From the Travels: Blue Sky Thinking


I love to rapture on about the curious colors present in Nature, never more than when I am out exploring Scotland’s wild places. But did you notice there was a color absent from that last post?


Ah, yes.



People ask how the weather was in Scotland and it’s hard to explain without several semicolons. The briefest I can get is: chilly, sunny, misty. Not unlike Portland, OR, it rains often, but not torrentially, or for long periods.


There is a constant tension of wind, cloud, and temperature that plays over the land like a melody, and it produces beautiful skyscapes. I captured many blue skies, along with some grey ones too. They were all dramatic.

IMG_3786The photos above come from all over: the beach near Ormacleit Castle on South Uist, the view from Heaval on Barra, coming into grey, upright Edinburgh toon on the train, cruising past the snow-covered hills of Garelochhead, seeing the pink of sunset from Cafe Fish on Mull.

Here are a few more, that require more explanation:


This is what I found when I let the crest of the road egg me on. You know, “I’ll just get to the top of that hill there, and see what I can see.” “Oh, look, there’s another hill. What if I just make it to the top of that hill?” Etc, &c.

What greeted me was my first uninterrupted, unmediated, individually-experienced view of the Atlantic from the Outer Hebrides. What you’re seeing is machair, then sand, then ocean. With the perfectly situated bench to take it all in.

I’d arrived on Barra in darkness the night before, happy to be on the boat at all, as there were threats of a storm stopping the route. The next morning I stretched my legs on this walk.


One of the things that I’ve come back to, that makes Scotland unique in my opinion, are the way the hills rise dramatically. See above. Somehow the pitch and angles make it seem like the mountain is still moving, no?

Then there’s the shifting sunlight that alters their appearance so much. Here, the colors are a special mix of purple-brown from the dead ling heather bushes, the glint of silver from outcroppings of rock, and that dark, brooding shadow of moving cloud.



This peculiar cloud formation was hovering over the beach at Ormacleit when I rested there for a half-hour. I love the swirl and furl, the dark grey and puffy white mixed together like a soft-serve ice cream cone.


Still blue sky.

Different cloud formation, captured above the mostly-music-student housing at Lochboisdale. These remind me of lungs, internal organs, crowding around and working in concert, pulsing with light.

And you know you’re in a musical community when: nobody bats an eyelash when someone starts his scales on the bagpipes with the window open for all the port to hear.


London puts in an appearance, just because I had several hours there, and it thoroughly enchanted me. This is the sunset view over the Thames from Waterloo Bridge. Ah-mazing.


Back to Edinburgh for this glimpse of the Salisbury Crags. I’d wanted to climb Arthur’s Seat the next time I visited Auld Reekie, but only scheduled in a flying visit in order to conform to CalMac’s strict ferry schedule. Milo suggested we catch up on a walk instead of over a coffee (very healthy-habits of him!) and so I was treated to this spectacular blue-sky view over Edinburgh.

The light! Those crags! And look what else I stumbled across…


Now can you see why Scotland is a magical world, unlike any other?


Images property of Margaret Pinard





Green, Growing Things: North of the Wall

That would be Hadrian’s Wall.


I took lots of pictures of green, and purple, and yellow growing things, but I’ve narrowed it down here to 10 pictures so that you wouldn’t be scrolling for-ev-er… and these should all be making appearances in the book, as they contribute to the island ambiance and the Scotland ‘aesthetic,’ if there be such a thing…


This is gorse. It’s bright YELLOW, it’s verra prickly, and it’s EVERYWHERE. Here on this street on Mull, it had taken over a rock face by the road.

I just finished a book by David Kerr Cameron where he lists the names of his grandfather’s era croft steadings, and one was called Whinfield. Whin was another name for gorse, and he was demonstrating the people’s straightforward, no-white-wash approach to the barrenness of their land. Interesting attitude, and quite un-American…



This is lichen. GREEN. Furry. So soft! I loved the lacey look of this type of lichen, and found it on fenceposts, rocks, walkways–obviously not fussy.



Back to YELLOW again. On my delightful and oh-so-informative nature walk with Mull Magic, I learned about Ancient Woodland Indicators (fascinating and informative article there!). This is a group of plants that indicate that there was an ancient woodland on this spot. How cool! A miniature flag to point out environmental history! I liked learning about this secret code known only by plant-lovers.

This delicate little flower is called Lesser Celandine.

seaweed egg wrack

Now onto PURPLE! This is another Mull Magic find that I thought was just beautiful. This sculptural purple seaweed is known as egg wrack, for the little egg-shaped bladders of air it has. It was washed up by a hidden (disused) whiskey still cave!

How is seaweed connected to Remnants? It’s only what directly precipitates the MacDonalds’ decision to start down their irrevocable path… (are you hooked yet? 😉

faerie rings! sedge

Back to GREEN again! That’s my big foot, giving an idea of how the sedge grows.

This ring was called a ‘fairy ring’ by Stuart, but I think he was teasing. Wikipedia says that a fairy ring is actually a ring of mushrooms, or a ring of grass growing differently (scientifically explained by an underground fungus, but what fun is that?). The early Western European observers of this phenomenon were wary of such spots, holding them as sacred places for the fairy spirits, and woe to those who dared disturb them!

sea pinks thrift mull spring

“Thrift, Horatio. The funeral-baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.”


