Gosh life has been busy lately! Which – when I think back to the endless days of the Dafter being bedbound and so terribly ill – is great. School started on the 13th of August here in Glasgow, and I am delighted to tell you that the Dafter has managed to go (part-time). She had an amazing experience one day last week. She was actually able to concentrate, take notes and learn new material for an entire class (1 hour 40 minutes). She said it was incredible: “I haven’t experienced that since I fell ill four years ago!” We know that not every day will have such moments of health and mental clarity – this week she has also had some bad collapses, where she loses the power of movement and speech for a while – but it is wonderful to think and hope that the ME/CFS may be improving a bit.
We were all very sorry to see Gay leave this past week as well. What a wonderful treat it was to have her here with us.
I will finish showing you about our trip to Harris, but first I’d like to catch up with Katharine Stewart’s A Garden in the Hills, which I had been following on my blog. In between, I will show you how my garden looked this morning.
On July 26th, Stewart wrote about entertaining some unexpected visitors. Living as she did in what had been the village schoolhouse, she was happy to welcome those who showed up to revisit old memories. On this occasion, James and Peggy, who had been at school in Abriachan over 50 years previously, came by.
“I take them to the old schoolrooms. They are quite overcome with memories. Peggy disappears into the ‘infants’ room’. ‘It’s still there,’ she calls in disbelief. ‘What, Peggy?’ ‘The hole in the floorboard where I dropped my slate-pencil. Come and see.’ Sure enough, there is a hole in the floor, in the corner, by the window. ‘My! What a row I got! I can feel it yet.’ ”
Katharine Stewart made them tea, strawberries and cream, oatcakes and crowdie (a kind of homemade cottage cheese), and they ate outside in the garden. “The noon sun shines on their faces and hands. The meadow-scent rises from the warmed grass. Suddenly a curlew swings int the air, above the moorland opposite. Peggy gasps, stifling a cry. ‘A curlew… oh, I’m sorry, it makes me…’ ‘Now, now, Peggy. You’re OK.’ She recovers at once. James looks at me in apology. ‘It’s so… bonny…here. She…’ ‘Don’t worry. I know how she feels. Have you a garden at home?'” (p. 93)
It transpired that they only had a back court in the city where they lived, and so Katharine Stewart gave them a cutting of the wild thyme in a pot to take home with them, to remind them of Abriachan. This essay so well explains how nature – birds, a garden, the feel of a place – can tap into our deep memories, and also bring healing. (It also illustrates the famous British “stiff upper lip” whereby expressions of emotions were to be avoided – this has changed a lot in the past few years, I think.)
In August of that year, Katharine Stewart “committed the unforgivable sin of setting off for a two-week spell”. (p. 95) I was glad to know that even the most dedicated gardeners go on summer holidays! And what did she do on holiday? Visit other gardens!
Her first stop was Glasgow’s own Botanic Gardens. She writes: “A deep breath of grass-scented air and a chat with friendly gardeners and the chaos of the streets is distanced. The great glass-houses with their displays of exotic plants are really not for me, but I find quite fascinating a bed showing the dates, back to the sixteenth century, when various flowers were introduced to this country.
Glasgow, the ‘dear, green place,’ has many little unexpected oases of greenery. A ptach of grass, some flowering shrubs, a seat where, perhaps, a house had stood. … The gardens of Kelvingrove, [i.e. the Botanics] with the river running through, the pond, the glorious trees and the grass and the huge herbaceous borders make a place to spend at least one summer’s day.” (p. 96-97)
The next week, Stewart went to a place I have never managed to visit: the Island of Gigha, off the Kintyre Peninsula on the West Coast. Years ago, on a visit to Argyllshire, we drove down to catch the ferry, but we had just missed it and the next one didn’t arrive in time to see the famous gardens there. Stewart explains:
“In Gigha, Sir James Horlick, fifty years ago [i.e. circa 1942], created the famous Achamore (Big Field) Gardens, to which I make instant pilgrimage. His greatest passion was for rhododendrons. These and other flowering shrubs are, of course, best seen in spring, when people from all over the world come to visit. Thanks to the drift of the Gulf Stream and the shelter of mature trees many plants of all kinds grow happily here.
