And again, should we wash upon, Loch Awe shore …

Vicarious serendipities, perhaps, could have only ever occurred at this location?

It started with a couple of images from 1970. I would encounter them once every few years or so, but they haunted me over several decades. It may not seem like a significant rhythm, too irregular, unpredictable, to have any substance? But like a slow burning ember, which with the slightest breathe of air can briefly flash bright before returning to dormant slumber under ashy coat, the potential to fully ignite remained. Each time I saw the images, it was always like being reminded of something I had forgotten, but couldn’t remember what or why!

Many times before I had driven along the shore road, glimpses of tree covered islands, crannogs and unsettled water, no more than fleeting impressions. And then I found myself, on a hill side overlooking Loch Awe for several weeks. From here the stone husk of Kilchurn Castle provides a vivid reminder of the history of Scotland’s landscapes: a favourite picturesque centerpiece, providing seductive views for quintessential yearnings of Scottishness.

But looking down, with different perspective, hands covered in peat and mud, trying to make sense of the Medieval period from broken fragments, I wondered. Wondered why Beuys responded to the shore side and what motivated him to create such a humble sculptural piece.

It is said that a lump of peat, length of pine branch and copper pipe were discovered by Beuys on these shores. These were combined, crozier like, and placed in a lead vitrine, to become ‘The Loch Awe Piece’. Perhaps it deliberately presences the symbolism of early Christian missionary regalia, tangled with the shepherd’s crook, both of which changed this landscape physically and conceptually.

But what I struggled with was the discovery of the copper pipe. Peat and pine expected, the vedigris tube troubled me, and I didn’t know why. So I resolved, to revisit, to return to the 8th May 1970.

I carried further expectations of the shoreline. Remote(ish), relatively unvisited (a few roadside stopping places are hasty insta-locales), slight and fleeting this should be a place of little trace. And the dirty truth, where water washes, we expect our detritus is tidied away, like some debris removal ecosystem service. And so, I found myself on the shores of Loch Awe, naively surprised at the rubbish. Camping gear residues, fishing tackle tangles, barbecue libations, carbonised outdoor activities, all evidenced from fire pit scatter patterns of objects.

But then there was another range of materials which I doubted anybody would bring camping, broken window handles and tools, more akin to dumping of materials from a house refurbishment. It felt like a forensic archaeology of the anthropocene, almost unnoticed, an aggregation of tiny acts of aggression littered the shoreline.

Such patterns of behavior have perhaps accelerated since May 1970. With a fifty year period of marketing frenzied consumption, crashing willfully across our shores. So it was now no surprise that, among the broken bits of screw driver, handles and cans, a copper pipe had once been discovered here. No caring crook or inspiring crozier but a length of domestic waste sanitation.

So I gathered and crafted, to bear witness perhaps, to the unintended consequences of our material entanglements. A trophy of our times, hybridized bio-mechanics, as anthropocene assemblage. And when you look in its quartz eyes, do we see death or a feint flicker of hope?

I can’t help wondering, fancifully, is there now a moment on the 8th May 1970, where my faint spectre like figure can be briefly seen, perhaps out of the corner of Beuys eye, purposively scouring the shoreline.

Perhaps decades of glimpses of Beuys accreted, with other moments around the shores of Loch Awe, like some plastiglomerate, which could only have occurred in such anthropocene times. Perhaps in such times we need to find new aesthetics, beyond the picturesque ?

And are there other places you know, where we need to be sensitive to spectres of the future haunting us?

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I wonder, why should this matter in times of environmental and climate crises? Perhaps an archaeological sensibility to the anthropocene (its origins, manifestations, asymmetries and more-than-human entanglements) could be important at such times? Could an #AnthropoceneArchaeology #ContemporaryArchaeology which reveals and challenges our assumptions about how and why we consume be a vital component in adaptation and resistance?

