All posts by gs


By Kit Martin [1]

I think moths are amazing. I do not pretend to be able to identify many of them (and I think there are 2500 species in the UK) but I’ve been fascinated by these elusive, sometimes clumsy, hugely varied and often beautiful creatures of the shadows for a long time. These night-shift (and day flying) pollinators are crucial as food for birds and bats as well as having an intrinsic value just for being moths.

Kit Martin Photography

I am working on a photography and printmaking project about moths that in part led on from my FRAY exhibition in 2019 looking at pollinators and wildflowers [2]. It has also been shaped by the fascinating and incredibly talented Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) who is one of the earliest European naturalists to observe insects directly and saw that caterpillars became butterflies and moths, at a time when Aristotle’s ‘spontaneous generation’ theory was still believed.

Kit Martin Photography

Maria was also an exceptional artist and the first to include the whole life cycle, including the larval food plant, in her exquisite paintings [3]. Moths were known as Owlbirds in Maria’s time, as they appeared at night and flew. Butterflies were Summerbirds as they were thought to appear from elsewhere in summer.

I am working with assistant Curator Ashleigh Whiffen in National Museum of Scotland’s entomology stores [4] where I have kindly been given access to some of the moths in the collection to take photographs. I am also tracking down Trefor Woodford’s collection held by JHI with the aim to photograph some of these moths.

One of Maria Merian’s paintings of natural history, image provided by Kit Martin

The project will develop over the coming months and I hope to link in some way with the Angus Moth Project [5] and learn from the experts in Dundee Naturalists Society [6], which I joined last year (and am dismayed I hadn’t found them sooner!). I look forward to Moth Night, 19-21 May [7] and learning more about these wonderful scaly winged creatures as I make new work.

Kit Martin Photography


[1] Web site: Kit Martin Photography

[2] Kit’s previous article on the Living Field web: Cyanotypes by Kit Martin

[3] On MSM: at the Natural History Museum – Maria Sibylla Merian: metamorphosis unmasked by art and science; and at Botanical Art and Artists – About Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717).

[4] National Museum of Scotland Entomology Collection

[5] Angus Moth Project: 2016 blog from Scottish Museum’s Federation The Moths of McManus

[6] Dundee Naturalists Society

[7] Moth Night

Kit Martin Photography

Ed: many thanks to Kit for sharing her interests in moths and we look forward to hearing and seeing about her photography and natural history.

Making ink from oak galls

By Jean Duncan

Oak galls are small spherical growths that form on oak trees where the gall wasp lays its eggs in the buds of the tree. The tree grows tissue around the egg which protects the wasp until it hatches, leaving a hole. Watch out for a hole in the gall before harvesting.

The end of the summer is a good time to harvest, I find the galls are easier to spot once the leaves have fallen. If you can’t find them, you can buy oak gall powder/whole oak galls online [1].

Drawing Ink

With the addition of iron, oak galls make a permanent ink. The method involves a reaction between tannic acid extracted from the galls and ferrous sulphate. The ink would once have been used with a quill and later a dipping pen.

Oak gall ink can still be seen on early manuscripts, though many are damaged due to the acidity of the tannic acid, which eats away at the natural fibres of paper, parchment or vellum [2]. To avoid such damage, recipes now use less ferrous sulphate.

Wet oat gall ink on paper (Jean Duncan)

Recipe This makes 250 ml of ink.

To make a permanent oak gall ink you will need ;

  • 30 g of whole oak galls or oak gall powder.
  • Pestle and mortar
  • Scales
  • Rain water
  • Muslin
  • 15 g ferrous sulphate powder *
  • 7 g gum arabic solution
  • Glass jar for storage.

*Can be purchased as blue green crystals or white powder.

Colour from oak galls can be used alone, but the addition of ferrous sulphate makes the ink permanent and black (Jean Duncan)


  1. Crush the oak galls with a pestle and mortar or put them in a bag and mash them with a hammer.
  2. Add 30 g oak gall powder to 25 ml of water and leave to soak for 24 hrs.
  3. Strain the liquid through the muslin.
  4. Mix the ferrous sulphate into the strained solution.
  5. Add the gum arabic and stir well
  6. Add oil of cloves or any other essential oil to help it keep for longer and store in the fridge. 
  7. Try using the ink with a pen and a brush to see that it flows well, if the ink has a dusty surface add more gum arabic.