This is a plant called thrift, or sea pinks. It was one of the only blooming things on Mull when I went in early May. I love the name, and that it was used for natural remedies and household necessities by the island population. The folklore of Cornwall, where the plant is also profuse, suggests ‘you will never be poor if thrift grows in your garden.’

barra silverweed! wild plants

This was a delightful plant that was one of my first acquaintances in Castlebay, Barra. I went on a walk to the edge of the world (a little hill where the road disappeared from the horizon). Then I saw another hill. When I reached that, I saw the sea, washing up on white sands. The shadows on the slumbering hills and the shifting sands covered with sheep tracks… it’s hard to describe how beautiful this place was.

But on the walk there, I saw lots of these silver-sided, velcro-like leaves. Later, I found they’re called silverweed. It reminds me of ‘numbweed,’ a plant from the fictional universe of Pern, created by Anne McCaffrey.

Might silverweed, with its common name and ubiquitous presence, also have its uses?

mccaig's tower twisty plant

So, here’s one I have no idea what it is… but it is RED! And GREEN! And TWISTY!

There were lots of plants, especially trees, that were twisty like this because of all the wind coming off the large bodies of surrounding water. This particular plant lived inside McCaig’s Tower overlooking Oban.

It’s no wonder that these elaborately twisting trees gave rise to legends of witches’ dens, but after spending one afternoon in Oban in a fell rainstorm, I can see why trees on the western Scottish coast would be all curlicue’d like this poor fella!

castlebay sphagnum moss colors

sphagnum moss red heaval castlebay

Okay, you knew there had to be MOSS in the Scotland Edition, right?

These are prime examples of YELLOW and RED sphagnum moss. Aren’t they glorious? These were both found on Heaval, the large, steep, rocky hill behind Castlebay, Barra.

The hill which should take forty minutes to summit, according to locals.

I caution you, travelers: you first have to get to the starting point (20 minutes from town), and then you have to find the path up (which faces east, not south).

And then don’t slip on the path, which is also where the mountain stream wends its way down the hill to the valley below…

I went up the steeper southern face, and was just about to give up on finding the famed statue of Mary when I looked east and saw it. Below me.

It was a perfect case of wandering according to whim, and eventually getting where you wanted (or needed) to go.


Green, red, purple, yellow… what colors have you seen growing around you lately?


Images property of Margaret Pinard

From the Travels: Green Growing Things, England Edition

The Traveler Returned…


One is assailed with questions, the most common being, “How was the trip?”

To which the expected answer is, “It was great/amazing/soooo relaxing!”

Well, I can’t answer a question like that without twinging at how banal I sound. Luckily, I have an extended, public forum in which to more fully answer this question. Thank you.


And since it was a research trip, I am framing my response into themes that hopefully show you readers what I was after, traveling all the way to Scotland.

First Theme: Green Growing Things

As Remnants is about a family who lives very close to the land, it is important to have a sense of how things grow in an environment, how they look close up or far away, how plants can weave into one’s sense of time passing… The details I learned and absorbed may not make it into the novel, but they will be infusing what I do include in it.

England Edition

For the American audience, I thought some differentiation between the landscape of England’s “green and pleasant land” and that of Scotland’s “land of my heart forever” would be useful.

I spent two days and nights in England, visiting long-time family friends in Northamptonshire. They live in beautiful country, where lambs frolic in rolling meadows, and yellow fields of rapeseed pop like one of the Keukenhof Gardens colors. (Here I found the perfect aspect for a jetlag-induced nap!)

We visited the gardens of Castle Ashby, the traditional seat of the Marquis of Northampton (whose family tree held an awful lot of Margarets, ahem). There were discussions of American (aka Spanish) vs. English Bluebells, and the ones below I believe are the true-blue English variety.

Or are they harebells?
Or are they harebells?


We saw lots of ornamental plants, ones long bred for their dramatic or pleasing looks, such as this Mahogany cherry tree.

IMG_3531Verdict: it felt smooth, like I imagine mahogany would.

There was also a profusion of these tiny five-petaled flowers that Sue thought were Forget-Me-Nots, but then we saw the posted sign said something different, and my flower-finding app said something else again! Well, we weren’t after absolutes. It was nice to see them, those blue loops that a child might draw, with the yellow ‘centre.’




The plants and flowers, carefully cultivated strains over hundreds of years, were shown off in the orangery, the geometric Italian Garden, and in the Maltese Cross, whose shape we did actually puzzle over the name of.



Gardeners, year-round! Care-taking and tending! Balanced with some ‘wilder’ parts as well, where the picturesque was allowed to flourish.



England’s greenness and pleasantness, for an American, can be an entirely innocent affair. But I like knowing that there’s a lot of history, bloody and otherwise, that’s gone into such arranged landscapes; it gives the surviving trees more character somehow … which would you prefer?

Or as an English person or a Scot, how do you see it?



Images property of Margaret Pinard