Category Archives: Blog

my latest contemplations and ruminations. only occasionally gets me into trouble.

Why Gaelic Won’t Let Me Go

This article was published in the Sunday Herald on 22 October 2017.

“DAD, I’m going to tell it to you straight,” I said at the dinner table, aged 17 and ready to jump into the big wide world. My parents put down their cutlery in preparation for whatever was to come. “I’m not going to do Celtic Studies,” I blurted out, and I remember their faces still, choking on their sprouts in their efforts to hide their amusement.

MacTV production still, Mgr Ailein agus na Faclan, BBC Alba, 9pm, Monday 31 Otober 2017
MacTV: Mgr Ailein agus na Faclan, BBC Alba, 9pm, Monday 31 October 2017

Celtic Studies was my father’s all-consuming passion, and 16 years after his early retirement from Edinburgh University, it still is. We have no family connections to the Highlands and Islands – growing up in a house in Glasgow full of French, English and Italian (and a smattering of Arabic), my father took an interest in the Gaelic he heard about him in the trams and streets and classrooms of the city.

“There were so many Gaelic speakers among my teachers,” he wrote about his time at Glasgow High, “that you could have done a statistically-viable social survey on them … The head of English was president of the Glasgow Islay Association. When I put some Gaelic in an essay he perked up, summoned me to his desk and asked what dialect I spoke.”

“I found that strange,” he wrote. “Here was something as fundamental to the fabric of our nation as anything I could think of, yet which my school regarded not as a subject to be taught, but as something which you had or you hadn’t, like a dimple or ears that stuck out. Even a head of English hadn’t twigged that I had got it out of a book. I had stumbled across the plight of minority languages in the modern world.”

Thanks to the enlightened policies of Glasgow Corporation Education Department, my father was offered the chance to study Gaelic, and it became his life’s work. While many other families were losing their native tongue, he introduced it into ours. From the day I was born, he has spoken Gaelic to me, a gift I failed to appreciate at the age of five when I went to school in Edinburgh, where we lived, and started replying to him in English. But Dad persevered without a fuss until the time came, in my 20s, when I switched back to Gaelic, by now a clumsy mix of native intuition and assorted learner’s oddities.

And so I have stumbled through the decades, fiercely proud of my father tongue, but acutely aware of my linguistic inadequacies. An Edinburgh Gael, I always felt I should have some sort of innate knowledge of peat-cutting and the call of the corncrake, but these were not the world of my Gaelic. And now here I am in the Netherlands, deeply pained to have failed to pass it on to my own children, for whom Dutch has become their day to day tongue and English their minority language. I seem to be moving farther and farther away from source.

And yet, despite all that, here I am, publishing a book bang in the middle of my father’s field. So much for the great dinnertime bombshell. Celtic Studies has found me.

book&dram

Sly Cooking: 42 Irresistible Gaelic Words is my tribute to a treasure trove of hidden linguistic delights. It’s a light-hearted illustrated pocketbook designed to bring a smile to the faces of Gaelic speakers and non-speakers alike. Who knew there was a word (forradh) for someone caught cooking something on the sly? Or for forcing something big into a hole too small for it (sgionc)?

Father Allan MacDonald knew, and thank goodness he wrote it down. A vigorous, charming, and famously tall young priest in South Uist and Eriskay from 1884 to 1905, Fr Allan was intrigued by the vast store of Gaelic stories, songs, superstitions and linguistic gems alive in the minds of his parishioners. Despite his gruelling workload, he found the time to take it all down in 10 big notebooks.

FrAllaninking

Fast forward to 1958, and Celtic scholar John Lorne Campbell extracted nearly 3000 words from Fr Allan’s notebooks to produce Gaelic Words And Expressions From South Uist And Eriskay, a dictionary so entertaining that you can happily read it from cover to cover.

That’s exactly what I did, five years ago, and it wouldn’t let me go. How could there be so many delightful words specific to such a small geographical area, and have they survived? It was like walking into a museum and seeing 3,000 stuffed animals I never knew existed, with powers and colours and plumes unimaginable, and not knowing which ones have become extinct, and which are still living and singing, and rearing their young in the world beyond these walls.

I love the humour which runs through the dictionary. There’s a real sense of human interaction and an ever-present gentle mockery which is still part and parcel of the culture. You might be bileagach (said of a person who must taste and sip every food or drink she sees) or maybe you do the opposite, a’ storradh food on people whether they like it or not. Perhaps you have a riobag shonais (hair of good fortune) growing on your chin, or is it a riobag chonais, the hair of quarrelsomeness?

Linocut © Catrìona Black, from Sly Cooking: 42 Irresistible Gaelic Words published by Acair
© Catrìona Black, Sly Cooking: 42 Irresistible Gaelic Words, Acair Books

I love the attention to small details and to tiny, almost imperceptible nuances: my favourite word of all is mionagadanan, the atoms seen in a ray of sunlight coming into a house, and equally beautiful is rong, the spark of life in a dying beast. The words tip over into the otherworld too, in a concrete, matter of fact way typical of Gaelic culture. If you wake up with mystery bruises, might you have suffered bìdeag an duine mhairbh, the dead man’s nip, perhaps from your husband’s jealous late wife?

