Botany For Beginners

Botany For Beginners

Here on the island of Luing, in the Inner Hebrides, a great deal of the land is pasture grazed by the unique Luing cattle..of which more later. After a few months in residence (not IN the pasture) – I’m increasingly clearer that the pasture itself is unique. Every square centimetre of it is teeming with botanical life..and where it escapes the tread of the beautiful Luing bulls (and the feet of the hiker) myriad forms of insect life pass through, as busily, if at a slower pace, than trains and customers through a city station.


The origin of the word botany came from the Greek word ‘botane’, which means “grass” or “pasture”. Since the original meaning focussed on the idea of a pasture – in it’s earliest form botanical study may have derived from a herdsmans need to identify what was the most nourishing food ( Pointing a camera up close – it’s difficult to take an uninteresting photo’.


With today’s wider perspectives misted over by low cloud or sea-fog (called a haar in northern parts) and a camera lens that required much wiping; I took a long walk for some ‘short’ views. Light was sharp if grey, and continually but slowly fading. This threw the closest elements of landscape into technicolour relief, to the point of surreality.


Lifting my head in the driving rain, to check that me and my feet were heading the same way, I was regularly startled to find verges and views jump out at me in flourescent tones. It’s strange when your own eyesight registers a natural colour as though’ it had been photo-shopped to shock. As a passing friend remarked “the bracken is now the colour of the bulls”..blood-red graduating to chestnut-brown.


Knowing I’d soon have to make a U-turn and head for home before light fell further, had me picturing all the small creatures hidden from my view making similar plans. I imagined deer and birds sheltering under wind-shaped trees on craggy parties of insects fighting for the best bunk in the mushroom motel..complete with toadstool toasties and psychedelic cider. Meanwhile I made do with two damp digestive biscuits and dreamt of a hot-toddy beside the woodburner.


The beautiful slate ground-work laid by my clever partner at the back door of home is lit to guide me safely at dusk..and I realise that the move to pastures-new was a good move..not least as I was recently lucky to meet a real-live botanist who lives on a nearby island..
and she is as daft as I am about mosses and lichens.


Not for nothing does my partner call me The Mossochist.

Botany For Beginners

By Helen

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Watchers On The Ridge

Watchers On The Ridge


I came to live here on the island of Luing to write about and paint landscape – inspired by the writings of luminaries such as Gavin Maxwell, Jim Crumley, Kathleen Jamie, Robert MacFarlane, Helen MacDonald, .. and the photography and paintings of – well – too many to mention.


With a wealth of information available at the touch of finger to button for anyone wanting to write on a subject new to them, and with many artists, writers, poets.. resident experts on a surprising number of subjects; my move to live on the Island of Luing has thrown up challenges I didn’t expect. Amongst which are:- how do you create something new, fresh, something worthy to bear comparison – in such illustrious company. You see.. I don’t want to let them down, somehow.


Life has dealt me a very good hand – I’m loving living here – it is a wonderfully wild island
and easily accessible from mainland Argyll and Bute – except on a Sunday during winter working hours, when the ferry I call the Beautiful Blue Belnahua does not run.
So we spend our week – except for Thursdays (usually) when we visit the busy little metropolis of Oban – on the island, making our own enjoyment.. and what enjoyment. We walk every ridge we can find.


On Sunday my partner unexpectedly left me at the foot of a local hill – on top of which is an ancient fort or ‘Dun’ overlooking the wonderful bay of Ardinamir. Having said I’d only be minutes and that I wouldn’t climb it ‘today’.. I could not resist its pull. Intrigued at the thought of a new view over the island – I climbed, and climbed.

The little fort grew nearer with every breathless step, and suddenly – it didn’t seem quite so little. When I got to the top, I found the fort had worked its magic elsewhere, luring my partner to the summit of the ridge on the far side where he climbed over and hailed me loudly. I nearly fell off my precarious perch aloft a piece of the remaining ingeniously guarded spiral entrance way.


Its tumbled walls, of a whiter stone than found anywhere else on the island, amongst the coppery bracken-covered hillside, lay like crushed meringue around a chocolate cake. Originally some four metres high, by five metres thick at the base tapering evenly to 3 or so mtrs at the top..give an astonishing view all around the island. Small segments of the inner and outer walls show a fine, surprisingly smooth finish..considering the apparent sole use of locally sourced, un-worked stone.


From here can be seen other ridges and folds of an island formed so very long ago. Within arms reach are stones scoured by the weight of an ice-age scree moving across them – hatch-marks drawn on the face of time. I’m moved to tears to be here – where the builders and defenders of this fort stood too..watchers on the ridge on lookout, ready at sign of invasion or attack to send warning signal to their fort – and beyond, early warning to those others strung along the Hebridean shores.


I’ll be researching the geology, geography and history of the fort at a later date. For now it’s enough to say that we are not the first watchers on the ridge here. It makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck to be on this ridge – looking out over thirty square miles of land and sea – where so many have stood, worked, lived and loved before.


