Thisssssss: Sound and Silence

Yesterday was bookended with both a real and a transmitted experience of the same place, Hallaig. In the morning, Emma Nicolson led the group on a walk to this cleared village situated in the south-east of Raasay. In the evening we watched we watched Francis Mckee’s copy of ”Hallaig: The Poetry and the Landscape of Sorley MacLean’ 1

‘Back through the gloaming to Hallaig,
Through the vivid and speechless air,
Pouring down the steep slopes,
Their laughter misting my ear.’ 2

Emma Balkind, one of our illuminators, has been recording the sound of our field trips and conversations. When we interviewed her for the short film we are making about the residency, she said, “I felt I was switched on all the time”. She and her microphone have captured the layers of words and movement of the group, alongside the land and the sea around us. I asked her if she has managed to record silence at Hallaig and she said no. Even when Johnny Rodger, one of the most ebullient in our group, asks for silence on the hill, the put-put-put of a boat out on the Sound can be heard, followed by the musical tone of a button on a digital camera.

In the evening, the cadence of Sorley MacLean’s voice and his delivery of the word ‘Thisssssss….’ sticks in my mind. The letter ‘s’, a spiral in form, fizzes in his mouth, shaping the word into a new sound and entity.

How can something, as Sorley MacLean has it, be ‘vivid and speechless’ at the same time? What is Much of our discussions have circled around pairs of words that come from different realms but are interwoven in order to exist: Faith and Doubt. Rational and Spiritual. Discipline […]

Vision on Raasay

“It’ll be like an Autobahn” 1

Emma Nicolson, Director of ATLAS Arts, joined the Spiral. Her input on the shaping of the project, her choice of Raasay as location and suggestion of Skye artists Caroline Dear and Jessica Ramm, has proved invaluable. Emma invited local author Roger Hutchinson to meet the group and talk about ‘Calum’s Road’, which tells the true story of a road built over ten years by one man on his time off, Calum MacLeod, to link up to his declining community of Airnish at the north of Raasay.

MacLeod wanted a ‘motor road’, using a 1901 book about building roads for motor vehicles to act has his guide. Using a pick, wheelbarrow, spade and hammer to make the road from stones, his friends also got him dynamite, which he used to blow up a local landmark, a stack that was in the way of the road. He completed the road in 1979, at a point when it was only he and his wife remained in Airnish.

Roger Hutchinson covered the ‘practical sphere and metaphorical sphere’ of this true story. He said that MacLeod was aware he was ‘building a metaphor’ as he fully realised that the migration from his home community was terminal. As the local council, Inverness County Council, had always refused to build the road, latterly citing their decision in view of unsustainable costs for such an enterprise, for such a low population, MacLeod also knew he was building something subversive. Hutchinson said that the Raasay islanders he interviewed said, “Just how he did it was beyond belief to all of us”.

Hutchinson proved to be a great storyteller. He concluded that Calum Macleod died in 1988, found by his wife in […]

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 […]

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 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 […]

An introduction to Raasay

As we prepare for our trip to Raasay on 12 August, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raasay, 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 http://www.sorleymaclean.org/english/. ‘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 […]