Muckle Roe

Whist I have been on Shetland the weather has been good. I am told it is not always like this but nearly every day has had some sunshine and so it seems mistaken to spend all day inside, working. Working removed from my subject is something I am never comfortable with and so what better reason than dry weather, to be outside. There is something deep inside that relaxes, feels at home and instantly curious; in some sense it feels like going home when I go out. But I have come here to work and being in this creative space has given me a sense of guilt that I am not justifying my visit with important output! Going for walks, exploring the map and looking at digital images whilst planning where to go next is not the same as making work. However, Shetland is new to me and quite strangely different and I have decided to let it seep into my blood, sit with it and let it take me where it will while I search for the resonance required to make authentic work.

Yesterday I awoke with this dilemma sharply in focus and decided the best way to resolve the conflict was to trust my instinct and draw on the ways I know best and once again, go outside. During the previous day I had been to Lerwick and to their first-rate bookshop “The Shetland Times” to buy another map. In planning my time here I had bought some maps with me but it shows how large Shetland is, that it takes five maps to cover the whole archipelago. Scalloway is in the middle of Shetland Mainland and so I had only expected to explore South Mainland and West Mainland and thought the The North would be too far. But after recommendations, I decided to extend my range to North Mainland and later, next week, with friend C, to go to the North islands of Yell and Unst.

So equipped with picnic, (which I didn’t eat) my new map which is so modern it has an app you can download onto your phone and enough diesel, I went out yet again, this time following the signs to North Islands, heading for Muckle Roe, an island just off the west coast and attached by a short causeway.

As with almost everywhere I have been, to see the best of the landscape involves being prepared for a walk. Little I have seen is easily accessible without being prepared to leave the car which of course, just like on the isle of Eigg, restricts the size of work as everything has to be carried and secured from the wind.

Part of the internal conflict has been about wanting to scale up my work and I have spent a lot of the time trying to devise a work practice that can capture the essence of place with enough information on site to continue when back in the warmth and dry of the studio. This has led me along a tunnel of uncertainty and has produced a pile of rejected work.

To reconnect with my instinct and knowledge of what works best for me (something it is all to easy to lose connection with when swept up in the ways of the world and convention) I had packed a number of small pieces of paper and a minimal set of drawing tools and went exploring. The map had a large blue footprint at the end of the road which had a polite sign saying this is the end of the public road and a rather ad hoc car park. I parked and started to walk and quickly found another sign with map telling me this was a Core Path and I had a choice of a two or four kilometer walk. The shorter route led to a lighthouse along the coast and the other along a track inland passing a series of freshwater lochs. As always, I chose the coastal route and within ten minutes was so struck by the view I was drawing already.

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When working on the structure of a drawing, it is hard not to be seduced by the breadth of the landscape here. Except when looking at detail, there are few verticals. I have been surprised by how much I have enjoyed the panoramic app in my phone camera and have enjoyed the images it has taken. By the end of the walk I had decided to revert to the folded books I often make or perhaps work on a scroll format. I had come to the conclusion that internal conflict was a waste of energy and that if I enjoy working small and portable, I should stop minding, relax and enjoy the things I have seen. The coast here really is breathtaking and is my usual subject but here it is harsh and severe, unrelenting and ferocious. On just a short walk I had crept along the top of a cliff where even the pathbuilders had supplied a hand rail, struggled with my vertigo which was unpleasant and been grateful for my fantastic coat. With the hood up, I was able to turn my back on a severe hailstorm and stand it out, occasionally looking over my shoulder to see how close the blue sky had blown and by keeping my hood up was able to negotiate the more frightening places on my return where I just kept looking at my feet with the hood obscuring the view.

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Before returning to the car I sat in the sun above a sandy bay watching the rabbits and noticing the bonsai heather they have created with the combination of grazing and burrowing. A lunar landscape.

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Words

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Bridge of Walls
Muckle Ward
Mouldy Hill
Johnny Sinclairs Nose
Swabwall
Fitful Head
Blackholes
Cannygates
The Rump
Noup of Noss
Headless Banks
Cauldhame
Trouda
Burra
Whale Wick
Papil
Houss
Toogs
Papa
Hoggs of Hoy
Nesting

Just a few of the names seen on signposts or found on the map as I continue to explore.

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I love this. A hollow dug out to shelter a boat from the howling winds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another island Odessey

Every new expedition produces different challenges and distractions however hard you plan to avoid them. Today Norrie set off to deliver my car to the islands of Shetland. Rather than hire a car I decided it would be better to take my own, partly as a shelter to nest in and partly because I am liable to make a mess; after all I am painting. Shetland is on a latitude with Norway. The sailing is long and often rough. I suffer from seasickness. I am continually amazed by the kindness of my husband and after several people volunteered to help me with car delivery, Norrie stepped forward. As a result I can fly tomorrow and so we planned a quiet weekend away from it all, armed with binoculars to look for puffins and enjoy thirty-six hours on our own. Imagine my surprise therefore, to receive a phone call when Norrie could not have got any further than the A9 driving towards Granton on Spay and on to Aberdeen. There is no floor in the bathroom of the Studio I have rented and so I have been booked into a Bed and Breakfast.

Searching for a visual language

 

Four days of wet weather produced a different challenge. Instead of overcoming the frustration of the time it took to walk to each location and therefore the size of the work I was able to make, I was faced with the new problem of how to keep the work dry. More importantly, how to get it dry in the first place. My preference has always been to work wet on wet, whether with watercolour, ink or pigment and so I begin by soaking a piece of paper. By the time I have applied coats of water-soluble medium to the surface it is saturated and usually takes ages to dry. As an aside, this means that I need a robust surface to work on and am therefore using 320gm Arches NOT watercolour paper at the moment. The decision is a balance between affordability and strength and I am constantly amazed at the punishment you can give a sheet of Arches and it still doesn’t tear or rub into holes. Spend too much on a sheet of paper and it puts an unseen break on the flow of my creativity.

So here I am with a saturated surface in the unpredictability of heavy snow, hail or rain showers and the challenge becomes how to get the work home. You can imagine, with my impatient nature and a wonky thermostat (which means I am always cold) I soon run out of patience in a climate approaching 98% humidity and so decide to stuff the work into a bag and stomp home. But out of circumstance, happy accidents can happen and on reaching shelter, the image was completely lost but something else appeared.

As I have described elsewhere, Eigg has encouraged me to engage with Geology, at least superficially and given the way that stone was once molten, erosion demolished mountains and lava flows became ridges, I have looked for a visual equivalent with which to describe the process. Molten graphite offers a possibility and so my deconstructed drawings became an opportunity.

 

 

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.

 

Exploring

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.

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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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