Royal Scottish Academy, Residencies for Scotland – Isla MacLeod
Since its inception in 2009, RSA Residencies for Scotland has supported a wide range of artists at 26 venues across Scotland. The Royal Scottish Academy has a proud tradition of promoting excellence in contemporary art in Scotland. Led by eminent artists and architects the RSA support the creation, understanding and enjoyment of the visual arts through exhibitions, artist opportunities and related educational talks and events. Re-establishing themselves as a leading organisation for the visual arts in Scotland, the RSA have successfully garnered a reputation for the strength of their engaging and diverse exhibitions and the fantastic opportunities they offer both established and emerging artists.
“I stayed at the Inshriach Bothy for 2 weeks as part of the RSA Residencies for Scotland scheme. I wanted to use my time there to generate ideas for the second part of my residency at The Highland Print Studio in Inverness. It’s good to go back to basics and it definitely gives you a different perspective on what’s important in life. Collecting water, chopping wood and keeping the fire going where the most essential daily tasks. Boiling the kettle felt like a big achievement!”
“While I was there I did a lot of reading, sketching, thinking and walking. I was also experimenting with what I could use to make my own pigments, My time in Florence last year as part of the RSA John Kinross scholarship primarily influenced my work through the simple earthy colours and terracotta all around. The bothy and surrounding woodland area were covered in autumn leaves when I arrived and had a similar tone to the colours in Italy. I was keen to incorporate the autumn colours into my own work. I collected, pressed and dried leaves with the hope of grinding them down to use as pigment at the print studio.”
I stayed at the Inshriach Bothy for 2 weeks as part of the RSA Residencies for Scotland scheme. I wanted to use my time there to generate ideas for the second part of my residency at The Highland Print Studio in Inverness. I wasn’t sure what to expect from my bothy experience, and I definitely found parts of it more challenging than I’d expected. But overall it was a great experience. It’s good to go back to basics and it definitely gives you a different perspective on what’s important in life. Collecting water, chopping wood and keeping the fire going where the most essential daily tasks. Boiling the kettle felt like a big achievement!
While I was there I did a lot of reading, sketching, thinking and walking. I was also experimenting with what I could use to make my own pigments, My time in Florence last year as part of the RSA John Kinross scholarship primarily influenced my work through the simple earthy colours and terracotta all around. The bothy and surrounding woodland area were covered in autumn leaves when I arrived and had a similar tone to the colours in Italy. I was keen to incorporate the autumn colours into my own work. I collected, pressed and dried leaves with the hope of grinding them down to use as pigment at the print studio.
I was also experimenting with cyanotype prints (blue prints exposed by sunlight) as a way to potentially incorporate the leaf shapes into my prints.
The simple things in life definitely become more interesting when you don’t have technology as a distraction, and I found I really enjoyed just watching the birds while I had my morning coffee. I also decided to log my days in knitting, changing colour everyday so I could count back and see how many days I had been there.
I don’t normally work in sketchbooks, instead I tend to compile loose sheets into books afterwards. However for my 2 week bothy stay I decided to use a sketchbook and log ideas, sketches and diary entries all in one book (and not rip out pages if I did a sketch I didn’t like). It helped to see clearly how my ideas changed and developed over the two weeks.
By week two the weather changed dramatically and went from autumn to winter overnight…luckily I had collected a lot of leaves in the first week as they soon disappeared under layers of snow!
With no leaves left on the trees the branches begin to reflect the shapes of veins running through the body. The links between humans and nature is something I’m interested in exploring in my work, and the way in which nature reflects elements of our lives.
“Learn how to die, and you learn how to live.”
This is the core idea to my research as an artist. My current practice explores the idea that by looking at death, and coming to terms with our own mortality, we are forced to really appreciate life and live it now. Through linking death, and the rituals connected to our death, with nature and an organic process, using materials such as wood and earth pigments, I aim to take it away from its stereotypical view of something scary or depressing.
“Science – scientific reasoning – seems to me an instrument that will lag far, far behind. For look here, the earth has been thought to be flat… Which however does not prevent science from proving that the earth is principally round. Which no one contradicts nowadays.
