At the old stone primary school in the little village of Cummertrees in south-west Scotland, a living willow igloo is taking shape. As the children charge across the grass waving wooden swords, Trevor Leat is twisting the supple branches into a dome and tunnel.
“I think they’re re-enacting one of Robert the Bruce’s battles,” he smiles as a couple of his grubby helpers disappear to join the scrum. “There are hundreds of different types of willow. This one is salix viminalis, which is used for large structures – it grows about 4.5m (15ft) a year. You need taller varieties to curve over the top to create the roof.”
Trevor grows about 12 different varieties of his own willow organically, including the more spindly salix purpurea, with its striking purple shoots and yellow catkins. His willow beds are scattered around the rolling Galloway countryside, in a walled garden and in a corner of an organic farm.
As well as living willow creations, he makes willow coffins, fishermen’s creels, contemporary baskets and willow sculptures. Trevor harvests the willow beds in January and February, cutting the branches by hand before gathering them in bundles to season outside his workshop.
“Everyone comments on the sweetness of its scent as it dries,” he says. The longer bundles are stashed in a nearby stream to keep them fresh.
The willow is planted bare and then erupts into green buds as spring arrives.
“This sculpture will take me about two days to finish. If it’s properly maintained – it needs to be cut back and re-woven every year – it could last around 20 years,” he says.
Trevor also takes workshops on willow and basketry: “I teach the children about life before plastic.”
Trevor was born in London but his parents moved to Hertfordshire when he was seven. They still lived in a town, but it was a more rural existence.
“Suddenly there were fields on the other side of the garden fence and I’d spend the holidays off in the woods exploring.”
He moved up to Galloway for the first time in 1974 and worked on a farm and as a gardener. “I got a real taste for country life. I suppose I was naive and romantic – and running away from the city.”
Galloway is on the old Romany trail to Ireland and it was here, from gypsies, that Trevor first learnt how to create baskets from the hedgerows. He was drawn to the gypsies’ simpler way of life and their self-sufficiency. For Trevor, it was a revelation that you could gather and forage all you needed from the countryside.
Mastering the craft
Trevor’s new-found interest in willow took him to Cumbria, to learn basketry techniques from John Rome in Brampton, who specialised in traditional fishermen’s creels. Then, after ten years on the Hebridean island of Eigg, Trevor returned to Galloway in 1990. He now lives in a little cottage in the sleepy village of Auchencairn on the Solway coast.
“There is so much going on in Galloway creatively and artistically. I love the sea, the cliffs and the big skies.”
About two-thirds of Trevor’s work is now sculptural. He creates figures in flowing positions and statuesque stags.
“Willow lends itself to creating a sense of movement because it is fluid, like a pencil line.”
His giant figurative pieces are used in Hogmanay celebrations and festivals around the country. Often they are set alight as dramatic burning effigies.
There’s both beauty and function in Trevor’s work. And, because of the very nature of his materials, there’s also a connection to the cycles of nature. He has been making willow coffins for about seven years now, as the interest in green burials has grown.
“I’m working with a woman in her 80s at the moment. She wants to make her own coffin – with her own willow.” Somehow that seems both natural and strangely moving.