Back amongst the Celts

The combination of a showery bank holiday and an exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland gave me a chance to revisit my first old artistic love, the art of the Celts.

There was knotwork of course, and the point was made that this is really characteristic of Anglo-Saxons rather than Celts, something I discovered in Jarrow and Hexham.

Small Anglo-saxon knotwork cross medallion, c.750 AD. The top left and (badly-drawn) bottom right are different balanced, single-line designs: the top right is three lines. Different craftsman, same craftsman after a dram, or a deep meaningful point?

But what I really enjoyed was the oldest stuff. One thing I discovered was that those naif figures which populate the Book of Kells and the like are not intrinsic to celtic art, it’s just that the Irish monks were useless at portraiture. This penny-sized face, one of dozens circling around a horse harness, is a perfectly good portrait of a pretty Czech girl, hammered from bronze when Nehemiah was busy rebuilding Jerusalem.


There were also better examples than I’ve seen before of designs which evoke animals without feeling the need to copy them literally. This ‘deep’ art was a big theme of the exhibition, and contrasted with the literal naturalism of the Mediterranean.


The depth of the designs was full of fun with fractals: the London bird above had a similar tiny bird flying inside its wing; and there was a spectacular torque from Germany with two bulls’ heads, each head wearing a little torque. Did the little torques have little bulls’ heads each wearing tiny torques?  The large glass cases and low light levels didn’t let us find out.

But I think my favourite bit of design on this occasion was this French pot, clearly influenced by Greek pottery but overrun by a bonkers celtic herd of nested, rotated, spiralled, extended deer:

The top of the design is at the bottom of the page: I ran out of paper. These illustrations altogether demonstrate that I haven’t done a sketch for years. 

One of the disappointing things about this Edinburgh exhibition, as so often, was the lack of content compared with a London one. I had taken my paintbox in the hope of getting out some colour, but there was hardly any enamelwork, and the two monastic manuscripts were unfortunately placed horizontally in vertical display cases so that it was impossible to see the designs in any detail. I did find this bronze bit, however, with what I thought was just the right pleasing celticy combination of trumpet, spiral, boss and enamel.


I liked the final section on celtic revival, and I was very glad to see the great decipherer of knotwork George Bain mentioned: I have spent hours and hours amongst the pages of his book (although I’m horrified to see his Wikipedia page features an incorrect knot!). However, I’d forgotten, if I knew, that the man who invented Edinburgh Living Landscape 100 years before it was invented, Patrick Geddes, was also a great celtic revivalist. Goodoh.

Christmas cards

My identity has always come from what I create rather than what I consume, so for me the especial delight of Christmas has always been not so much getting loot as showing off. Every year since I was a little girl, I have looked forward to a feast of indulgence of singing Christmas carols, and sending (and more recently selling) home-made Christmas cards. I’m not sure this approach is any more altruistic than an orgy of Black Friday telly-buying, but at least it has a lighter environmental footprint.

To enlist you in my Christmas indulgence I’ve put together six selections of my Christmas card designs. You can feed my greed for adulation by buying them and sending them to your friends. And in case you think this is a cunning plan to raise funds to buy giant tellies, I might add that all my spending money just now is going straight to another indulgent yet I hope innocent project: to refurbish and reopen a field centre in a very beautiful corner of Scotland (which I have written about here).


I told you it was all about singing. How far is it to Bethlehem?, In dulci jubilo, I heard the bells, In the bleak midwinter, and I sing the birth: some familiar, some strange, all commissioned by friends who wanted their favourite carol, except How far is it to Bethlehem? which I chose myself, as an adventure into the innocence of Christmas and an excuse to illustrate a great chorus of biodiversity. Buy tenor buy five.


This set were commissioned by my religious friend Dan over the course of five years. I used a far more spare, ‘modern’ style of calligraphy and illumination which seemed to me to suit the pure, conceptual nature of his theological themes, quite unlike the muddle of narratives and cultures in my own head. I print them on to bold, bright card though, all different, and make them sparkle with handpainted white and gold details. Buy tenor buy five.


My other regular commissioners have been my friend Anthony and his dog Charlie. Anthony managed not only to cover Christmas sacred and secular, from the Magi crossing the desert to Father Christmas stuck in the chimney, but also a range of artistic styles and card formats, ending with a grand finale: an inside out card in the style of a Hergé cartoon. It’s one of my favourite designs of all. There’s lots to make you laugh in all of them. Buy a dozenor at least a half dozen.


