There Is An Equilibrium Here… ?

Five days and fifty miles I traveled by foot.

Narrating the journey, as a linear movement would be possible, but my experiences were more complex, more entangled, with a range of eruptions and encounters in the changing landscapes which continue to resonate.

Some sense of the journey may be gained, however, through the images below, some of which were incorporated in a joint exhibition held in Caithness, Scotland, in 2016.  Each image, a compound of particular serendipitous conditions, mediated by subsequent selective sensibilities, represents moments of revelation.  Brief entanglements, enchanted, with the rich flows of time and the dynamic inter-relationships between people, other species and landscapes.

The Flow Country, a patch work of Lochs and Lochans, stitched by burns and rivers, often offered views to the distinctive peaks to the south of Morvern, Maidens Pap and Smean.  These peaks guided my journey, topographic beacons, which drew me onward and inwards.

birdland

Bird-land encounters were prevalent, when I couldn’t see birds their song was ever present, even at night my sleep was disturbed by their ghostly clicks and calls.  Only once did bird-land go silent, during my last morning heavy rain confined me to the tent, but it was the energetic call of song birds which told me it was time to depart.

Before my journey commenced, I encountered the realities of the avian beach, where angels wings littered the foreshore : stripped of flesh, divorced pairs of wings, perhaps the work of skuas.  Five peewits mobbed a buzzard ; a heron leaving the Strath, frantically avoids being pulled down by gulls, its elongated body bending unnaturally in utter terror desperately dodging the beaks of kindred.

beach-dream

Stooping for water at Allt nam Beist (Burn of the Beast) there is a huge splash nearby.  I quickly turn to see an Osprey breaking from the water, a fish hanging from its feet, it ascends and turns to the south : I did not exist.

The loch is fringed with deposits of sand, beneath which is sealed peat, erosion reveals the stumps of ancient trees.  No arboreal fantasy but revelations of possibilities.  Moments later, fragments of flint, reveal themselves from where these deposits are being gradually worn by the gently lapping waters.  The forms of the worked flints suggest they were left by hunter-gatherers who also rested at this location, perhaps 7000 years ago.  We probably drank from the same burn, in which small fishes still leap to catch flies, and rested at the shores of the same loch : I almost heard the whisper of their voices.

Abandoned farmsteads in the uplands were prevalent, part of a  widely known story of the depopulation (the deliberate removal of people and change of landscapes) of Caithness and Sutherland, and much of Scotland.  Sheep played their unwitting role in this story, introduced by landowners, with landscapes and communities being re-organised in part to accommodate them on the land in the 19th century.  It seemed appropriate to sleep where the sheep had been penned, so for one night my tent nestled within a small sheep fold.

cotton-grass

The low red sandstone walls gave some shelter to the wind which whipped along the Lochside.  Then I wondered, it was a very small pen, perhaps too small for sheep.  Earlier inhabitations are also found in the uplands, hut circles perhaps four thousand years old, within which I think I slept.   I wanted to mark my brief dwelling at this spot, cotton grass, evocative of fleece, nestled in the cracks of the walls.

aumbry

Many of the longhouses (and shielings) have stone boxes built into the walls.  Aumbries perhaps for cool storage of foodstuffs, or safe display of treasured items.  Years later the soil reveals, the signs of former fertility, a flush of nitrogen, often ring such settlements, a sharp reminder of our loss : stinging nettles (Urtica dioica).

Those rich deposits can also be found in buildings which have been abandoned as sheep shelters – hard won ground, hard won places, lives and loves no more… !

hearth

Deer-land, dear-land, our-land.  For much of my journey I traveled through deer-land.  At first it was their multiple footprints, along shared tracks, least resistance across ground that you would sink deep in peat and water, still used by estates.  Then I encountered the herd, aggregations of stags and larger groups of does.  They watched, with flick of ear and rise of nose, my every move.  Brief silhouette on skyline, flash of white tail, gone.  A few watched longer, the last small groups of does and hinds, tenderness grazed patiently if I kept a respectful distance.  I continued to follow the deer paths, a different form of route along edge of river and burn, their path cutting more directly across loop and meander, a quicker more confident travel which I learned to trust.   One night I was woken by the grumph and roar of stags, so close it seemed they were next to the tent.

iron

Shelter can be found in these lands, a range of corrugated iron bothies, huts and boat houses.  Often a focus for hunting or fishing they are open to all who respects the spaces provided.  In some cases, a chronology of rubbish suggests it has been 20 years since properly used.  Brown rusted skeletal beds, and broken seats greened with age, a reminder of comfort and company long afforded by such places to those who make the journey.

bothy

A tradition of visitation was marked upon the wall of the few I visited, written in pencil, etched in pen and scratched with pen knives, a stratigraphy of dates and names going back to at least the 1930’s.

marks

R Hendry 11th May 1931 Killed Fox Last Night – there is a reality to this landscape, foraged, browsed, managed and changed with time.

