Sorrow and Stones

“The stone was dipped in some water, where, in defiance of nature, it floated miraculously on the surface like an apple or a nut, for that which the saint had blessed could not be made to sink.” 1

Through listening to the artists’ presentations and talks on Raasay, there have been a number of links to stones and sorrow.

Ceara Conway, the artist commissioned to make work for the Derry~Londonderry knot on the Spiral, has been part of our group and gave a talk on Tuesday night on her practice and this particular project. As part of her research she visited the Stone of Sorrows at Gartan, St Columba’s birthplace in Co. Donegal. This was the stone it is said St Columba laid down and slept on, during his last night on Ireland before he was exiled. He was so full of loneliness and sorrow, but as he lay on the stone, the stone took these feelings away from him. Ceara went on to say that the stone became a site of ritual, for those leaving Ireland through the ages, in exile or emigration, to spend their last night in Ireland there. This longing and sorrow became part of her performance and sung lament, ‘Vicissitudes’, which took place in a boat on the River Foyle.

Kathryn Maude from King’s College London gave her talk last night to the group on her area of research, looking at the texts both on and by women in the Medieval period. With so few texts remaining- approximately 5 letters and 2 poems over a 500 year period- she read a section from ‘The Wife’s Lament’ in Old English, which is written in a woman’s voice. “I sing this poem full of […]

How do we navigate the Spiral?

“Whoever wishes to explore the Way,

Let him set out, what more is there to say?”
In Sue Brind’s presentation today, she referenced our question of Peregrinatio, through Farid ud’din Attar’s C13th poem, ‘The Conference of the Birds’, where, as she outlined, “The Hoopoe tries to lead all the birds of the world on a journey to find the Simorgh- the Persian name for a benevolent flying creature-who appears in Attar’s poem as the illusive King of the whole World. It will be an arduous journey, over deserts, mountains and through valleys, gaining knowledge along the way. Only 30 birds have the courage to complete. They finally arrive at the land of Simorgh and what they discover is a mountain lake in whose surface is revealed a reflection of their true selves”. 1
In our journey of ideas and expedition for new knowledge, as we explore the histories behind ‘Colm Cille’s Spiral’ then hear about the group’s own work as individuals, what is our objective? Do we wish the group to find St Columba, and what he means for our times, by peering at history through the mountain lake’s calm surface, or instead to have the ‘sea churning and lashing itself, in maniacal states’? 2
‘The Spiral’ is a common form in manuscripts and monuments, which amongst various meanings represents the dialectic; a method of debate for resolving disagreement. The discursive nature of this project is intended to mirror this dialectic. Where do you enter and exit the Spiral, if it has no beginning or end? The ongoing discussions at different times of the day, both formally in the allotted time at different points of the island, and informally over meals, travel and sharing each others’ space, have […]

Encountering Some Questions on the Spiral

Today the group journeyed by minibus to both the north and south of Raasay. In order to find a foothold in history, and to find a way from our contemporary perspective to respond creatively to the legacy of Colm Cille, Convocation has been structured to begin with a series of questions that can give the historic background to themes that have been identified to be of interest, and also to offer the opportunity to engage with and open up the subjects through discussion within the group. The questions were illuminated by Professor Clare Lees and Kathryn Maude from Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s College London.

Our first stop was the beach at Brochel Castle, to look at aspects of time. To what extent can this project genuinely engage with the extreme past? Should we connect a contemporary response to the extreme past or should we maintain the gap between present and past?

We then moved onto Calum’s Road, past the ‘deep time’ represented by the oldest rocks on the island, thought to be 3 billion years old, Lewisian Gneiss, to explore the subject of landscape and spirit. How was ‘place’ thought of in the past? Words such as nature and environment are a contemporary concept. At the third site, Calum’s Cairn, positioned at a commanding viewing point looking over the Sound to Skye, we discussed Peregrinatio and began to identify the different ways in which we can think of travelling or the journey, whether through pilgrimage, exile or from life to death. Throughout our day today, St Columba and his life and death, evidenced 100 years later by Adomnan of Iona, were present. We looked at , standing round the cist at […]

Entering the Spiral


How do you navigate the Spiral? Where does it start and end?