But notwithstanding this, they persist nowadays in believing that life is flat and runs from birth to death. However, life too is probably round, and very superior in expanse and capacity to the hemisphere we know at present.”
Vincent van Gogh, June 1888
Another inspiration from my time in Italy was the Etruscan tombs I visited in Populonia and the various Etruscan urns I saw in museums. Unlike the somber, eerie wall cemeteries, the Etruscan tombs were very organic in shape and colour. They had a womb like atmosphere, which helps to have a more natural acceptance of death. I started to look at creating structures or vessels with twigs which link wombs and nest shapes with the urn shapes from Italy.
Another element of nature, which reflects life and death is the sea and I find it very interesting to try and draw the movement of water.
“The older I get I identify with the land which is being eroded…The sea is like time – you can do nothing about it. Death will come, the sea will come. It’s a metaphor for life.”
Since leaving art college I haven’t been very good at sketching regularly. However at the bothy I decided to set myself the task of doing a quick self-portrait every evening. In even a relatively short space of time I felt there was a noticeable change in my observational drawing, which made me keen to maintain my drawing skills. Like anything practice is always the best way to improve, I just need to be more focused and find a way to build it into my everyday routine now that I’m not at college anymore.
When I returned home I managed to grind the leaves down, and although it’s not a fine powder, I hope I will be able to incorporate it into a printing ink to use when I go to the print studio.
Overall I felt I had a productive 2 weeks. At times I found the darkness of winter and lack of much light in the evenings difficult. But through challenging myself in an unfamiliar environment, and limiting myself from the distractions of tv and internet, I found it much easier to think and develop ideas, which I hope to progress and turn into a body of work at The Highland Print Studio in January.
Royal Scottish Academy, Residencies for Scotland – 2022
We are delighted to be a taking part in the 2022 RSA Residencies for Scotland programme. It is an artist-led scheme which provides valuable research and residency opportunities for artists. It forges important networks with centres of artistic excellence across Scotland, ranging from traditional residency venues to specialised production facilities.
Open to visual artists at all stages of their careers, the emphasis is on enabling a period of research, development and production, as well as on the acquisition and exchange of new skills and experiences. Artists can apply for funds of up to £5,000.
Previous recipients who have worked with Bothy Project are: Becky Šik(2019); Bruce Shaw (2019); Hannah Imlach (2015); Uist Corrigan (2015); Sylvia Law (2014);Kari Stewart (2013) and Isla MacLeod (2013). And of course in 2011 Bobby Niven and Iain MacLeod successfully applied for an award with Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, and built Inshriach Bothy!
Aims of the residency programme:
To enable artists a period of research, development and production
To reinforce links with centres of excellence across Scotland
To provide access to technical expertise and assistance to learn new skills and techniques.
Image: Becky Šik, still from Mercury, 2021, HD video Commissioned by: Collective. Funded by: Creative Scotland, Edinburgh City Council, Baillie Gifford. Supported by: RSA, Bothy Project
JAMES CRAWFORD: Research Residency, 2017
In March 2017, author James Crawford spent two nights in Sweeney’s Bothy as part of his research for the new book ‘Who Built Scotland: 25 Journeys in Search of a Nation’. James, along with four other contributors (the novelists Alexander McCall Smith and James Robertson, the poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie, and the historian Alistair Moffat) picked five buildings each from throughout Scotland’s history, using them to explore wider themes about art, politics, society and culture. Sweeney’s Bothy was the final building of the 25. In the spirit of Bothy Project’s aim to offer spaces for exploring artistic craft, James’s intention was to write as much as he could of this final chapter during the course of his stay. The text below, taken as an extract from Who Built Scotland, was written during his time in Sweeney’s.
A View with a Room Sweeney’s Bothy, Eigg
I left Edinburgh at 5.30am. It was very cold, my car cocooned in a fine dry frost that scraped off the windscreen like icing sugar. The birds were already singing in the darkness. I was heading north-west, away from the sunrise. Every so often, I caught the distracting glimpse of a pinkish glow in my rearview mirror. Ahead, the Ochil Hills and the mountains beyond were a bright white, almost glowing. I passed Stirling Castle, turned off the motorway, and by the time I reached Lochearnhead the frost on the ground had turned to snow. The road wound upwards and then straightened out to cross the plateau at Glencoe. My car was the only thing moving. Either side the orange-white mountains were reflected in lochans still as glass. It felt as if I was driving along the hinge of a pocket mirror. When I emerged out of the other side of the pass the sun was up, the snow had gone and the sky was a near cloudless blue. I passed quickly through Fort William then joined the wide empty road to Mallaig.