It is worth experimenting with washes of ink, as it turns blacker when it reacts with oxygen from the air.

Oak gall ink reacting with barley ink made from orzo coffee grounds (Jean Duncan)

I wanted to make my own inks and watercolours to help create a sense of place in my drawings through botanical colours from my local environment, while consciously moving away from synthetic printing colours which are often unpleasant to use, toxic and harmful to people and the environment.

The photograph above shows a blend of colours produced on paper by oak gall ink and barley ink, the latter from orzo, a caffeine-free drink made from barley.

Colours from oak gall, onion skin and coreopsis – drawing by Jean Duncan

There are many artists and artisans working in this way and small businesses are leading the way in using locally sourced materials and natural dyes to make cloth that at the end of it’s life can be put back into the earth as a biological nutrient rather than a pollutant. I have given links below to two Fibreshed businesses working in this way [3, 4] and to an article on making ink from up-cycled coffee grounds [5].

Hand-bound sketchbook with oak gall, indigo and ochre cover

[1] To buy oak gall ink: George Weil fine art and craft supplies.

[2] Sakura Tohma (2015) Making and testing Iron Gall ink. West Dean College web site.

[3] Bristol Cloth – wool and botanical inks: South West England Fibreshed.

[4] More Fibreshed – Wool from the border between the Yorkshire Dales and Cumbria, : Laura’s Loom.

[5] European Horizon magazine: Eco espressso and upcycled inks set to make coffee greener. Some interesting facts in this article: black printing ink is more expensive than Chanel No 5, and the daily ‘waste’ in coffee grounds is equal to the weight of three Eiffel Towers!

Jean Duncan is based in Fife. See her web site at JeanDuncanArtist. Jean has worked with the Living Field on many projects, exhibitions and events – her work is profiled at this Living Field page.

The photographs below are of an oak gall and oak leaf from the Living Field collection

Oak gall in late June (
Oak leaf (

Creative metalwork

David Brown is a farrier, based in Perthshire, with decades of experience in shoeing horses and fabricating metal.

In recent years, he’s been delighting family and friends with craftwork, whether wood-fires, garden ornaments or house-signs, all made from a collection of rods, plates and cylinders.

Examples of his work can be seen online [1] . The photograph below shows some of the parts being combined to make a house-sign .

Earlier in February, the Living Field went to find out how David works the metal into lettering and complex shapes of plants and animals.

It’s all done at a workshop within an old stone outbuilding in the Braes of the Carse between Dundee and Perth.

Firing scrap

The first thing noted was that the raw materials are mostly from unwanted or scrap metal. Take the rods, tied in bundles in the photograph above. They became unfit for their original purpose in the construction industry and would have been thrown away. Yet they are ideal for making things like ornamented pokers and lettering.

To become malleable, the rods are first fired in the forge until white hot, then the hot end is placed on the anvil ready for the hammer.

The end of a white hot circular rod was beaten with a hammer into an oblong (top left), which was then cut with a hand-held circular saw (top right) to form a sort of ‘tuning fork’; the rod was reheated and the prongs bent in various ways (right middle and lower). Another rod was left uncut, but twisted into a spiral around itself (lower middle and left) to form the holding end of a poker or similar implement.

Hammering, sawing, bending, twisting

A range of techniques can used to create shapes out of the fired rods. First, the rods are usually beaten with a hammer to ‘flatten’ the last few inches of the rod into an oblong.

When cool, the flattened ends can be cut with a circular saw to form two prongs, like a tuning fork. The rod then goes back in the forge until it’s white hot again and in this form, the two prongs can be bent or hammered into shape.

Or the white hot rod can be left as a cylinder, but twisted round a ‘plug’ inserted into the anvil or held in a vice and curled into a spiral.

