My mother believed you would start moving if you heard a machine working, so she would start a load of laundry while she drank her morning coffee. I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me, but it might for you.
Often what stops me is not knowing where to start. To overcome that, I play a game of “put ten things away.” This is win-win, because you’re either going to force yourself back into motion or you’re going to have a very neat workspace. Ten is about my limit for being thoughtful about sorting, and it’s better than making a commitment to clean.
Water is our bodies’ principal component. It comprises about 60 percent of our body weight. We can live a surprisingly long time without food, but not without water. Fatigue can be caused by dehydration. None of us drink enough fluids when traveling, so when I come back from being on the road, I try to bring up my water intake as quickly as possible.
Marsh, by Carol L. Douglas
Current wisdom says that the basic equation for determining how much water you need is to divide your body weight in half. So, if you weigh 200 pounds, you would need 100 ounces of water per day. (I don’t know if this is scientifically justified.) When I drink that much, I never have the luxury of zoning out; I’m always planning my next toilet stop.
My last mental jog is a brisk walk. Exercise is a proven anti-depressant and makes us more alert. Walking also gives me the mental space to plan out my next steps.
What if I do all these things and I still don’t feel up to working? That’s a vivid warning sign that what I’m feeling isn’t temporary malaise but a true physical problem. I do what any sensible person would: I take some time off to recover.
Who painted these lovely, overlooked murals in Rockland ME?
Mural at Ocean State Job Lot, Rockland, ME.
Inside the lobby at Rockland’s Ocean State Job Lot—in the northwest corner where they put promoted seasonal merchandise—is a set of murals. There are more in the breakroom, where we never go. These were painted more than 25 years ago, when the building was a Wal-Mart. To Ocean State’s credit, they’ve never been painted over, but they are badly in need of restoration. The fluorescent lighting in the store is pretty awful.
Mural at Ocean State Job Lot, Rockland, ME.
The murals are an utterly charming look at Rockport and Camden and their fine flurry of sailing vessels. The American Boat Yard sheds are still standing below Mount Battie. An amazing potpourri of wonderful vessels bobs around the light at Rockland, including schooner Victory Chimes and the US Coast Guard Cutter Thunder Bay. The lobster smack Joseph Pike is tied up at its dock.
At first you think the boats were transcribed from photos, but then you take a good look at them and realize that nothing in these murals are real. Rather, they’re fantastical, as if in a dream. Camden has fewer houses than it would have in a 19th century painting by Fitz Henry Lane.
Mural at Ocean State Job Lot, Rockland, ME.
One of the pieces has a clear signature: Ed L. Roberts ’92. An Ocean State employee thought he was someone who worked at the store. A cursory Google search tells me nothing. So, sadly, I know nothing of their provenance. Rather, I’m asking you: who painted these and when? If you have any idea, please comment below.
Mural at Ocean State Job Lot, Rockland, ME.
If you’re visiting Rockland, Ocean State Job Lot is probably not on your bucket list. Still, you might want to stop and take a quick gander at this amazing folk art. If you think of it, thank the manager for not painting over them. They’re a charming part of our local history.
Exciting weather means exciting skies, but it can also be a pain to paint in.
Breaking storm, pastel, Carol L. Douglas
I personally object to tornados and snowstorms on the same day. It’s like still having acne when you’re getting wrinkles. But that’s been the kind of spring we’re getting.
We had a lovely Memorial Day weekend here in mid-coast Maine. When Tuesday dawned clear, I thought we’d be fine to open our new session of painting classesdown at the harbor. Wrong. We were right back into the sub-normal temperatures we’ve had all spring.
In the Rockies, the weather has been more characteristic of late winter than late May. My youngest is on a field trip in southern Colorado. He called to tell me about ice on his tent and snowstorms. “I hope you’re sleeping in your jacket,” I said.
“I hate to break it to you, Mom, but I always sleep in my clothes,” he said. Geesh.
