Sunday, May 27, 2007

Another Commandment

One of the best things about knitting in public is the stories that people share with you. Yesterday as we sat around a large wooden table for our monthly (more or less) meeting of the Northernmost Mainland Britain SNB, several people stopped by to chat or to say hello. One woman went to her car and brought in a cardigan she had made. I'll spare my non-knitting friends the details of stitch patterns and fasteners and such like that ensued, but then she got to the story that I think everyone can enjoy.

The complicated patterns with lots of colours most often seen on sweaters (jumpers) are called Fair Isle, but there are lots of variations of stitches and colours. For example, Caithness has several patterns associated with the sweaters knitted for fishermen. Really adept Scottish knitters could (maybe still can though I have not found any yet) insert the double pointed needles in a pouch worn around the waist like a money belt and knit while doing other things. (Perhaps if men had the right tools they could multi-task, too, but that is definitely a subject for a different post).

The woman who had described with pride her own particular stitch for her cardigan told us that women used to keep the details of their own unique patterns as closely guarded secrets. To reinforce her story, she related the tale of a woman in an upstairs flat who used to lean out her window to spy on the woman below as she stood knitting and watching her children in the front garden. This act of espionage would be translated from the motion of the woman's hands into a pattern of X's and O's on a grid on a large piece of cardboard and then presumably knit into something.

The woman was gone before I could ask if the spy was ever caught or what happened when the pattern revealed itself in a jumper or on a skirt, but perhaps the pleasure was in the taking. The story merged in my mind with martial arts movies where the fighting form was a closely guarded secret. Although not trained fighters, I am confident that the knitters could give a fierce battle if it came to it. To prevent all that I propose another commandment: thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's pattern.

To see examples of a local pattern and get an idea of the interest they can generate, check out this link. For some reason, I cannot publish the link. Sorry. Go to www. and search for gansey.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Culloden Winds

Packaged history, like cafeteria food, is designed for a mythical average taste. Culloden is a battlefield marking one of the more foolish battles in a long conflict. Scotland was tearing itself apart. Religion, class, and cultural shifts swirled like the winds in Dante's fourth circle to keep people apart. On Culloden, clan chiefs held on to their honour and fought for a not very bonny prince. Soldiers followed their chiefs because that was the honourable thing to do. An honourable memo to the winning side was forged to say that no quarter should be given, so soldiers behaved honourably in slaughtering everyone they found still alive.

Now long after the fact bus loads of tourists can come and shake their heads at the tragic foolishness of it all and buy lucky heather and highland cow key rings or wander among the markers on the battlefield to find the names of their great great uncle's clan.

"It will be windy there," our new friend says when we announce that we are off to Culloden. It seems always windy here on the moor. I first came to Culloden as a tourist and bought a tiny kite guaranteed to fly. My future husband wore his kilt when he greeted me at the airport in Inverness and we stopped first at Culloden to help me get over jet lag and ease into Scottishness. The wind moved the pleats of his kilt like summer storm playing with the blinds on a window. It was not hard at all for me to imagine the winds as a restlessness inherent in the spirit of the place. Several months later, we went to Culloden with a prospective car for me and I made my first uneasy drive over the roads around the battlefield. Now my own personal history swirls in the winds of all the other restless spirits who came here.

Today I am restless. We have come here with no particular sense of purpose. We have seen the presentation and walked the paths. I have gift money from the National Trust that I can redeem in the gift shop, but something more is driving me but I cannot put a name to it. We walk to a croft house made into a replica field battle station and then pause out of the wind on a bench in front. It is a lovely moment of peace until a pair of tourists arrive. It is an awkward moment for us both: they don't want to intrude on our moment in the bench, but they are doing what needs to be done here, so they carry on stiffly into the cottage. My husband engages them in small talk and in that instant I know what I need to do.

Even now I struggle a bit with the words. I need to listen to the land. I need to let the winds blow away all the social, institutional words of the past three days. I walk not briskly but purposefully. I pick my path solely by the fact that it has no people on it. Culloden is not large, but before long I am out of sight of the buildings and the people. I am alone with the wind. I sigh, slow to an amble, and on the next breath I am rewarded with the unmistable coconut-butter-chardonnay scent of gorse in full outrageous bloom. I walk into the center of a blooming patch and breathe deeply. I capture a few blooms and tuck them into my pocket and walk back into the world.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Vive La Difference

Scotland is a modern country and is similar in many ways to wherever you are reading this, but the differences in people, places, and things are usually what we find most interesting, so here's a little peek at things you probably wouldn't see wherever you are.