Today my partner Don and I walked across many of the ridges we had seen the day before – marvelled at the lush heathers, mosses, lichens, and pastures – the latter clearly having provided food for man and beast for thousands of years, almost unchanged. I realised that there is no weight of comparison necessary that should stop a person writing. We are all here to bear witness to our own time, in our own way. We are all watchers on the ridge. It’s up to us how we tell it.


Watchers On The Ridge

Helen Thomson

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Autumn On A Hebridean Beach

Autumn On A Hebridean Beach


If I were a washed-up shell
This is where I’d wish to dwell..


In autumn colours do not pall
Upon the beach Camas nan Gall.


Spreading fans of seaweed lace
A gown the mermaid sure to grace.


For where she sits upon her rock
She dare not wear a boring frock.


At this masked ball the crab it seems
wears fungi dress for Halloween.


This ‘knitting’ washed up on the shore
Has all the grace of high couture.


Regret the faded rose no more
It’s hues you’ll find along this shore.


Autumn On A Hebridean Beach

Helen Thomson
30th October 2016

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Fool’s Gold

Fool’s Gold


My next-door-neighbour Gregor looks after a dog of whom I’ve become very fond – where I now live on the island of Luing – on one of the famous inner Hebridean ‘Slate Islands’.


I was very glad to see her return from a few weeks away – and, both in high spirits, we took to the coast-path where a jaunty rainbow seemed to lead – as they do – to promise of riches ahead. We didn’t care for treasure – just for fun and fresh air.


The path follows a string of abandoned mine-workings. Surrounded by towering walls of rocks, evidence of the extraordinary risk and hardship endured by the slate workers – I was, not for the first time, disgusted by the social mores of the time dictating that those at most risk were least rewarded.


The path gradually narrows, something the dog already knew, but ignored, in her pursuit of an old ball (where she was concerned – treasure enough). Having not walked this way I was more cautious .. and occasionally fretted that the dog might overstretch, land on the spur of rock below the path.. and require rescue by lifeboat.


The southerly cliffs of Mull, now and again caught the sun, turning red, seen against the blues and greens of the sea and sky.. looking like a Kaffe Fassett patchwork. In the direction we were taking, this path is part of a route headed north and then east around the top end of Luing towards Port Mary and South Cuan, taking in several more abandoned slate works and quarries along the way.


Luing is home to much wildlife – and the old quarries make wonderful shelter for goshawks, peregrines, sea – and – golden eagles ( the first three of which species I’ve already caught sight of). As I currently become clumsy and incoherent with excitement – I’ve yet to capture any image worth a jot. A long lens for my Canon is suddenly occurring as more desirable than a wide-angle at this point.


One day soon I’ll return with help (abseiling-expert friend springs to mind) to explore this intriguing ledge and the just-out-of-reach rock-face beyond..not a good idea when alone – my sensible four-legged companion having patiently waited behind on the preliminary reccy’.


The living history of the working of the slate – though long-ago abandoned – can be brought, in the present, to serve the island community. Through continuing to protect and champion its past, its community spirit, and its wildlife – Luing can inspire future generations to ensure that its unique qualities are protected, and enriched, for all time.

There is ‘gold’ to be found here. No fooling.

Fools’ Gold

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Deerly Beloved

Deerly Beloved


This morning I stepped blearily out of bed to see a roe deer grazing on the small hill that forms one side of our new garden here on the island of Luing. She was no more than five metres away. Not for the first time did I wish I’d had my Canon repaired. Lesson learnt.. and apologies for picture quality.

When, within minutes, I’d spotted a second deer on the lawn below, I realised we had a pair – and not a mother and fawn as previously thought. Observing them through binoculars it was even possible to see the texture of the coat and the moistness of her eyes.


It’s often said that seeing wildlife up close is a privilege.. and it felt that way. Roe dear – eradicated altogether in England during the 18th Century – may no longer be scarce,
but still inspire, and reward the patient observer with their graceful and elegant gait.

It is likely this pair will have mated in July/August. There is a delay in the implantation of the fertilised egg in the female – perhaps an evolutionary aid to successful upbringing of the young so as not to be in competition with offspring of the Red Deer. Lovely to think she is likely to be pregnant with kids right now.


The kids – most often twins, sometimes triplets are born in May/June. To be found lying amongst bracken, bramble or long grasses – the kids are not abandoned, merely concealed, usually in separate locations – the mother returning to feed each individually.

Roe Deer are herbivores and graze many types of ground level vegetation, and the growing shoots and leaves of heather, holly and beech trees. We have unwittingly created their perfect habitat – our garden being situated on the side of a wooded hill studded with oak trees providing food and cover to and from the heather-strewn moorland above us.


We inherited, and have planted anew several types of holly for evergreen and enduring cover in what will be the indigenous stormy winters. We strimmed and cleared the hill beside us of bracken and brambles except where it became too precarious to venture. In so doing we provided camouflaged cover, hiding holes, soft warm bedding.. and encouraged new growth of all previously concealed ground level plants. Bed and Breakfast for Deer!

