Winter in Ullapool

Ullapool is a small settlement on Loch Broom in the north western highlands of Scotland. A fishing port and the largest town in the district, it has a current population of around 1500, which has slowly increased over the last thirty years. Helen Gosch, the ceramics artist who has made her home on Ibiza, lived there for five years in the 70s, and remembers her time in a shepherd’s cottage on the hill above the town very fondly, as one of the happiest times of her life. But winter could be harsh. Helen and her partner had to keep warm as northerly gales were unleashed in the wake of passing Atlantic depressions, in a house with only one source of heat.

The cottage in winter

The cottage in Ullapool was above the village, with fine views of Loch Broom and onwards towards the famous crags of An Teallach, one of the wildest Scottish Munros. The light is one of the wonders in the north west of Scotland. There is a constantly shifting patchwork of cloud and sunshine throughout the day, and no two days are exactly alike. It took Helen twenty minutes to walk back down to the pottery where she was working, but she would come back on the Honda 50. A master potter, she is still working these fifty years later, a fine timeline of expression and dedication to an art form.

Loch Broom in winter

The cottage downstairs had a kitchen and dining room combined and another room which Helen used as a painting studio. The upper floor contained a bedroom and small spare bedroom. Heating was from an open fireplace with a back boiler, which usefully produced the hot water. Coal was burnt. There was no insulation in the roof, but heat came up from below, and also from the chimney itself. Still, you had to go bed prepared, wearing a flannel nightgown, woollen hat and socks. The fire was kept going overnight with dross, and usually it could be revived in the morning, then once again damped down until return from work at 5.00 pm.

Downstairs in the cottage

No television, so Helen painted and there was a cassette classical music club for music. Two cats were always turfed out at night, but they had a place of refuge in the outside coal shed where they could snuggle on a bundle of sheepskins. Sometimes the snow was deeper than their legs. They would catch young rabbits and bring them for inspection. The water came from a spring further up the mountain, which flowed down to a tank, and the pipe to the house usually caught sun so it didn’t often freeze. Deer and highland cattle visited.

Helen arrived in Ullapool on holiday and in conversation with one of the local estate owners found out that they wanted to open a gallery and craft shop. “Oh, I can run that,” she said, eagerly. She had majored in Art at university, with some experience in ceramics, and the Ullapool years were what started her on the great venture in pottery that continued when later she worked with the Barbara Davidson pottery near Falkirk.

In contrast to the winter, in general the climate is moderate due to the influence of the gulf stream. A record dry spell in summer lasted seven weeks. June and July are well-known for the long bright evenings, where there will be light in the north west sky up until 2.00 am. Then it can be seen low on the northern horizon creeping round to swell again in the north east at 4.00 am.

Helen was brought up in Sheldon on the Great Plains in Iowa, no stranger to winter and the great blizzards that sweep the northern states. There was special joy if a ‘snow day’ was announced and school cancelled. The house was warm though, definitely not as basic as the Scottish cottage. It was built in 1950 and had a large basement with a boiler providing central heating, much less common in Scotland at the time. If a storm threatened during the summer season, the whole family would shelter in the basement, taking the precaution of leaving both the front and back doors open, which makes all the difference if you are in the line of a tornado, of having your house ascend to the heavens, or just experiencing a mighty through draft.

Childhood home in Iowa

Helen was an American in love with Scotland: with the traditions, the earthiness, the dry stane dykes, the skies and their cloudbursts, the ever-changing light, and the demands of learning and perfecting her craft, as she experimented with making bowls, plates, teapots, in all the joy of creation that comes with a self-start in a new country.

The cottage seen through a gap in a dry stane dyke

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