Patarei – darkness and light

Patarei  1

From outside,

summer sun graffiti regeneration,

walls white washed realities,

gives sense of warmth and light.

Brief sun glimpses,

trapped in small world exercise yards,

never escape glare of guards.

So try hiding in the warren of corridors

and mouldering rooms.

So try finding the darkness pierced by light.

Patarei Window Light

Fallen signs of medication and disease.

Treatment of deteriorating conditions.

Patarei ward

Traces of nameless and named remained.



tidied and arranged

Rooms rummaged,

staged and reworked,

towards artful forgetting

of impositions from above.

Were their ever moments of humour and love?

We linger on,

traces of presences.

Patarei Sight and Sound

We shudder at,

spaces of absence.

Patarei Shadow and Light

We are poised,


Patarei darkness

threatened by the realities of





Patarei was one of the most disorienting and disturbing heritage sites I had visited.  Patarei operated as a prison till 2002 and is described ‘as the most notorious prison in Estonia.’  It was recently shortlist nominated as one of the most threatened heritage sites in Europe and as such I thought this post may be of interest in the context of the Europa Nostra nomination by The Estonian Heritage Society.  The images were taken in August 2011, and I am not sure what state it is currently in, but yet to this day, when I think of the visit to Patarei, it still makes me shudder.  It was not always clear what had been left by prisoners, and to what extent it represented their experiences, or where later interventions of art or looting had modified the rooms and corridors.

I remember being struck by learning that Patarei (in 2011) catered for stag and hen parties (providing drink, food and drink) : with the unwitting bride or groom having to spend some time in a cell during the evening.  A form of entertainment which I was uncomfortable with : yet it was an attempt to ‘generate revenue’, to find a reuse for a heritage site.  Like many heritage sites it faces the challenges of finding new uses but in the current economic climate probably will not find sufficient core funding to keep running without some other revenues.  Finding reuse is perhaps even more challenging with a site which could be described as relating to ‘dark-heritage’.  Difficult and painful places, which we must remember, and through which have to reconcile tensions from the past.

There is a deeper story to Patarei, having been built as a military fortress at the instruction of Russian Czar Nicholas I from 1829 to 1840.  The fortress was then converted into a prison, between 1920 and 2005, and became a powerful symbol of national resistance in Estonia to both the communist and Nazi regimes.

Information on Patarei which strikingly sums up the aspirations for historical transformation and regeneration as:

‘This unique example of finest military engineering and architecture of early 19th century has finally, in the 21st century, changed from a longtime symbol of repressions and evil to a favourite hangout for the residents of the nation’s capital and visitors alike, a multifunctional place to spend one’s leisure time and have fun.’

A real challenge in these times perhaps, but I hope the site is not lost through further decay and neglect. Patarei is a remarkable part of the heritage of Estonia, and importantly it contributes to, and resonates in many ways with, the broader history of Europe which we all share.

More about the Patarei Sea Fortress Europa Nostra shortlisting


Iron Age Twilights

HomesteadThe prehistoric site at Barr A’ Chaistealain has been described as a dun.

LayersAround which the remains of a Medieval or Later Rural Settlement can be found.  The settlement is associated with the Clan McNab.  It is said to have been occupied by the McNabs in the mid fifteenth century AD and that they were armourers and blacksmiths to the Lairds of Glenorchy.

AbandonedApparently one building was still occupied in the 1950’s,

perhaps the bedstead relates to this last dwelling.

SleepingTwighlightIronic perhaps, in the twilight of a settlement associated with metalworking,

Bucket that such abandoned artefacts slowly corrode.


Barr A’ Chaistealain was clearly occupied, at least intermittently, for over a thousand years and had a strong association with iron working.  It could be described as an example of  ‘the long iron age’.

The site of Barr A’ Chaistealain was surveyed in 1992 by ACFA 

Further information about Barr A’ Chaistealain can be found via RCAHMS

The End of Prehistory

Three times I have been to this place, I should have been more…

The first time was in 1994 to take part in excavations on the site before the Archaeolink Prehistory Park was built.  The second time, a few years later, was during a research visit to study the recumbent stone circles of Aberdeenshire.

Stone Circle

I could barely walk and had to go to casualty in Insch to get my leg seen to: a trapped nerve from sleeping on the hard ground without a camping mat….!  So I hobbled amongst the structures…strong pain killers and looking at too many stone circles leave my memories hazy…but it was clearly a vibrant place, where reconstructions of prehistoric structures were used to bring pasts alive.

The third time I visited was a few weeks ago.  I had heard that the centre had closed over a year ago but was surprised by what I encountered.

Archaeo-landAt the heart of the Archaeolink Prehistory Park was the award winning visitors centre by Edward Cullinan Architects.  The clean lines of the green mound evoked prehistoric mounds and barrows (but has a subsequent Teletubbi-esque cultural reference):  now a thatch of gorse, elder and willow, begins to reclaim it for the woods.

Claimed by the WoodsTime CapsuleLike many heritage centers, it had been designed to take you on a journey through space and time !  From the reconstructions of structures which may have been occupied by the earliest settlers in Aberdeenshire.

Early SettlementThrough examples of Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial structures which are found across the north east of Scotland.

Ceremonial LandscapeThrough an Iron Age shrine and settlement.

Watcher The empty eyes of a wooden Ballachulish style figurine, adjacent to a clootie well.

Clootie ShrineWho still stands sentinel over the abandoned round house.