David Blanchard and I tough it out on an unseasonably cold day at Rockport Harbor. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Johnson.
The Rocky Mountain snowpack—which was at historic lows for the last two years—has recovered with a vengeance. Meanwhile, the southeast United States is baking, there’s flooding in the Midwest, and Tornado Alley has been on a tear. The cause, apparently, is ‘persistent big meanders’ in the polar jet stream. These waves are in a pattern across the Rockies, the Great Lakes and exiting through Maine. Weather is, by nature, always extreme somewhere.
Unfortunately, I no longer live where the future is writ on the clouds. Here, the sensible Old Salts rely on the weather forecast, not on their bones. But I do know one universal truth: the best predictor of tomorrow’s weather is what is happening today. For us, that means more rain and cool temperatures.
Deborah RoyRoberts comes up with a solution to dropping brushes on a dock. Every car has a floor mat, right?
What does this mean for the plein air painter? Foremost, it means not getting too far away from your car. Lightning strikes on both the leading and trailing edges of thunderstorms. Even if the sky directly over your head is clear, you’re at risk of a strike when you can hear thunder. Far better to record the pyrotechnics from your front seat.
Moreover, there will be changing lighting conditions. The only answer to this is a good preparatory sketch before you start painting.
This sketch of Lake Huron in a storm was done from next to my car in a parking lot. You need to allow for quick getaways in bad weather.
Watercolors and pastel are very difficult to manage in a downpour, even when they’re out of the direct rain. Paper and chalk both become saturated with moisture, making control impossible. The only solution I know is to work from inside your car. Acrylics actually benefit from higher humidity, but sideways mist and rain will make them run off the canvas too.
Remember learning that oil and water don’t mix? Instead, they form a stodge that’s impossible to paint with. The only way to paint with oils in the rain is to keep your canvas and palette dry.
What was once necessary then becomes beautiful, then iconic… and then interpreted.
Stone Celtic high cross at Iona. Own photo.
At Mesa Verde National Park, a line of shallow circular holes marches across a flat stone patio in front of an ancient pueblo. I sat through a ranger’s talk about their religious significance. I asked him if they might, instead, be footers for a wooden structure, now gone. “Impossible!” he exclaimed.
We moderns see things through our own cultural biases. One of these is that we are more rational than our ancestors, who lived in a world dominated by superstition.
Iona in the Hebrides is notable for its cluster of Celtic crosses; historians debate whether they or those at Ahenny in Ireland are the oldest. The design is certainly Anglo-Irish in origin. Columba, the founder of Iona Abbey, was an Irishman.
Pictish Kirkyard stone, Aberlemno, Angus, Scotland, UK. Here the circle is motif, not structure.
Christianity was first introduced into the British Isles by the Romans. By 200 AD the British Christian church was flourishing. However, with the end of Roman influences, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and others overran England, driving out the Celts. Christianity survived (with them) in the wild outposts of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. By the time Augustinelanded at Canterbury to found the English church, there was a well-established tradition of stone high crosses in the areas converted by the Hiberno-Scottish mission.
They may reflect the lack of trees in the northern islands, or that stone lasts longer than wood. Or, the stones may have been a fusion of wooden crosses and the earlier pagan tradition of standing stones.
Cloncha cross and church near Culdaff, County Donegal, Ireland. Without the circles, the arms must be squatter and shorter. Photo courtesy Radosław Botev
Much ink has been spilled over the question of what the ring of the Celtic cross means. Ringed crosses were seen in the Byzantine Empire by the 5th century. The circle itself has represented many things worldwide, including the celestial sphere. The early Irish Christians were certainly familiar with this iconography, and with the Coptic tradition of a cross based on the Egyptian ankh.
On the other hand, the circle gave an engineering advantage. A cross with a circle can have larger arms. This is true in wood, but it’s critical in stone. The more workable the stone, the softer it is, and the more support is needed.
