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.
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 . 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.
Maria was also an exceptional artist and the first to include the whole life cycle, including the larval food plant, in her exquisite paintings . 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  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.
The project will develop over the coming months and I hope to link in some way with the Angus Moth Project  and learn from the experts in Dundee Naturalists Society , which I joined last year (and am dismayed I hadn’t found them sooner!). I look forward to Moth Night, 19-21 May  and learning more about these wonderful scaly winged creatures as I make new work.
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 .
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 . To avoid such damage, recipes now use less ferrous sulphate.
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
15 g ferrous sulphate powder *
7 g gum arabic solution
Glass jar for storage.
*Can be purchased as blue green crystals or white powder.
Crush the oak galls with a pestle and mortar or put them in a bag and mash them with a hammer.
Add 30 g oak gall powder to 25 ml of water and leave to soak for 24 hrs.
Strain the liquid through the muslin.
Mix the ferrous sulphate into the strained solution.
Add the gum arabic and stir well
Add oil of cloves or any other essential oil to help it keep for longer and store in the fridge.
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.
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.
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 .
Sources | Links
 To buy oak gall ink: George Weil fine art and craft supplies.
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  . 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…….
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.
My mother had a small part-time business  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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Author | links
Ruth Black www.ruth-black.co.uk The Workshop, Inchmore, Inverness, IV5 7PX
01463 831567 // 0777 177 4172
 For my Harris Tweed products I trade under the name of my mother’s business – Anna Macneil www.annamacneil.scot
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)
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 . 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.
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 .
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 . 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 .
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.
Solstice time meant a lot to those who relied on the land and the weather. A couple of hours after the broadcast from Maeshowe  on 21 December, the Yorkshire-based Melrose Quartet performed their seasonal songs and tunes online via Live to Your Living Room . 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 . 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 Yeargives 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
 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.
 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.
 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).
 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.
The gool or corn marigold, for centuries an injurious weed. Its control by monastic order. Its decline in the 1900s and its rarity today except in wildflower seed mixtures. But will its recent reappearance in fields revive the ancient tradition of gool riding?
The gool, the Corn marigold Chrysanthemum segetum, was a pernicious weed. It ravaged the croplands in the middle ages , was tamed to a degree by the monastic improvements after 1200, and was finally brought in check late last century by mechanical cultivation and chemical weedkillers. Was it eradicated – not entirely? It’s still with us, seen emerging in stubble this autumn in a few east Perthshire fields.
Of all the main crop pests In Britain, weeds are now considered the most controllable and least damaging, but for most of history they were the scourge of agriculture.
The problem lay in the uncleanliness of saved seed. Corn crops, mainly barley, oats and wheat, were sown each year using seed saved from a previous harvest. If weed seeds were harvested with the corn, then the weeds were sown with the new crop. Seed would also reside for years in the soil ‘seedbank’, so that even if sown corn was clean of weed seeds, some from the seedbank would germinate and emerge when the soil was cultivated.
Good monastic practice
To avoid major weed problems, seed and soil had to be kept low in weed seed over a run of many years. Franklin  reports that gool was one of the most troublesome of the weeds that limited corn yields during the period of agricultural improvement initiated by the new monastic houses, such as Coupar, established in the late 1100s. The monks, and the lay brethren who did the farming, were aware of the need to keep seed and fields clean, and were able to achieve good agricultural yields and self-sufficiency.
Gool had such importance that it was named in leases from Coupar Abbey to agricultural tenants in the 1400s. The tenants were charged with certain tasks – to maintain trees and hedges, to include the soil-improving peas and beans along with corn in the rotation, to ‘labour for the gaining of the marsh’ (probably referring to the draining of the Carse of Gowrie) … and to keep the land free of corn marigold. Not everyone was as mindful as the monastics, but to encourage good practice tenants of Coupar Abbey were fined in the 1470s because they allowed gool on their land.
Today, the gool is not a problem. Rather its loss for most fields is seen as a negative. The marigold adds colour to the landscape and offers food for many invertebrates. Crop seed is sourced mainly from specialist seed merchants who ensure that ‘seed’ crops (those grown for seed rather than food or feed) are free of weeds. And even if it were to emerge in fields, modern control measure would remove it.
Gool riders approaching
Imagine being there in those mediaeval times and – weeds being weeds – they have this habit of just turning up whatever measures were taken to control them. Or maybe control lapsed and the gool took advantage and spread, wreaking havoc in the cereal crops.
And then in the early hours, distressed cries shatter the peace – “Gool riders approaching”. People scramble to pull on their clothes rush out to beat up any nearby gools and then head for the woods or whatever hiding place they can find to escape the landlord’s wrath.
Fanciful perhaps, but gool riders were a reality: “certain persons, styled gool-riders were appointed to ride through the fields, search for gool, and carry the law into execution when they discovered it” . The riders were appointed (it seems) by major landowners: fines could be severe – a sheep for a gool.
Time out of mind
How widespread was the pursuit? Both Franklin and the Scots Dictionary  cite the one report in the Old Statistical Account  for Cargill, Perthshire. The Account was published in 1794 and refers to gool riding only as an old custom, so it is unclear when the riding ceased. The threat of the riders and the fines seemed to have worked because the Account reports that once tenants learnt to control the weed, the ‘gool-riders can hardly discover as many growing stocks of gool, the fine for which will afford them a dinner or a drink.’
There’s another mention of it, this one in Andrew Wight’s travels of 1778 . In the barony of Stobhall, at Campsey (not far from Cargill), he tells of ‘a singular practice, which is called riding the guild‘, whereby a committee of tenants ‘on a certain day in August, examine every field, ….. and for each stalk of that weed found at this time among the corns, the committee fine the tenant in one penny or two pence’ and ‘by the observance of this salutary practice, the whole lands ….. are perfectly clean : whereas if we turn our view to the neighbouring lands, many of the fields are covered with more guild than corn.’
Wight enquired when the law was introduced and reported that ‘The people have no tradition relative to the time and manner of its beginning; only that, in time out of mind, such has been the practice’.
Today the corn marigold is common in sown annual wildflower displays, blending its yellow with the red of poppy and the blue of cornflower. Maybe some escape, the seed falling into people’s wellies and turn-ups, and eventually find their way into fields.
The gool shown in the cereal stubble at the top of this page grew mostly after harvest and flowered late, in October. It might have lain dormant in the seedbank, or came to the field in as a seed impurity or casual immigrant.
In the face of modern competitive crops and weed control, the gool is unlikely to wreak the havoc that it did. Its continued presence and reappearance serve to remind that food security was once threatened by weeds here, as it is now in many other parts of the world, and that there might be opportunity for this attractive plant to coexist with today’s agriculture.
Sources | links
 Franklin, T Bedford. 1952. A history of Scottish Farming. Thomas Nelson & Sons Edinburgh.
 The Scottish National Dictionary (1700-) cites many variations including gool, gule, gweel and guild, https://dsl.ac.uk/entry/snd/guil. One entry refers to a guil-sieve as a small mesh sieve in the threshing mill which cleans the corn after it has come through the riddle.
 Present State of Husbandry in Scotland 1978, Vol I, page 35. The author Andrew Wight is not credited. Available online, search for the title. More on Andrew Wight’s travels at Great quantities of aquavitae II.
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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.
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: https://www.seda.uk.net/seda-land-conversations/report. 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 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.