I fell in love with these words, and despite my efforts to integrate into my new home of the Netherlands, to move on and let go of the past, Gaelic would not let me do it. The words were just too good, and Fr Allan’s story too inspiring. I set out to make illustrations celebrating my favourites, and my digital project grew arms and legs, ending up as 42 linocut prints, painstakingly cut and hand-printed in my freezing cold shed with cups of tea and Radio nan Gaidheal to keep me warm. An exhibition of these prints will be launched along with my book on Saturday (October 28) at An Lanntair in Stornoway.

© Catrìona Black, Sly Cooking: 42 Irresistible Gaelic Words, Acair Books
© Catrìona Black, Sly Cooking: 42 Irresistible Gaelic Words, Acair Books

I’m by no means the first person to be inspired by Fr Allan and his collections. During his time in Eriskay, the handsome priest became something of a magnet for curious ladies and literary celebrities from all over the world, subsequently popping up thinly disguised in novels, and written about with gushing admiration elsewhere.

And here I am, doing the same. I have to admit I’m one of his groupies. The “high priest” was devoted to his people, walking for miles on end to care for them in the harshest of weathers, lobbying the authorities on their behalf, and never losing his love for their stories. He suffered burnout in 1892, and instead of taking an easier gig in the city (the Bishop offered him a mainland town parish “with better living and the company of book-learned men”), he insisted on building a church in Eriskay and staying with his people there. Eleven years into his mission on the island, he died at the age of 45. “Father Allan went to his long rest,” said the Herald obituary at the time, “amid the tears of strong men not used to weeping.”

FrAllanschurch
St Michael’s Church, Eriskay, built by Fr Allan

Like one of his Victorian lady admirers, I travelled to Eriskay and South Uist in May this year to find out if the words in my book were still remembered. My journey was filmed for a BBC Alba documentary, Mgr Ailein agus na Faclan (Fr Allan And The Words), to be aired on Monday, October 30. I felt embarrassed, knocking on doors with my list of words and my never-properly-fixed Gaelic, which jarred horribly with the beautiful, fluent speech of the locals I met.

But I had been empowered by Fr Allan’s personal diary. The man himself had struggled with his own perceived linguistic inadequacy as an incomer from Fort William, “confined from dawn till dusk in an English school … while the language which was most expressive and most natural to us was forbidden”.

“But how I envy the people who can speak fluent, well-pronounced Gaelic,” he lamented (in fluent Gaelic). “I can’t. In spite of diligence, youthful practice is better … I will never be completely at ease in Gaelic, and though I hate it with heart and with spleen, my Gaelic will always have the harsh stammering unpleasant accent of the English speaker which a tongue-tied, limping, stiff-worded English education has left in my head.”

waulking
Photo Walter B Blaikie Collection, by courtesy of David R Kilpatrick, Oban.

What if Fr Allan had decided his Gaelic was not up to the task of collecting all the wonderful material he wrote in his “big book of yarns”? That he was wasting his time indulging himself (a fear which he did express) and should give up the indolence at once? We might be 3,000 words poorer now. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

So I gave myself a good talking to, and knocked on those doors, and the men and women I met were kind to me. What’s more, the words – about 20 out of my list of 50 – became real. I had found many of them alive after all, some tripping off the tongue in everyday speech and others hauled from the darkest recesses, breathing fresh air for the first time in years.

It was absolutely worth it. I gathered what I learned and am putting it all on a website to go with the book, slycooking.com. I might have dodgy lenition and extreme genitive confusion, but I am doing my little bit to defend a vast store of cultural treasure too rich and deep to comprehend.

How anyone can be against that is a mystery to me. Why do I still, in the 21st century, read in letters pages and newspaper headlines that money should not be wasted on Gaelic because it is nothing more than a costly distraction? Because it “was never spoken here”, a monstrously inaccurate claim in most parts of Scotland, especially the last time I heard it with reference to Moray? Why is East Renfrewshire doing its best to crush the ambitions of 49 families to see their children learn Gaelic, by rejecting their legitimate bid for primary eduction in the language despite the provisions of the 2016 Education Act?

My Gaelic is from Edinburgh. My father’s from Glasgow. The Scottish Parliament’s Gaelic officer is from Stepps and speaks fantastic Gaelic – with a pure dead strong Stepps accent by the way. It’s not enough to leave it to the good folk of the Western Isles to carry the torch – just the other week, numbers showed a distressing decline in children choosing to study the language there. Gaelic belongs to all of us and if we in Scotland don’t get behind it, who is left to care for all those beautiful endangered words, and the stories and genealogies and poetry carried along by them?

