6.10.17 | Thoughts from the Isle of Eigg.

IMG_3329

I have now been here for six days and have moved from one hut to another, this time on the west side of the island where there is no internet or phone signal without a walk. Lucy, who owns Sweeney’s Bothy has been very kind, but is now away and her husband has allowed me to use their house connection to send a couple of messages. I, in return have taken their dog, Crinan’s half-brother, for two walks. 

 I have spent my time doing almost nothing. At first, I thought I would struggle with filling the hours. My creativity has deserted me and instead I have filled the time with looking out of the window as the weather shifts and turns, practicing my meditation, reading and, most of all, listening to the shifting sands of the programming of the BBC. 

 I am haunted with waves of emotion. Sometimes frustration that there is nothing I can do to help my son; when I have walked to find a signal, the phone either remains unanswered or goes to answer phone. The same when I ring home. I have sent messages but can’t remain within reception for long enough to receive a reply.

Sadness washes in and out about the loss of a young life and then the memory of other losses still held within. The death of my father thirty-seven years ago or my brother at exactly this time of year, in 2005.

A sense of guilt that having booked this space well over a year ago to make new work that now I have no inclination to start, despite all the boxes of materials I have brought and that are stacked up around my feet! Then I remember that it is just as noble to remain here, observing these tides of feeling, washing in and out and not only to withstand them but to use them to grow. The world from which I come is focused on external achievements and worldly success. I have always swum in a different current but none the less those values have been absorbed and so part of the struggle is to remember my values and to stick by them. I often have a yearning to be less busy. To have time to focus on the here and now in order to watch the natural world that surrounds us here in the Highlands, but even that is tainted by no longer being an original idea.

 There are now so many books about nature writing and escaping what used to be termed the ‘rat race’. Norrie is absorbed in one at the moment that opens with a woman walking down Oxford Street and has an awakening to the idea that there is more to life than this and catches a train to Inverness. And so starts her life as a crofter. 

 Twice over the last few months, somebody I respect has recommended another book to me. I ordered it and it was added to the ever growing pile next to my bed, looking more like a rickety block of flats than well thumbed stories. But, when I packed to come here it was suggested I bring a huge suitcase with wheels and so in went a pile of my waiting reading and now they are coming into their own. 

 Last time I came here I discovered Jenny Diski. This time the recommended book was The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. It was recommended, not for the story of London living but for the descriptions of landscape in the Orkney Islands. I have read it with fascination and also connected with the London pages as I think of my sons steering their way through London life. In many ways I understand why they are two angry young men when I read about the difficulties of urban living, where there are so many people and you have to be tough just in order to survive. The contrast with the ever-caring and providing parents my generation became, often in reaction to our own parents post-war preoccupations, means the step into the world is much harder than it was for us. It is harder, much harder but the values have also changed and money seems to be a language that they value most. There is choice and the grasping urgency of city life is not the only way and I can’t really help them, being a committed country girl. 

IMG_3339

 

These books are not really a discouragement. They demonstrate that there is a yearning to connect with our natural world and learning to drop self-importance and to tread lightly enough to really see and feel. This is central to the work I make and my task is to respond in an authentic way. The question I struggle with is, is it authentic to do nothing or am I being lazy?

IMG_3374

IMG_3376

 

It’s not easy bringing stuff to Eigg. You may remember that I had problems last time I came and Lucy came to my rescue. This time I had left a drawing board and twenty sheets of paper with Lucy who kindly kept them under her bed. She also dropped in to pick up a box of materials from the mainland. Lastly, I ordered a delivery to come here before me! Needless to say it didn’t work that smoothly. The box was an order of sketchbooks. Either I or the online company got the wrong address and it was delivered it to me at home. The simplest thing was to post it to myself. £16 later we despatched it through the post office via Track and Trace. Post from Ardnamurchan goes via Perth! I tracked it to there before my departure on 30th Sept. It could have been on the boat with me. Or on Monday or Tuesday. There is no boat on Wednesday so finally I got it yesterday. 

My project was to fill as many sketchbooks as I can with no pressure, doodling, playing, working at dropping my inhibitions. I want to move my work away from the representational into a less figurative response to the landscape. Surrounded locally by an artistic community committed to figurative painting or, in the wider artistic community of Scotland, a major preoccupation with conceptual work, as usual my work swims against the tide but I have spent years on following my heart and I am not sure it is wise to change now.