On 8th May 1970, Joseph Beuys traveled ‘the Road to Meikle Seggie’ through Argyll, Scotland, with Richard Demarco and Sally Holman. Some good accounts of Beuys work in Scotland can be found in Richard Demarco & Joseph Beuys A Unique Partnership published in 2016 by Luath Press and Joseph Beuys and the Celtic Wor(l)d by Victoria Walters

The two images of Beuys have been created through rephotography at the closest location I could find and merging with the originals held in the Demarco Archive, which can be found in the Argyll Demarco Archive Folder.

All elements of the piece, apart from the pins, were found on the shore of Loch Awe. It was produced for the XR Summerhall 2019 Exhibition and was accompanied by a short performance and discussion about Anthropocene Archaeologies. My thanks to the XR Summerall team for accepting my work, particular thanks to Natalie Taylor, Johnathan Baxter and Felicity White for support. I have also been privileged to work with Clan Gregor and Dalmally Historical Association, and all the wonderful volunteers who participated, in the investigation of a Medieval settlement overlooking Loch Awe and through many years of archaeological excavations in the area have learned a great deal from all those who are so passionate about the heritage and landscapes of Glen Orchy, Glen Strae and Loch Awe side. Such archaeological encounters have also informed the work: And Again, Should We Wash Upon Loch Awe Shore …

Dark Enchanted Isle

The small ferry left Stromness as the storm began to rise. With the distant island mountain already backdropped by troubled skies and foregrounded by rising waves, it struggled to land briefly at Graemsay, spilling out people and packages hurrying to avoid the incoming tempest.

By the time we arrived on Hoy, cloud and rain was racing angrily towards the shore. I zipped my waterproof tight, stooping, rain driven into my face by an unforgiving wind I began to make my way uphill through the storm. With an hour or more walk along the old moorland road to Rackwick, I had resigned myself to being soaked by the time I reached my destination but began to worry about the practicalities of pitching a tent in these conditions.

And then a white van pulled up, surprised and slightly confused I hesitantly opened the door, to find a black and white collie sitting on the seat. ‘I was looking for you’ said the driver ‘Its not a night for walking’. With this kindness, I arrived at Rackwick somewhat sooner and drier than I had any right to expect.

Sea cliffs, funneled foam and fury, into the bay. Swollen waves, crashing against already saturated shoreline. Imagining scenes of chasing my tent, tattered though the night, any thoughts of canvas was abandoned, and I turned to the Bothy.

* * *

The next morning I stood between Trowie Glen and the Nowt Bield Corrie. The names reveal something deeper about this place. Trowie is an Orcadian term, derived from Norse, for Troll: important folklore and literary figures often associated with particular mounds or distinctive stones. While Nowt Bield, I think means nothing built, evoking a harsh and inhospitable character but place names can be fickle and subject to change. The Ordnance Survey name book of 1879 shows the burn was thought to be called the Burn of the Horned Bull but was crossed out and written as Burn of the Nowt Bield. Perhaps the cartographic slaying of a sacred bull?

There had been sightings of the sea eagle chick at this location. Now old enough to be left by its mother, I watched it hunt tentatively, more of a hop and glide, than a majestic soar. But this vulnerability was humbling to see, a more elemental being still learning the power of the air. It seemed appropriate it was this location, hovering between sacred bull and sleeping troll.

Perhaps five thousand years ago, people cut into a massive boulder slab, creating a short passage to a small chamber, off which are two smaller cells. The entrance had been blocked, and probably remained so for perhaps up to 4000 years, till about 1500 AD.

The Dwarfie Stane, as it is now called, may have been used for mortuary practices, with fragmented human remains being, probably temporarily, kept within. Elsewhere on Orkney, bird and animal remains have also been found in chambered cairns, perhaps showing that the rites were more complex than burial as we would understand. For example, at Ibister the remains of 14 sea eagles were also present among the bones of people.

Entering the Dwarfie Stane is a slightly claustrophobic experience but sealed in stone, the eyes and ears quickly attune to different spectrum. You can’t help but wonder who entered here and what activities took place. I lay down for a while, shrouded in stone, and let my imagination drift.

As I left I wondered what changes occur

when you emerge from a sandstone cocoon?