When these stone crosses were made, there was no deep division between engineering and art; for stone masons, the question still doesn’t exist. Therein lies a problem with leaving art analysis in the hands of people whose education is overwhelmingly one-sided. They may know myth, but they have no idea what holds up a building.
“What was once necessary then becomes beautiful, then iconic…” muttered my companion as we stood at the foot of an ancient Celtic cross. She then added, “and then interpreted.” The circle of the Celtic cross was intended to give strength, but became a symbol in its own right, a product of the mid-19th century Celtic revival. It’s beautiful and potent to modern man, but it means something different than it did to the person who carved it. His primary goal was to cut the Gospel into rock.
Liam Emmery’s Celtic cross in the Irish hills. Photo courtesy Ken Finlay.
Forester Liam Emmery passed away in 2010 after suffering a traumatic brain injury. A few years later, a Celtic cross appeared in his former patch. It’s made of a patchwork of larches among evergreens, meaning that as autumn approaches, the cross turns gold. It won’t last as long as those stone crosses—maybe a century if all goes well—but the impulse was the same.
“He just loved things to be perfect, and I think the Celtic cross is perfect for him,” said his widow.
Looking is at the heart of painting, and you can only trim that back so much.
Spring along the Sheepscot River, Carol L. Douglas
Every painter has been asked “how long did that take you?” There are many witty responses to the effect of “three hours and thirty years.” The heavy lifting for this particular work may have been done in the weeks, months or years before you ever lifted a brush on this project. But this is not unique; it is true as well for the machinist, doctor, and other trained professionals who charge by billable hours.
What is immediate and also uncounted is driving-around time. This is a very big part of our preparation.
Yesterday I met Bobbi Heath at Round Pound. This harbor is about 45 minutes south of me and one of my favorites. It’s a tight, small space, with several working docks, rocks and spruces and a nearby general store for lunch. But what it lacked yesterday were lobster boats. The fleet was out.
Spring cleaning, Carol L. Douglas
Bobbi had noticed a boat renovation happening at Wiscasset, about 25 minutes away. This was a replica of the Revolutionary warship Providence built for the bicentennial in 1776. It is a sloop-of-war, the smallest armed boat in the Revolutionary navy. It’s gaff-rigged except that the topsail has been replaced by one square sail. “They only used this rigging for about ten, fifteen years,” a woman working on the restoration told us.
Providence was the boat on which John Paul Jones received his captaincy. His first tour on this boat resulted in the capture of 13 prizes. But the deck of has been peeled back like a giant sardine can, and her gun carriages sit on the landing waiting to be reinstalled. We sadly concluded there was no painting to be had. Where to next?
Spring thaw on the Pecos River, Carol L. Douglas
Novelist Van Reid and his wife once told me about a little hamlet on the Sheepscot River where he’d spent his early childhood. There was once a mill and a depot for shipping hay. Today there are no businesses, post-office, or even a sign post. Its main attractions are tidal flats, and the church and half-dozen grand 19th century houses strung like beads down a side road. This road is called The Kings Highway. That’s a common-enough road name in the former British colonies, but it usually refers to a major thoroughfare. This track runs nowhere.
The Sheepscot makes a great lazy oxbow here, drifting off into several cul-de-sacs. Before we started to paint, we needed to reconnoiter, which meant haring down dead-end roads to see where the view was the best. Of course, we finished exactly where we started, which is often the way.
Spring, Carol L. Douglas
But all that time spent reconnoitering meant that in a day that started at 8, I had exactly two hours to paint before I had another obligation.
That’s so often how plein air painting goes. It helps when you’ve painted many years in the same spot or event; you spend less time looking around. But since looking is at the heart of painting, you can only trim it back so much.
20thcentury urban planning changed the character of Glasgow and other British cities.
A Glasgow shipyard in 1944, courtesy of Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection.
The area along the Clyde should have been the oldest part of Glasgow, but the section I walked was a montage of tower blocks and industrial wasteland. The M8 cuts straight through the city with total disregard for the neighborhoods it slices. At the river, a new mixed-used development houses the Sunday Mail. It is bounded by empty lots. Along the water, attempts have been made to create public spaces, but they’re of the concrete-block variety.
