The Serpent River

The Serpent Flows,

Through Time and Stone,

Journey Onward, Return to Source.

I recently visited the Dunbeath Heritage Centre for the first time and was greatly impressed by the way in which art, archaeology and landscape have been blended.  A high standard of artistic works, which are particularly sensitive to the broader landscape and heritage, was on display.  Two contemporary sculptural stone pieces have been set into the floors and walls, complementing some of the artefacts on display. A contemplative shrine room has been created, with tiles by local potter Jenny Mackensie Ross, for a 7th century carved cross fragment: the Ballachly Stone.  There are two beautiful pieces of contemporary stained glass, and a powerful glass wall installation by Alexander Hamilton.  On the walls are black and white photographs of the wider landscape by Paul Basu.  The glass of the windows is etched with literary quotes, evoking the powerful landscapes of Caithness beyond.

Beyond the WindowsTo my surprise, however, I was most captivated by the floor.

Serpent RiverIt has been painted, by artist Tim Chalk, with the serpent river, as viewed from above by the buzzard,

Buzzards Viewand relates a range of places, which appear in the semi autobiographical novel Highland River by Neil Gunn, encountered by the main character Kenn when the Dunbeath Water is followed to it source.  The serpent head design is derived from an 8th century brooch found at Dunbeath in the 19th century.

So now I feel compelled to return to Dunbeath, explore the places alongside the serpent river, to journey to the source.

Way to the SourceBut I must confess, I am sorry to say, that I have not read Gunn’s works, so my dilemma is:

Do I go to this source of inspiration and read the works of Neill Gunn before I return, should I then carry the stories, characters and places when I eventually explore, do I loose myself in the literary landscapes first?

Or do I return first to Dunbeath, undertake the journey to the source, and then read Gunn’s works?

Perhaps this dilemma stems from a pretense about landscape.  A pretense that there is a possibility of my authentic experience, unmediated by other literary, cultural or historical references, of the landscape out there.  When the very joy of landscape is that our perception through our presence is an act of co-creation, mediated through our knowledge and our imagination, with the rich textures and legacies, people and places which went before us.

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‘Within You Will Find The Spirit Of The River’ (N Gunn)

Neil Gunn spent most of his boyhood at Dunbeath and many of his novels engage with the different pasts of the landscapes and communities of Caithness.  You can get more information about and hear several short readings by Neil Gunn.  Dunbeath Heritage Centre is the old school house where Gunn would have been taught as a boy, where he may have sat during lessons and stared out of the windows at the landscape beyond.

My unexpected visit to Dunbeath Heritage Centre was greatly enhanced by the warm welcome I received from the manager and the time which they took to discuss things with me, many thanks.  I was very pleased to learn the displays were conceived by Paul Basu.  You can take a virtual tour of the Dunbeath Heritage Centre, there is also a wonderful explanation by Paul about the way it has been designed to create a dialogue with the broader landscape and its multiple perceptions.  But I would recommend if at all possible you visit in person and go explore Caithness where land, sky and sea meet so powerfully with the past. 


 

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4 thoughts on “The Serpent River

  1. Go there first and than read. Perhaps write something yourself first while there in the landscape, put pencil and paper in your backpack. When you come back you read and compare.

  2. Before I go to the Australian outback I try to arrive with a clean slate. The first impression seems important because for me as touchstones i.e. sketches etc. done on site before a future painting. The reading comes next. A general knowledge is handy before reaching a destination. But everyone is different?

    • Hi Desterre Thanks for a perspective from the Australian outback. Yes I wonder if a first response if unmediated by explicit frames of reference results in a different work, a different end result ? G

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