All except one (Sing Choirs) of this selection were designs I did as my own Christmas cards. They are all printed in black and white with colour added by hand afterwards, which makes the colour less rich, but more vibrant, being ‘live’. There’s John Donne, Walter Scott, Kit Smart, and one of the Hebrew Psalms: and I believe the person who commissioned Sing Choirs was thinking not of the author of those words, but of David Willcocks. There are also polar bears, mice, spiders, herb-robert, and wise men on bicycles. My Christmas never stays conceptual or anthropocentric for long. Buy tenor, go on, buy five.


These cards, from Mary singing ‘he hath put down the mighty from their seat’, to the English Puritans banning the celebration of Christmas, to Regency Episcopalians reinstating it in dour, Presbyterian Edinburgh, to Longfellow lyricising about the bells of peace, all represent the radical nature of Christmas: people’s attempt to clear away the clutter and wrapping paper, and grasp its pure, true core. The results, as you see, are very different, but the belief in the real meaning of Christmas goes on and is an endless source of poetry, philosophy, and indeed politics. Buy ten to sendor just buy five and keep ’em.


The recent ‘Gothic Season’ on the BBC coincided with my study, as a professional historian, of the Victorian Gothic Revival Architect George Gilbert Scott. The programmes on Art of the Gothic by Andrew Graham-Dixon were a bit of a Damascus road moment for me, and made me reassess my creative life quite differently. I’ve never thought of myself as a Goth: I have a healthy aversion to death and the colour black, and I’m a sceptical academic who loves evidence-based arguments and strategies. Yet the essence of Gothic, as a questioning of the rational humanist Enlightenment is at the heart of everything I do. I rebel against the lack of paradox, the bleak heartlessness, and, most of all, the anthropocentrism of science, history, sociology, evangelical Christianity and humanism. In my art — as in the Christmas story — angels and animals keep breaking in on the human world of sense. The clean lines of words are entangled with abundant foliage. My Christmas is, most of all, a Gothic Christmas. Buy tenor five.

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A Celtic Revival

When my sister and I were little, whenever we went to a museum or castle we were always most interested in the shop, where everything was so glittering and tempting compared to the fusty old objects we should have been looking at.

This girlish consumerism was somewhat looked down upon, but on one occasion I laid out my pocket money on a little pamphlet which, for many years, changed my life: ‘Elementary Knotwork Borders, the methods of construction’, by George Bain. I got it home and had a go — and was hooked.

The knots in my sketchbooks begin laboriously, and then I begin to master it…

There were seven other pamphlets, with more knots, spirals, animal patterns, lettering and key patterns (I never got the hang of these), but after I’d collected a few my aunt bought me the full book, ‘Celtic Art, the Methods of Construction’.

To a rather obsessive compulsive teenager it was hugely inspirational. If you know any obsessive compulsive teenagers, buy it for them for Christmas!

Soon all the covers of my school exercise books began to be knotted with interlace and animal patterns. Instead of being dragged around museums of which I was really only interested in the shops, I dragged my family (especially Mum) on quests around Angus and the Mearns to find celtic standing stones to sketch.

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I loved the elusive symbolism, the eternal lines which wove from pagan to Christian, the total anonymity of the people who created this curving geometry, but whom I felt akin to because they lived in my favourite part of Scotland and taught me their designs. Here’s a page of sketches from the Meigle Sculptured Stones museum:

I collected books with reproductions of the Lindesfarne Gospels and (my favourite of all) the Book of Kells. I delved into intricacy, seeing how much design I could fit into a postcard-sized image. I went short-sighted, but it was worth it. In sixth form I was commissioned to design two official school Christmas cards. My Celtic design was almost too intricate in places to print properly.

I regarded this as a tour de force and was very disappointed when it sold far less well to parents and pupils than my alternative card, a rose window, which took about a tenth of the time and far less technical ability to draw. But the experience was a good lesson in the importance of overall design as well as detail.

I have very few original pieces from the time when I was mastering Celtic Art because they were almost all made as gifts. I found one, though, alongside some bad photographs of its companions, labelled ‘thankyou cards’.

I’d dismissed it with ‘unsent’ scrawled in biro across the top. But my seventeen-year-old self’s glowing colours and rich carpet of interlaced creatures astonished my thirty-two-year-old self when I found it. I’m not sure I could do anything so good now. But I think 2011 is the year to pick up my Celtic pen again and see what I can do.

The Christmas Falcon

It’s Christmas Eve, 1814, and the big house of Falcon Hall in Edinburgh is wrapped in snow and night. In the kitchen, the grumbling cook is preparing Christmas dinner when a mysterious child with a falcon on her shoulder comes to help him…

The Falcon Christmas is based on the true stories of Falcon Hall in Morningside, Edinburgh, and of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol. It is a 6000-word story hidden inside a Christmas card which I wrote, illustrated and individually produced about half a mile from the place where the story is set.