It’s probably unlikely that the Roe will give birth on our hillside, remote though it is.
I’m happy still that my interpretation of the scraping marks, and the indentations there have turned out to be the nesting and feeding indications I’d hoped for.


It remains to be seen if our wild visitors take a liking to stripping bark off my recently-planted damson tree. Or if they can resist the ‘sea-holly hedge’ my loved one planted this morning. They may be a picturesque pair, and the bucks obvious concern for the safety of his mate is very endearing to watch..

However – it wasn’t until many hours later that I noticed the tell-tale footprints in my new border and realised he had stripped my miniature rose bush, named Red Romance, of about 30 healthy flowers. Well I suppose it was too much to expect him to present a bouquet to his doe. That only happens in the Disney version. I don’t doubt that she is still his..

Deerly Beloved

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One Happy Dog

One Happy Dog


Getting to and from our island home involves a lovely ferry journey on the bonny blue Belnahua Ferry; we are often accompanied by the ferrymaster’s young dog.


The ferry is as cheerful as the dog. As with his master and mistress – who also takes her turn to be in the driving seat. All have good sea-legs..


Each takes a lively interest in the business of the folk coming to and from the island .. we get checked out to see if we have been fraternising with any strange dogs while away.


The return journey greets us with deceptively tranquil waters and a jolly seal
here below depths.


Heading home finds the setting sun turning everything in it’s gaze to the russet colour of the ferry-dogs coat.


Leaving behind the working ferry and it’s young sailor-dog heading for his bed..we are treated to a glorious sunset.


Just another day for..

One Happy Dog.

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The Cloud

The Cloud


This world made sad by chaos loud
Could learn to take note of the cloud

Skimming sea, then climbing high
It’s sultry depths revealing sky

Edged with copper, silver, rose
It’s not hard to find the prose

With which to muse upon a hill
Admiring clouds unearthly skill

At showing just a hint of blue
That wonderful, elusive hue

A glimpse of peace beyond the pale
To strive for NOW – on the scale

Of escalating earthly matters
It’s earth, not cloud that lies in tatters

The Cloud that yearned the land to crown
Can only, now, look down and frown.


The Cloud

Words and images
Helen Thomson
12th October, 2016

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Night Flight

Night Flight

Wakened at two again,
Rain lashing on the pane..
Filled now with gloom this deep,
How can I ever sleep?
What a hell of a year it’s been,

Darkness – a jungle deep,
Corrupting compost heap..
Fighting blindly to get out..
Why can’t you hear me SHOUT?
What a hell of a year it’s been,

Love conquers all- who says?
Unites all continents..
Leaders polite – contrite,
Watching their people’s flight?
What a hell of a year it’s been,

Our beautiful planet – wow..
What chance do we have now?
But.. in the clearing night,
Suddenly fright takes flight..
What a hell of a year it’s been,

So – I’m awake again, at bloody 2am.
But could this be.. my PEREGRINE??
Brushing past the window here,
Dispelling all fear near.

What a hell of a year it’s been, dear!


Night Flight

Helen Thomson :Bardrishaig: 27th Sept’ 2016

With thanks for this beautiful image of a peregrine falcon I’m currently tracking down the photographer to provide credit.

H. Thomson





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Shore Thing

Shore Thing


Slate on slate, sun on shore.
Pondering matters- that matter no more.
Treading warm slate under bare foot..
Conjuring memories of pursuit.

Of gilded treasures – deep, dark pools
Mercury, copper, gold..and jewels.
Diamonds turned to crystal and frost
Love, and laughter slowly lost.

Time is neither past, nor ahead..
Lost, forgotten – nor left in a shed.
Fill time, dance with it, shout along..swim.
Like the birds on the shore – soar..and sing!

Shore Thing
20th Sept’ 2016

Helen Thomson

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Child’s Play

Child’s Play


On precious days wrestled from the wind, and from whatever it carries with it, there’s a stillness about the island – like a liquer you could bottle.


There’s a collective sigh of relief, in my case – a hefty intake of breath – before I climb
the next ridge in my quest to discover what makes up my new island home.


Along the route the smallest of plants find shelter in any nook or cranny.. here in the ‘bowl’ formed by the top of a wooden fence post..out of reach to the Luing bull brooding nearby.


While work gathers pace in the garden to make it a happy place for adults, and safe for visiting children before the winter sets in, I head out on foot, waylaid each step of the’s hard to avoid crushing some beautiful plants.


They are nestled in cushions of moss and grasses that protect them, and they bounce back like a luxury carpet as I move away. Equally tiny creatures must move amongst these miniature forests and glades..


It will be fun to show my grandson Jax, who was two a few days ago, the wonders of these worlds at ground level..although he may be surprised there are no potatoes to harvest..

Happy Birthday Jax!

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