It’s been a difficult couple of months for the Gaelic world. The multi-talented, sparkling but troubled funny man Norman Maclean from Glasgow and South Uist left us at the age of 80. Accomplished and warm-hearted John Alick MacPherson, of North Uist and Cape Breton, left us on the very same day. And the premature loss, just three weeks ago, of joyful and talented Lewis screenwriter Chrisella Ross has hurt us all.

These people, Gaels through and through, were champions for the language in its most natural and life-affirming form. The loss of each one of them makes an enormous hole in Gaelic’s resilience. According to the census there are 57,375 Gaelic speakers in Scotland. That’s fewer than the number of words in the language. Having devoted the past few years to just a few of these words, I have become keenly aware that every individual Gaelic-speaker, whether native, a learner, at home or abroad, is precious and indispensable.

Cuttingwords

Now, more than ever, I feel a personal responsibility to step up, put the work in, bask in all the beautiful expressions I can find and share them with my children. To be one more defender of the treasure, and not one less. Because Gaelic needs every one of us, and what beautiful gems it has to offer in return.

Sly Cooking: 42 Irresistible Gaelic Words, £5.95, Acair

Forradh: Sly Cooking, exhibition of linocuts at An Lanntair, part of Faclan book festival, until 22 November 2017

Mgr Ailein agus na Faclan, BBC Alba 9pm, October 30, 2017

www.slycooking.com

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headshot15weeAbout Catriona
I love to tell stories. My career has covered many bases, but communication has always been at the heart of everything I do. From journalism, politics and PR to art and design; from broadcast animation to published picture books and copy editing, it’s all about making people look and listen, and love what they hear. 

Looking for a copywriter to help you tell your story? Get in touch!

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The Pendulum Swings

snake-illsMy working life tends to swing like a pendulum between disciplines, enough to keep me fresh and excited, and sometimes – like the last few days – enough to catch me utterly by surprise. While I was hunched over my desk, deep in copywriting work, the pendulum reached its apex behind me, silently paused, and accelerated towards my rear, sending me catapulting through my screen.

Well, it felt like that anyway. In recent months the copyediting and writing work has taken over, leaving me little time for art and illustration. Friends have mentioned that I’ve gone quiet on the printmaking front, and I shrug my shoulders and say that the writing brings in better money. Nobody argues with that.

But late last week, two things happened. After waiting for nine months for LINE (a WhatsApp-style messaging app, huge in Asia) to approve my two sets of emojis, they sent a perfunctory little e-mail out of the blue to say they had been cleared for release.

I was bowled over. My funny little Blob character, that I had grown so fond of during months of happy sketching and funny faces in the mirror, was finally going out into the real world.My set of bilingual Dutch-Japanese emojis was dreamed up by my friend Yoshie Mera, who wished there were LINE stickers she could use with both sides of her family in Japan and in the Netherlands which reflected her dual identity. With 7,000 Japanese citizens residents in the Netherlands, we’re banking on the fact that Yoshie’s not the only one who does a little dance at the sight of bilingual Blob.

LINE is full of clean little vector images, all flat colour and flawless lines. Not my little Blob. Blob – true to my usual form – is sketchy, handmade, immediate, and totally authentic. I used a 2B pencil, whatever white paper came to hand, and my trusty eraser, with only minimal cleanup and colouring in the digital stage. I hope that Blob’s openness and expressiveness shines through as a result.

So, if you’ve any Dutch or Japanese friends, please tell them about Blob in Holland, and if you don’t speak Dutch or Japanese but do use LINE, there’s a lovely universal Blob set for you too.

And what was the second thing? Oh, shucks, just the publication of a couple of Julia Donaldson books coloured by me. Yeeks!! Yes, Julia Donaldson of The Gruffalo fame! The illustrations themselves were drawn in black and white by the wonderfully talented Hannah Shaw, but as she had no time to colour the new editions, I was commissioned by Barrington Stoke to do my best to be faithful to her style. I learned a lot from getting close up and personal with her lovely textured digital colouring, and am very glad that she likes what I did.

They’re very funny little books. I don’t think I’ll ever be as patient as the mum who allows her daughter to start an animal holiday home in The Snake Who Came To Stay, and my absolute favourite is Mr Birdsnest and the House Next Door – where jungle gardens, spidery wardrobes and a mysterious man with a long beard make for lots of fun and fantasy.

The two books were released on Friday, lending a tonne of momentum to that pendulum as it knocked all the finely-crafted copy out of my head, and reminded me that I’m not just a writer and editor. I am a busy illustrator too. And of that, I’m immensely proud.

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headshot15weeAbout Catriona
I love to tell stories. My career has covered many bases, but communication has always been at the heart of everything I do. From journalism, politics and PR to art and design; from broadcast animation to published picture books and copy editing, it’s all about making people look and listen, and love what they hear. 

Looking for a copywriter to help you tell your story? Get in touch!

Don’t want to miss out on my next blog? Sign up!

