Wednesday, 30 June 2010

crossing paths

It’s been a long time since I saw my friend Takaya, since he lives in Kyoto, but last week he visited and we drank and ate and talked and walked as we do at all our meetings. Right now Takaya is making a garden path. He is slowly putting this together from stones he collects on his 5 mile daily walk on Omuro – the little hill behind his house which has 88 shrines. Each shrine is a little hut in itself, dedicated to buddhas (inside each is a seated buddha, or sometimes the founder of Ninnaji), and the whole walk along these shrines is in the grounds of Ninnaji temple. The course of the walk echoes the 88 temples’ pilgrimage of Shikoku Island south of Hiroshima.

Takaya walks this route in all weathers and is bringing his stones back one or two at a time to cobble his garden path.

In 2005, Takaya, with his friend Kitizou Kawasaki took two months in summer heat to build a traditional Japanese style small hut. They built this hut – called Chuusan ann - in the woods next to Kawasaki’s home. I visited the following winter & wrote this at that time:

“Chuusan ann is in the mountains, at a place called Miyama, an hour`s drive from Takaya`s house, north, along a twisting mountain road, at first good, then on back roads with uncleared snow.

My first sight of Chuusan ann was in deep snow – more than three feet, though it was just beginning to thaw a little. There was a path from Mr Kawasaki`s house shoveled through, just wide enough for one person to walk.

To call this a hut is literally the case – it is too small to be a house; but as huts go, it is truly beautiful. Built in the traditional Japanese manner – as for, say, a tea house - of only wood and plaster, it belies those materials to become something else. That something else is actually a work of art. It joins materials with intention, ignoring any debate about what is craft and what is art – such a distinction does not exist here. It`s a three dimensional art work in which it`s possible to sit and just to be. This last is, for me, the most important aspect of the work. Of course the site and situation help, but a space to simply be, rather than twenty-first century doing is very rare and could not be achieved in the grandest store-bought mansion.

I was able to sit by myself as I had hoped when Takaya and Kawasaki went for a walk in the snow, leaving me comfortable and warm next to the little charcoal fire-pit, even though both door and unglazed window were open wide for good views of the snow and hills.”

Takaya builds things slowly, too. He has visited this Carbeth hut and appreciates the time spent arriving at solutions for the habitation of a hut – by which I mean the dwelling, repairing, gardening and active thought that happens in any little wooden hut, here, Japan or elsewhere.

He understood the impulses that made me collect bricks from a demolished railway arch entrance to lay a red brick path from garden gate to hut door. These (some of them with curved tops) were laid in square or rounded blocks as stepping stones, to leave plants to grow up in between.

I had collected two red bricks in a yellow shopping bag every time I walked past the demolition site, over a period of weeks.

The original huts at Carbeth, including ours, are laid on brick piers, with timbers laid onto these so that the wind blows under the hut, reducing the risk of winter damp creeping in. These bricks were as often as not brought to Carbeth on the rattling 1930s buses in a shopping bag along with bread and milk, a couple at a time until enough bricks were accumulated to start laying the foundations of habitation.

My path doesn't quite reach the gate yet; bricks can be elusive.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


The hut was here before the garden, but there is no doubt that it grew by the same process of accretion, of borrowing and making do and mending.

The major problem here over the years has been the deer. When we arrived at the hut, there were two terraces behind it. They must have been sunnier then; it’s surprising how the trees have grown in the seventy odd years since the hut was built and those terraces levelled and dug and manured. The rhododendrons which may have been entirely absent then had trunks as big as my forearms by the time we took on the hut.

One terrace remains to this day as it was planted: blackcurrants. The other is totally shaded, but was, I’m guessing, for potatoes. Both easily grown crops needing not a huge amount of cultivation. Neither attractive to deer. Or rabbits.

The garden to the south was entirely taken over in spring by paths bordered with narcissi. Under the trees (field maple, sycamore, birch) carpets of snowdrops, then ferns, then nettles – the nettles pointing to further old cultivation this side of the stone dyke remains where they grow.

