Those of you who have read more of this blog will know that I like to tie my work to the place in which I am working. I do this in several ways. Firstly, I am only happy outside with the subject in sight, not working removed, in a studio, at least not at first. Secondly, I like to use processes which mirror the subject of my interest, by soaking and scrubbing, scoring and blending, a simplified version of the process that formed the land that is the subject of my practice. Somehow this is a way of bearing witness. After Iona and feathers from the dead swan, the first thing I do is to see what I can find nearby that is part of the presence of place. At Sweenys Bothy there is bracken outside the windows, dead at this time of year and the most fantastic burnt sienna from October until May. The stems made adequate pens and seemed a way of tying my drawing into the day. Yesterday I went to explore the Sgurr. The ground around the base of the cliffs is covered in well grazed and wind blasted heather and so became the obvious brush with which to work. I plucked several strands and bound them together with tape. Oddly enough, when you pick up a man made tool after working with these rudimentary implements foraged from the site, the ordinary versions seem rather crude and irrelevant. They are more versatile however and so one skill is to know when to use something more refined to give greater ‘bite’ to the mark making.
On Mondays during the winter the ferry from Mallaig arrives before lunch and so there was still time to settle in and get my bearings before dark. I am staying in a self contained annexe to a house lived in by Eric who met me at the ferry in a brand new sparkling white car, so quiet you can’t hear it. Some of you may know that one thing about the buyout is that it instigated the first joined up green energy supply in Europe and now provides electricity to every house on the island, replacing diesel generators. There are wind turbines to maximise the most windy aspect, there are photovoltaic panels in a ray as well as on almost every roof as well as hydro to catch the rainfall. Eric has a micro hydro on the burn outside the house and can now run his smart white car on almost no fuel. He generously offered to drive me round the island to understand where I am. There is one road, owned and maintained by Highland Council, the remaining routes are unmade tracks full of potholes and mended with crushed basalt from borrowpits at regular intervals. First we went to one end of the tarmac and looked over the crofting ground of Cleadale and across the Sound of Rhum to the majestic island itself and then to the opposite end with views of Muck. I was able to see the huge boulders fallen from the cliffs of the Sgurr and the columnar geology that has left a crest of rock sticking up way above the rest of the island like a sleeping Iguana, the iconic feature of the island and visible from the summit of almost every hill near our home on the mainland. At the feet of the sleeping reptile are the remnants of a crofting community where you are able to see examples of the stone, so hard it looks like glass and with occasional columns placed through the walls of old black houses tying the outer layer to the one inside to provide strength and prevent the wall from falling down. Some of the walls are still standing, showing the expert skill of the men who built these simple houses. I expect they have been there largely unaltered for hundreds if not thousands of years and inhabited until relatively recently.
When planning an expedition to the Hebrides it always surprises me how different each island can be. Although part of a chain or cluster of land emerging from the water, it is extraordinary how, separated only by a narrow strip of water, the configuration of what is visible can be completely different even from its close neighbours. It is like this with the Small Isles. Although not very familiar, except as part of a distant view from the mainland, I have now been to three of the four islands that make up the archipelago of the Small Isles. Rhum, with its souring peaks and apparently the inspiration to Tolkien for Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, famous also for creating its own weather, shrouded as it often is with heavy cloud and mist, and on a personal note, for the discovery by my father of a charlatan botanist who tried to contend a new version of the ice age by growing plants in his greenhouse and transporting them to the island for secret planting, only to make the astonishing discovery that, Oh Look what I’ve found……
Canna, where I went to an open air opera of a Gaelic choir dressed as oyster catchers and standing in the sea singing “Away with the Birds”
“Hanna’s vocal composition, Guth an Eòin | Voice of the Bird is the heart of the project. Written for a female vocal ensemble, it reinterprets archival material, fragmenting and re-weaving extracts of Gaelic songs into an extended soundscape. The music emerges from, and responds to, island landscapes and lives. It explores the delicate equilibrium of Hebridean life, the co-existence of tradition and innovation, and suggests the ever-present inter-relationship between bird, human, and ecology.”
And now the isle of Eigg, famous, if not infamous, for being one of the first community land buyouts on the west coast of Scotland almost twenty years ago and run by its inhabitants. In a part of the world where landowners and large estates are the norm and with all the old arguments of why primogeniture is the only way to preserve our rural economy, it is refreshing to be here and sample a small part of the workings of another way of being a community. The reputation is controversial in an otherwise conservative part of the world. In the short time I am here I will not find out what the community is really like but am very attracted to an approach to governance, not by personal ownership, wealth, and preference but by democracy.
Getting here however, was not easy. On a painting expedition I need quite a lot of kit. I never know exactly what I will need by way of materials and at this time of year can never predict the temperature and the weather, so I have quite a lot of luggage. Along with the ability to get around and have a dry place in which to work if it were to rain, not unusual in this very wet part of the world, the obvious answer was to bring my car. However that is not easy. I had to apply for a licence through our local council and after a two-week delay was declined. Apparently there is another way of getting things here. Phone the Calmac office in Mallaig I was told and book my luggage onto a van as light freight. I was again declined and told there would not be room! Never mind, I will stack up my stuff on the pier and walk on and off the ferry until I have it all. But NO you are only allowed to take what you can carry in one load as there is an automated passenger counter which doesn’t allow reboarding several times. I was now ready to give up, especially as I have a film maker friend who had none of these troubles with her equipment and came, with car, to take her kit wherever she needed. As with so many Highland communities, it seems to be more to do with who you know than following a procedure. Once again Lucy Conway came to my rescue and within five minutes of receiving my despondent text saying I had reached the end of my initiative, she informed me that she would be passing our door within twenty four hours and would take all my painting materials with her if I could pack it into easily liftable parcels. Drawing boards and paper fitted in a wonderful box that you receive from Jacksons if you order on-line and paint, brushes and general paraphernalia went into a second. I am lucky to have married a man who worked in the film industry. He has an obsession for gaffer tape and is seldom seen without a role of extremely strong and rather too sticky tape with which my kit is now covered. Bound up to avoid accident, we met Lucy early the following morning at the Corran Ferry as she rushed home after a trip on the mainland. Lucy has turned out to be a lifeline!
WordPress tells me that it is four months since my last post and five since leaving Tiree. Too long not to have continued my adventures in the Hebrides but a lot has happened, in life if not on the page, more of which later, perhaps.
I arrived on the isle of Eigg yesterday, February 22nd. The planning and arrangements were full of surprises and one or two setbacks but I am here now and fortuitously, the sun has come out and it is exquisitely beautiful. There is one person who has risen to every e mail and question and today, to top it off, Lucy offered me the use of a very special hut, Sweenys Bothy, an off grid artists space especially built for people to come to the island, gaze at the view and contemplate their work. Only a year or two old, it is already fully booked months in advance as so many people seek the quiet majestic beauty its location has to offer. I was lucky, someone had flu in Manchester and couldn’t travel and so the space was mine for the day due, yet again, to Lucy’s generosity.