The River Ness

Mas leat an saoghal, is leat daoin’ an domhain

If the world is yours, the people of the world are yours too.

Gaelic proverb on the wall of the Cuach Coffee Shop, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.
(A Cuach or quaich is a shallow, two-handed drinking cup, still used on Burns Night in Scotland)

DOES THIS PROVERB mean that if you go out into the world and become a part of it people will accept you and welcome you? It could just as easily be the motto of Cináed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpine), “The Conqueror”, the ninth century King of the Scots who is reputed to have conquered the Picts.

Inverness, known as ‘the Capital of the Highlands’ is the only capital city that I know of where you can look down from a bridge and see the bottom of the river.

10.25 a.m.: A juvenile Herring Gull wheels down to the grassy bank on the far side of the river to peck and preen, oblivious of the people walking past yards away on the pavement at the other side of the wall. My sketches suggest that this is a juvenile that fledged last year because its back is beginning to turn grey (top left). In a first year bird, the back would be entirely mottled brown.

Some of the litter bins have posters on them asking you not to feed the gulls. The gulls are streetwise, hanging around on the bustling pedestrianised high street of the city, on the look out for scraps. They can recognise a bag of teacakes from a hundred yards away; a man and boy walk past, the man holding a white plastic bag of teacakes (for human, not gull, consumption) and soon three gulls and two crows appear.

These crows are black like the Carrion Crows we’re used to seeing in Yorkshire but we also see Hooded Crows which are grey with black head, breast-patch, wings and tail. Seeing this race of the crow always makes me feel that I’m in the Highlands. They’re also the crows that you’re likely to see in Europe to the south and east of the Alps. We see a number of hybrids of the two races.

An immature Grey Heron watches then strikes. I can’t see whether it actually caught a fish but I suspect that it did as it then wiped each side of its bill against the branch that it’s standing on.

Three Herring Gulls swooped down on the Heron and half-heartedly tried to dislodge it from its perch. They then took up look-out posts on the tops of buildings overlooking the river.

Highland Journey

WE’RE SPENDING Friday travelling up and Monday travelling back again so the East Coast rail journey of our weekend in Inverness is one half of our short break in the Highlands. It’s too long since we’ve been here – well over 20 years. We get to Scotland once or twice a year but rarely get any further than Edinburgh or Glasgow.

We’ve always driven here, so it’s 31 years since I last travelled up by rail. The names of the stations conjure up memories of my journeys to summer and Easter stints as a volunteer osprey warden in my student days; Gleneagles, Pitlochary, Blairgowrie and Kingussie on the countdown to Aviemore. After a year in Leeds or London at art college, going through the rugged pass north of Blair Atholl, with its screes and cascading streams felt like crossing the border into another world of primeval landscapes and spectacular wildlife.

Food and drink on the train are included as part of our bargain break, as we’ve upgraded to first class for the eight hour journey so I indulge in a miniature of Famous Grouse blended whisky as we drink in the landscape as the train pulls out of Gleneagles.

“I don’t normally drink whisky,” I explain to the stewardess, “but I felt I should as we’re entering the Highlands.”

“These aren’t the Highlands!” she retorted.

“Yes, but Gleneagles sounds like the Highlands.”

This reminds me of my three day Highland Tour with Dr Stephen Cribb whose book Whisky on the Rocks I illustrated. Famous Grouse is a blended whisky but the book investigated the geological story behind the process water – usually spring water – used in distilling single malt whiskies.

The taste and bouquet of the blended whisky brings back our visits to some of the famous single malt distilleries on our research trip. Places such Speyside and, north of Inverness, Tain where they make Glenmorangie. We didn’t have time to visit any island distilleries unfortunately.

Dog, Donkey and Geese

WHEREVER YOU are there’s something to draw but whenever I’ve got the chance I’ll go for a plant, animal or landscape so, in the bookshop, it has to be Tilly the Welsh collie if she isn’t hiding under the desk.

And at my biomechanics appointment although I had the usual waiting room subject matter of chairs and fire-extinguishers to draw I decided on the foliage of ash and sycamore, visible through a high window.