No bombs created this; it’s the result of 20thcentury urban planning. I know the look; it’s shared by my hometown of Buffalo. I don’t tarry in these places. We headed back to Glasgow’s city center.
The Jamaica Street bridge area, in its 19th century grandeur.
Victorian Glasgow was known as “the second city of the Empire.” Its growth was based on industry: cotton, textiles, chemicals, glass, paper and soap. In time, heavy industry like shipbuilding, steel and locomotives also thrived. Immigrants from the Highlands in the 1820s and Ireland in the 1840s formed the backbone of Glasgow’s workforce.
Glasgow was wealthy. But its splendid mansions stood in contrast to areas where poverty, disease and crime reigned. Until the development of the Loch Katrine water scheme in 1859, typhus, cholera and other water-borne diseases stalked the poor. The opening of this water system sparked a plan of improvement. Municipal gas supplies, public lighting, electric tramways, free school meals, parks and libraries all raised the quality of life.
The same area, today.
Glasgow’s population grew rapidly in the 19th and 20th centuries, reaching a peak of 1.1 million people in 1938. Clydeside shipyards were the largest in the world before WW1. They expanded dramatically during the war. But in the interwar period, world demand for great ships was down. The yards proved too big, expensive, and inefficient. The shipyards began a long period of decline. By the 1960s, manufacturing jobs were mostly gone.
As we did here in America, Glasgow responded with slum clearance. But the British solution involved moving people completely out of the city, to designated new towns such as Glenrothes, Irvine, East Kilbride, Cumbernauld and Livingston. They then reduced the size of the city’s borders. This intentional depopulation reduced the City of Glasgow council area to about 615,070.
A small drying green amid Calton backcourt slum, c. 1900, courtesy Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Museums.
The New Towns Act of 1946was the cornerstone of a ‘New Jerusalem’ promised by the Labour Party at the end of WW2. These towns were in some ways equivalent to American suburbs, but they were public corporations financed by the government. Their boards were appointed by the central government, rather than selected by voters. They had planning and compulsory purchase order powers.
Towns had to have a population of at least 60,000 people, include a balance of housing and jobs, and—most importantly—be single family homes of low density. For someone living in an urban tenement, this had to sound heavenly.
St Mungo’s Church, Cumbernauld, J. Pugh, courtesy University of St. Andrews
Above all, they were not be divided by class. That part didn’t work. By the 1960s they were overwhelmingly working-class. Poorer families were excluded by high rents. The middle classes didn’t like the overwhelmingly proletarian character of Brutalist architecture.
That mid-century concrete makes us Americans avoid the New Towns when we visit Britain. We have enough of it at home. But the idea still has resonance for our British cousins. As recently as 2015, the government was proposing smaller eco-New Towns.
As Aberdeenshire and Clydesbank learned in 1941, one can mind one’s own business and war will still, sadly, find you.
Rescue Party, Kilmun Street [Maryhill, Glasgow], 1940, Ian Fleming, courtesy National Galleries Scotland
I attended church on Sunday with the Iona Community. This began as a project to find new ways to live in Christian community, one of which involved rebuilding Iona Abbey. The movement was started in 1938 by George MacLeod, a Church of Scotland minister whose WW1 experiences led him to socialism and pacifism. His modern-day followers are devoted to social justice and peace. As sadly sometimes happens, that seems to mean excising Christ from the Creed in this foundational place of Christian worship.
Scotland suffered more than 500 German air raids during the course of WW2. Other than London, Peterhead in Aberdeenshire was the second-most bombed location in Britain, with 28 airstrikes. Aberdeen following closely with 24.
Shelters in a tenement lane, Glasgow, 1942, drypoint etching, Ian Fleming, courtesy National Galleries Scotland
The worst was the Clydebank Blitz, on March 13-14, 1941. Clydebank abuts Glasgow,. It was a working-class shipbuilding, oil depot and munitions town. The Luftwaffe dropped more than a thousand bombs and 100,000 incendiaries. The close mix of industry and housing meant inevitable loss of life.
