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Where selkies swim: meet Alison Moore

Alison Moore is a jewellery designer living on Mainland in Orkney. In 2019 she took up swimming in the sea – documenting the underwater life she found with an amazing series of photographs. Here I ask her about swimming in the sea, what she enjoys most and her new found love of seaweed.

Where do you live and how did you come to be living there?

I lived in England, and always holidayed on the West Coast of Scotland as I loved the spectacular views, beaches and being close to the sea. After getting married on the Isle of Skye, my husband and I decided to head to Orkney for part of our honeymoon. We had heard that it was very different to the West Coast, with rolling hills and big skies. So we ventured there, and we were instantly smitten. The next year we bought a house in Orkney and by the following year we had packed in our jobs and taken the massive 600-mile leap to downsizing and living on an island. I was lucky enough to start my own jewellery business from home, Alison Moore Designs and now I have a little shop in the village of Dounby.

The county of Orkney is in fact a group of 70 islands off the north coast of Scotland, 20 of which are populated. We live on the largest island, known as Mainland around 2 miles from the nearest beach which is always deserted throughout the winter months!

Why and when did you begin swimming in the sea? Is it particularly popular in Orkney? Do you swim with an organised group?

It was last winter when I became interested in swimming in the sea. I was always terrified of what was in the ocean but a friend of mine had started to swim regularly and clearly loved it, so I figured that maybe I should give it a go. There couldn’t be anything much in there to worry about. So I confronted my fears and asked her to take me along with her. That particular day the sun was shining and the water was a relatively mild 8 degrees C. We swam from a white sandy beach and rode the waves and had an incredible amount of fun. I never actually thought about what was in the sea lurking beneath me at that point. For fear of losing my bottle, I decided that I needed to swim in the sea every day to gain confidence.

There is a group of sea swimmers called the Orkney Polar Bears who communicate on Facebook, so I always found someone to swim with who knew the waters to make sure that each swim was a safe one, and for at least the next 3 months I swam at least daily.

Did you notice the seaweed immediately? Was it one of the initial attractions or a surprise?

Around May time I began to notice things floating in the water, and periodically something would touch my leg and give me a real fright! The only way I was going to confront this and get over it was to take a look under the waves. And of course, the things touching my legs weren’t in fact sharks but seaweed. And that’s when my love affair with the sea really began. It was like I had turned a key and unlocked a gate to a secret garden. I was taken aback by the textures and colours of each variety of seaweed. And when they grow together they form the most magical ethereal gardens.

From that moment onward, my swimming adventures became snorkeling adventures. I became hungry to see what was under the waves at each different point on the island. Each location around the island has a different feel to it with different combinations of seaweeds growing. I never quite know what I’m going to see and I can’t wait to get my head under and explore.

What kind of equipment do you use to take your photos?

I have invested in a mirrorless camera which sits within a large waterproof housing. It’s quite a big piece of equipment to take out snorkeling with me, but I am lost without it.

What is your favourite thing about swimming in the sea?

You never quite know what you are going to see next.

What is your least favourite?

Weather and waves. I get seasick when I look under the waves too much on a choppy day. And bad weather, although spectacular to see from the land often prevents me from getting into the water and that can be very frustrating when you have developed an addiction to being in the sea. But having said that, the nature of an island means that there are many places to swim and so swim spots get planned around wind direction ensuring that non-swim days are kept to a minimum.

What did you learn from swimming underwater?

The more I looked underwater, the more I wanted to see and I began to freedive below the surface and swim along the seabed on one breathhold. It wasn’t long before I found that I needed to spend more time under the water and recently I learnt to scuba dive. Hopefully this will lead me to places I have yet to discover.

Tell me about your project to swim off all the islands.

Having swam from many points from Mainland Orkney in 2019, I thought, ‘why not start exploring some of the smaller islands?’ The aim was to try and wherever possible take my bike on a ferry to the islands to get around and swim from each one. I didn’t manage all of the islands last year, I have six yet to go, but hopefully I’ll be able to tick them off my list soon. Each island has its own unique characteristics and places to swim from. On Papa Westray I swam with several curious seals on one magical swim.

How do you cope with the cold when swimming?

I am ‘blessed’ with a good layer of natural insulation which has helped me swim through winter in just my swimsuit, but when I have my camera I tend not to be moving much so the last couple of months I have occasionally worn a wetsuit. It means that I can stay in the water much longer to capture the images I need.

Are you planning to do anything with your amazing underwater images?

Well my underwater adventures are certainly inspiring my jewellery. But yes indeed, I’m in the very early stages of potentially doing something very exciting with my images!

Have you been elsewhere to swim? How did it compare to Orkney?

I swam in the Stockholm archipelago last year. The water there is brackish and not salty at all and lacking in seaweeds. In the Canary islands, the water was not green as I was familiar with but blue and very clear. And although the sea had lots of brightly coloured fish, stingray and Angel Sharks, the algae was sadly lacking. I’m quite smitten with my own watery back garden.

More of Alison’s photos can be seen on her Instagram account and new website.