Our gathering of plants has tended towards the Enlightenment ideal of utility. By which I mean of course, edibility. So the quinces are from Bowling – before the gentrification of the little harbour, the Basin - there were thickets of quince whose fruits we would pick to make cotignac (the name I much prefer to our own insipid and slightly inaccurate translation: quince jelly). Before the cooking, the fruits would fill the entire house with their fragrance, placed all over in bowls for that very purpose. I collected seeds one year, as I do for many plants, then forgot about them for the entire winter. The next spring, I discovered them germinating in a plastic bag at the hut. I also discovered that the Bowling trees had been cut down to make way for mown grass and rubbish bins. The little saplings were nurtured and are slowly becoming a deerproof thorny hedge, along with the holly sapling rescued from a city park’s over-zealous weeding gardener. The bay tree at the open end of that hedge was given by Glasgow Botanic Gardens, but last winter’s deep and prolonged freezing, together with the loss of all its leaves to the deer, I think has finally ended its life. If a poacher discovers ready flavoured venison, he’ll know where it came from.

In fact this combination of hard winters here and the hunger of an overpopulation of deer, savages most plants. The rhubarb, nothing touches. It too was rescued and divided from one sad specimen in total shade between the terraces. It thrives year on year. The two currants now in the great circle of apple trees were the gift of a friend. I’ll get to grips with the old currant bed soon, but this year potted some self-layered currants from there.

Other gifts include sort of edible herbs: the tansy, the lovage and the angelica, all too strong-tasting for deer or rabbits; though that’s what I thought about the bay. Parsley’s a problem, but the mint from a former empty city lot (now a new school) is romping.

And the apples. All old Scottish varieties from that master organic grower John Butterworth in Ayr. They came as bare rooted maiden standards some years ago. Last year was the first proper cropping. This year’s blossoms suggest the yield might be even better. These are grown in as wide a circle as ground allows. Just last year, though, we planted four more in a small arc inside this circle. Space dictates that these last are on M26 rootstock, meaning they would only grow to a maximum of nine feet or so, but we’ll be training them as intertwining espaliers. All are fenced against barking by deer, though the new ones had their buds nipped this spring.

Just as the carpenter’s hammer – the one he’s had for thirty years (though it’s had three new handles and a new head) - so the hut and its garden. The constant through all this has been a practicality of outlook: growing food as well as the roses that someone lovingly planted at the eastern stone wall.

The other constant – more constant than the human hut dwellers –are the birds and mammals that walk through the garden – and through the hut – dwelling there, inhabiting; as well as the edible wild plants. More of it all is tastier to those creatures than to us. But we’re happy to share the abundance.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

at rest

There are no insights at a hut that are not brought about by silence and solitude aided by the creatures and plants who live here too.

Woken in the night by a gnawing noise, slowly to recognise the sound of a mouse setting up house in the hut wall, is simply to be aware of a most basic shared need – shelter – and the commonality of that necessity.

And we’re all at it. I should be mending the roof. The wren is flitting to and from her small troglodyte home in the stone dyke, her egg hatched and half the shell laid at our doorstep, the way a cat might leave a rabbit there for approval. The damselflies have just burst from their own homely nymphal skins to flitter from the pond skirts here. The geese are sitting on their thrown-together nests, while the magpies look out from under their thatched roof in the big thickening leafing oak.

The woman with her son and the two dogs all intently peering into the lizards’ stones. She had noticed their habitation last year and returned to reconnect with that spot another time: lizards, dogs, mother, son – at home.

The garden plants too are dwelling, rooting down into our leaf-mould loam, down into that soil that is probably not silent, teeming with microfauna and microflora, cities and nations of co-habiting creatures. Our final home is the one we’re walking on.

Friday, 21 May 2010

walking on

The renewal of the door also brought to light that the floor & that part of the wall in which the door frame sat also needed replacing.

Although I’ve been years saving wood of all kinds – planks, old TV stage sets, two-by- fours from friends’ projects – the challenge as ever is to find wood that would suit.