In terms of military objective, the raids were a failure. While most industrial targets were damaged, none sustained a death blow. The human cost was horrific. Twelve hundred people died, a thousand were seriously injured, and hundreds more were injured by blast debris. A third of all housing was destroyed; another third was seriously damaged. The water, gas, and electricity systems were ruined. Clydebank was so badly damaged that it became the only British town evacuated during the war.
Bomb Crater, Knightswood, 1942, Ian Fleming, courtesy Glasgow Museums Resource Centre
In Glasgow, there were at least 11 airstrikes. In one attack, a mine landed between a tram and a tenement on Nelson Street, killing 110 people. On the same night, 67 people were killed at Yarrow shipyard.
The attacks were recorded by an artist with the unfortunate name of Ian Fleming. He was born in Glasgow in 1906, and attended the Glasgow School of Art.
The Blitz, Glasgow, 1942, drypoint etching, Ian Fleming
With the start of hostilities in 1939, Fleming became a reserve policeman. It was while doing this that he recorded his experience of the Glasgow Blitz. In 1941, he joined the Royal Pioneer Corps. He was at Normandy and on the drive through the Low Countries, across the Rhine and into Germany.
These experiences seemed to have never damaged his essential good humor. “Ian Fleming was an avuncular presence, invariably supportive of the up-and-coming, with a fund of knowledge, anecdote and good sense delivered as incisive advice when needed,” read his obituary.
The peaceniks of Iona are aging now; they are among the last of us to remember WW2 and its immediate aftermath. They’ve chosen an excellent place to escape the world. Iona looks and feels like the end of the earth. But as Aberdeen and Clydesbank learned in 1941, one can mind one’s own business and war will still, sadly, find you.
Shelter interior, Glasgow, 1942, pen and wash with chalk, Ian Fleming, courtesy National Galleries Scotland
That’s what happened to the first religious retreat on Iona. A series of Viking raids began in 794 AD. After it had been plundered many times, St. Columba’s relics were removed and the monastery was abandoned. And still, its evangelical Christianity survived. In fact, it ultimately, peacefully, conquered the Norse themselves.
This trip perfectly combined work and fun. How can I bring that attitude back to my regular routine?
White sand, by Carol L. Douglas. This is the best photo I’m going to have of this painting; it’s staying in Scotland.
When plein airpainters stand in one place for a long time, we melt into the scenery. It’s a great job for eavesdropping. This week, I’ve heard chatter from all over the world. As I stood near the landing, I realized that visitors were coming off the ferry in national waves: Americans, then Scots, then Germans, then French-speakers. There are a lot of Americans in Scotland right now. The dollar is strong and Outlander has many die-hard fans.
Americans can be exuberant, but no more so than the Scots. I’ve gotten to hear bits and pieces of conversation I should never be privy to. You may feel as if you’re alone, but outdoors on a small island, there is always someone nearby.
Daisy chain: a photo of a photographer photographing me painting something else. Courtesy of Douglas J. Perot.
Because I’m part of the scenery, tourists take my picture while I’m painting. Occasionally they’ll ask, but that isn’t necessary. I’m outside in public, so I’m fair game. A few days ago, I posted the photo above on Instagram. “That is me! I hope you don’t mind I took some pics of you… How embarrassing!” wrote user surfeandovientos.
Let that be a lesson on the power of hashtags. People really do search and follow them.
White sands of Iona, by Carol L. Douglas. The water is turquoise in Iona Sound.
I generally get in my 10,000 steps a day. Even that is not enough to keep up with the typical middle-aged European. My friends and husband averaged 25,000 steps on their Iona ramble days. Even in town they walked to most destinations that we would grab a car for.