Photo copyright Alison Moore.

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I am a bit of a womble.  My Studio is a layering of things that have been found, things that have been saved, things that have been given to me - I like to be surrounded by a bit of history. ⁠⠀
I am known as an avid skip diver so people kindly keep me things.  This weekend I am off to pick up 13 sash windows rescued from a skip.⁠⠀
This is my dye cupboard - the mordants and other powders, the piles of fabrics and yarns, my newly started record book and the glue to paste the swatches in.⁠⠀
It has had a hard life - the back is patched with hinges as plates, there are many, many layers of paint and a door has gone missing along the way.  It is perfect.⁠⠀
Back when I grew flowers commercially the area that is now ‘the orchardy bit’ was rows and rows of spring bulbs.⁠ In the years where the deer didn’t eat the tulips they looked magnificent, stripe upon stripe of pure pigment. ⠀
When I turned my back on growing for money, we simply took out the beds and levelled it, turning it back to grass.⁠⠀
The tulips quickly gave up - never brilliantly perennial here anyway, they took the opportunity to fade out fast.⁠ Well if you don’t want us . . . ⠀
The narcissi loved it though and every year appeared back in their serried rows through the grass. ⁠There was something disturbingly grave like about them.
My planting  ever since has all been an attempt to disguise that - feathering the edges, making little islands, trying to make it all look haphazard.⁠⠀
Gradually it is working - this is the edge of what would have been a bed of Narcissi geranium (best vase life, along with best scent) - now happily interspersed with a pheasants eye and a little lemon coloured one I have lost the name of.
And the hedges beginning to vibrate with that gloriously specific spring green.
This week has been about experimenting.⁠⠀
Experimenting with all the ways to dye with daffodils, experimenting with the new e-course part of my website, experimenting with shooting and editing videos on my phone.⁠⠀
My business hero is @sethgodin and his mantra is 'ship it' - a way of saying that the best way to learn is to make things and get them out in front of people before they are polished and 'perfect'.⁠⠀
So I took his advice and combined all three experiments. Today's newsletters will have links to a free e-course all about dyeing wool with daffodils.⁠⠀
I have been absolutely amazed by the colour you get from faded daffodil flowers (see the second photo). It is a bright, yet somehow soft, golden yellow which is now adding an amazing zing to my pile of plant dyed fabrics.⁠⠀
I am prone to obsessions.  My brain hones in on topics and rabbit holes away, a constant background chatter to my life.⁠⠀
It annoys the people I live with as my world shrinks to one topic. ⠀
My camera roll shows me it is three years ago this week that I returned to natural dyeing with plants, concentrating on using only the plants growing within a couple of miles.⁠⠀
Three years of experimenting with plant after plant, three years of googling and reading obscure articles and piling up samples. ⁠three years of conversation about mordants and modifiers. ⠀
Three years is a short time in such a slow craft. A blink of an eye. ⁠⠀
But already I can see a difference in my skill.⁠⠀
This is a corner of the cupboard where I stash my fabrics and yarns building up enough for a project.  These have all been dyed this year - with barks and cones. ⁠⠀
This week I am dyeing with bright deadheaded daffodils and the golden yellows will join these soft terracottas and pinks while I dream up something to make.
I grow very few white flowers. ⁠⠀
White summer flowers tend to mark in the rain - white roses look like discarded tissues, white dahlias spot brown.  Even cosmos purity - which I do grow - goes droopy and grey in a way that the coloured versions don't.⁠⠀
The petals of spring bulbs however seem rain resistant - so I can indulge my love of white flowers and enjoy them backlit by the morning sun on the Studio window shelf.
Bright and light and pretty.
I am spending a lot of time in the greenhouse at the moment - playing an endless game of jenga with my seed trays.⁠⠀
Many of the seedlings are for the community gardens - being planted out gradually under fleece. We are biding time, taking the cautious route so that we minimise the risk of everything being wiped out by a very cold night.⁠⠀
We still have a full month of frosts to go here - little ones of -2 or 3 are manageable, an extra covering of fleece, some bricks to act like a storage heater.  Most hardy seedlings will recover from getting their tips nipped a bit.⁠⠀
Last year though we had a really cold night in mid May, when growth was going well and sappily. It blasted the blossom and killed many of my hardy veg too. Slightly too late to resow.⁠⠀
Speak to the older generation of gardeners and they all sowed and planted out much later than is the fashion today.  They perhaps had a point.
I wrote in my Friday letter this week about the sudden lifting of the uncertainty and inertia that had been dogging me for a few months.⁠⠀
It's always easier to write about these things once they are resolved - do you find that?  Once I am unstuck and lolloping along happily again, I can look at it all and not get sucked down.⁠⠀
Of course all this talk of getting going again, of new plans and exciting things . . . . it all actually means hard work. ⁠⠀
Head down, working through an actual written plan kind of hard work.  Not always my natural strength.⁠⠀
So yesterday I rearranged the studio window shelves and cleared the working table, ready for an uninterrupted start today. ⁠⠀
An attempt to keep momentum.

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