Demonstration of the plasma cutter: the shape of a horse’s head was drawn on a strip of metal 10 cm wide and about 1 cm thick; one end of a circuit was clamped on the metal; the cutter was turned on and moved over the outline, cutting through the metal with ease. It only took a minute or so from start to finish.

Power of the plasma cutter

Shapes are usually made from discarded steel or iron plate. An outline is drawn on the metal, then a hand-held plasma cutter traces the shape to release it from the plate. A powerful thing, this plasma cutter ….. and it makes a cascade of sparks!

The shape can then be re-heated and bent, cut or hammered to add spirals and other patterns.

From discard to craftwork

It was heartening to see David’s positive efforts to turn waste metal into things useful and ornamental. Here’s two examples.

In the panel above, discarded metal discs (top right) were first cut radially into several segments, some taken out to near the centre, those remaining moulded into the form of leaves or petals, given texture by repeated blows from a special hammer. When aligned on a central rod, the discs combine into whorls of leaves or flowers.

In the lower photographs, metal was taken from an old calor gas cylinder, flattened and cut into the form of a hare.

The workshop is a place of fire, sparks, hammering and hot metal – amazing to see it all. And there is little duplication: each piece is hand made and unique.

[1] Knapp Forge and Flora – a page on facebook.

Ed: the Living Field thanks David for the invitation to his workshop and forge and for demonstrating some of his metalworking techniques.

Ancient and Modern – Techniques with wool in textile Art

By Ruth Black

Starting out

In my practice as a textile artist, I work largely with wool – a fibre which has been used since the dawn of civilisation. It was almost certainly one of the earliest fibres to be used in the manufacture of cloth. Its continued use right through to modern times is testament to its usefulness. 

My own development as an artist has been very much influenced by happenings and circumstance rather than a planned progression, and living in the Highlands of Scotland means that wool is the fibre that just happened to be available at times when I wanted to explore a different route. 

My mother had taught me to sew at an early age – or as she described it, she allowed me to have needle, thread and scissors – and although I have no memory of it, I could sew before I could read. Adding decoration to fabric in the form of embroidery or the addition of braids seemed to just come naturally. I was 10 before my legs were long enough to reach the foot pedal of my mother’s sewing machine, but once I got going with that, there was no stopping me – machines were the way to go! After a year away from home at university with no access to a sewing machine, I spent all my summer holiday earnings on my own machine, and have never looked back. 

Broadening my skills

I was given a small table-top loom by my father when I was 15 – just a happy result of him being in the right place at the right time when a colleague was doing some down-sizing. As this was decades before the advent of the internet, I made a trip to the local library to find a book on weaving and from that figured out what to do with the loom. A friend with a knitting machine gave me a cone of Shetland yarn to weave with and I was off……. 

Pictish cross slabs, 9th century: left, Rodney’s Stone, which stands near the entrance to the grounds of Brodie Castle in Moray; right, a detail from the Nigg stone, Easter Ross. All photographs by Ruth Black.
Wall hanging, inspired by the Nigg stone – hand-made felt, Harris Tweed and embroidery (40 x 120 cm).

Over a couple of decades I was just a serious amateur sewer and weaver with occasional forays into machine knitting, hand spinning and various other textile techniques as and when time allowed, but in the early 90s I stumbled into the world of Pictish sculptured stones. As a design style, this really captured my imagination and figuring out ways to incorporate this art form in my embroidery resulted in me getting commissions for my work. And of course, the more I was asked to do, the more I was able to let my art develop and after a few years, I got to the stage where I was able to give up my day job as a school science technician. 

Going professional

My mother had a small part-time business [1] making hats with Harris Tweed. (She started this because of taking early retirement and moving to the Isle of Lewis. The wind blows there, so warm hats were needed!) I helped her out whenever she was busy with orders, so Harris Tweed was always around and available for me to experiment with. The combination of Harris Tweed and Pictish design works really well and I discovered there was a market for my style.

Harris Tweed hat from the Anna Macneil range.

Once I started working professionally I found I was able to invest in equipment that not only saved me time, but allowed me to develop my style in ways that had not previously been possible.

