Sunday 25 March 2012

Sketching & Song in Rosslyn Chapel, Heriot-Watt Choir

Excelsior Per Cantum, Rosslyn Chapel, 24th March 2012. pencil & pen on paper
Given the title of my blog I need to be careful... this posting doesn't fit under the heading of landscape or nature or birds. So it'll have to be the art part - music and drawing.

Last night the Chamber Choir of Heriot-Watt University, Excelsior Per Cantum, put on a concert in Rosslyn Chapel near Edinburgh. I'd never been to Rosslyn before so I went early with Jennifer to sit in the amazing ornate surroundings while she and the rest of the choir rehearsed. As they sang I made this sketch. 

Then the audience arrived and I was able to enjoy the performance all over again. The songs were Scottish - ancient and modern and everything in between. All the Heriot-Watt concerts are ultra impressive and setting and singing combined to make sure that last night's was no exception.

Friday 2 March 2012

A railway walk: Bridge of Orchy to Tyndrum

This 10-11km walk is a perfect introduction to the West Highland Lines. Travelling by ScotRail, get off at Bridge of Orchy Station and walk south to Tyndrum to encounter impressive railway architecture, stunning scenery and lots of opportunities for watching wildlife. You're on the West Highland Way the whole time so getting lost isn't likely to be an issue, but take a map anyway and enjoy learning the names of hills and rivers.

I recommend walking north to south so that you end in Tyndrum where there are several cafes and pubs to wait in until your train comes. The Real Food Cafe sounds particularly nice though I haven't yet been. If you do walk in the other direction you could try the Bridge of Orchy Hotel which also runs a bunkhouse.

Bridge of Orchy, from THE Bridge of Orchy

The West Highland Way runs directly upslope of Bridge of Orchy Station platform but it's worth having a stroll around the hamlet before you set off. Standing on the 1751 bridge over the River Orchy I looked down at a grey wagtail bobbing beside this typically rocky Highland river. Nearby were coal tits, great tits, a blackbird and siskins. Most exciting of all - crossbills - the orange red males and greenish mustard females.

watercolour sketch looking across the valley, 15x21cm
After less than twenty minutes I stopped to make a quick watercolour sketch looking south over the yellow and ochre valley. A gentle stream trickling beside me provided water for my paints. Rising steeply behind me was Beinn Dorain, 1076m high. 

sketching spot near Bridge of Orchy

Highland cow on the slopes of Beinn Dorain

At grid ref 327 358 I found a beautiful spot where I sat on moss among birches by the river Allt Kinglass. A great spotted woodpecker flew into the nearby trees and right beside me a treecreeper climbed. Goldcrests were in the branches above, five or six or more. A dipper chittered its song from a triangle rock a little upstream. A train came into sight, bound from west to east. I watched it negotiate the viaducts of the Horseshoe Curve.

watercolour sketch from river Allt Kinglass, 15x21cm

approaching the horseshoe curve, pencil, ink & watercolour on card, 25x35cm

The Horseshoe Curve - rather than building a prohibitively expensive viaduct engineers created a half-loop that sweeps neatly round the inner slopes of three great hills- Beinns Odhar, a' Chaisteil, and Dorain. Two substantial viaducts are still needed to carry the rails across the wide expanses between. I deviated slightly from the West Highland Way to stand under the more northerly of the two, where the river Allt Kinglass runs. I chatted here with a man from Cumbria who wore a bandana and a red jacket. He'd cycled in the morning from Tyndrum and left his bike here whilst he climbed the 886m of Beinn a' Chaisteil. The OS map shows a spot marked 'Burial Ground' in italics just a couple of kilometres to the north-east.

the horseshoe curve & Beinn Dorain, pencil, ink & watercolour on card, 25x35cm

Now, about 3km from Tyndrum, the path still follows the Old Military Road, as it has done the whole way. I passed a gate with a sign with black lettering on white that read "please close gate". There was no fence on either side, just this rusty old gate. The tinkling of little streams and burns keeps solo walkers company.

Finally, walking above a steep river gorge as I descended into Tyndrum. The smell of wood smoke was in the air as I passed tree stumps carved to form a perching owl, a fox and a squirrel, an eagle catching a fish. A sooty grey cat sat by the red door of a whitewashed slate-roofed cottage.

In Tyndrum you can take your pick of two stations - Upper Tyndrum or Tyndrum Lower. Less than a kilometre apart, trains from Fort William stop at Upper and trains from Oban at Lower. The coaches join together at Crianlarich, one stop down the line.

below one of the horseshoe curve viaducts, Beinn a' Chaisteil above, I chatted with a man from Cumbria...

Painting Scotland by Rail - Sponsored by ScotRail

Since 2008 I've been working on a long-term project to explore Scotland by rail. As part of this my artworks have been exhibited at various railway-related events across the country. The sponsorship of railway operator ScotRail is absolutely invaluable to me in continuing this project.

I hope that my railway travels and the resulting drawings and paintings will encourage others to explore Scotland for themselves. Train is a great way to travel. It gives access to a wealth of wonderful landscapes and there's nothing quite as relaxing as sitting by the window and watching the world trundle past.

 view from a window, on the Glasgow - Stranraer line, pencil on paper, 15x21cm

It's fun to write a list of all the birds seen on a journey and really satisfying to make quick sketches out the window. There's only a second or two before the object or scene has been passed and memory and artistic license have to kick-in. Some of these quick window sketches of mine have been used to create often much larger finished paintings back in the studio.

cottage remains, steep forest clearing south-east of Elgin, pencil on card, 10x11cm

 For those who commute - travelling a route regularly needn't make it boring, in fact quite the opposite. I now know to look for that clifftop herd of bison on the approach to Aberdeen, or those small ponds on the right between Falkirk High and Croy where mallards and tufted ducks swim and you sometimes see a few teal that have flown in to join them. Or south-east of Elgin the remains of a cottage among stumps of felled trees - what family or railway worker once lived there?


In these postings I'm going to write about days out I've had along Scottish railway lines. Looking initially at the West Highland Lines from Glasgow to Oban and Mallaig I'll describe walks walked and wildlife watched. I'll mention interesting historic sites and probably wont be able to resist telling you about some of the cafes I visit... I do hope that you too will be inspired to get out on the trains and start to explore Scotland by rail.