Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer

Red Yellow Blue

  • Colouring the Autumn

    Not quite so big on poetry this week, though the outlines of my ‘red yellow blue’ project are falling into place. The herb beds are getting cleared and rearranged so that plants have more room to spread themselves about. All the plants I have moved seem to be thriving and the violets have even thrown up a few blossoms in this unseasonably mild weather we have had.

    In the space to the right I have planted the first of the dye plants, a bog myrtle, which also has the merit of being an insect repellent, and there is plenty of room for a new rosa gallica officinalis

    as the old one – which was about twenty years old, so probably not going to last much longer – had a lot of problems with rust and throwing up suckers with vicious long thorns that were hell to get out. There will also be dyer’s greenweed and woad, I hope, and madder, which will have to go into pots, as it is seriously invasive in the ground.

    The greenhouse is clean and tidy – I don’t know when it ever looked so tidy –

    and the more tender plants are going in for the winter. There are still bulbs to plant, and then the indoor work will begin.

    There will be a serious amount of research going on; I have Wild Colour by Jenny Dean for the practical stuff, and The Colour Cauldron:The History and Use of Natural Dyes in Scotland by Su Grierson for the historical references. Oddly, though it was written and published in Scotland, I’ve had to import it from the USA, but is a fascinating record of the many plants, both local and imported, used in Scotland. In a very satisfactory development, some of the worst weeds in my garden can be used this way – horsetail and nettle for yellow, and ivy for greys and dark olive greens. If I could find a use for ground elder, I’d be sorted! And I have scored a copy of the iconic The Subversive Stitch by Roszika Parker for a take on the place textile art has had in the lives of women through the ages.

    And this week, I’ll be trying the first dyes, using acorns, cherry bark and ivy all gathered from the territory, which has given me a new awareness of what is happening in the landscape around me, and some different ways of interacting and creating a homage to my home place.

  • Red Yellow Blue

    This plant is tansy. It’s a terrible thrawn persistent weed, but it yields a dye that makes interesting shades of yellow and green.

    Ever since Alice Oswald’s talk abut translating colours in Greek texts, I’ve been thinking on and off, about how we perceive and respond to colour. There has even been some debate on Facebook about whether the Celts or the Greeks could even see colours like blue, as there doesn’t seem to be a word for it in early texts.

    This doesn’t necessarily follow. I remember my youngest daughter playing with a box of coloured plastic cotton reels just after her first birthday. Although she was beginning to talk, she hadn’t got as far as numbers or colours, but there she was, completely unprompted, sorting the cotton reels into their separate heaps – red, green, white, yellow and blue, without any mistake or uncertainty. I guess what you speak about depends on what’s important to you.

    Alice Oswald analysed the word ‘glaucopis’ which is usually applied to the goddess Athena, and often translated as ‘grey-eyed’, but she points out that  the word actually means something more like ‘lively and responsive’ – perhaps even changeable – and sparkling. I thought of Tolkien’s description of the grey elf-cloaks the hobbits are given, which actually change to reflect light, grass, forest or water because, they elves say ‘we put the thought of all we love into what we make.’ Tint or pigment doesn’t seem to be on the elves’ radar either. What we record is not necessarily all we see.

    Somehow, sitting in a tent at the Edinburgh Book Festival, a germ of an idea came, for the next step after Haggards, and some new writing. I thought I’d look at colour – what we see and how we say it, what we mean by it and how it makes us feel. And I thought I’d look at dye plants and how traditional techniques connect with the landscape, and then textile art especially as practised by women — it fair got away with me.

    Last week at the Burgh Poets meeting, I wrote the first few poems. Here’s one:


    The sea is dark,
    full waves just before breaking
    tinted with lowering cloud
    like ripely swollen berries,
    like a calyx about to burst with bloom,
    a child with a birthday cake
    just before the explosion of tears,
    like an angry choleric face.


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