Poems by our friend Tom Clark
Poems by our friend Tom Clark found here in Sweeney’s Bothy. Very suitable reading.

This morning is a still day. After a night of bright moonlight silhouetting the cliffs above this hut, the air is still today and I can hear the ravens on the cliffs above and the surprisingly strong voice of wrens that live here amongst the stones and bracken. The bracken is like a jungle and must create a forest for one so small as a wren. 

The swell of the sea has calmed and the rain has stopped, so the roar of the waves on the shore, mixed with the rush of the waterfalls behind has faded away, at least when inside, and I hear the creak of metal as the wood-burning stove expands and the newly lit fire warms the room and dries my washing.

Lucy told me that on a clear day you can see the southern tip of Barra and it has appeared today – three humps on the horizon, like humps of an enormous whale floating above the bright line that marks the join between sea and air. When drawing that line it is hard to know where it is really located and it’s so easy to represent it with one line. In fact, as I look, the sea is darker at the edge and then above is a pale stripe. Is it air or mist or water-bound air, air so full of sea that it is nearly sea? 

IMG_3340 2

Leaving Shetland

When I got home, I began to write about the last week of my residency at The Booth. Different, as I was no longer alone but immensely rewarding as we explored some of the more distant places; places I had saved to go to with a photographer friend who came to join me for the last week to work on images for an exhibition in September. Not only did we visit Yell, Unst and Eshaness but most exciting of all, Fair Isle, where I was taken as a birthday present; the best birthday present ever. A flight in a four seater plane the twelve miles south, to stay for the night at the Bird Observatory. It was completely fantastic!

Looking back at what I began, I have decided instead to leave the photographs to tell the story. I made scores of quick drawings to complete at home, but it is only now, three weeks later that I have found time and energy to begin. As when I returned from Eigg, I was immediately struck down by a fearsome cold and have not been well enough to continue my work. The enthralling light, space and clarity of Shetland faded in my memory as I lay in bed, ill, and so to write a diary of where we went and what we saw would seem rather tepid now. I will leave the images to speak for themselves.

Culswick

IMG_5257
Culswick

IMG_5293

IMG_5301

IMG_5307

IMG_5319
Annifirth

IMG_5340

IMG_5353
The Ferry to Yell

IMG_5361

IMG_5378

IMG_5387

IMG_5407

IMG_5422

IMG_5431
A Day on Unst

IMG_5464

IMG_5472

IMG_5503

IMG_5509
Stenness

IMG_5481

IMG_5490

IMG_5480

IMG_5499

Dore Holm, Esha Ness

IMG_5526
Eshaness Lighthouse

IMG_5545 IMG_5574

 

A few of things I have seen

Having driven, walked and poured over maps for a week and a half, I have been to some amazing places and seen some extraordinary things. Understanding the landscape here in a painters way would take twenty years or more but I am beginning to appreciate the forces at work which make this place what it is. However, to translate that into a visual response is another matter.

The elements are stronger and more extreme than anywhere I have been before but the evidence of that is in what I can read from the landscape rather than in the experience. My visit has been blessed with exceptional weather and apart from a cold wind, colder than any I am used to, the sun has been bright and warm and the spring flowers are appearing. Verges are smothered with Celandine and the Coltsfoot is thrusting its leafless head through verge gravel in its strangely determined way.

Plants that flower with no leaves are an oddity, like Colchicum, or autumn flowering crocus, which produce huge leaves in the spring and then nothing else. When they have died down and you have noticed with mild disappointment, the non event, a delicate mauve glass-like vessel appears in September or October which is the flower, strangely naked without its supporting coat of leaves to surround it.

As you know, my painterly interest does not lead me to represent the view in the conventional sense. I am more interested in developing a language to suggest something of the forces at work behind what you see. The pounding sea, the gale force winds and the ripping currants have produced an extraordinary land with cliffs and stacks, drowned valleys and rolling brown hills covered in heather, grazed and blown into a tightly packed carpet. I can’t reproduce the wind funnel or storm force seas that pick up rocks the size of cars and hurl them yards inland but I can explore a vocabulary of dark black forms, silhouettes, deeply rooted against a swirling environment of air and water and follow where it takes me.

IMG_5051

Another list, this time of sounds heard and creatures seen.