The ideas for The Christmas Falcon came from various sources. There was research for my PhD on the Falconars of Falcon Hall and on dinner parties in the New Town of Edinburgh. There was the accidental discovery that Charles Dickens’ character Scrooge was based on a real person. And there was watching The Muppet Christmas Carol once too often. I did re-read Charles Dickens’ original version when writing my story, and discovered that Kermit and company stuck pretty closely to it.

I love that sort of story, the sort where the ingredients of snow, food, carols, historical costumes, children, animals, and a huge dose of good will to all, are mixed together into a delicious warming Christmas pudding of escapism, ideal for reading curled up by a fire with a glass of mulled wine. It’s just the right length for one of those Christmas gaps, while you’re waiting for the pudding to be done, or for the cousins to arrive, or for the long Christmas Eve evening before Midnight Mass.

But I also like stories that teach you stuff, and the Christmas Falcon, while entirely fictitious in itself, has a lot of history behind it. At the end of the ribbon-bound storybook inside the card, there’s a link to a page on my website with the historical background to the story, which I hope both Edinburgh and Dickens fans will find interesting. There’s also a snatch of poetry from one of my favourite poets, the Scottish Renaissance writer William Dunbar, of whom I hope you will hear more from me.

To be honest, the most arduous part of producing The Christmas Falcon turned out to be sticking on the glitter. But it’s worth it, because it will bring my William-Blake-y illustration to life so delightfully when it’s on your mantlepiece with fairy lights or candles around it. And as I stick it on, I think of you opening the door to the cousins, or arriving at Midnight Mass, or serving the pudding, with a warm heart, and slightly glittery.

You can buy The Christmas Falcon on Etsy or Folksy. If you have read The Christmas Falcon I would be delighted if you would take the time to review it using the comments box below. And please follow me on facebook or sign up for email updates on my website to hear about my future projects.

Christmas Cards

I became an illustrator by making my own Christmas cards. As a teenager I was obsessed by Celtic art. I would begin in January, and spend the year creating a set of designs.

At first they were closely derived from The Book of Kells and Lindesfarne Gospels, but I became more confident about designing my own layouts and patterns. I loved the philosophy of celtic art as well as the colour and intricacy: that the labour of the intricate work was a kind of prayer, that the geometric shapes, eternal lines and naturalistic designs were imitatitive of God’s own creativity, that small imperfections should always be left to ensure the artist did not become arrogant and put herself on a level with the Creator, the little symbol of three dots to represent the Holy Trinity.

Eventually exams and university caught up with me and by the time I returned to illustration, I had emerged almost literally from the Dark Ages, got a lot more sceptical and a lot less obsessive, and developed a strong interest in environmental issues. My designs still drew on the skills I’d learned copying those celtic knots, but were based on sketches of nature, like this one using my favourite weed, Herb Robert. I continued to draw on my spiritual tradition of the bible too, but instead of the abstract ideas I had entwined geometric knots around, I chose earthier ‘ecological’ passages like this one, Psalm 96.

‘Where is this stupendous stranger?’ is another design from this time, in which I finally untied myself from the knots, and experimented with the delicious possibilities of creating a colourful world out of black ink on white paper, and of earthing mystical words in quirky, modern illustration inspired by artists like Lowry and Escher.

I wanted to do more designs and draw on wider influences, and was also looking at ways to commercialise my work, so I came up with the idea of inviting people to commission a Christmas card design as a way of making these time-consuming  designs affordable. The first commissions were mostly from supportive members of my choir and the church congregation, so were dominated by carols, which were my suggested theme.

A few people commission a card from me every year, which allows me to create a series of designs, like this one which I gave the paradoxical name of ‘contemporary mediaeval’. It draws on the knotwork and calligraphy skills I learned in all those hours copying the Book of Kells, but gives it greater freedom, restraint and personality. I’ve got less afraid of blank space.

I continued to design cards for myself as well, to send and to sell, and these represent the work I want to do. My favourite themes in recent years have been nature and literature.

This year I took the literature theme a step further, because I’ve rediscovered something I’d put aside before I even began drawing those Celtic cards as a teenager: story writing. All my cards tell stories, and there with sub-plots hidden in the margins and themes running through the colours and styles. This year for the first time there’s a real story, The Falcon Christmas, based on research I’ve been doing for my history PhD. The illustration on the card illustrates the story, which is hidden in a little ribbon-bound book inside.

This doesn’t represent the complete collection of my Christmas cards. The full collection is in my Etsy shop where all their stories are told. I hope you enjoy them!