Through the bedroom window at 5am: a new calf. Red like his/her momma, sturdy and on his legs.

In the kitchen garden: A cat making his way along the peak of the slate tiled roof of the old farm cottages like an aptly named cat burlgar or ninja with his head down and fur ruffling in the Caithness gusts. (He's probably heading for the back door--a hole in the roof that the cats use to get to the dairy maid's cottage when they are looking for a meal or a place to hide out from their hunting in the barns and around the fields).

In the bakery where I get my breakfast and milky coffee a badge on the waitress that says "Say aye tae a pie."

In the paper:
  • An article about a man convicted of "riding his horse furiously to the danger of the public"
  • A full page article about the Orkney-Canadian connection.
  • A sad-eyed photo of the queen accompanying an article about how she is selling off her dairy herd. "The queen is understood to have been saddened by the situation." Not even the queen, apparently, can find a way to make dairy cattle pay. That is a long sad story and this is a short post.

So that's a brief note from the Lake Wobegone of the North. These articles (and more) were in this morning's Press and Journal ( The really local papers for me are The Caithness Courier (comes out on Wednesday) and the John o Groats Journal, which comes out on Friday.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Paying the Piper

I have always liked bagpipe music, which is a very good thing considering my current residence. You might well wonder how many opportunties I had to experience bagpipes as a girl in Indiana. If my life were a novel, these bagpipe experiences could be used as foreshadowing. In Indianapolis, where I grew up, there is a large building called the Scottish Rite Cathedral. I still do not know exactly what the organization and the building are, but they had a parade at least once a year complete with bagpipes. My first recollection of pipes is as a little girl enduring men dressed as women, clowns on oversize tricycles, and automobiles with smiling faces waving to a crowd only to get to the pipes. Fortunately for my limited attention span, you could hear the pipes coming long before they arrived.

Much later in life, I returned to Indianapolis as an urban pioneer. I had an apartment downtown before it was fashionable. On Sundays my neighborhood could have been used as a film set for a post apocalypse story. The streets were deserted and in classic cinematic fashion, odd bits of paper or plastic bags whirled in the winds to underline the emptiness. On some Sundays, somewhere out of sight in this emptiness came the sounds of a lone piper practicing. I opened my windows whatever the season and let the music of this ghost piper pour into my tiny apartment.

I learned on a trip to Winnipeg that steet musicians and performers are called "buskers." It seemed an odd word but somehow more professional than street performer. It gave them a history and some standing among the benches and statues and food stands of a large park. I noticed a young man as I walked to the park that seemed to have too many punctures to his body. I should know better than to think that way if for no other reason than my daughter once entangled me in the impossible discussion of how many holes in her jeans were too many for school jeans. I should have known better then, too, but sometimes I fall prey to that silliness of thinking that I already know better.

I put the young man out of mind as I wandered through the park, looking at statues, following a timeline along the sidewalk and then I heard it: a very sweet melody line skirling above the wind, the unmistakable sound of bagpipes. I caught bits and pieces of tunes as I wandered continuing to take in the sights, but in very short order, my feet were taking me closer to the bagpipes. As I got closer, I began to hurry because the music was so compelling. I wanted to be closer; I wanted to see who was making such sweet, sad sounds from that cantankerous instrument. Of course, it was that same much-punctured, multi-tatooed, mohawk-bearing young man. From a closer distance I could see how young he was and how much he enjoyed his pipes and sharing that music in him with anyone and everyone. I was doubly grateful that the spiritual lesson to see beyond the obvious had come with such a sweet sound.