The average American walks 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day, or roughly 1.5 to 2 miles. If you don’t up your game significantly, you won’t enjoy visits to places like Iona, where there are few cars and roads. The time to start exercising is now, before you ever book a ticket.
You’re not getting as much value out of the scenery of your home country, either. The world looks very different on foot. Your heart, your soul, and the environment will all thank you if you start walking every day.
Resting place of warriors and kings, incomplete, by Carol L. Douglas.
I painted every day it wasn’t raining, and I still managed a decent daily ramble. I went to an auction preview, out to dinner, to Rosslyn Chapel, and traipsed around after my friends on one of the world’s most scenic golf courses. There were no golf carts; one had climb stiles over barbed-wire fencing and dodge the sheep to get from hole to hole. If golf was like that in the US, I’d find it irresistible.
“I know this is your opportunity to paint on Iona, but you don’t have to work all the time,” cautioned my husband. So I didn’t, merely keeping a pace that was comfortable. The challenge for me is to take that attitude into my summer season.
Yesterday, we moved along to Glasgow, where we walked through the city center before bed. I can’t really say I’ve ‘seen’ Glasgow, and I—sadly—missed the Kelvingrove, but that’s the nature of travel: you always want to come back for more.
This morning I’ll repack my luggage and head to the airport and home. I have an appointment with the town assessor to look at our sewer connection first thing tomorrow morning. There’s nothing like returning to reality with a thump.
Leave home the flammable chemicals, make sure your passport is current, and you should be fine.
I like Panel-Pak carriers but usually run short of slots on a long trip.
Most problems with painting in other countries are due to flight regulations, not your destination. I haven’t had a problem flying with my paints since the early days after 9/11, but they are in a clearly-labeled clear-plastic bag.
Do not bring large tubes of oil paints in your carry-on luggage; they exceed the 3 oz. rule. It is not necessary to empty your pochade box if it still has useful paint on it; paint is no more volatile on the palette than it is in a tube.
According to the FAA, nonflammable paints are those with a flashpoint above 140° F (60° C). Linseed oil has a flashpoint above 550°F. This information is found on the product’s material safety data sheet (MSDS). The flash point is in section 9 of the MSDS. Section 14 indicates if the product is regulated for transportation. Here is a PDF for Gamblin Oil Colors’ general artist oil colors sheet.
My paints are in a clear plastic bag with a label written by Lori Putnam, which I print from the Gamblin website.
Gamsol has a flash point of 144° F, which makes it theoretically transportable by plane, but I’ve never done it. The FAA itself says “paint thinners, turpentine, and brush cleaners are flammable liquids and may not be carried in carry-on or checked baggage.” Odorless mineral spirits (called ‘white spirits’ in some countries) are cheap and easy to buy in any art store. One quart lasts me two weeks.
Don’t plan on bringing medium, either. Most of them have naphtha added as a drying agent. This is a volatile petroleum solvent, more powerful than mineral spirits, and it has a low flash point. It appears across a wide range of pre-mixed mediums including alkyl gels (such as Galkyd) and the Grumbacher mediums that I prefer.
Don’t forget the rain gear, especially in Scotland.
Your choices are to buy a small bottle at your destination, paint without medium, or use a traditional drying oil like linseed oil. If you choose to do the latter, remember that it will dry more slowly. Plan accordingly to carry your wet canvases home.
I use PanelPak wet canvas carriers, but there are times (like this morning) when I have more wet canvases than slots. If paintings are almost dry and have little impasto, interleaving them with wax paper will get them home safely. If you have a mess of wet canvases, you may need to improvise. Your goal is to create a space between the canvas boards. The easiest way is to cut cardboard or plastic spacers. Once the strips and the boards are in a stable pile, I tape or tie the whole mess together. Carry the gooiest ones, or the ones you like best, in your carrier.
Interleaved wax paper can stop almost-dry paintings from sticking to each other.
Americans already live in the world’s largest art market, so traveling to other countries to work doesn’t make a lot of sense. Still, it sometimes happens. You may need a work visa. This is a laborious process. Ask the organizer of your event for documentation.