Air full of the song of skylark

Call of the lapwing

The coo of the eider duck

Strings of eider duck outside the window

Herring gull dissecting a star fish outside the window

Several otters, twice seen swimming past the window

White hares

Pairs of curlew

Shetland ponies

No potholes

Perfect tarmac

 

 

 

 

The first week

 

I have been on Eigg for a week and have been extremely lucky that it has been dry, sunny and crisp until yesterday. After a winter of unusually wet weather, even for the west coast of Scotland, it feels as if I have struck gold with the rain stopping and instead, there has been a beautiful golden light that has bathed the island and cast inky black shadows. It is also interesting in different ways. Obviously it has made my visit much more pleasant. I have been able to work outside for several hours at a time and to explore the island on foot without getting too cold or wet. The chill factor in the wind has allowed me about two hours at an exposed site but on Sunday I was able to work outside for six, which is long enough for February. I came home with a bright red face so must have caught the sun; luckily my rosy cheeks have faded! After such a dismal six months of wetwetwet it is amazing how quickly the mind forgets the ordeal once outside, bathed in a stronger light. It’s almost as if the brain plays a trick because along with a change in the light comes total forgetfulness of what we have just had and instead a heartwarming celebration of what we have now, a re remembering of why I live in this part of the world and a re connection with how beautiful it is. A good way to start an intensive period of creativity.

The week has been taken up with feeling my way into a response, seeking a subject and a language with which to describe it.Within the first half day it was obvious that the iconic feature about the physicality of Eigg is its geology. It is clearly not the only feature of importance and must be the obvious response of every casual visitor. However, I am not here for very long and the geology is remarkable. An extension of the Giants Causeway and Fingal’s Cave on the isle of Staffa, it is a geological phenomena. An Sgurr is a crest of a hill made from extraordinarily hard rock, Pitchstone, the broken surface of which looks like glass. From the cursory reading I have done, the stone is younger than others on the island but being so much harder than the surrounding basalt which has been heavily eroded by the ice-age, it has left the Pitchstone ridge standing proud of its surroundings and the iconic feature we all recognise from afar. It is constructed from hexagonal columns, so consistent that it is like looking at an enlarged three-dimensional honeycomb. In the surrounding landscape there are giant boulders more like shattered remnants of a cathedral than a natural creation. The rocks have rolled down towards the sea, and those without sufficient momentum, lie abandoned with their architecture jutting out at unexpected angles. People then settled the land, a brown fertile basalt soil and using fragments of the stone, built simple dwellings amount the giants rubble, joining blocks together with carefully constructed dry stone dykes that sit like delicate necklaces enclosing small yards or fields surrounding the remains of each blackhouse. Sunday was the second visit and my landlord, Eric, was kind enough to give me a lift with all my kit, leaving me only one way to walk home. On closer inspection I noticed the black houses had no chimney at either end unlike the derelict crofts I had explored on Tiree or elsewhere. Maybe the ones on Tiree were later but with no flue it implies that the houses here on Eigg had a fire in the middle of the floor and so no real way of drawing the smoke away from the building and the family that lived within. They must have become kippered and imagine the chest complaints that would have developed in such an atmosphere? There is no doubt that the existence must have been unremittingly hard, scratching a living from the land and sea but it has left a hauntingly beautiful place full of atmosphere and possible ghosts.

I spent the day there alone, saw no one and felt held by the land and reassured by the structures, the ruins of ancient homes.  The only life I witnessed was that of the pregnant sheep to whom I talked and they got used to my presence and grazed quite near. I also listened the conversation of a pair of Ravens who seemed preoccupied with preparing for busy times ahead, and most intriguing of all, witnessed a pair of very large brown birds, (Eric suggests they might have been Golden Eagles,) literally taking to each other in an unrecoginsed call, moving from perch to perch in unison until they took off into the thermals at the cliff edge and moved out of sight. Not before a Hooded Crow became alarmed at their proximity and started bombing them to encourage them to move further on. I wonder if they were Golden Eagles, it was a fascinating sight? I thought at first they must be buzzards but one flew by at the same time and the scale was quite different. The one thing I missed was the Hump Back Whale reported to Eric by a boatman. (I have never seen a Whale and would love to do so) The Whale had been sighted in the sound between Eigg and Muck two days earlier and apparently is easily identifiable because they makes a lot of splashing whilst feeding. Sadly, he was not there for me to see or hear last Sunday.