I managed to find a Scottish band in Indiana and was piped down the stairs from the wedding into the reception. Since coming to this part of the world, I have had many opportunities to hear pipes. They are an integral part of weddings and funerals and Robert Burns' suppers and Hogmanay and highland games. Everytime I hear pipes, all those occasions come into mind, so when I heard a piper in town yesterday, I followed the sound and cheerfully, gratefully threw some money into his open case.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Walking on the Caledonian Canal

Although you can certainly have a good adventure and a wonderful cat by setting out intentionally to find them, I believe the best adventures and best cats find us. We had a few minutes to fill before getting to the hospital, so we drove into Inverness a route I had never seen before. And by serendipity, the roadway had just given way to allow three boats to pass. The last time I saw something similar, I was a girl of about 10 visiting Chicago. I left behind a hot fudge sundae to see a drawbridge rise up to let a tall masted boat slip through. I was expecting the same sort of thing here.

Morris grinned as he suggested that I take a closer look as he sat with the car in the line of traffic waiting. As I walked toward the masts sliding along the horizon, I kept expecting to see the road rise up. My landlubber mentality had room for only one method of removing a road to let boats pass. I got there and watched with a few other bemused pedestrians as the road pirouetted on a massive girding. The supports and asphalt surface rolled back into place and snapped in much like a snug-fitting Tupperware lid. The teeth that had recently opened wide enough to let out a Balrog were now lined up like well-behaved jack o lantern teeth. I had just seen my first swing bridge.

Once the boats had safely passed by, I noticed that there were a series of locks. The three boats huddled closely together as they waited for the water to rise. I expected to see huge jacuzzi water jets or fire hoses pouring the water in like filling a swimming pool for the opening day of the summer season. Instead, the water roiled up from the bottom, the only indication of its power in its swift ascent reflected in the movement of the boats.

Alongside the canal, the two sailors on the smallest boat, a "smack", were working to keep it from veering away from the edge or being pulled too closely into the steep black walls. It was not easy. The woman on the front of the boat seemed new to this procedure. I have been on boats a very few times, but I hastily put down my camera and grabbed the line when I saw her struggling with the bow line. And then, in proper British, but too late, "Mind your fingers!" as she tangled them under the line around a little bollard designed to hold boats steady. She got her fingers free without serious injury, but her hand was sore and bleeding. That mishap provided the opportunity for Morris and another observer to take the rope in hand and help them walk their boat along the canal. Getting the boat to move forward was easier than getting it to stay still in the rising water.

As Morris and the other spectator (more about him in a minute) hauled the bow line for the lassagie, I went to the car to see if we had a bandaid (an "elastoplast" in local parlance) or some other first aid. Alas, all that was in the other car, but I picked up a copy of my husband's book and took that back with me. On the front I wrote our names and address and email information. I handed it to the young woman and said that when they came sailing north on their way to Orkney, they should stop by. I think they might actually do it, but at least it took the attention away from her hand.

By now the other spectator had joined our party but we had not yet spoken, so I asked about him and discovered that he was a hillwalker and had been with a group but a member of their party had fallen 150 feet off a cliff and so the party, as you could well imagine, came to a halt. The climber who fell was safely in hospital with a broken rib and other damage but expectations for a full recovery in time. So the hillwaker, the farmer, and the transplanted American hauled this small boat along a lock of the Caledonian canal and then we all went our separate ways with a few hugs and handshakes and waves. Perhaps that's the end of the adventure.

P.S. Parish Life on the Pentland Firth is the title of the book. I first made acquaintance with Morris at the local highland games where I bought a copy of his book. In my travel diary that night I wrote simply, "Met a local farmer-author and bought a copy of his book." But that's another adventure for another day.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Wee Post: Watch This Space

I recently read about a blog being hijacked. It startled me because I felt safe in blogsville. As nearly as I can tell, that blog was hijacked because someone wanted to profit from the ad revenues. Since I do not have ads, I am a fairly low risk. I don't have enough authorly vanity to think someone would be interested in stealing the words but the alarm reminded me that I actually started blogging because I thought I might actually make a real book out of it.

Thus I will be blogging still but also working on other writing projects which will cut into blog time. Don't give up on this spot, but be patient if it takes a wee whilie as they say up here for a new post.


Monday, May 07, 2007

Parade with Pinwheels and Quadrupeds

You never know what experience in your life will come in handy later. I had a friend who got her first professional job with the Environmental Protection Agency because they wanted someone who could get along with truckers. Although she had a brand new degree and no professional experience, she had worked one summer as a waitress at a truck stop. That experience was enough to tip the scales in her favor and she got the job.

