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I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on janpatience@me.com (All work © Jan Patience)

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Speak of the Mearns - and Joan Eardley

Beehives at Catterline by Joan Eardley

Where else but in Arbuthnott, birthplace of James Leslie Mitchell (aka Lewis Grassic Gibbon, author of my favourite novel, Sunset Song) could you sit in a glorified tent next to a former World Ploughing Champion, your best friend of almost 28 years (!) and the Burns-loving mum of Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop?

This was the situation in which I found myself last Friday night when me and my BF Ruth ventured deep into The Mearns, where the burnished stooks sat to attention as though honouring the memory of one of its most famous sons.

The Mearns Connections festival started up last year and its chief aim is to celebrate Grassic Gibbon, who lived for the first 17 years of his life in Arbuthnott, Joan Eardley, who found her spiritual home in nearby Catterline, and Robert Burns, whose father William Burness was a self-educated tenant farmer from Dunnottar.

We didn't really know what to expect, but knowing my passion for the work of Joan Eardley, Ruth went ahead and booked it. It's been a strange few weeks for me and art chat always acts as a salve to the soul, especially when it's about Joan Eardley, who painted right to the troubled heart of the matter.

It turned out to be a fine night. It was set up as a cross between a wedding and a Burns Supper, with a fancy marquee, round tables and a seating plan, a top table and speakers. We dined on pate, haggis and strawberries and cream, washed down by copious amounts of alcohol. It doesn't happen very often these days, but Ruth and I felt we lowered the age range considerably and for that, we felt a warm glow.

There was music by singer and champion of the Scots singing tradition, Chistine Kydd and Patsy Reid, a fiddler fine in the young funky trad Scottish music mould. Brother and sister Andrew & Jenny Clark piped the top table in and local chat-meister Jim Brown was the MC.

The chat was excellent. Someone made a comment to the man on my right about being worried when a former world ploughing champ couldn't park in a field and I was off. Once a journalist, always a journalist. "So, how do you become World Ploughing Champ then?" I enquired of Dave Carnegie, a local farmer.

A couple arrived late and breathless, having just driven from Alloway. It turned out (after a lot of Burns chat) that they were the parents of Scottish Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop.

But, to the main event of the night (for me at any rate). Local artist. David Johnston (www.mearnsartist.com) had been charged with the task of pulling together the connections which bound Joan Eardley to the Mearns, and he did so eloquently and with a real sense of poetry.

It was the 'strangeness' he said, which drew Eardley to Catterline. And anyone who has visited this cliff-top fishing village, with its vast skies and whirling winds will instantly pick up on this too. David drew parallels between Grassic Gibbon and Eardley which made me think of both differently.

I read Sunset Song again last year for the first time since I was its heroine's age and I took out of it so much more second time around.

"Oh, she hated and loved it in a breath!" When I first read this, I identified with Chris in an almost primordial way. As a mature woman, my reaction was almost visceral yet again. Gibbon was attempting the impossible in a piece of writing when he penned Sunset Song. He was placing himself into the land and into the soul of another.

As David Johnston picked up on in a particularly poetic way (shame about the Jimmy Shand mobile ring tone which penetrated the climax of this poetic delivery) Joan Eardley felt at one with the speak of the Mearns and the people of the Mearns. They were rough, farming and fishing folk, but they were real and honest. They tilled the land and they worked the sea. Here, she could paint and feel the power of centuries' worth of human and weather-based drama which all revolved around the turning of the seasons.

It seemed fitting to listen to this address in front of an audience which was made up of people from all walks of life, not just the art aristocracy which was probably descending on Edinburgh as we scoffed our shortbread.

I think Joan would have liked it. Her niece Anne once told me she remembers going to an opening at at Edinburgh exhibition and her aunt looking as if she'd rather be a 100 miles away - probably in Catterline. She might have found The Mearns Connection Dinner a bit fancy initially, but, like Ruth and I, she'd have left on a high, especially after that tear-jerking rendition of the Flowers of the Forest by Christine Kydd.

On the programme, a poem in the Doric by Sheena Blackhall was printed for guests to read.

Here (with thanks to Sheena for such a beautiful poem) is the final verse of THE WATCHIE: A TRIBUTE TO JOAN EARDLEY

Naebody catched the sea sae weel as her
She felt it in the marra o her makk
Fishin fur image wi a penter's ee
In Catterline, far storms breenge an brakk
She wis the watchie o thon Nor East neuk
Far barley rigs rin tae the warld's edge
An ferms an fishers strive tae thole the dunt
O cloorin wins on Scotlan's craggy ledge

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