I parked overlooking the sea, grabbed my bags, and within five minutes was sitting on the ferry. There were only a handful of other passengers, two families and a young couple, all speaking German. We stood on the open front deck, gazing out past the Saltire hanging limp from the prow and enjoying the surprising warmth of the March sunshine. The wind was so light that the boat barely seemed to rock at all on the crossing. Instead the islands came closer as if delivered by conveyor belt. The first, nearer island was long, blocky and flat-topped; although punctuated at its far end by a great, tower-like rise. The second was the antithesis of the first – all peaks and edges, nothing flat, just a series of looming, snow-capped serrations, like a row of saurian teeth. Eigg and Rum.
The ferry pulled into the bay at Eigg, swivelled round, and lowered its ramp onto the pier’s stone run-off. A jeep, a truck loaded with timber, a van and a quad bike drove out from the car deck. The rest of us followed on foot. A small crowd had gathered. I was supposed to find a man called Eddie, driving a green Land Rover. He found me first. He directed me to another man, Charlie, who would take me to the far side of the island. As we drove I remarked to Charlie about the calmness of the conditions. He laughed and told me about once being on a CalMac Ferry that was listing so severely that the wall-mounted television in the cafeteria flew off and exploded on the floor. And that was nothing, he continued, compared to his time serving in the Falklands, when a journey to Ascension Island saw his boat riding waves as tall as … he paused for a comparison and then pointed to the hundred-metre-high cliffs that surround Eigg’s high plateau. As tall as those. I considered myself fortunate.
The drive along the island’s single main road took just a few minutes. I was dropped outside a house where my host (and Eddie’s partner) Lucy greeted me and we walked with her excitable dog Fiji up a steep path, passing over a couple of makeshift wooden bridges. My home for the next few days emerged over the rise, surrounded by an orange and red mass of desiccated bracken laced with thorn bushes. Its entire front wall was a window – catching the reflection of the blue sky and the darkness of the Rum Cuillins behind me. It had a sloping, corrugated metal roof, with a gleaming cylindrical steel chimney poking out at one side. In front of the window was a small wooden decking with a neat little rectangular bench. And behind was the escarpment of massive cliffs – the great half moon of rock wall that cradles the land on this side of the island. It had been just over six hours since I’d hauled myself out of bed, but now I was here, at Sweeney’s Bothy.
I met Bobby Niven on a chill but bright morning in a timber-framed, corrugated polycarbonate structure called the Pig Rock Bothy, set in the grounds of Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art. We sat down at a simple wooden table and talked. Bobby wore a heavy black overcoat, a purple woollen beanie and gloves. There was an oil-burning radiator under the table to fend off the cold, but we both stayed wrapped up throughout.
Bobby, in collaboration with the architect Iain MacLeod, had designed and built the space we were sitting in. It is the third structure to emerge out of ‘The Bothy Project’, their plan to establish, across Scotland and beyond, a network of modern, hand-crafted, small-scale, off-grid dwellings: bothies (from the Gaelic bothan, meaning ‘shelter’) designed specifically for use by artists. Bobby is an artist himself – a sculptor, photographer and filmmaker, and a former student of the Glasgow School of Art and the Master of Arts programme at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. When I asked him where the project came from he struggled to pinpoint any one moment.
‘Sometimes it’s hard to know whether you’re going towards something or away from something’, he said. ‘I was always travelling up the west coast at weekends while I was at Glasgow. The art scene could be a bit of a boiler-house. It was nice to get out, switch off, just go for a walk or get some hill time.’
He would often stay in mountain bothies, taking his sketchbook along with him, drawing ideas for new sculptures, walking in the landscape, enjoying the fresh air, picking up bits and pieces as he went. ‘I guess it was a kind of recreation in a way, creative recreation or something like that.’ He enjoyed how, consciously or unconsciously, place and location could act as a source of inspiration. It was also, he said, about friendship.