One of my stepchildren got a job because in addition to a college degree and experience in personnel, she had worked with a sheep shearing gang in New Zealand, which convinced her interviewer that she could manage not only secretarial candidates but also lorry drivers or other more earthy, outspoken souls.

Even unpleasant experiences can bear sweet fruit. My friend, J., walked through streets where she was called names and had rocks thrown at her to get to the library. The courage and the knowledge she earned have served her well. What doesn't kill us will make us stronger, and, hopefully, flexible enough to apply the experience when needed.

My original intention in becoming a majorette in junior high school, to the best of my recollection, was some vague adolescent notion of being cool and part of a group. That old peer pressure thing. Once out of junior high I have enjoyed the experience only as mild embarrassment or to have a good laugh from time to time with some new acquaintance. Until today that is.

Earlier today I was startled by a face peering in at me from outside the second floor landing. In the fullness of the day, the farm bustled with workers on the roof of the house; lorries and vans in the steading; farm vehicles and people coming and going. Now the workers have gone, the cattle are quiet in the fields or in the barns, and the sun is lowering itself slowly into sunset. Over dinner Morris announces that we are going to move the cattle from one field into another--or at least try, he says. This task has fallen into our lap because the quad bike is no longer working, David's dog can't work the cattle in from the field, and there is always too much to be done on the farm, so whenever I can help solve one of these pesky problems and play with the cattle, I am game for it.

The first part of the problem is thinking what will make cattle curious. Cattle, like cats, are more easily persuaded to do something with curiosity or food than any other form of persuasion. Morris and I play a variant of 21 questions as I look for things that might make cattle curious--curious enough to follow us. I settle on a white hat with a bobble on it, and, in a fit of truly inspired cattle-wrangling--pinwheels! I bought them originally as bird scarers for the barley fields or to put in my garden to keep pigeons away from my tender plants, but I am convinced this is just the thing to attract a cow. Morris chooses one of the classics--a white towel.

Thus equipped, we set off down the road, across the stackyard where the Dutch barn is being built, and into the field. After so many weeks of ilness and convalescence, it is a celebration just to walk out into the spring twilight with the smell of the long sweet grass and the light breeze off the ocean. My pinwheels fly with verve and multicolor plastic into the light breeze. The cattle watch us curiously as we cross the field. We get close enough that they stop eating and look intently at us but not close enough to cause them to run. This is a delicate maneuver. I take my cues from Morris and concentrate on my pinwheels. Sure enough they begin first running toward us and then stop. We slow until they catch up with us. They bunch together in better formation than my junior high majorettes and I ever managed. If only we had drums and trombones, it would have been a beautiful parade.

In time, the cattle tired of the parade and in a nice tight bunch went right through the gate that we had hoped to lead them through. They went through so quickly that I dropped my pinwheels and made a sprint to close the gate gehind them.

The next field full of cattle was more savvy or perhaps just not interested in pinwheels. Not everyone likes a parade. We set the gates to invite them into the next field (and hopefully to deter them from making their own parade grounds) and came back inside. Morris is confident that they will come into the field in their own time, just like cats.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Knitting as a Spiritual Fishing Line

As often happens, I was thinking about myself as I held my knitting needles tightly, trying to find the rhythm of the piece again. I focused on the thread--a fuzzy mohair clone twining and falling obediently into place along the row. My breathing calmed, my fingers eased, and I was oblivious to the plastic-seated, crowded waiting room in the hospital in a strange town. After all, I was a long way from home and I could not expect to see anyone familiar.

I have used knitting many times before both to calm myself or to weave myself into the background fabric of an occasion. As an American married to a well known farmer, I have been subject to a great deal of observation and discussion--not unkind but curious and, when I am alone, usually from a safe distance. Knitting gives me something to do rather than sit with a social smile while I am being scanned and, hopefully, it makes me look more like a grandmother and farm wife than a Yank from "'where is it she is from?'". Sometimes it gives an opportunity to start a friendly conversation. I always welcome those because it is a genuine connection.

Knitting led me to the Tuesday night group that meets at Murkle Community Hall--just 15 miles down the road from the farm, and it led me to join up with another couple knitters with whom we founded the Northernmost Mainland SNB.

