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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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.