My biomechanical fault is that I have one leg about a centimetre longer than the other, so I wear insoles to even that out a bit but my annual check in with the podiatrist gave me a chance to get some expert advice on walking. On my 14 mile walk to Denby Dale a few weeks ago I’d developed small black bruises under my little-toe nails. This isn’t a biomechanical problem, he explained, it’s just the toe rubbing repeatedly against the side of the boot. A small tubular bandage that goes over the toe might be worth trying.

I asked about the backache that I get on a long walk. I tried a bum-bag instead of a rucksack this time but after a few hours I developed exactly the same ache in my mid to lower back. ‘We’ll load you up like a mule next time!’, he suggested, but the way around this would be for me to work out at what stage on the walk the ache starts and take a break just before that starts to happen. The muscles in your back that control posture are actually quite small, they’re not like the large muscle masses that you use swinging your legs and arms in the process of walking itself, so they tire easily.

I should think a fifteen or twenty minute break to do a drawing every 90 minutes would do the trick for me and I look forward to trying that out.

‘There’s life in the old dog yet!’ the podiatrist insisted, so I’ll take that as a professional opinion.

The bucket is a sketch for my new book while the donkey and geese were drawn at Charlotte’s ice cream parlour where we took my mum for a coffee for the third week running this morning, after her regular shopping and appointments outing. This is out in the countryside that I walked through for the first time on my long walk and, as we drive back by various attractive routes along country lanes, I keep spotting public footpath signs tempting me to come back and explore.

Muddy Boots #2

I’M TRYING not to agonise about my artwork for my current project – it’s supposed to be fun, remember! – but there are still decisions to be made in getting over a concept with clarity, and perhaps a touch of humour.

I’ve got an illustration of muddy boots to do – what could be simpler? Well, I think my first pen drawing (above, middle) looks too much like crumbly material while my second looks more like porridge than mud!

And then the boots; it’s a Victorian setting so should those be riding boots . . . or would hob-nail working boots look more down to earth? Decisions, decisions!

Perhaps I should refer to the photograph that I took of my own boots in a muddy field in the Rhubarb Triangle, back in my diary for January.

Once again, in this illustration of an unsteady horse, I find myself preferring my pencil sketch (above, left) to my finished pen and ink drawing.

I’ve got at least 100, probably more like 200 of these illustrations to draw, so I’m not going to dwell on any particular illustration. After a while I should develop a ‘house style’ and then, reviewing the whole book, if there are any illustrations that stand out as looking particularly awkward, I can soon redraw them.



“ARE YOU going chubbing?” was a question you’d be asked as it got to the middle of the autumn term in my schooldays. It’s a seasonal activity that I need to illustrate for my latest book and one that brings back memories.

My school-friend John insisted that we went chubbing (collecting wood) for our November 5th bonfire down to the wood at Addingford, which was nearly half a mile’s dragging distance from where we were setting up the bonfire. As we dragged our chubbings across Westfield Road, like Burnham Wood advancing on Dunsinane, the man at the chip shop offered us a load of discarded fish and chip wrappings to light our fire with.

There was of course an easier way to collect chubbings for your bonfire, as John and I discovered; the local lads simply helped themselves to the enormous pile we’d made on his dad’s allotment!

Never mind, John had a reserve supply, a very superior reserve supply, of chubbings in his outhouse; the dismantled remains of a neighbour’s upright piano. Paino-smashing was considered an entertainment at fêtes in the 1960s.

You can imagine how the bonfire burst into a conflagration with all those greasy chip papers! Well, I had to imagine it too. John lit the fire before I arrived.

“What, you lit it before Richard came!” exclaimed his mum.

“Yes, I wanted to make sure it got going.”

That’s what he said, but I’m still convinced that he just wanted to have the fun of seeing all that work go up in flames all to himself! I never joined in John’s chubbing expeditions after that!


I’m going to keep churning out these little illustrations. This one of a verger guarding the church door lost some of it’s animation as I firmed up the lines. Much as I want a bold graphic effect, I think a lively line will help build up the sense of bustling street life that I need.


Now this is where you can’t help thinking, hmm, perhaps we should be going for colour. Hopefully the black spots will be enough to make this ladybird instantly recognisable but I must admit that scarlet red on the wing-cases would make the image more punchy.