Better the Devil you Know? Independence is the New Status Quo

GLEN COE, SCOTLAND - MARCH 24: A European Union flag and Saltire flag blow in the wind near to Glen Coe on March 24, 2014 in Glen Coe, Scotland. A referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country will take place on September 18, 2014. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

In the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the No camp (aka Project Fear) put the frighteners on the electorate by claiming Scotland could not continue with its present currency, its international credit rating would suffer, and readmission to the European Union would not be guaranteed.

Working my way around the doorsteps of some of Edinburgh’s most disadvantaged areas in the last few days of the campaign, I met Eastern Europeans who were terrified; they had wanted to vote Yes, but a gang of No campaigners had been round before me, telling them that they would be thrown out of the country in the event of a Yes vote. I was appalled and pointed out that independence was more likely to shield them from such a prospect. They were upset, they wanted to believe me, but I think they were too scared.

In the face of these threats, Scotland wobbled, and voted narrowly for the status quo. The establishment at Westminster had prevailed. They were the devil we knew, the life we already lived, business as usual.

Now they are not.

Not long after Scotland voted for the “safe” option, a horror story began to play out at Westminster. Attempting to corner the English far right, the Tory Prime Minister called a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Far from cornering them, the Prime Minister had given the xenophobic little Englanders the platform they needed.

The rest is still sinking in. An unedifying campaign was fought between two grotesque gangs of posh private schoolboys, all obsessed with immigration. Keep Johnny Foreigner Out – vote Leave. We’re already keeping Johnny Foreigner out – vote Remain.

The unthinkable happened. England and Wales voted to Leave, with enough numbers to pull Northern Ireland and Scotland – who voted to stay – with them.

Sterling crashed overnight, to its weakest level in more than three decades. The UK’s international credit rating was changed from stable to negative. Scotland is being pulled out of Europe against its will. All the threats of Project Fear came true – but not because of independence. It’s because Scotland voted to stay in the UK.

Nicref

Thank God for Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland. Even according to the English media, she has emerged as the only political leader with any credibility; the only leader with a plan. With calm determination, she is exploring the options for keeping Scotland in Europe, whether by new arrangements with European officials, or with a new referendum on independence.

This time, everything has turned on its head. This time, independence will rescue us from the dark unknowns of Brexit. Independence will save our trade agreements and our structural funds. It will guarantee the existing free movement of people in and out of our country. Those poor, scared Eastern Europeans that I spoke to will feel safe in their Edinburgh home again, and I – their counterpart living in the Netherlands – will be able to relax with my own rights as a European citizen secure once again.

Independence, this time, is the status quo.

I have started a Facebook page called Scotland in Europe, for Scots like me who live all over Europe and who feel strongly about Scotland’s future in the European Union. Stay up to date with the latest developments, and be part of the conversation, by clicking the like button.

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headshot15weeAbout Catriona
I love to tell stories. My career has covered many bases, but communication has always been at the heart of everything I do. From journalism, politics and PR to art and design; from broadcast animation to published picture books and copy editing, it’s all about making people look and listen.

Don’t want to miss out on my next blog? Sign up!

Beautiful Nothing

cream

“What inspires you, Mummy?” asked my son yesterday, as he pumped with all his might on the old cast iron water pump at my allotment. He had just made a rousing speech about his vision for a world of nature, free from concrete structures and manmade intervention. All the while pumping manically. My watering can was filling pretty slowly all the same.

I stood still. It’s not a question I remember being asked before. “People making things,” I said slowly, after some thought. He looked crest-fallen. “Oh,” he said, “that’s the opposite of me.”

“Oh no,” I said. “People making things out of nothing. Out of nature. Imagine I had to make art out of just what’s in this garden.” He started to go all Andy Goldsworthy, imagining sticks and pebbles arranged in patterns through the grass. No, I said. I would make paint out of vegetable oils and crushed stones, and paper out of bark, and a brush out of those twigs there.

He enjoyed that answer. And I inched closer to an understanding of what drives me. We live in a world full of products that we know how to use, we know how to buy, but we’ve no idea how to make. When I learn how to make something from scratch, I feel like a magician, like I can save people one day with my sacred knowledge (remembering the day I arrived in an empty holiday home with ten of my ravenous art college friends, and managed to feed us all with the lone half-bag of flour in the cupboard. I have never felt more appreciated).

I made hand cream a couple of weeks ago to an old family recipe. The recipe required lard, but the butcher handed me fresh, diced pig’s fat. So I had to make the lard too. Not a pretty process, but give me a pig and an elderflower tree, and I can give you a lovely green-tinted cream that clears all eczema. Give me grass and I can make you Japanese paper. Give me a few basic tools and I can make you a relief print. Give me time and I can make you a story, plucking the words out of the air, out of the water pump, out of beautiful, expansive, infinite nothing.

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headshot15weeAbout Catriona
I love to tell stories. My career has covered many bases, but communication has always been at the heart of everything I do. From journalism, politics and PR to art and design; from broadcast animation to published picture books and copy editing, it’s all about making people look and listen, and love what they hear. 

Looking for a copywriter to help you tell your story? Get in touch!