Watching Figure

Helpless, the house now slowly decays, doors open to the elements.

Open DoorUntil recently, this reconstruction of an Iron Age round house, was a place for people to learn, and celebrate the rich heritage of north east Scotland.  The ash of the last fire, the faint echo of voices, is slowly disappearing.

Smoke and EchoesFragments of material culture, broken reconstructions of pots, clay loom weights, wooden artefacts, are slowly becoming archaeology within the interior: this time we can witness the end of a prehistory.

Hole in my...I encountered the slightly surreal patchwork of abandonment fragments of a recreated past.  Tinged with a melancholy for the end of the hopes of a future to be informed and sustained through reference to fundamentally important elements of the archaeology, history and heritage of north east Scotland.  I hope this is not The End of Prehistory.

The End of Prehistory

It is clear that the site has a latent energy and verdant potency from established woodlands, matured landscaping, and the invasive weeds following (temporary ?) abandonment.

No Trees SurvivedPerhaps, we will be left with a modern ruin, to add to a contemporary archaeology of heritage centers and museums.  Or perhaps there is an opportunity, to learn from the recent past, and to reinvent and revitalise.

Resuscitating Pict

Perhaps, there has never been The End of Prehistory.

Imaginary Island – journey through the south west

Ailsa CraigThe final part of my journey through the art, heritage and landscapes of south west Scotland took me to a place which I had yearned to go for half a lifetime.  I have gazed countless times on the striking form of this rock, from the Ayrshire coast, from the Rhins of Galloway, from the Isle of Arran, from Kintyre…

Twilight Island…and still it captures my imagination.  From certain angles, in certain light conditions, I swear I have seen the top of a vast head, with distinct brow ridges revealed, breaking through the water, some giant figure striding across the ocean floor.  At other times, standing on the shore, cloud and mist prevents you seeing the island.   Wondering (a rock so seemingly vast, making it difficult to comprehend how it can disappear completely) : perhaps it slips beneath the sea !

Sinking BeneathWhen I could not see it, I would often find myself lost in reverie (perhaps in an unproductive meeting !), wondering what people in the ancient past had thought about this place.  Was it taboo for them to land on what may have been considered a sacred peak ?  Or did they travel across the waters once a year to light a huge beacon on the top ?  Did they cross seasonally, when time and tide allowed, to gather birds and eggs ?

Distant IslandYears ago, my imagination fired, I began to investigate the possibility of excavating on the island: what secrets would surely be revealed !  I read fascinated about the recovery of burials from Macanall’s cave (when being cleared of guano in the 19th century), the presence of a mysterious keep on the hillside, and the disturbance of an earlier ecclesiastical site during the building of the lighthouse and associated foghorns.

And then of course there are the stones from here which are much coveted across parts of the world (from the 19th century the vast majority of the worlds curling stones were made from rock quarried on the island and still made by Kays of Scotland).  As these stones traveled, so did people in the 19th and 20th centuries, a diaspora some of whom would have traveled from Scottish ports and left with this milestone growing smaller in the distance…

Sea Crossing

So finally I left my imagination on the shore, sailed the twelve kilometers across the sea, climbed the 338 m to the top, and gained a completely different perspective of Ailsa Craig.

Different PerspectiveThe reality of the island, a bizarre blend of cultural dereliction and the teaming joyous energy of the birds, but always the deep pulse of the sea.

Bones and BagsThe top was burrowed and nested, a cycle of life and death, the thin soil mixed with large quantities of feather, bone (fish and bird) and plastics…!

Curling Stone and Seals

Towards the waters edge, on one side is the pile of rock for making curling stones, on the other seals lounge on the gravel spit.

Keep Sailing

The keep has clung perilously, for four hundred years, close to the cliffside…

Keep InsideThe stairs have partially collapsed, but careful navigation, reveals a ruinous upper floor…

Abandoned Belows

At the shore side, in the shattered remains of workshops, abandoned bellows…

Island Pathway

The carefully edged path, runs past the quarries, and leads to one of the foghorns…

FoghornIts door smashed and broken, paint faded, peeling…

DoorlessCloser to the lighthouse is the abandoned gasworks which powered the foghorns.

Abandoned Gasworks

The clean lines and white facade of the lighthouse, automated and unoccupied, however hides a deeper decay…

FacadeLines run through a ruinscape…

Lines in the RuinscapeBeyondOpen doors and smashed windows, collapsed plaster, abandoned rooms…

RevealedIn amongst the gloom, spears of light reveal glimpses of abandoned lives.

American RevolutionVoices of the past now drowned by the clamor of gulls…

Sea CliffsAnd so we depart, past the huge sea cliff, the noisy chat of gannets and guillemots, still resonating in my ears…

Receeding into the imagination

…I stare back,

imagination and reality now entangled…

…reverie will return me to here…


There is so much more which I saw on the short time I spent on Ailsa Craig: I wish I could take you all there and show you. 
The journey to Ailsa Craig was on the wonderful M.F.V. Glorious which sails from Girvan harbour.  I cant recommend enough the adventure of visiting Ailsa Craig and crossing (if the weather is kind) on M.F.V. Glorious, it is a great experience.  Ailsa Craig is also a sensitive location (Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protection Area) for breeding seabirds (36,000 breeding pairs of gannets, remarkable to watch), so please follow any guidance.   Depending on which way the wind blows it is not always possible to land…but the journey and views of the sea cliff and birds are still amazing.