The Undesignated Countryside

I’M WORRIED about my local patch of countryside. What’s there to worry about, you might ask;  the old railway marshalling yards at Healey Mills were featured on a BBC Natural World film as a superb example of butterfly habitat; the Strands and the Wyke made it into the national press as a unique wetland area (the first place in Britain that wild White Storks have nested after an absence of 600 years) and, crucially for biodiversity, these Calder Valley habitats are linked to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves at Stoneycliffe and Stocksmoor by Coxley Beck – the only stream in the area with a population of bullheads – and the much-loved woods of Coxley Valley.

Well that’s just how naturalists like myself, local people and the national media see it. This particular stretch of the Calder Valley is also a literary landscape; it features in the novels of the late Stan Barstow who was born in Horbury. Addingford Steps on the path down into the valley take on a symbolic significance in a couple of his novels where characters move from their everyday urban existence to an inkling of a new life with a deeper meaning. I think that’s what a patch of countryside on our doorstep does for a lot of us. It gives us somewhere to think, to forget our everyday concerns for an hour or so.

The valley was where I roamed with my friends as a child and where I set out with my sketchbook as an art student to draw plants, birds and animals.

So much for stories and inspiration; planners and politicians take a different view:

How a Planner might see the Calder Valley

There’s currently a major review of planning legislation in England. We need to get the country’s economy back on it’s feet so the suggestion is that any planning application that can be shown to promote sustainable development should be approved unless it has environmental implications.

But the habitats that I have described above don’t enjoy any special protection. In that sense, they have no special significance in planning legislation. On paper there would be no environmental implications; we’re not talking about a National Park or a Site of Special Scientific interest. None of these habitats, despite their national fame, is recognised as a Local Nature Reserve (not that they enjoy any special legal protection). Approval of applications would, presumably, be automatic.

In the south of England the most biodiverse nature reserve in the country is on brownfield land. At the Olympic site in London, efforts have been made to integrate meadows and watercourses into the design.

We can encourage biodiversity in planning but only if local people, who know the area best, are encouraged to contribute to the planning process. The presumption in favour of development would make it almost impossible to save habitats like these.

The Parker and the Padfoot

I’M INTENDING to illustrate my next book (not the Sherlock Holmes, that’s going to have to wait, but a new, less involved idea that came to me this week) in black and white line, so this morning I got some of my fountain pens in working order again, including three of these Parker Reflex pens. I’ve got used to using my ArtPens with waterproof Noodler’s ink as this suits my everyday pen and watercolour wash drawing but I’d like to experiment with something that’s just a bit more fluid and inky to create a rather different visual identity for my new book.

I drew this vinegar bottle in the fish and chip restaurant yesterday using my extra fine-nibbed ArtPen with Noodler’s black ink and you can see the difference compared with the dunnock (right), drawn with a fine-nibbed ArtPen loaded with a black ArtPen ink cartridge. The ArtPen ink isn’t waterproof, so I can’t use it as I would the Noodler’s in conjunction with a watercolour wash.


I decided to try out the pens on a randomly chosen cartoon illustration for my new book, which includes, as one of its themes, creatures from local folklore. All we know of Padfoot is that it was a four-footed supernatural animal with saucer-shaped eyes which waylaid people on dark nights in lonely places.

I prefer my sketchy rough (above, right) in the fine-nibbed ArtPen to this more stylised version in ArtPen with solid black added with a Pentel Brush Pen. I want to have fun with this project so I think that I should be going for the rougher line version, which seems to come more naturally to me but then part of having fun with drawing is in trying out new approaches, so I’ve still got an open mind.

I’ll just have one more try and then move onto a fresh subject. The vagueness of the apparition of Padfoot was one of its main characteristics. It padded along softly behind you and if you looked back at it you’d see a shadowy, half-real creature in the hedgerow.

My final attempt has gone too far towards Dracula gothic and by putting trees on either side of the path I’ve implied that Padfoot’s natural habitat was woodland. You’d be more likely to meet it on a lonely byway.

The Jester of Kirklees

On a lighter note, I need an illustration of the Jester of Kirklees. I think this kind of cartoon style is going to be more successful for the book. My drawings are intended to illustrate specific points, not to be stand-alone drawings in their own right. I don’t, for instance, like to go over lines in an observational drawing but to give this cartoon a graphic look – something along the lines of a woodcut – I’ve gone over the outlines with the ArtPen.