Today the group of 18 artists, scholars and organisers, completed their journeys from London, Galway, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Skye to converge on Raasay for the beginning of ‘Convocation’ and the Scottish knot of Colm Cille’s Spiral.


The Citylink bus from Glasgow, drives through a brooding Glencoe, stopping long enough in Fort William for a leg stretch, then onwards, looping past the waymarkers I always look out for on the way to Skye- the best historically named diner in the Highlands Jac-o-bites, the dramatically picture postcard positioned Eilean Donan Castle, followed by the more modest white house of author Gavin Maxwell which nestles at the foot of the Skye bridge. I see some new signs to me on Skye such as Saucy Mary’s Hostel and the Happy Hand Spinner’s studio. After the arc of the road bridge, we see another- a complete rainbow on the Sound.


The group may not all know each other, but the fact that all have been asked to dip into Abbot Adomnan’s ‘Life of St Columba’, gives a shared starting point, with each having their own observations on the text. As people seat hop over the seven hours of travel, we enter the Spiral of St Columba through conversation. Emma Balkind mentions that it is can be noted in our present and past that there has always been a threat, whether from the heathens of the past or terrorists of today. Johnny Rodger, from the GSA’s School of Architecture, talks about Columba’s ‘Back of the Hill’ on Iona, and how in Gaelic it is ‘tonn air gaoithe’, an architectural principal of orientating the back of the house to face the elements, […]

A chance meeting with Alec Finlay

poem-label, Alec Finlay; photography, Luke Allan  ‘Panorama of ‘Hallaig’ from Dùn Caan’, A Company of Mountains

A chance meeting with Alec Finlay at Edinburgh Art Festival yesterday evening led to him telling me about his commission by ATLAS Arts called ‘A Company of Mountains’. Alec made a series of creative and collaborative surveys for viewing 14 hills and mountains on the Isle of Skye and Raasay. The resulting website is well worth taking a look at. In particular, given our Raasay trip, Alec mentioned making a panorama of words in the landscape, following the locations mentioned in Sorley Maclean’s poem ‘Hallaig’. He also had heard that Thomas Joshua Cooper had been journeying to Clach na h-Annait and Kilbride, so mentioned his own poem on these sites:

Alec also told me about the Hill of the Back to Ireland on Iona, where it is said that St. Columba climbed this hill to make sure that Ireland was completely out of view before he settled and built his monastery. As is the way of peregrinatio the place one has left must be truly out of sight in order to have true communication with God.

Our second King’s College London scholar Kathryn Maude’s area of research is on the stories of women in texts from Old English, Latin and Anglo-Norman. She looks at how the stories of these women could be told when they were not telling them themselves. Her question is: ‘Should we be trying to ‘find’ women in the past, or should we accept that they are impossible to see with the sources that remain?’ Dr Debra Strickland, University of Glasgow, asked  in a recent meeting: ‘The question here is should the gap between past and present be preserved or should we […]

An introduction to Raasay

As we prepare for our trip to Raasay on 12 August,, a little about this island which lies off Skye and is one of the Inner Hebridean Islands. Raasay has views over The Sound of Raasay to Skye, and the Inner Sound to Applecross. In ‘The Life of St Columba’ by Abbot Adomnan, there are numerous occasions where “…there came a shout across the sound”, as pilgrims to Iona would call across to the monks to send a boat over to them. I am quite intrigued to see if any of the artists in the group pick up on the reference to Sound and Inner Sound, and the tangential connection of the relationship between Speaker, Listener, and the communication that ensues.

Raasay was birthplace and home of Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean ‘Hallaig’ (this post’s photo, by Emma Nicolson, is of ‘Hallaig’), on Raasay, is one of his poems which, set at twilight, focuses on this deserted township on Raasay, which had been decimated during the Highland Clearances. The first line of the poem, translated by Seamus Heaney reads, “Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood”. The Norse name Raasay means ‘Isle of the Roe or Red Deer’.

Raasay House, an outdoor activity centre where the group will stay, was once visited by Boswell and Johnson in 1773, during their expedition which became ‘The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides’. Reputedly, Boswell became drunk both nights that he stayed there.