Don’t want to miss out on my next blog? Sign up!

Dunglish is other cake

Dunglish is, without doubt, the most delightful language that ever existed. Any native English-speaker who has spent more than a few years living in the Netherlands will get their daily kicks out of spotting it, or even better – hearing it coming unexpectedly out of their own mouths.

For English-speakers, Dunglish is a badge of pride. Everyday English is peppered with little clues to your bilingual prowess, even if you can’t, in fact, string a proper Dutch sentence together. It’s a good step on the way though – if you your word order in the Dutch always wrong have, then what better way to practice than stringing your English words together Dutch-style? If your children want to eat poffertjes, what the hell would you call them in English anyway?

As languages go, English and Dutch are very close relations. It was only in the early middle ages that they diverged from their common proto-Germanic ancestor. Pioneering English printer, William Caxton, pointed out in the 15th century that Old English was “more like to Dutch than to English”. I often notice aspects of Dutch which remind me of Shakespearean English, and even more so of Scots – licht, dochter, kerk, and ken are a few, off the top of my head.

That common ancestry makes it a pure delight to mix and match Dutch and English. “Where is the remote?” asked my husband the other day. “Here is it,” I said, handing it to him. Oops. Hier is het in Dutch, here it is in English. Way too easy to mix up. My youngest – brought here from Scotland at the age of two – breezes through life speaking two languages beautifully intertwined. “We are out each other because she laughed me out on the schoolplein.” Yes dear.

And we have caught ourselves a few times recently tennissing. I think we have almost forgotten how to play tennis the English way. Which is worrying, seeing as it’s my job to pick up on Dunglishisms and eliminate them from English texts. I hope I can still tell the difference in a few years’ time.

DUnglish2

The Dutch have their own name for Dunglish. It’s called steenkolenengels – or coal English – with reference to the creative English historically spoken at the ports by Dutch workers meeting English cargo ships full of coal. In this case it’s not a conscious bilingual choice, but the unfortunate effect of trying to speak English and not quite succeeding.

A whole industry has sprung up around steenkolenengels, celebrating its linguistic absurdity, but also laughing at instances where Dutch people have stumbled into it unknowingly, doing their best with overly literal translations or with a sprinkling of Dutch words lurking hilariously – sometimes explosively – among the English.

Famously, for example, when the Dutch foreign minister Joseph Luns met John F Kennedy, he told him “I fok horses”. “Pardon??” asked a shocked JFK. “Yes, paarden!” answered Luns. Priceless. Although some say it’s just a monkey sandwich story.

And during the war, Churchill apparently said to his Dutch counterpart, “Spring is in the air”. Gerbrandy replied, “Why should I?”.

As a copy editor I get used to seeing certain words misused on a regular basis. Eventually is one of them: in Dutch, eventueel means potentially, not eventually. This apparently caused a diplomatic incident not so long ago, when the Belgian football association stated that their team would “eventually” beat the Scottish team. Sometimes ant fornication is necessary to keep us angry Scots at bay.

Dunglish3

Linguistic similarity is a dangerous thing. In almost every report I edit, I find myself removing the phrase “so-called”. In Dutch it is a neutral, academic term; in English it has the potential to start wars.

There’s a never-ending stream of Dunglish clangers to be enjoyed on Make That the Cat Wise, a veritable treasury of bilingual botsingen. But beware: this should never be about English speakers laughing at Dutch people, or the mockery of those who are uncomfortable in English. Anyone who has learned a language knows they have to be prepared to make a fool of themselves along the way. It’s part of the process, and a heroic act in my book, far braver than hiding inside one’s monoglot bubble. An impressive 75% of Netherlanders speaks at least two languages, compared with a miserable 18% in the UK. Good for you, Dutchies.

Then there is another way of looking at it. Dunglish, says one expert, is a national language in its own right; not bad English, but Dutch English. Scholar Alison Edwards draws parallels with the English spoken in former colonies such as India, which has its own well-established character and rules. But if she’s right, then I’m in trouble. If Dunglish were an acceptable language in which to write international reports, I’d be out of a copy-editing job. Or maybe not… Dunglish have I in middle also under the knee.

Find you not?

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headshot15weeAbout Catriona
I love to tell stories. My career has covered many bases, but communication has always been at the heart of everything I do. From journalism, politics and PR to art and design; from broadcast animation to published picture books and copy editing, it’s all about making people look and listen, and love what they hear. 

Looking for a copy editor to sort out your Dunglish? Get in touch!

Don’t want to miss out on my next blog? Sign up!

When mistakes are good

Today I tried a new trick I’d heard about, for fixing mistakes in linocuts. It didn’t work, and I found myself relieved.

I had come to lino the long way round, after a couple of decades living in the clean, safe land of digital art. I was never a fan of computer-generated lines and flat colour fields, and had always used my digital tools much as you would use a pencil or paints – but still, mistakes could be undone. Edit-Undo was always there to save me.

mistake1

So when I switched over to the physicalities of linocut printmaking, the greatest adjustment was losing that Edit-Undo option. You can reach for an eraser to rub out your pencil line, but you can’t uncut that line when your gouge slips. What’s done is done. It’s like life. You can’t unsay what you’ve said, unbreak your arm, or uncrash your car. It’s real. It’s risky. And it feels like a miracle when it works out.