Thus, although I have great faith in the power of knitting both as restorative and social connector, I was not expecting it in the waiting room of this hospital. The first comment was from a woman across the room with close cropped white hair and a sturdy frame. Her bright face radiated good humor as she talked about the Fair Isle and Aran sweaters she used to knit. She didn't say why she stopped. The conversation moved on. Others joined in with knitting talk and comments about growing into our mothers despite our best efforts not to. There was a lot of laughing for a brand new conversation with strangers, but women are like that, especially women who knit or crossstitch or any such thing. The men became quiet. As husbands of long standing, they have learned when to give way. They must have their own special places to which they retreat when knitting and women take hold of a conversation.

People were coming and going as nurses came to shuttle people now turned into patients into whatever the business of the day was. A woman sat quietly in the corner and then without my noticing came up and, in the usual way, began with a ritual apology for speaking to a stranger, but "What is it you are knitting?" I explained that it was a simple shawl and then several commented on what I had missed--my circular needles. Knitters here not only use long, straight needles (called pins) but they may lodge one of them under their arm pit in a fashion developed or modified from long years when women wore belts with a little pouch in front with holes in which they could hold their needles while they walked or minded sheep or bairns or both.

And then the magic happened. Over the yarn and the needles she gave me the gift of her story. She has Hodgkins lymphoma "one of the rare ones," she says. I don't know what this means, but I think it is a code word for fatal. And then just when I think my heart will burst and the tears will come flooding out of my eyes and betray my willingness to share her story, she continues, "I am in remission, and now I have been diagnosed with breast cancer." I hope a solid smile that could say all that I felt danced across my face and into her heart but I could not find any words. Fortunately someone else in the room said something about breast cancer or knitting needles or something that had now become all jumbled into this same conversation with intimate strangers.

My Hodgkins friend set the tone for other similar stories, including one from a woman with ME who can no longer knit because her disease now dictates the limits of her activity. I promised my new found friends that I would bring needles and yarn with me next time and we would all knit. I think that old fashioned spool knitting might be something my friend in the wheelchair can do. I will try to give her back her knitting for however long we have together.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

When is a Header a Beetle Bank?

Large farm implements move slowly and have a wide turning radius. The wide turning radius, among other things, means that the furthest edge of the field is not plowed. This is called a header, all the way around. I thought it was going to be complicated like a page in a book with a header and a footer and so on, but nope, this one is easy. A header is a header until or unless it is designated as a beetle bank.

As nearly as I can tell, neither farmers nor beetles were consulted about beetle banks. I know that no one ever checks that there are, in fact, beetles, in the beetle bank carefully set aside for their personal pleasure.

A header becomes a beetle bank (no less than 1.5meters wide all around the field) if the farmer on the required page of the required form agrees that he will conform to government requirements for a beetle bank. In other words, a header is a beetle bank if the government says that it is.

I am personally rather fond of beetles. I know that Coleoptera is one of the largest orders within the insect world. I remember fondly collecting June beetles on the screen door of my home in Indiana as a kid and singing to ladybugs. I cannot even bring myself to wage war against beetles in my garden. I conspire with the birds. I hurl the beetles away from my beans and squash and let the gulls and the crows take advantage of the offering. I am an accomplice to their murder, but I deal with them in a very green way. The gulls, crows, and starlings need to eat, too.

And so I would cheerfully give up a meter and a half around the fields if the beetles asked me to do so. It is the phony green facade of it all. Oh, my friends at this point will be shaking their heads knowing full well that I never met a rule that I Iiked (even some that I made up myself) and I never like to do something that I have been told to do, at least not in the way that I was told. I admit this readily, but don't you, too, wonder about the pointlessness of an empty beetle bank?

I am also subject to enough whimsy and hopefulness that if they told me to build beetle banks and they will come, I could be appeased briefly. I would, however, then be doubly disppointed to find the banks empty again.

If you struggle with the agricultural example, let me share with you another example of what I consider a step too far. I don't smoke; I don't like being around smoking. Because of my own personal preferences, I only squirmed a bit when the government banned smoking in public places. I am very fond of civil liberties, even those of smokers. When I discovered the ban on smoking included the cabs of lorry drivers who are prohibited from having anyone else in their cabs anyway, I thought it was just a glitch in the law that would be quickly amended. Instead, the lawmakers proposed banning smoking in private automobiles. Again, because my ox was not gored, I wrinkled my nose in distaste and disbelief but left well alone.

