North Lands, A Survival Guide

T’was a dark and stormy evening in the village of Lybster. A village nestled high on the northernmost tip of Scotland, like the remnants of an eagle’s nest, perched resolutely in defiance of the icy blasts flowing down from the Arctic Circle. The hard Caithness rain had persisted for most of that day, spearing through the air like darts of ice, before finally halting its remorseless assault around two in the afternoon. The village was deserted. The locals knew better than to venture out of doors on a day like today. They knew this climate of old. Although dry now, the ominous clouds on the horizon were heading their way with a malevolent tenacity, black and laden with the promise of more rain.

The chilly cold shop was deserted, save for a lone, shadowy figure staring out from behind the darkening windows toward the black clouds rolling down from the Highlands. Turning away, he let out a sigh. “A storm is coming” he heard himself mutter and for one brief moment, his mind was occupied with thoughts far darker than those of the approaching thunder…..

Actually, that is utter nonsense! In truth, when I arrived at Wick airport on the fourth of May, from a decidedly wet and dreary London, there was not a cloud in the sky. The air was charged with excitement and anticipation at the thought of ten days in a beautiful part of Scotland and the prospect of an imminent storm, real or metaphorical, was the furthest thing from my mind!

Like most Brits I never pass up an opportunity to take a punt at the weather! We all do. It’s part of our charm. However, unlike London, where the weather is little more than a meteorological curiosity, or the subject of endless small talk, here in Lybster, the climate is palpable, almost sentient. Calm one moment, then brooding, then positively thunderous. All within the time it takes to put on a brew! Some would describe Caithness as unspoiled. A better analogy might be ‘untamed’. The place resonates with a sense of drama, excitement and above all, danger. Treated with the respect it is due, the Caithness coast can be an inexhaustible source of inspiration for any artist lucky enough to spend time there. But I digress. On with the story…..

As you already know, my little adventure began in early May, on the finest of spring days (yes they do exist, even this far North!). I had visited North Lands once before, back in 2015 as a TA for Angela Thwaites. However, this was the first time I had run my very own class and I confess to feeling a little trepidation in the days leading up to it. Running a workshop is so much more than just teaching a skill. It is more akin to organising a five day party for a group of relative strangers. As the host, it is your responsibility to make sure the participants are all having a good time and are actively engaged. You must serve as a mediator in case of any friction and make certain that both time and equipment are partitioned out fairly. Not to mention act as bouncer on occasion, in case the inevitable fight breaks out in the car park at the end of the night (I’m pleased to say this did not occur!).

As it transpires, my trepidation was entirely unwarranted. I could not have wished for a better group. Wit, vivacity, they had it all! Not to mention enthusiasm, a genuine interest in the subject (something you do not encounter often as a cold worker) and most importantly, realistic expectations of what could be achieved during a five day class. I deliberately kept the brief as open as possible.

Cold working can be highly individual and I felt it important that each student come away with knowledge relevant to his or her own practice. So, apart from a couple of technical exercises, I allowed the students to tailor the workshop in whatever manner best suited them. There was huge diversity to the range of techniques I was quizzed on and the variety of questions I was peppered with covered the entire spectrum of cold working.

Each of my six students undertook very different projects. Some brought work from previous courses, with an eye to improving the quality of their finish. Some were more interested in the cold working machinery and how it could best be utilised and adapted. Some wanted to expand on ideas they touched on at college.

Some were happy experimenting with techniques they ordinarily would not have had the time or facilities to explore on their own. As an instructor, it was a real challenge not to get drawn into just one student’s project. Their different approaches were utterly captivating and I could have easily lost entire days working with each student individually. I had to be very disciplined in my approach to time management in order to distribute myself fairly. Something I am by no means a natural at.

Although the class officially finished each day at five, I made a point of arranging social events for the evenings in order for us to capitalise on our time together as a group. Each of my students prepared a short slide show, with examples of their work and discussed the inspiration at the root of their practice. Something I always find exceedingly interesting. I also put together a presentation of my own, as well as organising a couple of film evenings in which I screened some of the short films I have made over the past several years for various members of the glass community.

They say a black hole is the only place in the known universe where time dilates to such an extent that it stops moving entirely. Not true. Cold shops are also noted for this phenomenon. However, in this instance, the opposite was true. Between studio and cold shop time, a couple of group outings to Lybster bay and the local countryside. Not to mention several splendid meals at the Bay Owl, the Whaligoe Steps Café (I can heartily recommend the proprietor Karen Davis’s amazing coffee beef!) and of course, Lybster’s famous fish & chip van, we managed to motor through the five days in the blink of an eye!

We downed tools at around lunchtime on Friday and a group of us took advantage of the free afternoon to visit the workshop of William Mackay, a prodigiously talented local luthier (I had to look the word up too. It refers to ‘a maker and restorer of all string instruments’). For my part, it was a real treat to see such a beautifully ordered workshop set up for an entirely different discipline.

There was an astonishing array of instruments in various stages of completion. For a few glorious moments, I allowed myself the fantasy of a sudden change of profession, devoting the rest of my life to the creation of exquisite musical instruments. Then reality reasserted itself and I remembered I could not even play a string instrument, let alone build one from scratch!

That afternoon a ‘haar’ rolled in and by the evening, Lybster was completely enveloped in the most atmospheric of sea fogs. Of course, we get the occasional mist in London, particularly in the autumn. However, this was fog on a different order of magnitude. Fog, which can only be described as the sea made manifest. The very air smelled and tasted of salt. As out of place as I felt, I was amazed to see how comfortable the village appeared in that fog, like sea anemones at home both above and below the waterline.

My final few days were spent wrapping things up with the delightful North Lands staff, and enjoying the local scenery of courtesy of North Lands technician Michael Bullen and family, who very kindly took me on the most breathtaking and potentially most lethal cliff walk I have ever been on!

My flight out of Wick was a sorry occasion. (Not least due to the turbulence, which planted my complimentary tea squarely in my lap!) You pick up an almost tangible connection with the surrounding environment in the short time you are exposed to it. A connection that once made, is not easily severed. Lybster moves at it’s own pace. You cannot approach it with the ferocity of a capital city. People addicted to a faster pace of life will find it difficult adapting to life here.

However, for those capable of removing their foot from the throttle, even for a short while, Lybster is a place where the pressures of city life fade into insignificance, allowing you time to recharge, reevaluate and then return to the rat race with a renewed perspective.

Visiting North Lands is so much more than just signing up to a skills workshop or master class. You are choosing to immerse yourself in a truly remarkable and unique environment. As beautifully equipped as the studio is, the glass element is very much the tip of a deep and ancient iceberg.

To people familiar with the works of Tolkien, it is easy to see how journeys into these lesser trodden regions gave rise to such marvellous works of fiction. Worlds shaped and governed from outside our reality, to which only a privileged few are permitted entry. Caithness is very much one of these places. Fantasy authors would describe it as ‘a place where the mortal and fairy worlds meet’ and by using the term ‘fairy world’, I am not referring to a land inhabited by tiny cute critters with butterfly wings. I refer to a place of almost unfathomable age. A place, which has been home to creatures and borne witness to events far outside the realms of our meagre history. Being amidst the incredible landscape fills you with a sense of your own transience. That we are little more than visitors to a place, which existed long before us and shall continue to exist long after we have moved on. The term ‘Genius Loci’ springs to mind. When a place has witnessed so much, does it cease to be merely a collection of hills, cliffs and ancient ruins? Well, I suggest going to Caithness and asking it. You never know, you may just get a reply!


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