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Patterns of Flora | Guest Blog by Debbie Roberts

Photo of launch of Patterns of Flora showing group of participants gathered in front of a van before embarking on a walk.
To mark the launch weekend of the Patterns of Flora, ATLAS invited local writer Debbie Roberts to blog about the weekend’s events.

Friday 5 June

Leave work half an hour early to make sure I can get to the ferry on time and of course I’m the first one waiting at the pier at Sconser wondering if perhaps I got the time wrong. Soon, however, others start to appear – faces old and new, old and young. Catriona MacLean looking stylish as ever in several shades of green. The sun is out despite the poor forecast and the mood is cheerful as we look forward to the evening.

Then, before we know it, MV Hallaig arrives and we’re onboard and en route courtesy of CalMac Ferries. We duly show our passports and buy our tickets – returns for all except the busy socialites who’re planning to bail out to Portree later on the ‘Stardust’.

I sit inside chatting with a Reading Room friend, only to discover she’s not a great sailor – awkward I guess with a Royal Navy Commodore for a husband…

The journey is soon over and most of us head off on foot towards Raasay House, our venue for the weekend’s events. The new terminal means the big house is now only a hop, skip and jump away for anyone staying there – a mixed blessing perhaps if you sell yourself as a peaceful haven.

On arrival I’m issued with my ‘press card’ and ushered to my room – the poshest ‘bunkroom’ I’ve ever seen – bed made up with matching hand and bath towels and topped with a chocolate. I’m sharing with ATLAS ladies, Emma and Rosie, and the artist herself, Frances Priest. I note the en-suite facilities even include a water bowl for visiting pets – ‘how thoughtful’ I think to myself – little did I know…

I check my make-up and hairdo (only joking!) before adjourning to the library to await the talk from Sir John Lister-Kaye.

More faces old and new – Sadie, Winnie, Deirdre, Bill, Nanette, Robert, Amanda, Sarah, Shona, Adam, Anne, Jen and many more.

Norman Gillies, chair of the board of directors of ATLAS, welcomes everyone and recalls that many years ago he and John Lister-Kaye had been involved in a group called Barail – described at the time by a Raasay councillor as ‘a self-appointed coterie of trendsetters’.

John Lister-Kaye describes how his desire to be a writer was put on hold when his father bribed him with a car to follow a more conventional career. However a letter penned to a newspaper after the Torrey Canyon debacle caught the attention of Gavin Maxwell. Details of the friendship that followed, the three year silence from his father and his growing interest in the uplands are interspersed with comments on the ‘would be gentry, redolent with snobbery’ who’d followed Queen Victoria’s example and used their new found riches to build residences like Raasay House in order to set off their deer forests.

In the years after Maxwell’s death, he survives on a diet of cornflakes and sheep’s head soup before setting up Aigas Field Centre.

We are treated to a reading from his new book ‘Gods of the Morning’ – the part about Tumble, the runt of the litter, and the trip to the vet down south – a chapter added purely to thwart his publishers if the author is to be believed!

At the end our guest claims not to have delivered his original intended talk. That must make him either a consummate liar or a consummate performer and I tend to favour the second option. He is an absolute delight to listen to and I’ll let you know in due course how I enjoy the book…

Drinks, nibbles and socialising follow and we examine the vases (made by Frances Priest as part of the project) before we move through to our various dining rooms. Great to hear Jen Smith enthuse about her time interning with Frances as part of the project.

Those taking the ‘Stardust’ back to Portree disappear at some stage in the proceedings and presumably make it home safely.

Back in the bunkhouse the bowl in the bathroom is explained – one of my roommates is a dog – a very big dog at that, Dilli by name – too late I wish I’d chosen a top bunk out of reach…

Saturday 6 June

Saturday dawns sunny as more people arrive for the day’s activities – Malcolm, Martin, Liz, Allan, Helen, Elinor and many more whose faces I recognise from the Co-op in Portree or from other local events.

Tai Chi starts the day for me with Harriet Forrest leading us through the first few moves of the Taoist Tai Chi set. The Forrest grandchildren, Alba and Seb, are undaunted by my ghost noises intended to keep them quiet and spend the remainder of the session making their own ghostly noise from under various tables.

Wearing one of my Tai Chi t-shirts suggests I know what I’m doing – in fact I’ve forgotten much of what I learnt – must start practising again. Katie, Ken, Freya, Gayle, Alec and Margaret do seem to have a good time though.

Photo of Tai Chi class

Ross, Anne and Jen who went kayaking on the wee loch with Raasay Outdoor Centre seem to have a more strenuous morning playing polo and capsizing at regular intervals – all live to tell the tale although several have an early night after their exertions.

The first walk of the day is through woodland with Stephen Bungard, the botanist involved in the project. Apparently his title of County Recorder for the North Ebudes greatly amused Janice Forsyth when he was interviewed for Radio Scotland!

Photo of Patterns of Flora walk

The later walk with Stephen starts with an introduction to Haiku from poet, Ken Cockburn. Then our group of plucky would-be poets sets off along the shore to seek inspiration on a wet and windy walk. We see the rare tassel weed, scurvy grass, yellow flag, blinks, the poisonous hemlock water dropwort, thrift, skullcap and many more delights of the saltmarsh. We return to the house to thaw out and put a few words on paper to try out the various Japanese forms – Haiku with the traditional five, seven and five syllables format, the one-word poem (with a title of any length) and the mesostics.

Afterwards chat to Margaret Ferguson about her pictures and have a guided tour. Very interesting styles, material, subject matter and technique. Many taken or produced in the immediate aftermath of the fire in 2009. What a talented person and what a great space for such an exhibition.

The Patterns of Flora ceramics are displayed more subtly. First thing I did on arrival was to run my hand over the one on the windowsill and I found myself doing that throughout the weekend. The finger-panels on the doors are equally tempting in texture and lovely to look at too but I don’t like the door knobs at all – much prefer the original wooden ones. No accounting for taste is there?

Photo of children colouring in

Chat to Lyn Rowe and reminisce about the groups from Oman that played a large part of the business in the early days. Remember weddings and birthday parties on Raasay and wonder where Roddie Macdonald is now…

And so to dinner again and chat with Nadine (born in Provence) a software/programmer person and Sam who’s not been on Skye since he was very small. Puzzled by dinner served on paper plates until I remember it’s a barbeque brought indoors…

Afterwards we retire to the library once more and the talk ranges from the plastic cockroach that ends up in someone’s glass to An Lanntair, Thailand, Taigh Chearsabhagh, Laos, Chiang Kai-shek, the Kuomintang and so on.

Sunday 7 June

Throughout the weekend there are tours of the house and small groups are found lurking round corners when you least expect them. I overhear one of the guides tell how she replies when people bemoan the lack of signs for paths – ‘you don’t really need signs when you have such a rich oral tradition…’

All in all a wonderful break from the day to day routine – someone remarks that her week on Raasay has flown by and is bemused to realise she’s only been here two days.

As always there is the trepidation you expect when meeting new people but we leave as friends in the hope of seeing each other again.

And that surely is part of what ATLAS is all about.

Published on 10 June 2015