Once again shunning the exotica, I linger in the walled gardens; take shelter from the rain, with a friendly tabby, in a little old greenhouse. When the sky clears I climb up to the viewpoint, where the hills of Islay and Jura and even the coastline of Ireland stand out miraculously blue across the blue water. A memorable moment!
Back down the steeply winding path, where I hear busy bees foraging, I explore the named parts of the gardens – the Hospital Garden, not, as I first thought, a place for growing medicinal herbs, but a place where sickly plants are cared for, in the shelter of cypress hedges…” (p. 97)
Well, although most of my little back garden has been happy during this cold, wet summer, I have a few sickly plants as well. You could call this my “Hospital Garden”:
When I realised that they were succumbing, I chopped back the plants in front of them, but perhaps for lack of sunshine this rose hasn’t really recovered. I shall have to try to be more alert next year. Still, it is undeterred in blooming!
On August 14th, Stewart was back to her garden in Abriachan. “Weeds, weeds, weeds, of couse, have been having things their own way…. “The robin gives me a short burst of song – a lovely sound, but with a tinge of sadness, for it signifies the turning of the year.” (p. 98) It’s very true – and I discovered this a long time ago in my 23 years of living in Scotland – that the first signs of autumn come in mid-August. For one thing, the nights begin to draw in. At the summer solstice, June 21st, the sun sets about 11 pm at night or so. But by the Autumn Equinox, September 21st, the sun will set about 6 pm. It isn’t until mid-August that our long nights shorten noticeably every evening.
Here in Glasgow, some trees are already beginning to turn. Most notably, the rowan trees. Stewart wrote that her own rowan trees, that year, were bereft of berries. “There is no shine of scarlet berries. No rowan jelly, no rowan wine? It’s unthinkable.” (p. 99) That is an unusual occurrence. This year, even our young rowan has berries – though the ones at the top of the tree have already been stripped by the birds.
On the 19th of August, Stewart travelled again. This time she went to the coast (an inland firth) to gather seaweed for her garden – bladderwrack. “My thoughts go back to the days of the ‘kelping’. In the middle of the eighteenth century it was discovered thta the calcinated ash of the seaweed known as ‘tangle’ was rich in alkali, which was used for bleaching linen, an important crop at the time, and in the manufacture of soap…. It was extremely hard work and led to much suffering – rheumatism and pneumonia brought on by exposure to the cold and wet. After the end of the Napoleonic wars cheaper sources of alkali were importaed from Spain and the kelp industry collapsed.” (p. 101)
The kelp she gathered would be put to use as fertilizer: “The seaweed will be stacked, for digging in next winter. I’ll chop some up to make activator for the compost heaps…. Out there, nearly covered now by the rising tide, is the outline of a crannog, a little man-made island where people once lived in happy retreat from the dangers of the world. They probably ate the seaweed… I must try a dish of it myself.” (p. 101)
Quaking grasses and daylilies by the summerhouse.
On the 23rd of August, Stewart wrote about the “rain still falling relentlessly”. That has, as you know, been the story of our summer in Scotland this year. Unable to work outside, she plans to visit the garden centre in a nearby town. She knows she will feel very overwhelmed by the many plants, seeds and tools. “I shall wander around the outside section, looking quite longingly at flowering shrubs priced a long way out of my reach, consoling myself with the thought that they probably wouldn’t like the move anyway, repair to the café for a hot drink and come home loaded with catalogues to browse through and discard.” (p. 104)
And there we shall leave Katharine Stewart, and indeed my own little back garden, at what really feels like the end of summer – but there is autumn to look forwards to! I hope you’re all having a great weekend.