Local author Roger Hutchinson who wrote ‘Calum’s Road’ will give a talk to the group during our stay on Raasay. Calum MacLeod lived at the northern end of Raasay and during his lifetime had seen the population of his community decline. During his time off, over […]

Thomas Joshua Cooper goes to Skye and Raasay

Thomas Joshua Cooper becomes the first artist from the Scottish knot ‘Convocation’ to make the journey out to Skye and Raasay. Yesterday he met Emma Nicolson from Atlas. Thomas has his 19th Century camera with him. His aim is to take pictures at the 4 cardinal points of Skye and then Raasay. He has also expressed an interest in the town of Kilbride with its standing stone (Clach na h-Annait), the site of an ancient chapel (or annat) and an ancient well (Tobar na h-Annait) with a stone cover. Newly-wed brides were, according to local tradition, brought to the well to ensure fertility. To look at more of Thomas’s wider work Thomas is Head of Fine Art Photography at The Glasgow School of Art.

Folding time: ‘The Middle Ages in the Modern World’ conference 28.6.13

St Andrews University was founded in 1413, towards the end of the Middle Ages, in the year that Henry V became king. Myself, John Hartley (Difference Exchange) and Professor Clare Lees (Kings College) found ourselves 600 years later in the throng of the ritual of graduation at University of St Andrews, in amongst a large flock of medievalists exploring ‘The Middle Ages in The Modern World’.

Our purpose was to deliver a collaborative paper ‘A Kink in Colm Cille’s Spiral’, which outlined the Colm Cille Spiral project and aimed to ‘demonstrate the value of radical re-imagination for both artistic and academic approaches and insights.’

One of the key thoughts to come out of the paper was as Clare put it, ‘a folding of time and disciplinary distance’, with the projects working in a cross-disciplinary format with academics, historians, artists and poets. Clare further coined the phrase ‘reverse flow’, stating that the normal procedure was to use the past as a resource for the present, but that in this project she truly believed the present could be a resource for understanding the past through ‘historical readings coming into contact with unlikely contemporary touchstones’.

The other art-related session we saw that day at the conference was by Dr Neil Mulholland and Norman Hogg, who delivered an elegiac dystopian presentation from their forthcoming publication ‘thN Lng folk 2go’ by the collective ‘The Confraternity of Neoflagellants’ . The group’s by-line is ‘Investigating Premodern Futures’, which again sees this folding of time. The audience was presented with scenes, objects and shamans from contemporary culture, filtered through the gaze of neomedievalism. Mundane car parts became the artefacts of our age and Celine Dion was seen as a Saint.

With a conference-goer making the […]

Thoughts following the Curators Conclave, King’s College, London

At the recent Curators Conclave at King’s College London, Professor Michelle Brown talked in her introduction to the group about ‘peregrinatio’, the pilgrimage. To set off on a journey without direction or guidance except from the Spirit of God, Michelle also talked about other aspects of this journey as being one of ‘spirals and eddies’; a ‘seeding within of influences elsewhere and the opportunity to bring back other influences’. For pilgrim monks, to become ‘peregrini’ or strangers by leaving home for distant lands, their journey and the attainment of isolation was about access to a spiritual life. If, from a contemporary perspective we depart for the distant lands of the past, what are we attempting to attain and what other aspects along the way should we be or become aware of?

The proposal for the Scottish Spiral is for a group of scholars and artists to travel (less romantically by Citylink) and ferry to the island of Raasay off Skye. Scotland’s Spiral forms a process of purposeful enquiry and creative dialogue, creating a ‘journey of ideas’ which links creative and research practices. The project title, ‘convocation’, means ‘a calling together’. ‘The Spiral’ is a common form in manuscripts and monuments, which amongst various meanings represents the dialectic; a method of debate for resolving disagreement.

The format of the event itself echoes the dynamic of the ‘spiral’ rather than a circle or cycle, with the group gathering in Raasay(Ruminatio), then dissipating (Meditatio), then re-gathering in Glasgow (Revelatio). The aim is to create new knowledge through making contemporary responses to the extreme past. To aid this enquiry and engagement, the group will respond to a series of questions established at the start of the project. The questions will […]