Next, I have to illustrate a rough and ready form of clearing weeds using a spade; this book is nothing if not varied and that’s the appeal of illustrating it.

The Man in the Straw Hat

Then there’s a particular sort of straw hat. It’s associated with a local character who I’ve tried to depict here but the trouble is his character then dominates the drawing; it’s actually the straw hat that counts here.

So here’s my second version in which the straw hat takes centre stage.


The Little Flash Rabbit

IT’S THE WEEKEND, so as a break from my normal work I decided to have a go, once again, at creating a Flash Animation. This rabbit, which would have failed the audition for Watership Down, is from a tutorial on ‘Simple Animation’ in Ivan Hissey and Curtis Tappenden’s The Professional Step-by-Step Guide to Cartooning.

A year ago, I read right through the Teach Yourself Visually Guide to Flash MX but that has the disadvantage that when you get to Chapter 9, ‘Create Tweened Animations’, they expect you to have picked up the basics. I’m afraid that with Flash, which I use only once or twice a year, I’ve invariably forgotten the basics. The Step-by-Step Guide gives you clear simple instructions in full.

Effects like this Shape Tweening are simple to achieve once you know how. I like the way the Step-by-Step Guide casually mentions a few really useful keystrokes for Flash in the two paragraphs of instructions for shape tweening.

But I’m afraid that’s going to be the end of Flash for me for another six months! What a complex program! Everything seems designed to do what you don’t expect it to do. What finally stumped me was trying to do the simplest of processes, the selection of a sequence of frames in the animation: ‘select frames . . . by clicking and dragging the mouse across the timeline’. In my version of the program, that just drags the first frame along the timeline, leaving a sequence of blank frames. Most discouraging.

I’m not completely illiterate when it comes to computers but Flash does win the prize for the most abstruse and contrary program ever designed. Perhaps it’s too much to expect to run an old program like Flash MX on Windows 7.

A Good Drenching

OUR LONG SPELL of mainly dry weather has ended with a good drenching which we’re hoping will persuade the runner beans and courgettes to spring into action again. At least the dry spell has meant that we’ve had plenty of raspberries ripening.

In the heavy rain at 5 a.m. yesterday morning, the electricity went off and we didn’t get it back until 12 hours later. Fortunately we have a gas hob (and a whistling kettle standing by for such emergencies!) so we were able to turn the ripe Victoria Plums that my mum had given us yesterday into 6 lbs – ten jars of various sizes – of jam. We’re getting used to not over-setting it.

The Handbook

AS I STAGGERED back from my 16 mile walk in the sun the other week, a neighbour stopped and asked me if I was interested in some bird books he had been given which were sitting in his garage, waiting until he could find for a suitable home for them. He showed me four hefty volumes published by the RSPB in the early 1980s. They were still in their original packaging and in excellent conidition. It shows how incoherent I was after my walk that I didn’t immediately realise what they were.

A short search on Google revealed that these were in fact the first four volumes of the monumental nine volume Birds of the Western Palearctic. That’s the subtitle by which they’re generally known but the actual title is Handbook (some handbook; you wouldn’t get far with these in your haversack!) of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The RSPB printed an ‘orthnithologists edition’ limited to 5000 copies. With a bit of reorganising I’ve managed to fit them on my shelves. Now all I need to do is track down the remaining five volumes.

When Barbara and I were staying on Skokholm Island, the warden described Birds of the Western Palearctic as ‘the most boring bird book ever published’; what he meant was that you couldn’t really browse through it for pleasure but when it comes to information about a species, if something you’ve observed isn’t mentioned in the text, then it’s probably new to science. Barbara and I had been watching Jackdaws carrying shells into their nesthole in a rabbit burrow on the cliff-top near The Neck on Skokholm. The warden was soon able to tell us that there is no mention of shells in the list of nesting materials in the entry on Jackdaws, so that’s probably something that has never been observed and recorded in birdwatching literature.

I’m really grateful to my neighbour and I feel as if the books waiting for me to come along and put them to some use. Earlier this year, I decided that it was about time that I started exploring the wilder corners of Europe – hence our holiday in Switzerland – and the Western Palearctic is the ecozone that our continent occupies. I don’t know why I should ever need to refer to a description of a bird with that level of detail but it’s reassuring to have such an authoritative source of birding wisdom available.