It’s a great feeling, pulling off those miracles. And it wouldn’t feel so great if you could just pop polyfilla in the mistakes and make them go away. So I’m glad it didn’t work. I’m glad the mistakes are for real; unretractable and totally human.

mistake3

Sometimes a mistake is so bad that you have no choice but to bale, and start again, as with my dapper gentleman here. But sometimes it’s just enough to let the viewer know that what they are looking at is real life. There’s a name for that. It’s called an “honesty mark”. It’s the wobble of the trapeze artist that makes the act doubly exciting. It’s the double-fault of the tennis player as she struggles for a nail-biting moment to retain control.

I’ve told you about Victorian art critic John Ruskin before, and I will turn to him again. In The Stones of Venice, he had something very beautiful to say about imperfection:

“It is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent… And in all things that live there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty. No human face is exactly the same in its lines on each side, no leaf perfect in its lobes, no branch in its symmetry. All admit irregularity as they imply change; and to banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality. All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.”

You can get lino laser-cut, apparently. Although why you’d want to, I don’t know. I offer hand-carved rubber stamps in my Etsy shop, and because of the time it takes me to cut the tiny detail with all nerves tingling, I’m sure I charge more than you would pay to have a machine do it with more precise results. And yet, people want mine.

gina1

They get that a few slight imperfections make it more beautiful. They get that the human effort invested makes it into something special. So I will keep striving for perfection, and failing, like all humans do. And I’m glad that I can’t hide behind the polyfilla. My linocuts are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help me God.

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headshot15weeAbout Catriona
I love to tell stories. My career has covered many bases, but communication has always been at the heart of everything I do. From journalism, politics and PR to art and design; from broadcast animation to published picture books and copy editing, it’s all about making people look and listen, and love what they hear. 

Looking for a copywriter to help you tell your story? Get in touch!

Don’t want to miss out on my next blog? Sign up!

The Lamp of Sacrifice will make you whole

Ruskinquote

This blog post is not about pubic hair. I have to say this upfront because 19th century art critic John Ruskin is famous for being so shocked at the reality of his wife’s body (as opposed to all those silky-smooth marble sculptures he was used to), that after five unconsummated years, Effie Gray had to look elsewhere for satisfaction.

Poor Effie. Poor John. But now try to put that out of your mind, because Ruskin had a lot of powerful things to say about art, architecture and society which resonate perhaps even more today than ever. His Seven Lamps of Architecture made a big impression on me years ago, when I was grappling with the swing in contemporary art towards an aggressively anti-craft stance.

I had always loved things made with patience, care and years of practice, and yet, the art world was showing great disdain for the slow, deliberate exactitude of craft. It favoured pure ideas, and if these ideas had to be made concrete, then their execution was intentionally sloppy to distinguish them from the base hobbyism of ordinary housewives at their kitchen tables. As an art critic, I played along, but it made me uneasy.

Ruskin spoke of the Lamp of Sacrifice. This was one of his seven pillars of architecture: the beauty bestowed on a building through the human time spent making it; the transformative power of long hours spent carving intricate decoration, even round to the back of the columns where no one will see. “It is not the church we want,” he said, “but the sacrifice; not the emotion of admiration, but the act of adoration: not the gift, but the giving”.

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I loved that concept as a student, and I held onto it throughout my years of art criticism, knowing that I was not wrong to value craft, and quiet labour, for its own sake. But now, as a printmaker, who spends hours in quiet contemplation as I cut with my 0.5mm gouge, sliver by tiny sliver, through blocks of lino, I really get it.

Last week I spent six hours cutting a 7×5” composition, fully focussed on the intricacies of the Escher-like architectural structure. One lapse of concentration and the composition would collapse. Within this image was the figure of a welder, also focussing on his task within the monumental structure. He sat there alone, quiet, patiently fusing the metal on one of thousands of corner joints. I developed a sore wrist. I’m sure he had a fair few aches and pains too.

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Over the course of cutting this image I became fused in my mind with this welder, both of us taking our time, doing our best, methodically working through the thousands of details we had ahead of us to do our bit on this imposing building. I felt physically connected to Ruskin’s idea that architecture gleans power from “the perception or conception of the mental or bodily powers by which the work has been produced”.

Ruskin was writing in the mid-19th century, when the industrial revolution was more or less complete. He was no fan of mass production. He was against the division of labour, where workers were denied the pleasure of creating a whole product “so that all the little piece of intelligence that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin, or the head of a nail”.

Nothing beats the pleasure of learning to make a whole thing yourself, from start to finish, something out of nothing. I live for that pleasure. To take back the means of production, as Marx would have it, and feel the power of being truly able to do things for yourself instead of paying The Machine to spit them out for you, with all the hidden social and environmental damage that entails.

