IT’S BEEN an extraordinary year in which countless people’s hopes and dreams have been frustrated, shattered or put on hold.
No one knows that better than Chilterns artist Sue Graham, whose family rewilding adventure featured on these pages last spring, when she explained how a series of paintings inspired by her love of the dawn chorus prompted her family to buy a croft and start planting hundreds of trees on a remote Scottish island.
Her painting Argyll Dreaming is our picture choice this week, taking us on a particularly poignant virtual journey back to the beautiful lochside roads that lead from Glasgow to Tayinloan, from where you can catch the 20-minute ferry to the Isle of Gigha in the Inner Hebrides.
It’s the first of two instalments looking at Sue’s most recent work and follows an article in September last year focused on her landscapes from the other end of the country, in Cornwall.
Says Sue: “The painting came to me during Lockdown 2, when (like everybody else) I was longing to get away somewhere. I missed the lochs and the empty spaces of Scotland’s wild west coast.
“When our family planted a native woodland at the croft back in November 2019, we had no idea what challenges lay ahead; for us, for everyone.”
Back in those innocent days the worst of their worries was the possibility of voles damaging the tiny saplings – and competition from grass.
Sue recalls: “We planned a schedule of regular island visits to remove grass, check the vole guards, erect perch poles for birds of prey and keep an eye on our nascent Atlantic rainforest. And then two unexpected things happened: serious health challenges for me and a global pandemic.”
Covid restrictions and cancer treatment through the spring and summer of 2020 made it impossible to travel, although a friend on the island – the local ferryman – reported that the trees were ‘growing well’ – but so was the grass.
“Once the first lockdown eased our two sons, Tom and JP, travelled from Glasgow to Gigha and made a valiant start on the great grass cut-back, sowing grass-parasitic yellow rattle in the hope that this will help keep the grass under control in future years,” Sue explains.
“When Gabriel and I finally got to Gigha in early October 2020 – almost one full year since planting the woodland – the grass was thigh-high in places, with some feisty trees waist-high, and some less rugged species struggling to breathe in vole guards full of grass.”
Despite days of back-breaking work to clear the saplings of grass, the project has been a resounding success, with the young trees enjoying a 95% survival rate to date.
Having added a small orchard and ‘edible hedge’ to the croft, with a view to encouraging pollinators, the family also made two new native tree additions.
Says Sue: “Gabriel and JP joined the Woodland Trust back in 2016 and were sent a native tree each: an oak and a rowan, all of 25cm tall when they came in the post. Now 7ft tall and repeatedly outgrowing their pots, it was high time for them to move north.
“So while they were dormant we packed them up, just about fitting them in the car (though the rowan was stroking our cheeks as we drove).
Rowans have a long tradition in European folklore – especially for warding off witches. An islander suggested we plant one so it seemed the perfect fit to situate this lovely young tree near the mill leat at the entrance to the croft. No witch infestation here!”
Gigha was set to be a bold new chapter in the family story – but of course that was before the coronavirus crisis and personal health setbacks forced Sue to remain in Buckinghamshire for another year.
Working from the top of their home in Long Crendon near Thame, she has missed exhibiting during the pandemic and her ongoing cancer treatment has posed its own challenges.
But those happy thoughts of the west coast of Scotland have provided one source of inspiration and comfort.
“We’ll get back to Gigha to check on everything as soon as we can,” she says. “We can’t wait to see the trees in leaf and see how much they grow this year.
“Whatever considerable difficulties have come our way recently there is an overwhelming positive sense that we are leaving something potentially beautiful behind for the future in this extraordinary place, a good feeling that we’re trying to give something back to the earth.”
Next week: Sue “escapes” to Dartmoor and Henley-on-Thames