‘Celtic surf’ – wall hanging on display at Morven Gallery on the Isle of Lewis – hand-made felt, Harris Tweed and machine embroidery (110 x 50 cm)

Embroidery machine

It was 2001 when I bought my first embroidery machine – a tiny domestic model that was very limited in terms of scale, but opened my eyes to the possibilities of what could be achieved with a machine so I saved up, and a couple of years later bought an industrial machine. And a couple of years after that, I added a bigger one………. Studio space prevents me from going bigger still. Two machines running side by side is all I have room for.

Laser cutter

The technique I developed for all my Celtic/Pictish inspired work is appliqué. This involves cutting out shapes of fabric, placing it on the background fabric and stitching over the cut edges. At first, this was all done with a scalpel on a cutting board, but it was a slow process that put a strain on my wrist, so when I discovered about laser cutters………. yes, it might be the same cost as a new family car, but I did the sums and figured out that it could pay for itself within 5 years so a bank loan was worthwhile. Speed and comfort are not the only benefits. Wool is a mobile, flexible fabric. As the laser does not actually touch the fabric at any time there is no distortion in the cutting process. The laser works by burning along a very finely focussed line and gives a sealed edge as the fibres burn away. In the case of wool this gives a slightly tarry, charred edge but this is later concealed by the stitching that goes over it. The down side is that my studio can sometimes smell a bit like a charnel house, but the smell quickly dissipates.

Weaving in progress on the Hattersley loom


Family circumstances meant I was spending a lot of time going to Lewis for a few days every month. As a change from my embroidery I decided that while on Lewis I should improve my weaving skills. I managed to acquire an old Hattersley loom (and a shedful of Harris yarn to go with it) and set it up in my mother’s garage. It took a while, but I did get to the stage where I was weaving Harris Tweed and getting it stamped with the official Orb certification mark. The image below right shows an Orb design embroidered on my own weaving.

Orb mark that certifies a piece of cloth is genuine Harris Tweed (official stamp just visible top right)

Wool is a lovely yarn to weave with, and almost all the weaving I have done over the decades has been with wool. It is a “forgiving” fibre. It has a degree of natural elasticity that makes it easy to weave with, and also easy to disguise mistakes and breaks. When it first comes off the loom it is quite hard and rough, but at this stage, careful examination gives the weaver a chance to do any necessary darning and once the tweed is washed you can’t tell where the problem was.

When my mother died I no longer had an island base for my loom so moved it to my studio near Inverness. Of course the weaving that I do here cannot be called Harris Tweed because for that the entire process has to be carried out in the Outer Hebrides, but I found that not all my customers were bothered about what the tweed was called – they were more concerned that it had been woven by me.

This year I decided I had had enough of the hard pedalling that was involved in operating the Hattersley loom and so I sold it on and invested in a new hand loom (photographs below) that has a computer dobby (the mechanism that lifts and lowers the shafts to separate the warp threads). This new adventure is allowing me to be much more experimental in my approach to weaving, and to use a wider variety of yarns. The gentler technique will also allow me to weave with my own hand spun yarns, so watch this space….!

Threading and tying in a new warp on the Toika loom
Wool tweed weaving in progress on the Toika loom


With the exception of my sewing machines, all my equipment needs a computer to run. I now find that I design straight onto the computer most of the time, though I often do quick sketches with pencil and paper just to work out which way I am going to take a bit of knotwork or key pattern work. Being able to do the simple processes of copy and paste, flip and rotate allows me to easily bring the precision to my work that is so important in Pictish art.

Detail of wall hanging inspired by knotwork on the Rosemarkie cross slab at Groam House Museum – machine embroidery on Harris Tweed

Low-tech techniques

Computerised technology has its place, and certainly makes it possible for me to create my art and sell it for prices that people can afford, but I do still use a lot of purely hand techniques. I weave braids and bands using a variety of methods – inkle weaving, tablet weaving and mini peg-loom. I often embellish little details of my machine embroidery with some hand stitching, beading or couching. I do a bit of hand dyeing and fabric painting, and quite a lot of hand spinning – mostly wool.  