‘You’d use jumping on the train and getting away for the weekend for talking, for getting to know each other and disengaging from other things that had been happening during the week. Or sometimes you’re hungover and you just get in the car and make it up as you go along’.
The one downside he found with the bothies was the same thing that was central to their appeal – their remoteness and lack of facilities meant any stay had to be brief. ‘Sometimes it’s a really intense experience, you get a lot from a short period of time, because it’s really visceral with extremes of temperature and weather. But you’ve got to really pack up all the gear, carry in all your fuel, get your food. You can only carry enough for a night or two.’
In 2009, Bobby and Iain were talking about bothies in a pub with a friend, the environmental artist Will Foster. They thought about how they are now almost entirely the preserve of hill-walkers and mountaineers, used as shelters and staging posts for venturing out into the more inaccessible corners of Scotland. But before that bothies were used for work: by people who were building, making and maintaining things. What, they wondered, about returning to that original idea? ‘Artists could go there for a longer period to undertake something, undertake practice, creative work rather than just recreation’, explained Bobby. ‘That’s a nice shift. Maybe that’s pioneering.’
They decided to turn their discussion into an open door event at Glasgow School of Art, ‘We filled a room with loads of books on architecture and travelling, and all sorts of things about Scotland. People came and did drawings on tables and drawings on the walls, showing the kind of structures they’d like to stay in. We had a map out and people were putting pins in the map to mark their ideal locations.’ They took the results from the event and put them up on a blog. Not long after, they received an email from the Royal Scottish Academy asking if they wanted to be a part of their ‘Residencies for Scotland’ scheme. The Academy had misunderstood the material on the blog. They thought that the fantasy bothies already existed, and that funded artists could stay in them. Bobby and Iain’s response was wonderful. ‘We don’t actually have a venue yet’, they said. ‘But could we apply to build a residency on a residency?’ The Academy said yes. In the summer of 2011, with a grant of £5,000, they found themselves installed in the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, designing and building their very first artists’ bothy.
They began by mocking up a scale model – a little wooden frame with corrugated cardboard for walls. The form was simple, vernacular. To a large extent the structural design was informed by practicalities and logistics. The idea was to build the bothy on-site at the workshop, then dismantle it and reassemble it once they had found an appropriate home somewhere out in the Scottish landscape. So it had to be a panelised structure, it had to fit on the back of a lorry, and its individual sections had to be light enough to be moved and carried by a small number of people. The bothy started to take shape in the car park space outside the sculpture workshop – a timber frame with plywood walling, sitting on rubber tyres to raise it up off the ground. At the same time, work was ongoing to find an appropriate host. A friend put Bobby and Iain in touch with Walter Micklethwait, the manager and family-owner of the 200-acre Inshriach Estate in the Cairngorms National Park. Micklethwait has form as a patron of quirky and innovative ideas – the estate already offered bespoke accommodation in a converted 1956 Commer Q4 fire truck, and had turned an old horsebox into an outdoor hot-tub – and he needed little convincing. ‘It is not every day’, he said, ‘that someone offers you a bothy, prefab, insulated, small enough to be a temporary structure, large enough to stay in.’
In the middle of August, just a couple of weeks after meeting Micklethwait, the bothy was reduced to its component parts and loaded onto a truck heading north up the A9 towards Aviemore. Using an old tractor, Bobby and Iain transported the large panel sections to a secluded spot among traditional woodland near the banks of the River Spey. A footprint for the building was roped out among the heather and juniper, and then they began digging the holes for the six concrete pillar foundations. Much of the structural work was achieved in the first two weeks. But the fine detail took a lot longer.
‘There were about fifteen people involved in the build’, Bobby explained. ‘All volunteers – a mixture of arts friends from Glasgow and people connected to the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop.’ They followed the same routine over some ten weekends between August and the following March. ‘We’d pack the car – an old Volvo 240 Estate – loading the roof rack with materials and trying to cram five folk in as well. We’d leave on a Friday night, drive up in the dark and all stay in the bothy.’ For much of this process it was half built with no windows – sometimes snow would be drifting in on top of them. ‘We had a beer keg stove that this pyromaniac American guy from the Glasgow Sculpture Studios had made. We’d sit around that and try to keep warm.’ Other times the weather was kinder. ‘If you get a high pressure sunny day and you’re building outside you’d get a really magical feeling. It’s a lot different to being in a carpentry workshop with the sound of nail guns and tunes pumping away. The woodland smells are amazing, the fire’s going, somebody’s taking care of the tea and the toast, some of you are having chat, some of you are just working alone. And enjoying that, being out in nature.’ Then, come sunset on the Sunday, they’d pack up their things and drive back home again in the dark.
