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Up River - The Song of the Esk

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Up River - The Song of the Esk written and illustrated by Darren Woodhead

This book caught my eye on the shelf because on front and back of the dustwrapper are beautiful watercolour paintings, on the front a singing male blackcap and on the back a winter woodland scene.

Up River Front CoverBack Cover
Front Cover / Back Cover

On reading the introduction what impressed me most was, firstly, the fact that the artist never uses white paint, instead he allows the white paper to shine through his paintings. To me that seems like painting in the negative – working all around the aspects of the picture that are to remain white. Secondly, all these pieces of artwork were completed directly from life while the artist was observing the subject in its natural environment. As many artists paint from photographs I found this to be exceptionally intriguing – how was this achieved when live subjects actually move?

The book is a result of three years as Artist In Residence supported by the Orcome Trust, a small charity originally based at Newhall House in Midlothian where the Trust was set up in the 1960s by the Misses Maclagan, the then owners of Newhall Estate.  The Trust supports charitable projects and community groups which have significance for the local area. Darren was to work throughout the seasons, in close conjunction with the community, capturing the landscapes, fauna and flora of the area, recording his observations through paintings, drawings and notes.


The project was centred within a stunning part of the Scottish Borders around the village of Carlops, some sixteen miles south of Edinburgh. The artist would be tracing the River Esk which enters the sea near Musselburgh, up one of its two tributaries and back to its source in the Pentland Hills, following its path through the hills, heaths and woodland of this beautiful countryside.

Up River is a magnificent record of the area in which the serenity of autumn and the bleakness of winter contrast with spring and summer, when the countryside is transformed in an explosion of colour.

In the introduction to the book Darren explains how the Residency came about, the technicalities of working in the field and the equipment he uses, all of which I found informative and fascinating.


I recommend this book to anyone interested in natural history, watercolour painting and the countryside of Scotland. It is beautiful and eminently readable.

Contributed by Chris

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(Published 8th Sep 2022)

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