The step too far came when I discovered that the ban on smoking included a considerable sum of money not for anti-smoking programs but for anti-smoking cops. This seemed heavy handed, but I was not moved to action until I read about an anti-smoking cop who visited a local butcher's shop. The butcher was not smoking; no customers were smoking; no one in the back was smoking, but the butcher was given a warning. Why? He had not properly posted the no-smoking signs in his shop. The no-smoking cop returned and when the signs still had not been posted (no one was smoking this time either), the butcher was fined and taken to court. That, for me, was a step too far. A friend argued that the butcher had not complied with the law and so the only recourse was to apply the law. I agree, but I think the law is misguided. The point, I thought, was to get people to stop smoking where it interfered with other people, or, in the earlier example to make a home for beetles.

Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have argued against the stipulation that an individual should be required to have 50 pounds worth of property and own an ass in order to be eligible to vote in the newly formed colonies. If this were the case, he said, if the man's ass died, then the man would no longer be eligible to vote. Thus, he concluded that it was the ass and not the man who had the vote. And so with this legislation which does not stamp out smoking or make the world safer for beetles.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Coming and Going on the Ebb Tide

On the eve of the last day of the hottest April in 300 years, we are heading south to Inverness. Tomorrow, May Day, we have lots of things to do, but this evening drive is our own time carved out of the business of farming and the chores of everyday life. We have not had a road trip adventure for some time, and the weather is perfect for it.

The persistent pervasive grey of late winter into spring has given way to what I call the Blue Period. The brighter light of a more ambitious sun, shining from high in the sky working now from early morning through to a long twilight, lures from the grass an eye-popping green and a palette full of blues. The sky is a clear cerulean blue; the sea, French marine blue, with hints of indigo, teal, and ultramarine. The occasional cloud casts a navy blue or ultramarine shadow. As if the blue sea-skyscape were not enough to hold you fast in wonder, the gorse are a riot of wild yellow flowers to make the blue even more intense.

The sun is warm and the air is soft and seductive. It is a pleasure to breathe it in. We open the sun roof and savor the air and the light and the freedom of the road. As we head south, the milder weather reveals itself with a spring now full in bloom. The gorse serenade us along the road and then patches of oilseed rape explode among the greening barley and grasses with sheep and fresh ploughed tattie fields with a yellow that is even more outrageous than the gorse. I stare in disbelief and a quiet, childlike smile spreads across my face.

As we pass the Berriedale Braes, whose steep curves have been softened by several months of roadworks from white knuckle driving to just be careful curves, we come back within sight of the ocean--never far, but temporarily out of sight. We see a har beginning to creep across the top of the ocean. It stands out because it is white, only vaguely tinted with the blue of everything around us. The har, a stream of moist damp air, moves as if of its own volition rather than pushed or pulled by the winds. And so it crawls and hovers above the water and moves slowly onto land. It is more of a curiosity than an inconvenience: a brief realignment of land-sea priorities in a season of changing temperatures.

As the road climbs upward again, we can feel that we are now in the har. The air is moist and rich and cool. It has wrapped us in its embrace as it moves along the warm land. We drive through it and as we descend, we leave it behind. The road now passes through a village that proudly displays a sign touting its beach. It is a magnificent beach, but the tide is out now and the stones usually held in the water's embrace look lost and startled as if embarrassed to be seen in their naked state.

We are far enough south now that the leaves are out on the birch trees. The leaves are still small and new, so their bright green twitters and shimmers in the light breeze. The barley in the fields is showing green, the lambs are out prancing behind their mothers, and lilacs and tulips and other garden flowers that must wait more patiently for their debut up north are in full bloom here.

After a night in one of our favorite hotels, we spend an over-packed day in the city of Inverness. Although I like Inverness and am even beginning to know my way around it, I am eager to be home. The tide is out once again, but I pay little attention to the naked stones in their loneliness or even the gorse or the oilseed rape. Instead, I welcome the soft brown roundness of the mound and, eventually, the navy blue silhouette of Griam Beg and Griam Mor--the silhouette that says home.