Posted by: christinelaennec | August 22, 2015

August with Katharine Stewart

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.

Lilies, my back garden. 22 Aug 2015.

Lilies, my back garden. 22 Aug 2015.

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.)

"Angels Choir" poppies and nigella "Persian Jewels". My back garden, 22 Aug 2015.

“Angels Choir” poppies and nigella “Persian Jewels”. My back garden, 22 Aug 2015.

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!

Overflowing with sweet peas! 22 Aug 2015.

Overflowing with sweet peas! 22 Aug 2015.

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)

Foxgloves setting seed.

Foxgloves setting seed. I ping them over areas where I want foxgloves in bloom two years from now!

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.

Borage and crocosmia by the pond.

Borage and crocosmia by the pond, with a few James Galway blooms off in the distance.

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”:

"Falstaff" roses afflicted by mildew but blooming nonetheless.

“Falstaff” roses afflicted by mildew but blooming nonetheless.

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.

Some cerinthe blooming now that the lupin is finished and cut back.

Some cerinthe blooming now that the lupin is finished and cut back.

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.

Rowan berries on the tree.

Rowan berries on the tree.

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.

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.



  1. I’m so pleased that the Dafter has been having a good experience of school. And your garden is looking just beautiful. We have some very late-blooming cosmos and nicotiana cheering ours up at the moment. And crocosmia is is great for brightening up a late-summer garden. We are very happy that ours has popped up recently.

  2. So lovely to hear that Dafter had that experience, how wonderful. The future is full of hope! Really enjoying the Quotes from Katharine Stewart and Such lovely pictures of your garden and wonderful colours. I am feeling a touch of Autumn blues at the signs of change, think it is the light I miss the most. It gets so very dark here in Winter. Watched barn swallows gathering on the telephone wires today, one day soon they will fly south. Pam in Norway x

  3. Loving all the quotes from Katherine Stewart. Sounds like not much of summer in Scotland either, we have had quite a disappointing one. Signs of Autumn are all around here as well. Thrilled the Dafter is progressing so well, praying that this continues.

  4. Je suis heureuse que votre fille ait pu faire cete expérience ! J’espère qu’ele se reonuvellera souvent ! Votre jardin est vraiment très beau : mais quelle différence dans le temps avec le mien : les lys et les hémérocales (daylilies) sont défleuris ici depuis un mois… Par contre les sorbiers (rowantrees) sont comme chez vous pleins de belles graines rouges, mais pour le moment les oiseaux ne sont pas au rendez-vous… Passez une bonne semaine et un grand merci pour ce bel article. Je vais voir si le livre de Katharine Steward est traduit en français.

  5. Lovely weaving of Katharine Stewart’s garden and your own. Yes, the season has changed and we are slipping into autumn. Great news about the Dafter.
    I remember my Dad spraying his roses ferociously against mildew and a host of other ailments, whether they needed it or not, in a very 1970s agrichemicals way. In fact if I were to smell the now banned aphid spray today it would have just the same Proustian effect that Peggy’s curlew did, if rather less poetically.

  6. Your garden is so lovely especially the first photo of those amazing pink and white lilies. I love them so but really have a problem with them inside the house as they have a very strong smell. Here in California our gardens are suffering from the drought and we are now using shower water collected in buckets to keep our plants alive. We are trying to decide about taking our small patch of lawn out in the near future if we don’t have some rain this fall and winter.

  7. Christine, your garden is beautiful. I’m not sure if that is sweet pea in one of the photos but it put me in mind that I would love to plant some although perhaps it is too late for this year. They are such a lovely smelling plant and they remind me of my childhood. So wonderful to hear the news about your daughter and I wish her all the very best for this school year.

  8. Somehow, this post is extra-special, Christine. First, I too am celebrating the progress Dafter is experiencing 🙂 Secondly, I too appreciate the mingling of Stewart’s story with yours, and the profusion of your flowers is glorious! Thirdly, I am so glad you had a wonderful visit with Gay and that you and yours enjoyed your recent travels.