Ruth hand spinning in her garden

Felt making

In addition to working with woven fabrics – mostly wool and silk – I also make my own hand made felt. This is another ancient fabric making technique but it has only been in the last few decades that it has become a popular activity in Scotland. Unlike weaving and knitting, no yarn is needed – just loose wool fibres. It is basically a question of rubbing the wool fibres with soapy, warm water until they bind together – though of course things such as initial fibre preparation, the techniques used and the skill of the feltmaker all play their part in how the final product looks and handles.

An important feature of felt compared with woven and knitted fabrics is that it can’t be undone – once the fibres are felted, they can’t be separated. The advantage for my way of working in embroidery
is that felt doesn’t fray so there is less need for full coverage of the cut edges in appliqué work. I also make use of the thickness of the felt to achieve a semi-relief look in some of my embroideries. Although the felt has to be made largely with wool, other fibres such as silk and bamboo can be added sparingly to give interesting surface textures.

Laying out wool fibres prior to felting

Creating my own cloths, whether this is on the loom, the knitting machine or at my felting table, means that I can blend colours in a way that would be impossible with shop-bought fabrics. As I am creating the fabrics I am thinking about how I am going to use them. If I am making clothing I will weave, knit or felt just the amount I need to make a particular garment and will introduce colour changes as I go along. If I am planning a piece of wall art it may be that I let the fabric develop organically and then decide how I am going to embellish it once I have the fabric completed. 

I don’t really sample. With weaving I might weave a small section in 2 or 3 different colours of weft before I start for real, but generally I rely on my decades of experience and am confident that something will turn out the way I had envisaged – and if not, there are always other ways I can use a piece of cloth. Nothing is wasted. And while it may take a while to sell a particular piece, there is always someone out there who likes it enough to buy it. I am also very lazy about record keeping, so don’t ask me to repeat something. I can do something similar, but it won’t be the same. 

‘Machair’ wall hanging – hand made felt with machine embroidery (100 x 50 cm)


In terms of what inspires me…. just about everything! I am always seeing things and thinking, “That’s a nice shape, colour or texture, how can I work that into my art?” I suspect I will never grow tired of Pictish design. Sometimes I take the ancient designs and recreate them in my embroidery – other times I just take ideas from them but develop my own designs. The possibilities are endless and as even now, ancient sculptured stones are still being discovered, I don’t anticipate running short of inspiration – just the time to bring all my creative ideas into being. 

The Future for Scottish Wool and Textile Art

Scottish wool has had its share of ups & downs. Currently sheep farmers are getting a lot less for their fleeces than it costs them to shear the sheep. But it is not that there isn’t a market for the wool. Now more than ever, people want to use natural fibres but the systems and manufacturing capabilities are not in place to connect producers and customers. The Harris Tweed industry relies on local wool. The Outer Hebrides wool clip is not enough to support the current level of tweed production, so wool is brought in from mainland Scotland. Most British wool gets used in carpet manufacture because it is considered too course and rough to wear – but these features make it excellent for walking on. It would also be ideal as house insulation (wool is naturally fire retardant!) and we are all being advised to better insulate our homes. We need a bit of joined up thinking. 

Sheep breeds: cheviot (left) and blackface

At the other end of the scale, some small scale farmers are making direct connection with textile enthusiasts who are happy to pay for nice fleece – particularly for some of the more interesting breeds. 

I am currently working on a long-term project that is entirely for my own amusement rather than with thought of finding a paying customer. I am spinning my way through a couple of kilos of North Ronaldsay fleece. Once it’s all spun and applied I will venture into the world of natural dyes and then start weaving.

The Orkney Hood, 6th century, found in a peat bog in the 19th century and now on display in the National Museum of Scotland

My ultimate aim is to use a combination of tablet weaving and loom weaving to construct my version of the Orkney Hood. However, I want a finished garment that is soft and luxurious, not something that looks as though it has been in a peat bog for 1500 years! This project has been made possible by the covid pandemic. As the world went into suspended animation, I found myself more in control of my time. It is quite liberating to work without having to be concerned about the commercial aspect of what I am doing, but maybe as I work I will try to figure out if there is a viable way to make such garments for sale – and see if there is a demand for it.

