It is a bright, dry day in October 2021, the full palette of autumn is fully established, and there is still plenty of warmth in the sun. With me are two friends from southern Norway, Lisbeth and Einar. We are spending the day together, drinking coffee in my Dumfriesshire home, exploring the Dalswinton estate, and eating lunch at Thomas Tosh in nearby Thornhill. The highlight of our excursion is to be a visit to CAMPLE LINE, a small gallery in Nithsdale, where I am a charity board member.
At the gallery, the three of us encounter for the first time the work of Tonico Lemos Auad. His show consists of just 12 pieces. The largest are in an upstairs room, where some are suspended from the wooden rafters of what is a former textile mill. The exhibition is beautifully constructed. The work and the place that contains it seem uniquely at one. It is clear that the artist understands the building. So I am only half surprised when I learn that Tonico is also an architect.
The idea of the arboretum came about in 2015, when I had the opportunity to take a long lease on the field adjacent to my home in Dumfriesshire. Having secured the arrangement, I began to ponder how to proceed. Almost two hectares in extent, the field had been set-aside for years as rough pasture. Long coveted, it now seemed a rather daunting responsibility.
Fortunately it did not daunt my ever practical friend Artur Nalepko, who assured me of his assistance and know-how. My principal idea was to plant trees, though I wasn’t sure which ones or in what groupings or pattern. The rather grand term ‘arboretum’ came a little later,
The motorway is down to one lane in the deepening snow. I’m in a convoy of vehicles making cautious progress as we all head north. Driving home for Christmas.
I reach the Scottish border. The Gretna outlet store, now re-named Caledonia Village, is crammed with last minute shoppers. I take the next exit, heading west into Dumfries and Galloway. That little corner of Scotland that no one elsewhere seems to know much about.
Over the last decade I have taken many friends, visitors and colleagues to the Loch Arthur Farm Shop, in Beeswing near Dumfries. I’m always pleased when the visit coincides with an opportunity to chat to Barry Graham, who in the interview with me below tells us his intriguing story.
One challenge I have had at the Farm Shop is how to introduce him to others. Occasionally I have used the term ‘majordomo’ as a title, though as the interview will testify, that is far from being the right descriptor. ‘Inspiration behind Loch Arthur’ is another phrase I’ve used, though as we shall see that doesn’t quite capture it either.
His own words tell a good story. “I am the person who knows the most people who I don’t actually know”. For my own part, I am certainly one who beyond a sketchy knowledge of Barry’s varied roles and responsibilities at Loch Arthur, until now knew very little of the person. Which is why it is such a pleasure to present here this account of aspects of his life and work.
‘A plant in the wrong place’. I have long been aware of this rather cryptic definition of a weed. A few years ago I mentioned it to my friend Devi Vijay, whilst strolling around the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and puzzling over a few patches of vegetation here and there that seemed out of harmony with the overall presentation of the place. When Devi got in touch with me recently about the work of a cultural anthropologist who has written in detail about the subject, I realised that there is a great deal more to the casual question, ‘what is a weed?’
Saturday early evening she closes the shop. Pulls down the blind, the summer light still pouring in above the door. After cashing up the till, her hand is shaking slightly as she removes £7 and pushes the grubby notes into the back of her purse.
I was walking round the garden just before dusk on All Souls Day, when something at the edge of the pond caught my eye. I immediately thought the predatory heron had been in action and perhaps left behind some part of its prey. A closer inspection showed that the eel which lay there, for such it was, appeared unharmed and with no sign of damage from that stabbing beak.
It was a beautiful elver, maybe ten inches long. Pigmented in colours of grey and brown from its elegant dark head to its finely tipped tail, it was also mottled with greens and blues, that seemed to refract in the low light. A yellowish-brown belly, looked soft and vunerable.
I’ve read many more letters than I’ve written. I can say this with absolute certainty. Some years ago I took on the fascinating task of editing the correspondence of Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement. After sifting through an estimated 7,000 items, I put together a book of letters in which I had selected about one tenth of the total and arranged them to tell the story of her life and work.
Cicely Saunders (1918-2005) wrote letters on a phenomenal scale. With more than half an eye to posterity, she kept copies of them too. Neither of these is true for most of us today.
Yet the letter can be a joy to receive: ‘Too much! I’ve got a letter …’ sang Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band on taking delivery of a billet doux from the USA one day in the 1960s. The writing of a letter also brings its pleasures, as authors from Austen to Hemingway to Orwell have acknowledged. Lewis Carrol enjoyed letter writing so much that he wrote a nine point guide to doing it well, But the pleasure of letter writing is not restricted to the literati.
I first met Trevor Leat in his studio-workshop, on a Spring Fling event, several years ago. He was sharing the space with Natalie Vardey at the time and the contrast between his willow work and her jewellery showed off the remarkable skill and invention of both. Over the years I have made a collection of Trevor’s smaller works and also given away some pieces as gifts. There have been trugs and baskets of various kinds, most recently a beautiful apple picker, elegantly shaped and providing the perfect blend of beauty and practicality. We also have a decorative swirling circular piece that sits above a doorway in the house and which I look at every morning as the day begins.
I don’t know Trevor very well but always enjoy my conversations with him when we bump into one another at some event, in a gallery, or most likely at a concert. He and I share an enthusiasm for the Incredible String Band and the subsequent work of Robin Williamson. I see Trevor at my Kirkmahoe Concerts, where, until the pandemic, Robin performed annually from 2010. When we meet between times Trevor and I always seem to fall into some arcane conversation about our shared love of that strange and eclectic music.
Trevor epitomises aspects of the artistic and artisanal work that flourishes in Dumfries and Galloway. He always seems to be busy, whether near or far. He values a sense of place. His work is a paradigm of sustainability. He is unfailingly unflustered, with time to talk and to share his thoughts. His work has a seasonal rhythmn that is reflected in the things he creates.
Adrian was standing at the back of a metal-worker’s forge. A demonstration of decorative ironmongery skills had just ended and as the heat of the fire died down, the large crowd was still murmuring its admiration. Suddenly, a voice tinged with irony filled the space. ‘We are soon going to take some photographs for publicity use by Visit Scotland. So if by chance you are with someone you perhaps shouldn’t be, then you might want to leave now’.