“The workman ought often to be thinking,” argued Ruskin, “and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense.” He saw class divisions deepening, society separating into “morbid thinkers, and miserable workers”, and he proposed a solution which I know is true for me:

“It is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.”

My welder print started as an interesting technical challenge with an Amsterdam angle – based on a photo during the building of the RAI in 1968. But by the time I had finished it, a title had floated to the surface of my mind: “The artist at work”. And I knew that I had to go back and read Ruskin again.

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(You can buy the original handmade linocut print, one of an edition of 20, here.)

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headshot15weeAbout Catriona
I love to tell stories. My career has covered many bases, but communication has always been at the heart of everything I do. From journalism, politics and PR to art and design; from broadcast animation to published picture books and copy editing, it’s all about making people look and listen, and love what they hear. 

Looking for a copywriter to help you tell your story? Get in touch!

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I ♥ 2016

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The snow’s here. Everything’s white. Well, some things are a bit white and everything else is just cold. But it matches my mood: 2016 has started crisp and fresh and bright for me. After a period of resistance to New Years’ Resolutions I made a few, and one of them was to take Black Prints in a new direction.

My little lino printmaking business had begun to languish at the end of 2015 as I wrestled with a welcome onslaught of writing work. My handmade artworks were starting to look like a financially misadvised self-indulgence which would have to be kicked into the leisure time section of my life.

Leisure time or not, my resolution was to spend less time worrying about making art for sale, and more time exploring new styles and techniques, developing my artistic voice, whether or not it would turn a quick buck. The chances are that longterm, this adventurous attitude is more likely to strike a seam of gold, but with writing work paying the bills, Black Prints doesn’t need to be my workhorse any more.

Today I had the freedom to put that into action. I had finished a commissioned print. I had turned some illustration in for feedback. I had written the introductions – in two languages – to a book I’m working on, and the next paid writing project had not yet landed in my lap. So I had the luxury of a full day in which to carve away at my artistic boundaries.

And that’s what I did. I found a photograph of the central figure in my book – Fr Allan MacDonald, priest of Eriskay in the late 19th century – and I sketched the image directly onto lino. Instead of my usual flat, almost naïve black and white carvings of Amsterdam canal houses, here I was going to flex my hatching muscles.

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And that’s what I did. Improvising as I went, I hatched the face, and I hatched again. I hatched a little too much, to be honest, till I began to lose some of the detail. I carved the oilskins at speed, only taking a chunk out of the dinner table once (oops), and I headed out to the shed with a smile on my face.

I couldn’t feel my fingers. I switched the heater on. I mixed up the ink and pulled the first print. It was much better than I expected, but there were smudges where the empty areas were picking up ink, so I grabbed the carpet scissors from the toolbox and I chopped those out. The ink was playing up in the freezing cold so I added some oil, and then I was flying.

I printed six good ones – 14 good ones – 20 good ones, and then it was 15.30. Oops, one child waiting to be picked up from school. I flew there on the bakfiets (a bike with a sort of wheelbarrow at the front, to the uninitiated), one handbrake frozen shut and the gears stuck in third, and I brought him and his pal back.

Then I ran straight back to the shed, and I marvelled at my creation. I cleaned up. I marvelled again.

This is going to be a good year.

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headshot15weeAbout Catriona
I love to tell stories. My career has covered many bases, but communication has always been at the heart of everything I do. From journalism, politics and PR to art and design; from broadcast animation to published picture books and copy editing, it’s all about making people look and listen, and love what they hear. 

Looking for a copywriter to help you tell your story? Get in touch!

Don’t want to miss out on my next blog? Sign up!

The Secrets of Success? Aye, Right.

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Tell me, are there are really 12 million articles out there sharing the secrets of success, as Emer O’Toole claimed in her recent article for the Guardian? And be honest, what do you think about them?

I’ve been wrestling with this lately. If I air my opinions on the matter I risk offending many of my dearest friends, who try so valiantly every day to be a better person than they were the day before, and my cherished network of mompreneurs, which leaves no stone unturned in the search for better working practices.

But as the New Year approached, and the steady buzz of self-improvement mantras became a deafening rush of mindful imperatives, I found my hackles rising. There are only so many eye-opening new ways of thinking a no-nonsense Scottish person can take, before she battens down the psychological hatches and self-medicates with the age-old remedies of denial, alcohol, and doing things the way they’ve aye been done.

But avalanches tend to bury skiers who shouldn’t have been there in the first place. I do wonder whether I have willingly embedded myself in the very networks which regurgitate this stuff ad nauseum. Take LinkedIn, for example; what kind of Pulse article attracts the maximum attention? Let’s see, something about working, which straddles all the various professional fields, and offers to reward the reader for her trouble. Ah yes, let’s write about the secrets of success.