They were operating on a shoestring budget, so they worked the building out as they went along. Much of the aesthetic of the bothy was the result a scramble to get material donated. They wrote a lot of letters to suppliers explaining the project and asking for discounts or freebies. The structure’s standout feature – its corrugated, galvanised-steel cladding, ‘the spaceship look’ as Bobby puts it – was gifted to them by a company called Cladco after a mis-order had left a pile of it lying unused in their yard. The narrow, floor-to-eave sash and case windows came from Bobby’s own Glasgow flat – two were fitted on either side of the building, with one on the gable end. Iain custom-designed and fashioned special clipped gutters. The bothy’s floor and mezzanine level – a bed in the roof space reached by ladder salvaged from the Glasgow School of Art – was formed out of reclaimed ash, while the gables were clad in locally sourced Scottish larch. The insulation came from sheep’s wool. ‘It smells good, it’s nice to work with, it’s non-toxic and non-abrasive, unlike the glass fibre stuff’, Bobby explained. ‘It helps you feel like you’re in a much more natural space.’
They fitted out a kitchenette below the double bed, installed a wood-burning stove with an oven, built a mini library, and furnished the bothy with two basic wooden tables, an old leather armchair and a desk chair. Lighting was provided by wall mounting a solar-powered anglepoise lamp, and hanging glass-lanterns to hold tea lights. Their shower was outdoors, a curve of the corrugation providing a partial screen for suspending a water bag heated by the wood-burner. When the Inshriach Bothy was finally completed in the spring of 2012, a business model was agreed with Walter – ring-fencing periods for creative practitioners, while opening up other parts of the year for public rental to ensure continuous occupancy and help with income and running costs.
Artists started arriving that autumn, alone and in groups, covering a wide range of disciplines – film-makers, painters, poets, musicians, sculptors, photographers. The residency, built on a residency, was now in use as a residency. But Inshriach was always just a starting point, a prototype. Bobby and Iain had envisaged a network of structures, and were already turning their attention towards their next build, their island bothy.
I dropped my bags on the floor and sank into a soft maroon armchair set in the middle of the bothy. What now?
The view was what now. The view is the answer to just about any question you might ask of Sweeney’s Bothy. Everything is orientated towards its floor-to-ceiling glass wall (actually four glass panels segmented by three narrow strips of wood, but so slim as to almost fade away after a first look, to seem like a single pane). The armchair, the desk with its own little wooden swivel chair on casters, the snug and bookshelves set in the back wall, the wood-burning stove, the double bed up in the roof space – all put themselves in service of the view. What is the view? Through the window the land undulates down to the sea. Rum appears impossibly close, the Sound reduced to just a few inches of water. You can’t see any buildings or any people. But the mountains stare in at you, heavy and implacable: Sgurr nan Gillean, Ainshval, Askival, Hallival, the Nameless Corrie, the Forgotten Corrie. And the rest is sky.
It was just past noon. The interior of the bothy was dim with the sun still so startlingly bright outside – only a sliver of light fell obliquely through the window. It made the view appear over-saturated, like a Technicolor cinema screen. It took a while to get up or to do anything at all. I was suffering from view-induced paralysis – a common affliction, it seemed, for those who stay in the bothy. I sat flicking through the visitors’ book and every testimonial came back to the view – a succession of people staring out at the land, the sea, the sky; at Rum disappearing or reappearing out of cloud, rain or mist; at the preponderance of rainbows. ‘It’s impossible not to be moved by this view’ said one entry, written in a neat, spidery hand. Kathleen Jamie wrote a poem about it, when she stayed in the bothy. It opens:
for too long I haven’t glanced at the sea – fully ten minutes!