    Portland has been full of wildfire smoke the past two days and Mt. Hood has been shrouded in a smokey haze on a number of days this summer. I hope we have rain soon! I start feeling the shift toward Autumn during the first week of August here in Portland because of the change in light, I think. Even though it has been unusually hot this summer I still sensed a change in the level of light during the first week of August this year.

    Thank you for your explanation of the Blue Moon in your comment on my post noting the Blue Moon. I went back and edited my caption under my moon photo to try to make the caption more accurate 🙂 xx

  9. So very excited for the Dafter to have that little taste of “normalcy”!! I hope she continues to have those. Oh you must be feeling a bit of that “let down” that comes when guests leave. It sounds like such a special visit. Your flowers are so very beautiful. Just the sorts I would like to have. Of course we all have to grow what our climates dictate and mine dictates differently than yours. 🙂 I’m glad I can still enjoy them via your pictures. I am enjoying my zinnias and sunflowers and black-eyed susans and now I have several clumps of crocosmia blooming!!! yay! I have begun to notice it growing in popularity here and saw it used in plantings somewhere (the fair?).

  10. This post you wrote captured the essence of Ms Stewart’s writings. I so enjoyed the photos and words you shared. Your garden is stunning…how I wish I could grow all those lovely plants. We’ve had problems with powdery mildew and had to spray to control it. In fact, we cut down the grapevine due to this disease. My husband’s agricultural expertise is focused on a plot of land comprising hundreds of acres so it’s amusing to see him garden on a little square meter patch. It was wonderful to hear that dear Dafter is doing better. I wish her the very best for this new school year. Today is my little grandson’ s first day in public kindergarten. Have a blessed day. Pat xx

  11. Your garden looks lovely. Have you been to Crarae Gardens in Argyll? I think you would love them if you haven’t been. They are particularly spectacular in spring when the rhododendrons are in bloom. I have been quite dumfounded by the birds this year, they are stripping every bush and tree of fruit and I feel it is too early yet for this behaviour. Do they know something we don’t?? x

  12. It’s great to hear the Dafter had a clear run through her class! She really is an inspiration, the way she handles all this.
    Your stories of Katharine Stewart’s garden and your own are lovely too, with beautiful highlights in the photos, as always – I’m particularly drawn to your Nigella ‘Persian Jewels’.

  13. Dear All,
    Thank you very much for your lovely comments, which I really appreciate. Thank you all especially for being so happy for the Dafter’s progress.

    Flora, your nicotiana must smell fab!

    Pam, thank you. Yes, the future is full of hope, and that is true for most of us in various ways, pretty much. I prefer to choose hope. Lovely to read about your barn swallows. I don’t see the swallows in the city but I’m pretty sure by now they have left for points south.

    Annie, what late-summer plants do you have in the Alps then, before the autumn sets in? I hope someone has translated Stewart into French.

    Lorraine, yes it has been a very damp and cold summer, which I think will make winter a bit harder to get through than if we’d had nicer weather. But it’s good to focus on the flowers and try to make the most of things the way they do.

    Ann, what a shame about your lawn! I hope you don’t have to sacrifice it. Such a host of life in a lawn. I know what you mean about the smell of lilies inside the house. Also, they are poisonous to cats.

    J2S, the sweet peas do smell wonderfully. I plant mine in wee “roottrainers” on my back porch about Easter, and then outside in May. Some people plant them outside in October for the following summer but that has never worked well for me.

    Linda, your remark about the Proustian effect that pesticide would have on you has made me laugh a few times as I inspect my roses! Funny how our brains work.

    Gracie, thanks for your sweet comment. I have been hearing a lot about the wildfires, and no matter how much I may wish we’d had a bit more warmth and sun this summer, I sure am glad we haven’t had scorching heat and fires. Poor, poor people…

    Heather, I do envy you zinnias and the like. As you say, we have to make the most of the conditions and possibilities we have. So glad that crocosmia have come into your life. I have a yellow variety that I really like.

    Pat, I hope I can get on top of it without spraying. Funny to think of the difference of scale for your husband’s gardening!

    marksgran, I do wonder what this winter has in store for us as well!

    sakthi, glad you like Persian Jewels. I grow them most years and love them dearly.

  14. I always enjoy your garden photos and I would love to visit Gigha one day.

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