Our State Department maintains a list of travel advisories for foreign destinations. These include additional-vaccination suggestions. Some foreign destinations require visas. Others require that you have at least six months left on a passport. You should check with your health insurance provider about whether you’re covered abroad, and with your auto insurance provider about whether your policy covers an international rental car.
But for gooey paintings, you’re going to need to improvise some kind of spacer strip.
You will need power adapters for most foreign destinations. I find a USB power bank very useful for long plane trips. And I just smile and pay the $10 a day fee to use my cell phone overseas; without that, you wouldn’t be reading this blog this morning.
Narrow roads, lochs, mountains, the sea, and a pint. The road from Edinburgh to Iona is beautiful no matter the season.
Sheep ambling down to the pub at Fionnphort. Photo courtesy Douglas J. Perot.
I drove from Edinburgh to Fionnphort just three years ago. This year, I relaxed as others managed logistics. At the Green Welly, one of our party purchased a CD of traditional Scottish songs. Amazing Grace was the last tune, and we all sang as we climbed the last rise to Fionnphort harbor. Single-track roads in the UK can make an atheist pray.
The subtext of this week’s trip has been, “The Scots invented everything,” which seems very nearly true. The Scottish Enlightenmentwas part of a worldwide outpouring of ideas. In Scotland, that took a particularly practical bent. Their chief aim was improvement, virtue, and practical assistance. Matters like lighthouse design were not too plebian for Scotland’s greatest thinkers.
If you head to the Hebrides, you go on a boat operated by Caledonian MacBrayne. This company has been in operation since 1851, although it had a period of government ownership from 1973-2006. As with most ferries, it’s a monopoly. A ditty around here goes:
The Earth belongs unto the Lord And all that it contains Except the Kyles and the Western Isles And they are all MacBrayne’s.
Eilean Musdile light, designed by Robert Stevenson. Photo by Carol L. Douglas
Two waters intersect across a bar on the route of the Oban-to-Mull ferry. On either side, there’s a lighthouse standing atop a rock. Eilean Musdile is the larger of these two. It stands at the mouth of Loch Linnhe and has a prehistoric standing stone as well as other ruins. Its lighthouse was built by Robert Stevenson in 1833.
The Stevensons are famous for their literary son, Robert Louis Stevenson, but they were known in their day as great lighthouse engineers. Robert Stevenson learned his trade from his stepfather Thomas Smith, an engineer with the Northern Lighthouse Board. At the tender age of 19 he was entrusted to supervise the Clyde Lighthouse construction on Little Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde.
Bell Rock Lighthouse, 1819, watercolor and gouache on paper, JMW Turner, courtesy Scottish National Gallery
His most famous work was the Bell Rock lighthouse. Balanced on a partly-submerged reef, its construction was risky and difficult. It was done so precisely that its masonry has endured for more than 200 years. Robert Stevenson invented the flashing lights that are still used on lighthouses. He also designed and built roads, bridges and other public structures.
In 1797, Stevenson married his step-sister. Three of their sons, Alan, David, and Thomas(RLS’ father), became lighthouse engineers as well. David’s sons carried the lighthouse business into the fourth generation.
Celtic cross on Iona, under last night’s waxing moon. Photo courtesy Douglas J. Perot.
Opposite Robert Stevenson’s Eilean Musdile light is the smaller Lady’s Rock, which is submerged at high tide except for its small lighthouse. This rock has a romantic Scottish tale attached to it. Lachlan Cattenach was a Maclean of Duarton nearby Mull. He was unable to father a boy and blamed his wife, Catherine. He left her on the rock to await the incoming tide, taking care that it should look like an accident.
Lachlan duly reported her death to her brother, the Earl of Argyll. Later, the earl invited Lachlan to supper, where the scoundrel found Catherine seated next to her brother at the high table. Lachlan was allowed to leave unharmed, but was later found murdered in Edinburgh.