I could understand those ten minutes now as an achievement of considerable willpower. The poem was called – what else? – ‘The View’. The very last entry in the visitors’ book, written the day before I arrived, recommended watching the ‘ever-changing elements’ – and then suggested that ‘if it’s a clear night, shower under the stars, you won’t forget it’. I won’t be doing that, I thought. I flicked to another entry from a fortnight earlier. It quoted Nan Shepherd’s line, ‘my eyes were in my feet’. ‘Walk as much as you can,’ it urged. This roused me.
I heated soup in a heavy cast-iron pan on the gas hob, and took it outside, sitting on the bench and resting my back against the glass. The wind had picked up and clouds had mustered over Rum’s peaks. The sun was being switched on and off now like a light. It was good weather for walking. Lucy had described a route up onto the cliffs behind the bothy: ‘duck under a clothes-line and then it’s a short, steep scramble to the top. Gets the torture over and done with straight away’. I did as suggested, hauling myself up through a rocky gun barrel, and arriving on a wide plateau of heather and soft, spongy grass. For the next few hours I followed the line of the cliffs south to north, moving from precipice to precipice, gaping at the waterfalls tumbling down, always looking for the bothy somewhere below. It appeared as a tiny black dot (three tiny black dots really: the bothy, the wood store with its solar panels, the composting toilet off to one side), set back from the smattering of houses that followed the main road. The landscape was a patchwork of oranges, greens and browns. As the light dipped, patterns began to emerge, lines and curves and circles, the tracery of old abandoned crofts, walls, fields and farms submerged beneath the undergrowth. I touched the trig point at the northernmost stretch of the cliffs, and looked out to Skye, smeared at its centre by a distant, isolated column of rain. The route looped back by a haphazard zigzag path, dipping down a gap between the rocks, then finally rejoining the very end of the island’s main road.
Afternoon was tipping into evening when I returned. The bothy was bathed in light now, the low sun reaching into to its back corners, filling the building with a gentle, drowsy heat. The view was back again, insistent and transfixing. The cloud began to thicken, but not too much. Clear pockets of blue and yellow were swaddled in white and grey gauze. The sky over the horizon shifted from gold to bronze. The sun was dipping fast now; it found the gap between the clouds and the sea and burst like a flare, turning the inside of the bothy crimson. Then it was gone.
I lit the fire in the wood burner, cooked some dinner and watched the window turn to black. Now all I could see was the reflection of the desk lamp and the glow of my laptop screen open in front of me. I had recorded my conversation with Bobby in the Pig Rock Bothy, and I wanted to hear it again now.
In the near-darkness, with the fire popping alongside me, I listened to the story of how Sweeney’s was made.
The project evolved with the creation of the second bothy. Bobby and Iain brought the poet and artist Alec Finlay into the design process, securing investment from Creative Scotland as part of ‘Year of Natural Scotland’. As Bobby explained, even at the stage of applying for funding, ‘Alec was building a picture around what the bothy could be, both in terms of its physical presence, but also in terms of cultural movements, mythology, sense of place’.
Alec’s idea was to take inspiration from Shiubhne – Sweeney – the mad king of Celtic folklore. According to the tale, after killing an old friend at the battle of Mag Rath, Sweeney loses his mind and escapes into the wilderness. He spends some ten years wandering the lands of Ireland and Scotland, looking each night for a new place to rest and sleep, and composing poems on both the beauty and cruelty of nature. At the furthest reaches of his flight, he comes to the Small Isles – to Eigg. But he can never escape the memory of the spears of battle. As Flann O’Brien puts it in his novel At Swim Two Birds, time and again Sweeney finds himself enduring, ‘the pain of his bed there on top of a tall ivy-grown hawthorn in the glen, every twist that he would turn sending showers of hawy thorns into his flesh’.
The thorn became the bothy’s key design motif. Alec’s original sketch for the building, submitted as part of the funding application, was a solid blank rectangle, stamped on top of a jagged scatter of overlapping straight lines. ‘The bothy begins as a frame in and for the wilderness, as every hut is’, said Alec. ‘The sketch catches the gist of Sweeney’s bed in the thorn trees.’ It was captioned ‘Sweeney’s Bothy: thicket without, shelter within’.
