6.10.17 | Thoughts from the Isle of Eigg.

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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. 

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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?

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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? 

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A View from Eigg.

The view of the mainland fades in and out. The hills merge and emerge. Sadness washes in and out like the tide; like the waves as with the mist. Showers of fat rain soaking me to the skin in minutes as I struggle to find a signal to the outside world.

 As darkness falls, a waxing moon reflects on water, seawater, water between islands, lochs and closer to home, even puddles. Like burnished silver, a trail of light leads across the land and sea. With the rumble of the gathering wind, I am here two days early to escape the anticipated storm. As with every out-of-season visit, I remember that the ferry service is not a tourist attraction for which I spend the summer months assisting guests to navigate the pitfalls of the Calmac timetable, but its real purpose is as an essential service to serve the island populations who rely on boats to bring food, fuel and parcels.

There is another light pulsing in the dark. A stronger, man made light that marks a headland of the smaller island, off this island, that makes the harbour here on Eigg. After the shock of hearing of an untimely death yesterday, I have pulled my bed to the window and am looking out over the panoramic view, back towards the mainland and find the strength and reliable intervals as the light turns round, enormously reassuring. There is a gentle creak of the metal chimney of the Hobbit wood burner and the occasional flex of the French doors as the wind gusts. I am cosy and warm in bed looking out through a crack in the curtains that I have swathed around the head of the camp bed to create a vista and lie on my stomach watching the night.

Over the last few years, I have used these outings to learn about our Hebridean and northern islands and have experienced an uplifting intensity as if the scale of a small place concentrates their essence. Each island is very different and distilled into a strong sense of place, but islands also have a reputation as suitable for people who wish to own their own small kingdom. Connected to that reputation is the fact that they also change hands frequently. The Isle of Eigg is no exception and in fact leads the way in this debate. As those of you who read The Guardian will know, there was an interesting article about Eigg last week. Amongst all the islands, Eigg is famous for its community land buyout. (In contrast, the iconic St Kilda is largely known for the evacuation in 1930). Eigg has a growing population which now stands at 105.

There is another aspect to being on an island. It can make you feel trapped. On my first morning here I received some devastating news about the untimely death of someone extremely close to my eldest son, his best friend and, in his words, more of a brother than a friend. I have spent the few days since then, preoccupied with an inner struggle, part of me longing to rush to my sons side and support the small child I gave birth to, who is now thirty-two. In fact, his mother is likely to be last person he would turn to or indeed, want, as he moves further and further into adult life and his parents become an irrelevance if not an embarrassment. That brings up more feelings of the emptiness a mother feels after the endless years of offering protection and support as one’s child learns to navigate the world and to accept that the world they choose is not the one you know or live in.

 It is now a challenge to be remote, cut off by a slice of sea, high winds and the constraints of the ferry timetable with no phone or email, intensifying the sense that there is nothing I can do which can easily flip into frustration and the sadness into depression. It is good for me to work through these internal conflicts. I haven’t gone so far as to decide to leave early but instead to observe the emotions as they pour through me. 

 

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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

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Culswick

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Annifirth

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The Ferry to Yell

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A Day on Unst

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Stenness

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Dore Holm, Esha Ness

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Eshaness Lighthouse

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Visiting islands.

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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……

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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”

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“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.”

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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!

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Home again.

Six entries are quite enough for three weeks! You have witnessed my creative struggle, which precipitated some difficult moments about family and friends. Whilst here, I have heard that my oldest, dearest friend has a life threatening condition and those of you who know me, know too that my nights are frequently punctured by nightmares about those closer to home. The one thing I have learnt over a life of challenges, is that if you hold tight, the storm will subside.

After twenty four hours of wet weather, I wanted to do a last day of painting and so between bouts of cleaning and packing (I managed to lock myself out of the large boot, which was a big reason for taking the pickup in the first place) and so packing became the art of the possible and drawing boards, large flat boxes of paper, food and far too many woolly jerseys became like shuffling a pack of cards. In between shuffling cards, I mean boxes, I managed to pull together all the thinking I had done and go down to the shore and produce some new work.

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On getting home to Ard Daraich, I put everything away with the intention of gaining some distance from it all. Not before I showed it to Norrie and asking him to record it. In a few weeks I will get it out again and look with fresh eyes. It may become clearer if there is progress and if I am any nearer the Pressburger adage “I know where I’m Going.”