Obviously, the best wood – the cherry rescued from over-enthusiastic fellers at a Baptist church, which I sawed with a friend & an old two handed cross-cut saw, then milled and stored with waxed ends (which were not mouse proof) would not do. Nor would the warts and buboes sawed from the fallen elm by the pond, again with the two-person cross-cut, Morven struggling a little at the other end. Perfect for the structural replacements were the six-by-two timbers given me when a friend of a friend left the country. I filled a vanload with his generosity, including the timber frame for a glasshouse and a good new felling axe.

So when the wall casing was rebuilt, it was a simple job of re-cladding with lapboard.

That left the floor. Most of it was good, with only an eighteen inch gap immediately inside the new door. Nothing to walk on for a while; but a good trap for anyone who shouldn’t be there.

There’s never any end to rebuilding and replacing on an old wooden hut. This hut was built some time in the 1930s by Cowiesons . The oval blue enamelled plaque that’s all but hidden under the front gutter reads: Cowiesons Ltd. Designers & Erectors Charles St. St Rollox, Glasgow.

In the mid-1930s Frank Fraser Darling, the great naturalist and one of the founders of modern ecology, was making a study of the birds and other wildlife on Eilean a’ Chleirich, one of the Summer Isles. In his book of those days – Island Years – he writes:

“We designed a sectional hut . . . and it was made for us by Messrs Cowiesons of Glasgow.”

His description of that hut fits ours perfectly, right down to the way in which the windows open. I wonder now whether Cowiesons, who were better known for sectional churches and village halls, took (borrowed?) that design to themselves and used it for our hut here at Carbeth.

Frank Fraser Darling writes how his Cowieson hut arrived at the island:

“James Macleod of Tanera brought it one evening, laid across the decks of his big teak launch. . . . It was a ticklish job getting the sections ashore, especially those of the roof and window; one dunt through the felt would mean the rain coming in and a great deal of trouble repairing the damage.”

Our roof here has been mended many times and always in the old way, with a pot of melted bubbling tar to spread under the felt.

And how, after having camped for a year on stony, windswept Eilean a’ Cleirich, Frank Darling looked forward to the hut going up:

“That little wooden hut with its rigid walls and roof would be the acme of luxury . . . James Macleod and Donnie Fraser came in that first week of October, but not alone. There must have been eight or ten of the lads and lasses from Coigeach all ready to help and all primed for a good day’s fun. The hut shot up into position, the lining was fitted and wires slung over the top and suspended with boulders.”

I’ve seen – and helped with – huts going up that way at Carbeth. Notably, the dismantling and re-erecting elsewhere of one of the old “wardens” huts. These were men employed by the Estate during the heat of the Rent Strike and were as little liked as any tacksman.

Frank Fraser Darling left his hut on the island that first winter and returned in the spring of the following year, glazing the window with numb fingers:

“here was Dougal at the hut in the teeth of the wind getting colder and colder and almost blue. So I took over the glazing for the last pane or two and Dougal carried stores from the rock to get himself warm”.

The rock was the only place that stores could be put ashore on the tiny island.

To stay in the comfort of a small Carbeth hut is also to be keenly aware of what goes on immediately outside. There’s always the birds – the wren singing louder than her size would seem to admit, buzzards mewling, the kerplunk of ravens and the crankiness of nesting geese. Darling again, describing how these things stop the work (or maybe are the work):

“I had worn my binoculars and had seen purple sandpipers on the rocks, some young and old tysties in the west landing . . . Now I must have a quick run round the island before nightfall.”

Hutting, like old style farming, is always about make do and mend. The floor and door-wall of our Carbeth hut chosen from old stores, and Darling:

“Dougal used the timber which I had brought from the great east cave to make a fine lean-to about four feet high along the back and one side of the hut, where we were able to store peat, driftwood . . .”

Our own woodshed is made from some old surplus-to-requirement wooden theatre props. Full of timber waiting for the saw and stove.

