Thursday, 25 January 2018

Tweet of the Week

I've recorded a podcast for Radio 4's Tweet of the Day. The individual stories will be broadcast during the week beginning 22nd January, and then all five will be available as a podcast called Tweet of the week. It's easy to find on the BBC's radio iplayer, and I think it's available for the next year. Nearly all the stories are from my book, Wild Island, which is still available in book shops.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Iron Gall Ink

Whilst working as Artist in Residence in the oak woods at Taynish, I made some drawings using Oak Gall Ink, also called Iron Gall Ink.

The oak trees grow down to the shore, where Common Seals snooze.

This was the standard ink used in Europe from the 5th century onwards. Galls are created when a tiny parasitic wasp lays its egg in the leaf, acorn or root of the oak. The grub causes the oak to make an abnormal growth which encloses the developing animal, providing it with protection. There are about 1300 species of parasitic wasp worldwide, all inducing different types of gall. I find it amazing when walking through Taynish, that these complex relationships are going on all around me. But it gets even more extraordinary. Some other wasps specialise in parasitising these wasps, and are called parasitoids. These may in turn be preyed upon by other specialist wasps, called hyperparasitoids. Other insects specialise in living harmlessly within particular galls, and these are called inquilines.

In Taynish the most common galls are Spangle Galls, which look like yellow sequins covering the underside of many of the leaves. For making ink, the most useful are Oak Marble Galls, which look like smooth woody marbles. The species of wasp causing this gall is called Andricus kollari. It has two life cycles every year, one in our native oak and the second in the Turkey Oak, and so marble galls are only found when these two trees grow near each other. When growing the gall, the oak tree incorporates high levels of tannic acid. By combining these tannins with iron, a durable ink can be made. Originally all ink came from Europe, with galls from Aleppo considered the best as they contain most tannin, but in 1735 the Turkey Oak was introduced into Britain. I searched Taynish in vain for marble galls, but a friend found me some on the opposite side of Loch Sween. Turkey Oaks must be growing there.

Marble oak galls.

Each gall is about 2cms across and has a tiny hole, showing that the wasp has hatched. I tried the traditional method of grinding the galls with pestle and mortar, but they were so hard that I ended up having to smash them with a hammer. I soaked the resulting powder in water for 24hrs and then strained it.

Iron can be added from rusty nails, but I found it easier to soak the sugar coating off some of my ferrous sulphate iron tablets and dissolve those. Although not essential, I added a little gum arabic, a sap from the gum acacia tree, which gives better flow to the ink. When I first applied the ink it was a pale brown, but in front of my eyes it oxidised into a beautiful rich black on the page. Over time the acidity of the ink can cause the paper to corrode. Documents produced a thousand years ago show this deterioration, so I don't know how the ink will behave over time. I quite like the idea that the drawing will have an active life of its own.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Taynish - the celtic rainforest.

I've just finished a year as Artist in Residence for Scottish Natural Heritage at their Taynish reserve in Argyll. I wanted to post a few pictures from the final exhibition, to show the variety of wildlife in this west coast wilderness.

In Spring, both frogs and toads are common in the lochans, on the paths, and even in puddles.  I move them carefully out of danger, and take the opportunity for a close-up view. I have had just as much pleasure discovering the tiny inhabitants of the reserve, as from seeing the larger mammals like deer or red squirrels.

Little grebes, also known as Dabchicks, move from the sea-lochans onto fresh water to breed. In summer I heard their high wickering call, but they never let me approach very close. They were diving for small fish to feed their chicks, whilst damselflies skimmed above the waterlilies.

In autumn, the north wind brings Scandinavian raiders to plunder the berries of the rowan trees. It only takes a few days for these fieldfares to strip the trees of their fruit, before they move on south.

Bands of long-tailed tits move through the winter tree-tops, calling to each other to maintain contact. These tiny birds have little in the way of fat reserves, and so must search for a constant supply of insect food. During the cold nights they all huddle together in a ball to keep warm.

An exhibition of all the pictures from my year at the reserve will be at the Archway gallery in Lochgilphead in May, and will then travel to the SNH headquarters at Battleby later in the year.

Friday, 22 July 2016

More Wild Island pictures.

Here are some more images from the book, "Wild Island. A Year in the Hebrides." I will be at the British Bird Fair at this year, on the Society of Wildlife Artists' stand. This will be from 19th-21st August at Rutland Water. I will have copies of the book, and some of the artwork too. If you want to find out more about the Hebrides or the RSPB's work on Oronsay, come along for a chat.

Nesting eider duck in bracken.

Corncrake calling (screen print).


Lapwing on its nest.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Wild Island

I've just returned from the Isle of Colonsay, where I gave a talk about Wild Island. The book seems to be going down well, with good sales. It was great to try the talk out on a sympathetic audience, as on Saturday 21st May at 11.30am I'll be talking at Scotland's Big Nature Festival near Edinburgh.  

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

A busy year

Lapwing Display

2015 was a busy year for me, and 2016 looks to be just as exciting. Last October at the Society of Wildlife Artists' Exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London I was presented with the Birdwatch Wildlife Artist of the Year award, which comes with a lovely new pair of Swarovski binoculars. I was also elected as a full member of the Society.

I have finished all the artwork and text for my book "Wild Island," which is about the work of the RSPB on the Hebridean island of Oronsay. If you like the words and images in this blog, you may be interested in buying a copy when it becomes available in March 2016.

All the illustrations from the book, including the lapwing picture above, are now being framed up for an exhibition at the Scottish Ornithologists' Club gallery at Aberlady, near Edinburgh. This will open on 20th February 2016 and run until 6th April.

I will be giving a talk and selling the Wild Island book at Scotland's Big Nature Festival in May, and also giving workshops at the Colonsay Spring Festival in April.

Meanwhile, I will be kept busy by my new job for Scottish Natural Heritage as Artist in Residence at their Taynish National Nature Reserve. I'm looking forward to it all.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Gannets fishing

Gannets fishing, screenprint, ed. of 4
The Easter holidays are here, and in the next few weeks everyone will be putting their boats back in the water after the winter. Here on the west coast of Scotland, we are sheltered from the full force of the Atlantic by the scattered islands of the Hebrides. Even a small rowing boat can go out into the Sound of Jura in search of mackerel. As we haul on our lines, we enjoy watching the gannets, who are also fishing for their supper.