As the building developed, Alec, in the spirit of Sweeney, recorded the design process in poetry.
the thorn finds purpose as pillar, or pilotis the thorn turns its points skywards away from delicate flesh
in our design the thorn column suggested extending the angled roof outwards beyond the bothy walls
only when the revisions are precise will the bothy stand
square and plumb on a hill facing a rugged mountain skyline
the hut-yet-to-be-built has found its home in the vale of Cleadale on the Isle of Eigg
the furthest of the leaps the outcast Sweeney made in his mad journey through the wilds
Sweeney’s wee hut will have its windows faced to the west
aligned so as to be filled with the massif skyline of Rum
‘Alec was creating the myth of the structure before it even existed’, Bobby said. The hut-yet-to-be-built was gaining a public following. And all the while, in his sculpture workshop in an outbuilding of his dad’s farm in Fife, Bobby was bringing the physical bothy to life. As before, the frame was assembled first and then dismantled for transport to its final site: a plot of land cleared out among the bracken on Lucy and Eddie’s croft at Cleadale on the north-west of Eigg. In the late autumn of 2013 a flat-bed truck piled high with spruce stud-walling, larch cladding and sheep’s wool insulation drove from Fife to the ferry port at Mallaig. The truck made it across on its second attempt, nosed right up against the on–off ramp to fit on the car deck. It was too big, however, to navigate the island’s main road. Everything had to be unloaded just a few hundred metres from the pier, above the sands of Galmisdale Bay. A crofter called Alistair then helped move the materials in instalments, wood panels balanced like a Jenga tower on a trailer hooked up to the back of his tractor. Bobby had estimated the build time at six weeks, based roughly on the number of actual construction days at Inshriach. It took far longer. The setting and the environment offered up challenges that he had not anticipated.
‘It was brutal,’ he said. ‘I ended up being on Eigg for five months of the winter. And it was the worst winter they’d had in fifty years. There were only five days with no rain the whole time. The site was a slurry, knee-deep mud round about it.’ Access was already difficult because of the steep slope up from the road, and it was made even worse by the persistence of the rain. They had to walk things up piece by piece: wooden panels, window frames, glass. ‘We ran out of money. But I was stuck there because I had to complete it.’
For large parts of this time, Bobby was by himself. It was tempting to picture him as a version of Sweeney – the solitary figure wrestling with nature’s harsh extremes. He kept a photo diary of the construction. It is a study in saturation, a series of images of mud, wet wood, squalls, snow, pregnant clouds, weak light and watery rainbows. I asked him if Sweeney’s felt like more of an achievement than Inshriach because of the adversity, because he had had to do so much of it on his own. But no, most of the time he was just annoyed with himself.
‘I felt stupid because I wasn’t able to predict how it should have been set up,’ he said. ‘For people who live on the islands that’s just how it goes – and you probably try to do most of your build projects in the summer. For me it was a new thing.’ Companionship made a difference. For the first month and a half Bobby’s step-brother stayed with him on-site. ‘He was at a junction in his life, so he came with his wee dog. He had no building or carpentry experience but wanted to volunteer. It was great hanging out with him. Now he’s doing a carpentry course in Australia.’ A couple of artist friends from Glasgow also did stints on the island. ‘They lit up the place for a couple of weeks, we had a hoot. To have someone visit for a week or a month would help get you through.’ With the funds almost exhausted – and Bobby no longer able to pay wages or his rental accommodation – he had to improvise and start pre-selling artists’ residencies to institutions, booking up slots in the hut-yet-to-be-built. It was this money that allowed him to employ locals on Eigg to help complete the bothy.
The involvement of the community was always important to him. ‘A lot of people think of the bothies purely as retreats. That’s slightly condescending to the locations. These are not places where there is nothing. What’s the periphery for one person is the centre for someone else. It’s the communities that bring the bothies to life.’ Bobby told me the colourful story of how he first came to bond with the people of Eigg. ‘We’d been building for about ten days when we walked over to the tea room one evening for a pint. We didn’t really know anyone in the room at all. When we walked in it kind of went quiet, and then there was this chorus. And we couldn’t quite work out what they were saying to start with. But basically it was this kind of chorus of abuse, heckling, just heckling as we came in. And then this one loudest voice at the end just shouted “fucking bothy wankers!”.’ He laughed at the memory of it. ‘We had a really nice evening. It was just a heckle to see if you could take it, and if you could then you weren’t too serious and you were alright for a chat. I told Lucy about it later and she said “that’s a good sign”.’