Hand spun North Ronaldsay wool – yellow is dyed with turmeric, the beige is undyed, purple is dyed with logwood

Ruth Black
The Workshop, Inchmore, Inverness, IV5 7PX

01463 831567 // 0777 177 4172 

[1] For my Harris Tweed products I trade under the name of my mother’s business – Anna Macneil

All images on this page by Ruth Black.

Ed: many thanks to Ruth for giving the Living Field such insights to her art and craft based on natural fibres and providing the photographic material for this article.


And here is a photograph of some North Ronaldsay sheep from the Living Field’s collection (added 7 February 2022)

Winter solstice revisited

Length of day and solar income around the winter solstice. The significance of Maeshowe on Orkney. Importance of the annual temperature lag for farming. The Turning of the Year in the singing tradition. 

[Post subject to minor editing …]

From the earliest settlements on these islands, the Winter Solstice has been marked and celebrated as the Turning of the Year. Days will now get longer and the sun rise higher in the sky.

A previous Living Field article on the Winter Solstice gave some explanation of the yearly cycle, the changes in sunrise, sunset, and the various twilights’ at this time of year [1]. The shortest day, usually 21 December, does not coincide with the earliest sunset or latest sunrise. The earliest sunset was about a week ago, but the latest sunrise will not happen for another week. Once that’s passed, the days will lengthen more quickly. 

Fig. 1 Daylength at the winter solstice, 21 December, at a range of archaeological and historical sites. Hours:minutes shown are from sunrise and sunset tables for 2020, excluding twilight. First published at Through the solstice on 28 December 2020.

The map of daylength at the solstice (Fig. 1) shows the great decrease from south to north that early farmers had to reckon with when building their cairns, stone circles and alignments. Daylength is eight and a half hours at Carnac, near the Golfe du Morbihan in Brittany, but only five and three-quarter hours in the north of Shetland.

There was compensation in summer when daylength in the north was much longer than in the south. Provided they could get through the winter, our neolithic ancestors had much more time in summer to tend their crops and livestock. 

Maeshowe Orkney

The Maeshowe mound or chambered cairn, built on Orkney 5000 or so years ago, is one of the neolithic monuments aligned with the solar cycle. For several days either side the solstice the setting sun shines down the passage and on to the back wall. Maeshowe is part of the magnificent set of standing stones and settlements at the heart of Neolithic Orkney, close to the Ring of Brodgar and Stenness.

On the afternoon of Winter Solstice 2021, Historic Environment Scotland broadcast a short film about Maeshowe, introduced by ranger Susan Miller and including people describing its construction and purpose, the runes incised on the stone much later, local folk tales and poems in Orkney dialect. Much of the film was recorded inside the chamber. It can be viewed via the HES web site [2].

Several other neolithic sites are aligned with sunrise or sunset at the winter solstice. Newgrange at Bru na Boinne in Ireland is one of the most famous [3]. At sunrise, light shines through a ‘roof-box’ above the main entrance stones. The cairns at Balnuaran of Clava near Inverness are also aligned with the winter solstice but at sunset rather than sunrise. 

Solar income and the temperature lag

The increasing daylength and twilight may give more time for people to travel and work outside without artificial light, but the plants on which people and their livestock depend are waiting for change in two climatic factors – a rise in temperature enough to encourage seed germination and leaf expansion, and a rise in solar income that the new leaf can use to take in carbon dioxide from the air and grow. The trouble is that the rise in temperature happens one to two months after the rise in solar and that can cause big problems for farming.  

The diagram in Fig. 2 shows the compass direction of sunrise and sunset (the points where each curve rises from and falls to the horizontal axis) and the daily rise and fall of solar elevation in between. The elevation defines the maximum intensity of solar radiation as the sun rises and falls, so the area under a curve represents the total solar income received on a clear day. That received at the winter solstice is also reduced in most years because of cloud. 

