Three million midges. There were at least 3 million midges at the campsite, along with a lot of angry people: not a great first night on Skye.  Parents  shouting at their children, kids shouting at each other, everyone shouting at the dogs… who were probably the only ones having a good time. Them and the people shrouded behind midgy nets – they were probably grinning from ear to ear at their good sense in having such an item, but it’s impossible to see through the nets which turn everyone into very scary Darth Vadar lookalikes. Perhaps its the midges that made everyone so very grumpy…

The rain lifted just as the ferry arrived at Armadale, and my spirits were high, only to be dashed by the night that followed. However, the next day the sun came out again, AND the day after, and I moved campsite and all the locals were happy and relieved to see the only bit of summer they have had this year. And then I found my first string related item! A 3 hooked wooden rope maker, rather worm eaten, on the wall of the dinosaur museum at Staffin. Yes, the dinosaur museum.

More soon, with photos, when I next have power

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‘…there’s not much there’

The friendly woman at the hostel look puzzled and slightly anxious on my behalf when I told her where I was going to spend the day. ” Kilmartin? There’s not much there…” A statement that could not be further from the truth! Kilmartin glen is absolutely stuffed with prehistoric treasures – stone circles, burial chambers, rock carvings, a wonderful independent museum (and cafe). I have been before, and am sure I will be back. Coming here always feels a bit like visiting the ancestors.

I was first and only at the stones when I arrived early, and tried to imagine what it might have been like, 5000 years ago. The glen was used certainly as a place of ceremony and possibly celebration; would there have been parties and music and fires and feasting and people meeting up with old friends and making new ones? A bit like a pre-historic Glastonbury festival?  Long before designer wellies or phones (smart or otherwise) were a glimmer in anybody’s eye.

There’s much more about the history of this special place on the museum’s website here http://www.kilmartin.org/

A whole day exploring the cairns and stones, with no rain despite the forecast. And an opportunity to look at items in the museum relating to string.   One item is a basket made from leaves of yellow iris,  a reconstruction of a fragment found in Ireland. I have harvested some of the same leaves, which are in such abundance all around, and will dry them before making a sample.

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On Sunday I went exploring to try and find a rock carving beyond Carnasserie Castle at the top of the glen. I met a woman with a map, who was not too sure about following it. I had no map but a fair chance of reading one, so we teamed up together and SUCCESS! The rock was at Ormaig. I was impressed despite being spoilt by the wonderful array of carvings in Northumberland. There is a description with photos here http://www.geograph.org.uk/snippet/9355

are you here for the fishing?

I am staying in a (luxury) hostel on the shore of Loch Awe, near Kilmartin. It’s designed for people who are mad keen on fishing, hence the question that everyone has asked me so far. The final part of the journey was along a single track road along the side of the loch. The flowers in the verges are spectacular, and it was no hardship to drive carefully: deep pink dog roses scrambling over the hedges, glorious yellow iris at its best, the same yellow as the monkey flower, the occasional pyramidal orchid, late red campion and early meadowsweet. Colours vibrant and stunning. And the trees on either side felt like fairy woodland – rowan, birch, ash, oak, willow… above a carpet of moss and bracken, all so very green.

And that’s just what I could spot from the car while watching the road for oncoming traffic to give way to – can’t wait to see what’s there when I start walking.

first stop: Belford

Packing and leaving the house took so long that the first night I only got as far as Belford, about 18 miles north, to stay with my friend Sarah. At least it’s going in the right direction.

And today was so lovely I decided to stay in Northumberland and we had a day out at Ross Sands. It was gorgeous, peaceful, sunny and a delightful way to start. The forecast for the west coast of Scotland is heavy rain all day  tomorrow, not much better for the weekend, so the tent may not get an outing just yet.ross sandsThe first piece of string has been made, from the long grass in Sarah’s garden

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a string trio

Some home made string samples, sitting in a bowl made by Andrew Appleby in Orkney. He is a potter who for this  item used only materials and techniques known to have been available in the Iron Age.

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The decoration on the bowl is made by pressing string into wet clay before firing.

The string samples are made from leaves of daffodil (yellowish), crocosmia (pinky brown) and an uncertain grass (the greenish one)… possibly Reed Canary- grass (Phalaris arundinacea)

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the journey begins…

In July 2015 I will be travelling around the highlands and islands of Scotland, on a tour I am calling ‘Searching for String’, and using this blog to record and share progress and document what happens.
Over the past few years I have been exploring the history and traditions of string made from plants and have become increasingly aware of the importance of the invention of string in prehistory and its subsequent use throughout the world. While string may no longer be an everyday item in modern life, its influence is far-reaching.

a string trio: daffodil, crocosmia, Canary grass
a string trio: daffodil, crocosmia, Canary grass

Very little archaeological evidence of plant fibres exist, due to the nature of decay of plant material. What does exist however is the practice of using plant fibres in a variety of crafts, including basket making.

In addition there are records of people in Scotland up until the last 50 years or so using plants such as heather and straw to twist into rope, a technique known as ‘simmans’. This had multiple uses, including thatching, mats, baskets and even furniture.
In 2012 I met Joanne Kaar at the Wigtown Book Festival, and was introduced to the story of Angus MacPhee. Joanne had made costumes for a play about his life performed by Horse and Bamboo theatre company. You can see Joanne’s wonderful costumes here.

Angus was born in 1915 and grew up in the Outer Hebrides, but spent the majority of his adult life in a psychiatric hospital in Inverness. During this time he made ‘simmans’ from twisted grass, a method he would have been familiar with from childhood, which he then formed into 3 dimensional objects. You can read more about the story of Angus in a book by Roger Hutchinson, ‘The Silent Weaver’ (2011).

Inspired to learn this technique myself, I have been experimenting with a range of wild and cultivated plants. I have been working from historical records as well as taking part in workshops with artists and craftspeople. Now I am going to look for what evidence there is of the remnants of this tradition.

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A big thanks goes to all those who have helped and inspired ‘The String Tour’ in many and various ways. Also to Food Nation in Newcastle who have released me for the summer to go off exploring. I will be back!