Then there’s my favourite go-to Facebook group, Amsterdam Business Mamas. I won’t hear a bad word said about it. 3,800 international mothers living in or near Amsterdam, led by the amazing Emmy Coffey McCarthy, support each other with high-level professional help and a wonderful sense of solidarity.

Inevitably, with such a concentration of working supermums, you will find many, many discussions on how to magic up extra hours in the day, and how to maintain razor-sharp focus when the teething baby is keeping you up at night. I, too, am in need of a time-warping miracle which will allow me to care for my children without guilt, while enjoying the professional freedoms I took for granted before they were born.

I have benefited many times from Amsterdam Business Mamas discussions; they pointed me towards Self Control, which helps me ration my Facebook usage, and to Toggl, for timing my various tasks. They impressed upon me the importance of valuing my own worth in monetary terms, something that doesn’t come easily to us Scots (“kent yer faither” – I knew your father – the ultimate Scottish put-down to keep you in your place).

So when I posted Emer O’Toole’s article, a light-hearted dig at the modern obsession with miraculous life-hacks, and it was met with offence from one member and silence from others – I worried that I had betrayed my allies, including those close personal friends who have made mindfulness and empathy their life’s work. I don’t want to betray them. They are good people, and the world definitely needs more of them. In fact, the more I see of the war-radicalisation-terrorism-war cycle, the more I see that empathy is the only way out.

So, I suppose my opinion is not as inflammatory as I thought it would be. There is a place for these discussions, from the practical productivity hacks to the all-encompassing life skills. But when it becomes a never-ending torrent of contradictory points of view, which all posit themselves as the only way forward, I think back to Doctor Spock’s wise words on parenting advice, and I know what to do:

“Don’t take too seriously all that the neighbors say. Don’t be overawed by what the experts say. Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense.”

And one last thing: my heading is a classic Scottish case of two positives making a negative. If anyone ever says to you “Aye, right”, take note. You have just been taken with a massive pinch of salt.

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headshot15weeAbout Catriona
I love to tell stories. My career has covered many bases, but communication has always been at the heart of everything I do. From journalism, politics and PR to art and design; from broadcast animation to published picture books and copy editing, it’s all about making people look and listen, and love what they hear. 

Looking for a copywriter to help you tell your story? Get in touch!

Don’t want to miss out on my next blog? Sign up!

Dumping the Brain

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Is it just me, or is this December especially crazy for calendar meltdown? I have deadlines coming out of my ears, social events all over the place, and sudden urgent meetings that are coming thick and fast out of nowhere and NEED to be NOW. I wonder if it’s because I now live in the Netherlands, where the financial year (and the Quick-Let’s-Use-Up-Our-Budget panic) ends in tandem with the calendar year, instead of safely out of the way in March, as I’m used to.

With so much to do, so many places to be, human cargo with a combined age of 14 to cart about, and way too much stinging rain attacking me sideways, I developed a desperate need, a couple of weeks ago, for a car. I’d managed for over four years without one, but in the space of a week (and with the excellent help of my engine-loving neighbour), I acquired my wee yellow banana, a 13-year old Suzuki.

Then things got even more stressful. Driving on the right. Bashing my hand on the door every time I reach for the gearstick on the left. Driving the wrong way into one-way streets because it was never an issue for the bike. Yikes.

My To Do list started to buzz around my brain like stinging wasps. It was affecting my sleep. I was rushing my work. I’m even rushing this (it was supposed to be a deeply-researched blog on gamification – sorry). I’ve barely even taken the time to tweak it (gasp).

Usually these days I like to go running to clear my head, but my schedule (and the weather) have been making it impossible. So I asked my friends how they clear their heads. These are their ideas, in no particular order:

  1. Brain dump – this involves writing down every single last thing spilling out of your brain, on paper using pen.
  2. Phone a friend – basically a verbal brain dump, hoping that your friend will empathise and reflect back what’s actually important to you.
  3. Eat chocolate – when is this not a solution?
  4. Drink wine – also suggested by the eat chocolate friend. I sense a pattern.
  5. Have a bath – always my favourite. I particularly like Radox muscle soak bath salts, which are sadly not available in NL. Please let me know if you know otherwise!
  6. Hae a dram – ie drink whisky. The Scottish solution.
  7. Dance to your three favourite songs. I particularly like the method in this madness. The exercise helps, your brain is distracted by figuring out its favourites, and you will laugh. I like to imagine the lawyer friend who suggested this doing it in her office.
  8. Sleep.

In the end I plumped for the classic wine-bath-sleep formula, with a little bit of Nashville thrown in. It definitely improved things. Next time I’m going to get adventurous and try the brain dump and the dancing. How about you? Do you have any great DIY head-clearing tips you can share?

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headshot15weeAbout Catriona
I love to tell stories. My career has covered many bases, but communication has always been at the heart of everything I do. From journalism, politics and PR to art and design; from broadcast animation to published picture books and copy editing, it’s all about making people look and listen, and love what they hear. 

Looking for a copywriter to help you tell your story? Get in touch!

Don’t want to miss out on my next blog? Sign up!