My preconceptions of the Flow Country as empty lands was being challenged by the encounters, with the liquid landscape, I could only readily traverse where others had created track and bridge.  Many of the burns were wide and deep enough that a bridge was needed to cross, and if not maintained routes will shut and landscapes become less accessible.  In one case, I balanced precariously, with a full pack, on old railway sleepers which were the only remains of the long gone timber bridge.  Upon which I couldn’t turn back and if I continued was likely to take an early bath.  They bounced and swayed as I slowly edged over, not believing I actually made it to the other side.

bridge

Lichen colonises wood-land above peat quenched waters. They lead us to places of contemplation.  The aggregation of the fishers bothy, the curation and discard of meaningful journeys.

assemblages

Around the huts, slowly sinking into the peat, clinker hulks rotting on the shores of distant lochs.  Small rowing boats, in the main, but evocative of the sea and a wider tradition of boat building.  Rose headed copper rivets, copper nails, plank and cauking, paddles and playful catch.

clinker

For a moment, upland water, settles on the hull of the boat.  I drift, carried on the thermals, dip and rise like the cycle of the swifts, and soar in the gyre.

copper-nails

Woodland disappears beneath peat and the hooves of herbivores. I flow, return to the source.

clinker-beach

We are riveted to the changes of the foreshore, inescapably we are bound to the cycle.

sand

Imagine if we should be able to see worlds in grains of sand…

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In July 2016 I walked solo from Thurso on the north coast of Caitness south, through farmlands and into the watery interior of the Flow Country. Camping for four nights I arrived five days later in Dunbeath. The walk was my approach to developing content for a joint exhibition, with Ian Giles and Andy Heald, at North Lands.  It resulted in a series of photographic prints, texts and sculptures by me which responded to the encounters.

installations

Thanks to Dunbeath Preservation Trust for kindly providing accommodation at the Old School House in the days before and after the journey.  Many thanks to North Lands for their support and to Andy and Ian for the collaboration and companionship to produce the exhibition There Is An Equilibrium Here…

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Fire and Moon

BuildNBurn 13

Fire and Moon are a powerful combination.  There is no doubting the importance both had in the past, both moon and fire were clearly incorporated into rituals and ceremonies for thousands of years.  What may be less apparent is the power of groups of people building together, a communal effort to create not only structures but more importantly lasting memories of striking events.

BuildNBurn1A week of preparations, involved felling trees, and hand breaking trenches through bedrock to hold the timbers.

BuildNBurn 2Posts were decorated using pigments found from local sources.

BuildNBurn 4Special objects were made in preparation of the events which were to follow.

BuildNBurn 3Everything was set for the arrival of extraordinary figures.

BuildNBurn 5Preparations completed, we were ready…

BuildNBurn 6for transformations through fire…

BuildNBurn 8for remembering ancient stories of the landscape beyond…

BuildNBurn 7for remembering the people who had explored before us…

BuildNBurn 10for measuring things in a new light…

BuildNBurn 9 for transformation, to find a different beauty in wood.

BuildNBurn 11An illumination cloaked in possible pasts.

BuildNBurn 12An intensity of insight, focused at night.

BuildNBurn 14Fire beckoned darkness and called another light.

BuildNBurn 15A monument captured a lunar moment…

BuildNBurn 16 … of rhythms hunted through the ages.

BuildNBurn 17  Memories,

of figures and festivities, fire and moon blended,

blazes.

BuildNBurn 19Could never be revealed in mornings traces ?

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The BuildNBurn approach has been developed with Kenny Brophy and Corinna Goeckeritz.  For some partial insights into other BuildNBurn events, please look at:

Burning the Circle 2013

and

Burning the Circle 2014

Please contact me, if you have any ideas for other BuildNBurn events, we are happy to collaborate.

The BuildNBurn presented above was produced as part of the Joseph Anderson 150 Festival organised in collaboration by the University of Glasgow, Cardiff University, Northlight Heritage, the Yarrows Heritage Trust, Venture North and Northshore Pottery. The Joseph Anderson 150 Festival was supported with funding from the E.ON Camster Community Fund, supported by Foundation Scotland and by Eneco and Venture North. 

The BuildNBurn performance ‘Joseph Anderson Presents The Mysteries of Prehistories’ could not have happened without the support, hardwork and creative efforts of: Tom (Performance and Build); Andrew Baines (Performance); Cara Berger (Technical Advice); Nan Bethune (Storytelling); Alex Carnes (Performance and Build); James Dilley (Performance); Helen Green (Performance and Build); Steve (the sound man) Mills (Audio);  and Brianna Robertson (Song and Technical Advice).  Thanks also to Ian Giles for providing two carved oak plaques for carbonisation.  Many thanks to Islay MacLeod and Catherine MacLeod for providing copious quantities of wood and putting their faith in the BuildNBurn team.  A special thanks to Amelia Pannett who made Joseph Anderson 150 Festival happen and dealt with too many challenges during the week : but we got there in the end !

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.