Fig. 2 Diagram to show the changes through the year in the rising and setting of the sun and its elevation or altitude at latitude 56N (between Aberlemno and Dunning on Fig. 1). The horizontal axis shows the direction of the sun (at 180 degrees it would shine from the exact south), the vertical axis the elevation or altitude of the sun (90 degrees would be directly overhead). The lower curve is for the winter solstice, the upper for the the summer solstice and the middle for the equinoxes. First published at Through the solstice on 28 December 2020.

By the spring equinox on 21 March (the middle curve in Fig, 2) the solar curve has greatly increased: for instance, the elevation at midday is more than half that to come at the summer solstice. There is plenty of solar radiation at this time to support the growth of plants.  But look at the agricultural calendar – and spring crops are just being sown, winter crops have hardly recovered from the preceding cold and much livestock farming still relies on last year’s grass, hay and silage. There is little new growth because the temperature is still too low. In consequence, most of the solar income between winter solstice and spring equinox is ‘wasted’ as far agriculture is concerned. 

Fig. 3 Annual curves of daily incoming solar radiation (solid line) and daily average air temperature (dashed line) at latitude 56N, showing the curve for temperature lagging behind that of solar by about six weeks [4].

The lag in the annual cycle of temperature, illustrated by the curves in Fig. 3, is typically between one and two months, but is highly unpredictable. Although the rise in solar drives the rise in temperature, the two are only partly coupled, because at any point in the solar curve, change in weather patterns across the north Atlantic can bring in colder, warmer, drier or wetter air.

If the curves for solar radiation and temperature behave themselves, then good management can achieve very high yields of crops and grass. But if the year or the farming gets it wrong, there can be crop failure, and in the past, hunger and sometimes famine. The two to three months after the winter solstice are crucial therefore. This is one reason why so much of the singing Tradition deals with The Turning

Winter song

Solstice time meant a lot to those who relied on the land and the weather. A couple of hours after the broadcast from Maeshowe [2] on 21 December, the Yorkshire-based Melrose Quartet performed their seasonal songs and tunes online via Live to Your Living Room [5]. They included some of the traditional folk carols are still sung in Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire (and other places). Some originated hundreds of years ago. Their popularity hasn’t died. The tradition is thriving.

Many performances of traditional carols are available online [5]. They Melrose Quartet also sang songs that were crafted more recently and in ways so close to the spirit of tradition that they have become part of it. Here’s an extract from the Sheffield Wassail by Pete Smith: “God bless the old and weary | whose time is nearly run | and all the unsung careers | who are paid a paltry sum’.

The ‘Turning of the Year’ is celebrated in tradition and song throughout Britain [5, 6]. The Living Field’s Winter solstice page in The Year gives some examples and links. The compendium of song named Midwinter – A celebration off the folk music and traditions of Christmas and the Turning of the Year – with text by Nigel Schofield and produced by Free Reed, remains one of the most comprehensive surveys of midwinter traditions in the British Isles. 

And finally, a reminder that the season meant death and life to those that tilled the land. Snow Falls by John Tams begins: ‘Cruel winter cuts through like the reaper | The old year lies withered and slain | Like barleycorn who rose from the grave | The new year will rise up again. Then the chorus: And the snow falls | And the wind calls | And the year turns round again.”

So here’s to Christmas and all the Midwinter celebrations, astronomical, vocal, whatever.  

Sources | links

[1] The article Through the solstice, containing a description of change in daylength, twilight and solar income was published on this site on 28 December 2020 and gives methods and sources of data used in Fig. 1 and Fig. 2.

[2] Maeshowe on Solstice day 2021: Historic Environment Scotland’s New online film celebrating the winter solstice on Orkney. See also the entries for Maeshowe at Orkneyjar and Canmore.

[3] Newgrange, Bru na Boinne. For the history of excavation and some early photographs: (a); (b) the Fr. Michael O’Flanagan History and Heritage Centre; (c) The stones of time by Martin Brennan (1994, Inner Traditions).

[4] The curves in Fig. 3 are central to understanding the effect of weather and climate on agriculture here, and need to be accounted for when predicting the effects of change in climate. The original curves are presented in a recent James Hutton Institute research paper in the journal Plants published 2021.