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Throughout my time away there was one person to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. Day in, day out, sometimes more than once a day, Norrie has always been there on the end of the phone, remaining supportive. He is a great believer in the ups and downs of the creative process and the places it takes you.

The connectivity at Machair Cottage is very variable and often my conversations took place whilst sitting in a sandpit, on a little ridge just past an upturned bath and next to a large patch of flowering camomile. In walking across to my rural wifi hotspot I might disturb a hare or two who did one of two things and I was never sure which it would be. I didn’t know that hares liked pretending to be stones. If caught unawares, they hunker down, drawing in their legs and ears until they look round and brown just like a stone and sit and sit, hoping that if they remain still enough, they might become invisible. The other, more predictable reaction was to run away at great speed and then you would notice they had unsettled hares all over the place and there was a mad dash from every direction. If the lapwing were on the ground they would flap away with a variety of calls or a flock of starling would take off in unison. In the mornings, skeins of geese would fly overhead and with the sand dunes rolling down to the shore, I could see and feel that I was on the edge of the world, our world of Western Europe where it meets the great ocean of the North Atlantic.

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You could see that too by the amount of plastic rubbish washed up on almost every beach. On my last day I took this photo; three shoes that someone had arranged on a rock, next to an otherwise perfect white beach, washed across the Atlantic. I like to think as sandals, they came from the Caribbean, but look at the plastic breaking down and along with all the nets, fishing gear and other rubbish, it was shocking to think of it floating across an ocean and slowly working its way into the food chain.

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Tiree | The first Week.

Tiree | The First Week.

Having arrived on the isle Tiree two days ago I am now beginning to feel more orientated and familiar with my new immediate surroundings. The house snuggles into a dip in the ground, so different from modern homes that sit up, looking surprised, on high foundations as if they have just been thrown down, like a dice and having landed, are looking at their new environment for the first time. Not this house. It feels as if it has grown from the ground which I suppose, in a way, it must have done. Someone collected the stone to build the walls three feet thick. The roof is like a resting boat, turned upside down to have its bottom calked and sealed with pitch to keep the seawater out. So too, this roof is sealed from the rain with pitch over hessian and sarking boards. I can’t help but feel that these island people had skills which were applied to any task they had, boats or houses. Materials too must have been scarce with lots of things, especially timber, imported from the mainland.
The disadvantage of living in a hollow is not being able to see very far into the landscape from the windows. An invitation, of course, to step outside. The cottage is surrounded by machair, or open pasture spangled with a tapestry of wild flowers. Only the last stragglers are left in September but you can see how rich the flora must be, by the variety of seed heads everywhere. The machair leads to sand dunes, which in turn run down to the sea and a large expanse of white sand and then the Minch beyond. So far, during the day, the location is obscured, making the island feel as if it is floating at sea, disconnected from the rest of the world. As the sun went down on the second evening the mist cleared and suddenly the craggy outline of other places emerged on the horizon. I could see Barra to the north, Skye and Rhum to the east and Mull to the south, all with high hills floating in and out of focus.

When I was on Iona last year I had no car and so I quickly learned that the logistics of carrying my materials compelled me to find a subject near at hand. This time I have brought a car but rather than scour the island for the perfect location, I have decided to learn a little of the landscape here before I strike out and go further afield.

Today is my third day and I may use the car, if only to buy some milk, but so far I have walked about and having studied the map, explored the two beaches that are nearby. Immediately I have hit a dilemma! Tiree is a very popular island and therefore has many visitors. As the windiest place in Britain it attracts all sorts of surfers, wind surfers, kite surfers and more and so I can see that if you live and work here you need to protect your life from a tsunami of visitors. As a fertile island it appears that farming is the main occupation. Where once may have grown corn, there are now big fat cows and a few sheep. Not Highland Blackface as we are used to, but fluffy sheep with pig like faces. The machair here is crisscrossed with fencing. Good robust stock fencing laced with two strands of electric wire and topped with the barbed variety. Judging by how few gates have been installed, it is clear that this farmer does not welcome walkers despite the right to roam in Scotland. It is difficult to feel sympathetic when all you want to do is walk about exploring but I understand how frustrating it is when people who may not know or respect the country code overwhelm you. Having watched the news last night and seen a British couple welcoming upwards of 60 boats of refugees arriving on the isle of Lesbos in Greece it is hard to empathise with this sort of xenophobia.