As well as cartographic concerns, the Dwarfie Stane was increasingly in the 19th century consciousness: referred to in Walter Scott’s 1822 The Pirate; with the Geologist Hugh Miller having carved his name in one of the cells in 1846; and on the outside carved in 1850, backwards in Latin, the name of Major W Mouncey, accompanied in Persian by ‘I have sat two nights and have learned patience’. Beneath these recent accretions of ‘men making marks’, there may be a Norse inspired Medieval folklore of Trolls. But there is a deeper horizon which can still be encountered here.

The Dwarfie Stane lies on a slope below a striking cliff line, now called the Dwarfie Hammars. The cliff line is pocked with regular indentations where the rock has split and tumbled down in blocks. Caves have also been discovered on the cliff face, in one of which a polished stone was found, suggested as perhaps akin to some prehistoric artefact.

The tradition of sky burial is known in many cultures, with bodies being exposed, to deflesh through elemental wind and rain and carrion beak. There are also many traditions of using such cliff faces, and caves or ledges, as the site for burials or ossuaries.

I now want you to imagine, people moving carefully but confidently (well used to collecting sea bird eggs) along the cliff face. There may have been cloth or hide banners hanging down or totems erected at points marking the entrance to particular caves. The cliff face may also have been covered with bags of bones and baskets of skulls, looking down at the Dwarfie Stane.

Now smell the smoke and distant sea spray.

Can you hear the songs and chants?

From up on the cliff, with the call of the Sea Eagle still higher, you would have views to the north and east to Mainland Orkney and to the west to the setting sun on the north side of Rackwick Bay.

And on days, when the banners flapped and bones rattled above with the fury of the elements, and you stood at the Dwarfie Stane you knew you were truly alive.

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Upon reflection I wonder why this matters, why these enchanted places are important in such troubled times. Perhaps it is they remind us of other times and ways and extend the possibilities of what we can work towards in the future? Our relationships to those who have gone before us, the terms we use (? ancestor, family, stranger, people) are powerful components (at least implicitly) of many contemporary debates about identity and politics. Our death cultures also matter: the way we treat our closest at times before, during and after death, how we celebrate and mourn are also fundamental aspect of cultural practices which over centuries became increasingly individualising and corporate. While there are all kinds of legal and ethical issues, at least knowing there were different mortuary and funerary practices, I hope cultivates awareness, sensitivity and respect for the variety of human and more-than-human life ways too.

For more Inspiring Island Explorations,

please have a look at some other HeritageLandscapeCreativity posts:

Imaginary Island of Ailsa Craig

Witches Whispers of St Kilda

Hoy has a remarkable series of stories of people and its landscape. Thanks to Antonia Thomas and Dan Lee for some great advice and information before my journey to Hoy. I greatly appreciated the kindness of Jimmy and Diesel and the stories shared of the Dark Enchanted Island.

The title of this post refers to the book Hoy, the Dark Enchanted Island by John Bremner – which alas I was unable to get a copy.

If you are lucky enough to be able to visit Orkney, rather than dash from monument to monument in peak season across the World Heritage Site, visit other Islands rather than just Mainland Orkney and if you can, please go out of peak season when the weather is wilder.

#SlowArchaeology #WildPrehistory

Thracian Dreamings

Months later I still daydream in Thracian,

Albeit, fragmented glimpses, a light,

Almost imperceptible, awareness.

But I still find myself wondering,

About sky temples and sanctuaries,

Among juniper scented mountains.

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I started Dreaming in Thracian due to an Erasmus+ study trip to Bulgaria. A short report on the study trip can be found here: Glimpses Of Thracian Landscapes

Many thanks to Archnetwork for organising the Bulgarian trip and to our hosts at the Devetaki Plateau Association for such an insightful experience.

On both a professional and personal level the opportunity to take time out and learn was immensely valuable. There will be further exchanges in 2020 by Archnetwork about which more details can be found here: 2020 Archnetwork Destinations

In 2020 cultural exchange and shared learning may be more important than ever to help respond and adapt to some of the great challenges we currently face. If you work in the Natural or Cultural Heritage sector in Scotland I would highly recommend undertaking an Archnetwork study trip: you may start dreaming differently after.