[5] Folk carols and other winter songs: search Yorkshire / Sheffield / Derbyshire carols for various live videos. For records and books: (a) Broadcast live on solstice day 21 December 2021 via Live to your Living Room, a gig by the folk group Melrose Quartet, based in Sheffield: their CD containing carols and songs, The Rudolf Variations, can be bought at their online store. (b) The Mainly Norfolk web site lists a range of carol albums, e.g. A People’s Carol, On this delightful Morn, Hark, Hark! What news, and many others, mainly from Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. (c) The web site Village Carols gives Links to carol traditions in various parts of the UK and under the Publications tab lists books and recordings, including The Sheffield Book of Village Carols by Ian Russell (2008, Elphinstone Institute Aberdeen University).

[6] Scotland has its share of winter traditions. Local is best! Newburgh, a village in Fife, holds its unique Oddfellows Parade on 31 December, cancelled this year (but see photosbyzoe) and is acclaimed for its Wonky Christmas Lights (BBC news item). See also Stonehaven Fireballs at midnight on 31 December and the Up Helly Aa in Shetland later in January.

SEDA Land Conversations 2021

The Scottish Ecological Design Association’s online Land Conversation held March 2021. The report published August. Launch of the campaigning group SEDA Land. First online event to be held on land carbon tax November 2021.

Six online Land Conversations

The Scottish Ecological Design Association worked with organisations, including research institutes and universities, and many individuals to build an online programme of events in March and April this year in the broad topics of land use, food, rural enterprise, land ownership, housing and power. The Conversations were titled: 1) The lie of the land, 2) Soil and growth, 3) Ecosystems and energy, 4) Natural benefits, 5) New rural economy and 6) A Story for the future.

Hundreds logged into each conversation. Several speakers proposed and argued a case, followed by interactive discussion with online attendees. The James Hutton Institute was well represented as speakers and questioners.

The background to the Conversations and details of each event can be found at

Each conversation also included an interlude of poetry, music and song. The Living Field well appreciated this combination of scientific discussion, practicality and art which has been a feature of its own outreach programmes over the last 20 years.

A highly successful enterprise!

Report on the Land Conversations

SEDA’s report on the 6 Land Conversations (cover shown below) is available at the web link: The report opened with 8 recommendations for urgent and coordinated action, including development of a healthy food strategy, an agroecological strategy, supporting education on future land use, and funding for innovation and business.

Formation of SEDA Land

Following the 6 Land Conversations, a new organisation – SEDA Land was formed as a “cross-sectoral forum for the discussion, formulation and promotion of ideas that will improve land use in Scotland to achieve both a healthy ecology and dynamic social economy.”

SEDA Land’s aims, reproduced from its Vision Statement are:

  • To bring together individuals and groups from different sectors to design and test imaginative solutions for land use that can address the priorities of climate change, food and energy security, biodiversity loss and social issues
  • To be a source for sharing cross-sectoral knowledge and promoting ideas on the ecological use of Scotland’s land
  • To broaden awareness of these ideas, and possible solutions, through events, publications and the media
  • To inform and influence policies around land use in Scotland, with the aim of delivering the changes needed to ensure Scotland’s land works for all who work, live or visit it, as a part of a thriving ecology and economy.

The new organisation will benefit from SEDA’s reputation for impartiality, knowledge of regulations and multidisciplinary approaches to complex issues in architecture and planning.

The full Vision Statement can be read at

First SEDA Land Event

The first event to be held by SEDA Land will be a collaboration with the John Muir Trust in an online ‘conversation’ on a carbon tax for land usage. Among issues to be discussed are whether land should be taxed at a rate depending on its contributions to carbon storage and carbon emissions.

The event will be held on 10 November 2021. Details and links for registration – Do we need a carbon emissions land tax? at John Muir Trust and and SEDA Land.

Note: the editor values the approach from SEDA in December 2020 to help guide the topics and speakers for the Land Conversations and then the invitation to join SEDA Land’s Steering Group.

Information on a land use matrix and decision tree is available on the curvedflatlands web site at