Having misunderstood the oven and forgetting to put on my glasses, I managed to make a pan full of burnt porridge. Having noticed the enormous number of birds here, I have started a burnt porridge bird table. The fields are full of lapwing, flap wing and there are scores of starlings. As you walk, blackbirds dart across your path and there are lots of hares, sunbathing in pairs or having an evening conference with all Hares friends and relations. They dash off in every direction when they become aware of another presence but I have been able to get quiet close before disturbing them. It is hard to forget my passion for jugged hare but seeing them here, living in what may be family groups, I am loosing my enthusiasm for jugged hare. However it is delicious and I am reminded of living in Camden Town when I had an arrangement with a Greek butcher to buy me hare and if I left a jamjar with him when placing the order, he would keep the blood. Not surprising then, that I became known as Dracula!

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The next project.

Hello MA,

Here, after various musings are my thoughts after our last conversation.

Perhaps we need another to see where we go with this?

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After a successful month on the Isle of Iona at the end of 2014 and then having had an interesting exhibition of the work made, I am now preparing to go away again but this time to the Ilse of Tiree.

For the last few years my work has focused on the western seaboard where the land meets the sea and in particular, the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides.

With the title Close to the Edge I have embarked on a series of residencies and intensive painting journeys to explore and examine the area of Britain and Europe in which I live but of which I still know so little.

This is a process of submersion and submission. Submersion in the subject and submission into the landscape and all it can tell me with my limited understanding of reading history, geography and geology of this magnificent and varied part of the world.

Like with an onion, as you peel one layer away, another is revealed and new discoveries are made along with an acute awareness of how much more there is to know.

It is the exploration and subsequent discovery that is the subject of the residencies as much as the expression of subject matter and the investigation into the revelation of new things and places.

So far, in no systematic way, my exploration has taken me to various places on the West Coast from the Summer Isles in the north to Treshnish on the Isle of Mull and Lochmaddy on North Uist. Taking opportunity as it has arisen I have followed my nose and tried to open my mind and my heart to what I have seen and experienced.

Gradually some themes have emerged which inform the next decision.

Last year, 2014, I had an opportunity to go to Iona for a month, live in a caravan in all the weather could throw at me during November and December, to make new work.

I arrived in sunshine and could happily work outside with no real challenge from the elements. With several layers of clothing and my drawing bag I was able to head out and look for subjects.

Quickly I realised that the logistics of working outside with no car to retreat into or take me far, I was bound to a small area within which it was realistic to remain.

The north end of Iona is blessed with several stunning beaches and one in particular was a short walk away.

During the first few days I wandered about allowing the place and its atmosphere to soak in.

Each time I was drawn to the beach.

I live by the sea, with a beach within five hundred yards of our front door.

But it isn’t the same sort of sea.

Our sea, or Loch Linnhe to be precise, is more of a loch or inland waterway.

Surrounded by hills, the largest hills in Britain, our home territory has quiet a different feel.

The beach at Lagandorain is altogether different.

And so I began to make a series of pieces, created in sequences and allowing the rhythm, colour and taste of the surf that arrives on the first landmass for three thousand miles to inform the work. To record the experience I began this blog and so most of you will have read about it here.  It was transformative and on my return I was offered an exhibition and as part of the installation, I started a collaboration with Watercolour Music entitled Ardgour Artists.

It is this association that has led to my next residency and it is with them that I hope to forge a new collaboration.

Dear Anna,

Following our various meetings and discussions, I am writing to extend an official invitation from Watercolour Music, to use our property on the Isle of Tiree as the locus for the latest of your self-directed residencies. Having read of your residency on Iona, and having seen your resulting work, I am confident that Tiree will offer you the inspiration and seclusion you require to build on this island experience.

Watercolour Music regards this as a first step in exploring the potential for a network of mutual support (WT Ardgour Artists), and to that end, we look forward very much to seeing and hearing more about your time in Tiree.

Is mise le meas

Mary Ann

Mary Ann Kennedy

Watercolour Music Limited

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