But it’s Darling’s outlook which marks him as a hutter most; that way of thinking which is coupled directly to his studies in ecology – the place where everything fits with its surrounding parts. He was not only a great naturalist, but happy with what is familiar to any hut owner, what my granny called thrift – what’s abuzz now in the west:

“It is remarkable how much more work is made as soon as you have a house of stone and lime with doorsteps and fireplaces and several windows, and when you have begun to collect furniture. We have reached the conclusion that the cure for the chronic state of monetary poverty in which we find ourselves while we insist on doing research which it pleases us to do . . . is to simplify needs. Face up to the fact that much of the furniture and fittings, and therefore of indoor space, is quite unnecessary for comfort. Pare down continuously and avoid junk like the plague: be careful to see that such labour-saving devices as you instal are not in fact labour-makers. We have never been more happy than in these wooden-hut days . . . If you become suddenly poor, cut your losses and climb down, and if you are chronically poor but doing what you most wish to do, then I repeat, simplify your needs with a bold, clear mind . . . These remarks are not offered as sage, sociological counsel for a whole nation; they merely apply to a fair number of people of my type and position. I should not like to see rich people simplifying their lives as we have done . . .“

Darling was a scientist who insisted on engrossing and well loved though poorly paid research, but has everything in common with those poets, writers and artists who, over centuries have led not dissimilar similar lives, whether by volition, or sometimes, as in the case for example of Su Shi, as the result of poverty-inducing exile. We have never been more happy than in these wooden-hut days.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

an entrance

the unfinished hut

The hut door is half open. It’s the brand new stable door I’ve almost finished. There’s nothing as permanent as a temporary job, but I’m happy to pause and stick my head outside while standing inside, elbows resting on the half door ledge to approve the industry of the hammering woodpecker - a fellow labourer here.

Things happen slowly at the hut, which is why I’m here, mostly. To be slow. This door I’ve been planning for some years.

When we first came here, the original 1930s door was in place – once a fine thing of craftsmanship, sweetly jointed and painted. In the following sixty years it had taken a beating, though. The lock key had been often lost and the door jimmied open, usually with no expertise. Breaks had been filled with plaster and later with epoxy and painted over. The Yale lock no longer worked. It would need to be replaced.

A year or so later I discovered some new boards in a skip, put there by shopfitters who could see no further use for them. They added up to enough tongued & grooved stoutness for me, one summer’s day, to make a good sturdy hut door with a Z frame support on the inside. No-one throws away good hinges, so I dug out a pair of tee hinges from a job lot of assorted tools and fittings I discovered in a cupboard in a house I once rented in Glasgow. I fitted these to the new door. I had an ancient five inch iron key and its steel lock with brass trim from my once cottage in Glendaruel.

Door and lock at no cost. The lock was too broad for even a double plank, so I made a curving addition to the outside with part of a length of pitch pine salvaged from the basement of a shop in town. Beautiful wood to work with. The offcuts smelled clean and piney and set the stove lighting that evening crackiling with resin. The original door is leaning against the woodshed. I have no heart to burn it and anyway the handle is still good.

But, and slowly, this and that was accumulated for the stable door: a pair of hinges, along with boxes of screws that I took when the owners of the very last ironmongery in Glasgow’s Great Western Road disappeared. I still feel the loss; not just the shop and the owners, but all the hardware that was thrown in a huge skip before I got there. A stained glass window thrown out from a house renovation in Bowling village. Curved oak from a broken chair left for the bin men in a city street. A right angled branch section from Ardnamurchan. A little yellow wood peg to hang keys on. I rediscovered the brass keyhole plate I had thought lost and squirreled it away again.

So it was one bright and cold winter’s day, after maybe ten years, I took the plunge and unhinged the old door and simply sawed it in two horizontally at the middle. The new hinges matched the old, a hole cut in the upper half to take the little stained glass square - one small part of the Bowling window; pitch pine ledges, oak fasteners soon fitted and the new stable door rose from the sawdust and shavings of the old. It had to be a one day job to keep the night’s icy weather outside.

It’s true that the old lock still has to be opened with the key upside down – it’s for a right hand opening door – ours opens on the left; but that’s something to live with and ponder. This spring, I’ll perhaps paint it green, though I don’t yet have the paint.

Meanwhile the woodpecker at least is still at work hammering; now down by the old drover’s cottage at the clachan. I’m happy to listen. And then to listen some more. The sorrel is up now, too, I notice.