Crogan / craggans

A year ago I was talking to a man who used to run a clay materials business in Scotland. The received wisdom seemed to be that there was no clay to be had in the Western Isles. This was not the land of marl and terracotta (like the West Midlands), or ball clays (like Devon and Dorset) or China clays (as with Cornwall)…….

But despite a bit of amateur sleuthing, I couldn’t find much to contradict this view. Until earlier this year. In my research into finding possible clay sources on the Island of Islay, with my interest in making connections with whiskey distilling and culture, I had first discovered the presence of a brick and tile works that existed at Foreland Estate between c. 1840 and 1860, and then, more recently I found references to ‘craggan ware’ in the reports of archaeological excavations across the island, including sites close to my explorations for clay on the Rhinns and Ardnave peninsulars.

The term craggan comes from the Scots Gaelic word crogan or crog, referring to small cups or jars – linked to the word crock in English. Craggan ware is simple, functional and often quite crude in its design and manufacture, fired in peat bonfires and therefore only just ceramic. Simple milk ‘glaze’ was applied when the craggan were hot, helping make them less porous. The same shapes and simple technology can be found dating back to the Neolithic, and Alan Lane has argued that there was a continuous “ceramic zone” identifiable across the outer Hebridean Islands, including Coll and Tiree, that existed up until the late nineteenth and even early twentieth centuries. On the island of Tiree, craggan jars were still made in the 1920s because of the belief that milk heated in these vessels would help stave off tuberculosis, but it is Barvas on Lewis that is the site most commonly associated with the last survival of Craggan ware.

In addition to this, on my last visit to the island in September, I visited the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte and saw a Neolithic cup from the excavation of a nearby burial chamber. This site lies a few fields away from the site of my recent clay digging on Octomore Farm (with kind permission from the farmer James Brown and assistance from Danny Mather). All these threads have come together to inform my latest work, and I wish to explore the idea of making crogan linked to the local traditions of whiskey distilling and drinking, and linked potentially to the other key aspects of pastoral economies and milk production and consumption on the islands. This will take both a very functional line, making whiskey crogan / craggans for some of the distilleries focusing on their connection to the local land – or terroir as Bruichladdich (now owned by Remy-Martin) term it, but would ideally also lead to workshops with the communities on the island(s), to explore this aspect of a material culture that is now invisible to both local and visitor alike.

 

 

Open Studio time again…

It’s Open Studio Weekend again – 25-27th August (this coming weekend), and I’m open from 10 AM to 3 PM every day.

It’s been a great opportunity to clear out the workshop, give the everything a good clean, re-imagine the place a bit. All very useful!

It’s also a great chance for me to show some of the work I have been doing over the past six months; some of my process and some of the new forms that I have been exploring. I hope it’ll be as busy as last year.

All welcome – but please note – there are quite a few steps…….

Artistic licence?

I’m making some steady progress with my Islay glaze materials – after a couple of months of frustrating results. The balance of materials is crucial; limestone, limonite / bog iron, quartzite, ash, but at last I’m getting a lovely clear – green glaze, which is streaky when thin, but deep and glossy when applied thickly. I have tried a copper splash to add a break to the background glaze, copper having been mined on Islay in the middle-ages / early modern period. I’m delighted with the results, but I want to expand the colour palette a little.

I am drawn to a splash of blue, to conjure up the sky and sea – such a hugely important set of factors when experiencing the island. There’s also that occasional fragment of blue sea-glass washed up on the shore. I think that next steps may well include a blue splash or two on the tumblers. The cobalt necessary for this, however would most definitely be from far flung quarries, half a world away. but it is possible that artistic license may just have to give me the permission here.

Landscapes

Landscapes fascinate me. It’s not just the big sweeping forms, although they are at the centre of the aesthetic that I often connect with most easily, but the almost imperceptible details; the trace of a path, the vegetation, the soil profiles, the archaeology and geology beneath….and the social dimensions that may be almost invisible. I love the way that it is possible, by training your eye to either start to locate clues visually, to work in sharp focus, or to squint and blur the view, so that you only see the big shapes.

Sometimes, as on a visit to my beloved Donegal, you need to blur things, where the scatter of modern houses, left as if by a giant with a saltshaker, can be almost such a distraction as to prompt a disconnect. Other times, whilst walking in those same hills, which on a bleak, grey, wet day can leave the senses potentially numb, just focussing on the flowers in amongst the heather; tormentil, lady’s bedstraw, heath bedstraw, thyme, harebell, asphodel, lungwort, milkwort, you can be drawn into the web of connections that is at the heart of any place, whether they be natural…., social or economic.

The main feature of many of these photographs is the path. I spend a lot of my time walking, at least an hour a day, but more when I get the chance. Walking opens up so many connections and stories, whether through what we see, what we find, or through the people we meet.

These photographs are a start at capturing my obsession with layers in the landscape.

Finally, I include a photograph here of the late, great Mick Wilkinson, taken on an Autumn morning in 2015, where I stumbled across him, emptying out-of-date cherries from small tubs into a bucket for his cows. Mick worked with the legendary country potter Isaac Button in his youth, and was a veritable mine of information. He could tell a story and give you a depth of understanding that is so often missing in the books and web-pages, better than pretty much anyone I have ever met. The gate was his clue for me to find clay that he was happy for me to dig. I will never forget his kindness and enthusiasm.

Sense of place:

A central theme in my work is the focus on place; on the landscape, the environment, the economy and culture and from this – the connections between people, locally available materials and function (for example, tools / buildings / fuel etc.). All human activity has an impact, and yet over the centuries, it seems as if there were occasionally systems that established some kind of balance between the natural world and our actions. Take the countryside of the British Isles for example, where until the development of more industrial approaches to farming following the second world war, the fields were characterised by species diversity – of plants, invertebrates, birds etc. I’m not suggesting this was a panacea – something usually has to give. Some kind of balance also seems to have been established in the management of woodlands for coppicing, creating fuel for firewood and early industrial activity. The coppiced woods created opportunities for a wide range of flowering plants such as bluebells and wood anemones and particular butterfly and bird species – whilst also creating a carbon neutral source of fuel.

Whilst it may seem almost impossible to re-create these systems to serve a world with a growing population of 7 billion people, it does inspire me – and the whole concept of sustainability deeply underlies my work. How could these more balanced systems inform our future actions and innovation? It also means that as I explore landscapes, with ceramic materials in mind, I know that I need to think carefully about the relationships that I will have with both people and place, if I am to stay true to my own values and commitments.