Ivy, Gorse and Snowdrops

I’ve had a week now to catch up on other things that needed doing, oh yes and I also caught up on some sleep. But I’ve finally managed to sit down and write a blog post as I promised.

The exhibition at Gairloch has dominated my life for the past six months, because I painted 10 botanicals and each painting needed a lot of research. In order to paint botanicals, each plant had to be accurate for size, shape, colour and growth pattern. As part of my research I read a little about the folklore of the plants. I also wanted to use their Gaelic names as part of my compositions and I was very lucky to work with Roddy MacLean, who helped me with the translations. Gairloch Heritage Museum will be holding two events with Roddy, Lusan nan Gàidheal: Plants of bog and hill in Gaelic tradition and Lusan nan Gàidheal: Plants of croft and woodland in Gaelic tradition. Click on the link to the museum and then on “events” if you are interested in learning more about the plants of the West Highlands, from the very knowledgable Roddy.

My botanical collection, fit broadly within the seasons, but in the first selection that I’m going to share, I’ve included Gorse, which is at it’s best during May, but it’s an evergreen and there always seems to be a flower or two, somewhere on the bush (more about that in a while!). So it was easy to collect and paint, when very little else was in leaf or bloom.

some sketches

The plants that follow were the first that I painted for the exhibition, though I later redid the snowdrop painting as I wasn’t that happy with the compostition. Ivy was easy to find, it grows prolifically in my village, as does gorse, whereas snowdrops grow in profusion at the Old Kirk at the east side of the village.

For every plant I painted I did a lot of sketches, drawings and took photos too.

The first plant that I’m going to share is

Ivy, Eidheann (hedera helix)

As I mentioned earlier, there is a lot of Ivy locally. It grows in a great deal of profusion in the this village. It is especially noticable in the winter when the trees are otherwise bare. Ivies have two kinds of leaves. The oh, so familiar palmate leaves that grow on winding stems and the unlobed cordate leaves which grow on the flowering stems. The flowers are small and very rich in nectar. The flowers are replaced by berries which are usually a greenish black or dark purple.

The old Gaelic name for Ivy was Gort, which represents the eleventh letter of the Gaelic alphabet and which means sour, as the whole plant is poisonous. But the plant is also used in various remedies and is meant to clean wounds and sores, treat sunbrun and can be used to cure corns.

Ivy can be used to make baskets and was hung as a wreath to protect the household from evil. Ivy can be used as a basis for green garlands which are often used to ‘deck the halls’ at the Solstice.

Mandy Haggith has done some wonderful work collating stories and folklore on a number of trees and plants. Clicking on her name above, will take you to her site. Mandy is a poet and writer and there are some wonderful evocative pieces about the native plants of the Highlands, written by Mandy, on her site.

My next plant, which I focussed on in December and January was

Gorse/Conasg (Ulex)

Gorse was the second plant that I sketched and painted. It looks glorious at the moment, in May, growing in thick hedgerows and lighting up the hillside with bright clouds of yellow. In warmer, drier climates Gorse can be almost uncontrollable but it was always a very valuable plant in the Highlands.

It’s old Gaelic name was Onn, which represented O in the Gaelic alphabet.

The scent of the flowers are gorgeous at this time of year. They smell of vanila and coconut. The flowers are edible and can be used in salads and as a flavouring in gin. Gorse is commonly known as Whin in this part of the world. It was once used as animal fodder, it would have been ground using a ‘whinstone’, which must have been a challenge as its thorns are vicious!

Gorse is a member of the pea family and its bright yellow flowers (along with the rest of the plant) are popular with dyers. In Celtic lore the flowers are said to represent optimism, with the sun, light and fire. Gorse wood, once dried is said to burn at a very high heat and some people still line their windowsills and doorstops with the flowers at Beltane in order to celebrate the return of the sun and welcome the Celtic sun god Lugh.

Gorse is favoured by lovers as it is said that if one finds a flower one can kiss one’s sweetheart and although Grose is currently flowering in such profusion, flowers can be found on the plant at anytime of year.

If you’d like to read more about lore, stories and poems linked with gorse, Mandy Haggith has also written about it at her website (linked at her name)

Finally for this post I want to share some sketches and notes about

Snowdrop/Gealag-làir (Galanthus)

Snowdrops are a favourite plant of mine, whilst not native to the British Isles as the other plants I have painted are, they have quickly become embedded in stories and folklore. Snowdrops flower when nothing else will, even through the snow. In many countries they are symbol of hope as they bloom for candlemas or Imbloc, the name for which comes from an even older word ‘oimelc’ meaning the milk of the ewe, they are therefore associated with the pure colour white.

Galanthus means ‘milk flower’ and gealag-làir means white mare. In Scotland it is often considered unlucky to gift snowdrops or to bring them into the house. There is some speculation that this is because snowdrops are often found in cemetaries, and they were believed to have been brought over by monks. According to VC Sinden, the first reference to flowers that sound like snowdrops in print in Britain appears in 1597. There, they’re called “Timely Flowering Bulbous Violets”. You can read more about that and the folklore of snowdrops at this link.

In the right conditions snowdrops can be prolific and each February they grow as a white carpet amongst the moss at the Old Kirk graveyard at the East of Lochcarron village. I love the delicacy of snowdrops and have drawn and sketched them far more than I probably needed for this project!

In many countries snowdrops are also considered a symbol of hope, legend says that they were gifted to Adam and Eve by an angel after they had left the Garden of Eden.

The Scottish poet George Wilson concludes his poem ‘The Origin of the snowdrop’ with the lines;

“And thus the snowdrop, like the bow

That spans the cloudy sky,

Becomes a symbol whence we know

That brighter days are nigh

Definitely a symbol that warmer days are on their way.

There will be another blog post in a few days, sharing more of my sketches and research. All the posts about Flora Gadelica (lusan nan gaidheal) will be linked at the tags at the bottom of this blog post – just in case you’re interested in reading more. My exhibition will be at Gairloch Heritage Museum until the end of June. All the paintings are for sale and cards and (possibly prints) will be available shortly.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my sketches and post. If you have any stories about any of the plants I have shared I would love to hear them. Please do comment below.

More soon

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