Love Letter to the Bothyman

Jimmy screed & lit boxAt last I’ve got round to working on a little website for Love Letter to the Bothyman, a project begun five years ago.  It all started when, rootling in the attic space above the bothy on our Dumfriesshire smallholding, I saw sheets of discoloured, crumpled paper sticking out between the stones of the byre wall.  I thought: ‘By rights, that should be a love letter’.  And it was.

Until just after World War 2, little farms like ours saw seasonal workers arrive in spring to work the summer season. These people were the bothymen and women.  They lived in cramped accommodation around the farm, in roof spaces above the byre, in lean-to’s and in the attic above the bothy itself, which had a fire and was the communal place.  The sleeping spaces still had traces of people: frayed lino, a broken mirror – but above all, there was the love letter.

Shippon, stable, bothy, barn/ gathered under rainy slates…

I had just met artist Catriona Taylor, and we began collaborating on a poetry and art project to explore and witness the lives of the bothymen and women at Longbank.  The resulting installation was open to the public for the renowned artist studios open weekend ‘Spring Fling‘, in 2009.  It was the first time Spring Fling had worked with a artist/poet collaboration.

henkeeper box mrWe beefed up the doors and blacked out the barn.  Catriona made a small pond in a trunk – my youngest son was dispatched to find moss, stones and authentic pondwater so that real insects wriggled in the depths (all lovingly repatriated afterwards).  She made vegetable gardens in suitcases and created lightboxes to refer to the bothymen’s kists, using found objects and boxes.  She had the idea of making a series of ‘environments’ in drawers, to depict aspects of farming and the lives of the bothymen and women.  I wrote a sequence of poems, which Catriona used with old maps and wallpapers in her prints, which we also hung in the barn.

Soaked into the stone the scuff/ of boots at the bothy’s step…

We tied the Spring Fling sign on the gate and made masses of scones.  Love Letter to the Bothyman was visited by over 200 people in a couple of days.

Then we took it all down, some of it was sold, some of it went into storage, some of it was recycled.  It’s good to start putting it together, at least virtually, at last.


The Great Bear

Ursa_Major2Just so pleased to be working again with the ever-inventive Oversteps poet Rebecca Bilkau and Beautiful Dragons Press.  This time we’re a nebulous constellation of poets writing about Heavenly Bodies.

I have chosen to write about Ursa Major.  Mostly because I knew I could actually identify it from the back garden.  The Plough forms part of the Bear, and has been my stellar lodestone from childhood.  Also known to our family as The Saucepan.  And it points to North.

The constellation has been seen as a bear by many different cultures, with a mythology which may extend back for 13,000 years.  Some of the earliest stories suggest a hunt, in which the bear is pursued alive into the sky, where it becomes stars.  Because Ursa Major is visible throughout the year, it has been a touchstone for wayfinding through long millenniums of nights.

There are beautiful and old depictions of the constellation’s stars, and the Bear they form.  I’m enormously enjoying researching for this poem.  And when I’m walking back up the garden from shutting up the hens for the night, I can look up at Ursa Major, winking steadily above the slates.





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