Disperse and Distill

The rhythm of the residency has changed.

After saying goodbye to the Medievalists, the day became one of ‘Disperse and Distill’ for the group, allowing time for ideas to form and information to settle. Artists set out both individually and in small groups, to swim, walk, and cycle across the island. Some sat with Skye artist Caroline Dear to learn how to make ropes from the reeds near the beach. Jessica Ramm went in search of a local resident who still cut peat, meeting Jennifer, who showed her a Viking burial mound and discussed the Celtic spirit along the way to the peat bank. Hardeep Pandhal found two containers of Camp Coffee in Raasay House’s library, and thought one of us had placed them there on purpose. He is currently making work back in Glasgow about this coffee originating from the same city, bearing its picture label of a Sikh servant serving a British soldier with a cup.

Augustus Veinoglou summed up the type of endeavour many have at this point, by saying “I want to extract wisdom from this space”. What is this space formed from? We have the book, our conversations with each other and the Medievalists, our past work, this location, experiments, serendipity and the unknown we are yet to encounter.

A number of artists have previously explored aspects of extraction, dispersal or distillation in their work. Edwin Pickstone, one of our illuminators, runs the Letterpress at The Glasgow School of Art. He gave us a summary of the Letterpress at the artists’ presentations, focusing on what this form of production had historically meant, speeding up the hand printing process by ‘the equivalent of 300 years’. Edwin said that learning about the placement of […]

Convocation group photograph, Raasay

Convocation group residency, (l to r): Francis McKee, Ceara Conway, Hardeep Pandhal, Sue Brind, Michail Mersinis,  Jessica Ramm, Johnny Rodger, Caroline Dear, Augustus Veinoglou, Edwin Pickstone, Kathryn Maude, Emma Balkind, Cora and Clare Lees

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 […]

Reflections on “The Word” and “Ethical Knowledge”; Sacred spaces, forgotten histories and challenging predispositions


There has been a lot of talk in the past few entries of folding and unfolding. The layers of Colm Cille’s legacy are definitely being peeled back in the last two commissions and conversations surrounding them.  I’ve been gathering my thoughts on the blog entries.


The spiral moved to Newcastle to interpret “The Word” resulting in a poetry sound installation in opposing sites, one a tower on the island of Lindisfarne and the other in St. Aidan’s Crypt in Bamburgh. These same pieces resulted in very different reactions. Shadow Script, the commissioned poetry, which was used in Antiphonal sound installation, told us fragmented stories of pilgrimages, myths, secrets and meditations, leaving us to piece the rest together. Linda had felt that the Crypt installation was more successful as the reverent, peaceful atmosphere allowed the piece to be enjoyed and reflected upon. The space used for these commissions seems like a vital element, to create the atmosphere for contemplation, as I feel was successfully created in Vicissitudes.


The third knot of the spiral, “Ethical Knowledge” in Bradwell, where the medievalists played the role of artists at “Interruptions” in St. Peter’s church. I found this interesting as it forced the historians to challenge all their predispositions and embrace the challenge of imagination and the unknown. During the Curator’s Conclave in May this was raised as being a transition from referencing and accuracy to using contemporary at, literature and performance as a new way of understanding the past. The engagement and interactive element of Interruptions seemed to be an informative element of the work, as with the personal stories and connections people brought to the Vicissitudes performance.


Kathryn Meade‘s piece on forgotten women today and in medieval times sounded like […]

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, […]

‘Antiphonal’ sound installation in Look Out Tower Lindisfarne and Crypt St Aidan’s Church Bamburgh

We were very excited about the resonances of having one site, on Lindisfarne, up high, with superb 360 degree views, and filled with light, whilst the other was underground, like a monk’s cell. The Lindisfarne Tower also looked across to Bamburgh on a clear day as well as down on St Cuthbert’s island and the colony of seals on the sandbar nearby. The actual installation went smoothly. Tom Schofield, the digital artist, brought another artist with him, Ben Freeth, and between them they wired and cut and got everything working. Our initial excitement was about the Tower and its wonderful views. In practice this has been the more difficult of the two sites. For one thing, when the tide is propitious Lindisfarne is extremely crowded through the summer, and hundreds of people are making their way to the Tower. This might seem good but they want to ralk raher than listen and have come there primarily to look.I had one experience when the installation came on and people stopped talking and stood quietly at the windows looking out. This is the effect that we wanted. Mostly, however, when I’ve been there it’s been uncomfortable because the crowds and the chatter and been unremitting. Another consequence has been that wires get disturbed – or else someone switches something off – and the installation has often been down. It won’t come back on unless someone re-boots the computer. I’m finding out about the problems of working ‘in the wild’, on an unsupervised site. The crypt, on the other hand, has worked beyond our dreams.The cool echoing space inspires listening, and the poems are cut to emphasize the word ‘solitude’ which resonates in the space. I’ve found […]

Hana’s Interruption: Mapping the Human on the Nonhuman

I asked our guests to consider the following passage from Christ III, an Old English religious poem about Judgment Day from the tenth-century Exeter Book:

‘Ða wearð beam monig   blodigum tearum

birunnen under rindum   reade ond þicce

sæp wearð to swate.   Þæt asecgan ne magum

foldbuende   þurh frod gewit,

hu fela þa onfundun   þa gefelan ne magun

dryhtnes þrowinga   deade gesceafte.’ (lines 1174-79)


‘Then many a tree became bedewed with bloody tears under their bark, red and thick; the sap was turned to blood.  No earth‐dweller can tell through wise understanding how much those inanimate created beings, those which cannot feel, experienced the suffering of the Lord.’ (my translation)

The idea of bleeding trees on Judgment Day appears in the apocryphal Fourth Book of Ezra, 5:5: ‘Et de ligno sanguis stillabit‘ (‘And blood shall drip from wood’).  The author of Paradise Lost, John Milton, was intrigued by this particular passage and wrote, ‘…the deadness of men to all noble things shall be so great, that the sap of the trees shall be more truly blood, in God’s sight, than their hearts’ blood….’  In other words, as humans lose their humanity, the nonhumans (the trees, for instance) become more human in comparison.  Tree sap appears as blood or tears.

St Peter-on-the-Wall’s history was constructed by human hands, but what we see today (upon first glance) is the nonhuman – Roman stones and earthen foundations.  I wanted to put the human back into this nonhuman space, and I invited the guests to think about what the ‘most human’ part of this space was to them: perhaps the wall where candles had been lit, the stone by the door worn away from countless pilgrims’ feet, the altar where so many have prayed, etc.  I then gave […]

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 http://www.company-of-mountains.com 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’. http://www.company-of-mountains.com/2011/10/maclean.html?m=1 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: http://www.company-of-mountains.com/2011/07/3-clach-na-h-annait.html?m=1

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 […]