If you enjoyed this post, follow me on facebook to receive news of my work in future, or visit my website to find out what else I’m up to.

The St John’s Garden


St John’s Church at the West End of Edinburgh have just completed a major project to improve and open up their historic and beautiful graveyard. They asked me to provide an illustration for a new interpretative sign. It’s the cherry on the cake of all the work of tree-felling, planting, path-building and monument restoration which has been going on in the background.

graveyard-panel-smallMy illustration was beautifully put together with the information on the history and facilities of the site by graphic designer Peter Blood from The Osprey Company,, who provided the signboard itself. If you want a sign, we’ve made a good team and would love to work together again!




The sign was unveiled at a special ceremony with the Bishop of Edinburgh (the guy in the pink frock…) The unveiling is being done by historian Angus Mitchell, who knows more about the people buried in the churchyard than anyone. (I’m hot on his heels, however, because the people in the graveyard are some of the subject of my history PhD which you can read about here).

The sign is on the Terrace down the steps from Lothian Road — drop in and have a look if you’re in Edinburgh!


Gladstone’s Land Gallery

George Harris and I are exhibiting our work this week in a father and daughter team. We’re at the Gladstone’s Land Gallery in the Lawnmarket, just down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle — it’s number 13 on my guide to the Old Town.

Gladstone’s Land is a 17th century tenement. The ground and first floor are set up as a museum by the National Trust, and the gallery is on the second floor.

Tourists going up and down the Royal Mile can’t miss my sign…

Those who make it up the winding stone staircase will find a treasure-house of delights…..  

… with George’s beautiful acrylics and watercolours of Skye, Torridon, Assynt, all over the mountains and coast of the west of Scotland.

It’s worth coming in just to see the seventeenth century painted ceiling, and the casement windows. It’s also a great place for people-watching.

We’re there all this week, 10 till 5, until Sunday. Please come and say hello!

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Being Part of the Edinburgh Festival

I love West Port. Every time I walk along it I see something new. Where else would you find a shop front proclaiming, ‘V. Good, Defence Lawyers’? Yesterday I noticed that the adjacent laundrette and sex-shop both had copies of the same sign in the window: ‘Staff wanted. Apply with CV within’. I walked through the Grassmarket wondering how I would construct a CV which would suit what is presumably one job. Then on Victoria Street, one of those little A-boards which say ‘caution, slippery surface’, except someone had adapted it to read ‘caution, ghosts’. Aw! And the great old stone church-converted-to-restaurant that burned right out in a tremendous fire last winter is open for business again. That’s extraordinary: it still looked like a sooty shell in June.

That was in the morning, on the way to the National Library. I walked that way again last night, to a late ‘Hot Chocolate’ concert in Old St Paul’s. The city was buzzing. Not the winter crowds: forlorn girls with barely enough flesh or cloth to cover their bones keeping out the sleet and the pain in their feet with bottles of spirits (I join them occasionally. We are the most prosperous generation in history). This, though, is the festival crowd, where mere revellers are outnumbered by middle-aged cultured couples, European herds led by fierce brolly-women, and most of all, young artists of every sort, choristers in black, actresses in corsets, buskers in kilts, comedians in jeans and t-shirts, tumblers in colourful dungarees, crafters in shawls.

Usually during August I feel as if my city has been occupied by invaders, and lie low in the cloisters of the National Library until they disperse and I can reclaim it. But this year I’ve been part of the Festival. I’ve been to four concerts, two as audience and two, with Sospiro Baroque and The Choir of St John’s as singer. In the  been to an opera, Montezuma where male and female sopranos competitively explored German Liberalism in the context of the native Mexicans, and a play about the Darien Scheme, Caledonia, as a sop to my neglected history research. In Caledonia I was surrounded by English audience members who didn’t know the story, and were baffled first by the sheer daftness, and second by the extraordinary mixture of boldness and self-doubt, local obscurity and global ambition of the Scots both in the story and putting on the play. I loved it, and that was when I thought, this is my festival.

I also spent a week at the West End Fair selling my guide to the Old Town, Layers of Edinburgh, amongst other things. There’s time to stop and think, standing in the sun at that hub of Edinburgh where all my roads always meet. I thought, I don’t want to choose between illustrator, historian, ecologist and writer. I want to use all four at once, as Layers of Edinburgh does, because that’s what this city has made me. Ali Bali Jewellery was demonstrating the potential of on-line marketing. So here I am, here’s a clip of Layers of EdinburghLayers of Edinburgh, an illustrated guide to the Old Town, and here is where I can tell you about what happens next.