By the spring of 2014 it was almost done. One of the last interior fittings was the mezzanine level in the roof space above the kitchenette, right at the back of the bothy. To hold up the double bed they erected a timber pillar, rising up from the floor and then branching out into three struts. The three-pronged pillar came from one of Alec’s first drawings of the thorn motif: it was the hawthorn tree to carry mad Sweeney’s bed.
I woke in the hawthorn tree, climbed down its ladder and made a trip out to the wood store. The sky was a liquid blue, the sun painfully bright. But the air was brittle, the ground set in a hard frost. I got a fire going in the wood burner to heat the water for the outdoor shower. There was a little digital centigrade thermometer hooked up to a pipe on the bothy wall. When it climbed into the thirties, I dashed out onto the decking and twisted on the shower: a double hit of hot and cold. I made breakfast, then unfolded the big Ordnance Survey map from the bothy’s little library and spread it out on the floor. I had decided to climb the Sgurr, Eigg’s great skyscraper of volcanic rock.
It was late morning by the time I set off. The sky was still cloudless, marked only by the incessant scribbling of jet contrails. I had to walk back along the main road, almost all the way to Galmisdale Bay, before I turned up a track through the trees. The path opened to a green grassy field, leading up to a house framed beautifully beneath the grey knucklebone of the Sgurr. Beyond the house everything was clad in russet heather. The land was still swollen with rainwater. On up-slopes, the path often deteriorated into a riverbed. On the flats, it disappeared in stretches of murky bog. The route continued into the permanent shadow beneath the lee of the Sgurr. Now I was climbing over snow and ice.
Even at the summit, almost four hundred metres above sea level, there was only the lightest breeze. I hadn’t spotted another person since I set out. I watched an eagle ride the thermals below me. It felt like you could see all of Scotland. Looking north there was Rum and Skye. To the east was the mainland, the mountains still encased in snow. South was Muck, then Coll and Tiree. And finally out west was the long tail of the Outer Hebrides, with Mingulay as a last punctuation mark. Beyond that, there’s nothing until the coast of Newfoundland.
It was almost six o’clock by the time I got back to the bothy. I’d been walking for seven hours. I quickly ate soup, then made my way down to the beach overlooking the Bay of Laig. The air was perfectly still. Rum was in silhouette, its image reflected in the wide, glassy stretch of wet sands. I sat in the white dunes, listened to the waves breaking and watched the sunset.
I looked in on Lucy and Eddie on the way back to the bothy – taking a proffered can of Guinness eagerly. The darkness came again, and with the fire lit, I poured my drink, sat down in the armchair and started to write. I wrote much of what you are reading here now. At around eleven o’clock I glanced at the digital thermometer. The water temperature had nudged over forty degrees. I closed my laptop, undressed, stepped out into the night, and showered beneath the stars.
‘There will be loads of huts and cabins popping up over the next few years, which I think is a great thing’, Bobby said. We were talking about the ‘Thousand Huts’ campaign, an initiative started in 2011 to promote the building of simple structures for living, working and recreation in the countryside. In 2014, the campaign achieved a notable success: a first legal definition of a hut in the glossary of the Scottish Planning Policy. A hut, it says, is ‘a simple building … constructed from low impact materials … and built in such a way that it is movable with little or not trace at the end of its life’. A commitment followed from the Scottish Government to exempt huts from building regulations – contingent on developing a Code of Good Practice to ensure adequate health and safety provision. As the campaigners put it, they are attempting to revive a ‘hutting heritage’ that is in real danger of vanishing. ‘Simple, rustic buildings have always been an important part of Scotland’s culture’, they say. ‘From shielings to mountain bothies and shepherds’ huts, they have played a crucial role as temporary bases for people to spend time in the hills, forests, and countryside’.
I asked Bobby if he saw a role for his bothies in the campaign. ‘We have a slightly different agenda’, he said. ‘The hutting movement has always been about the right of the individual or the family to build and have access to their own hut. It’s about the hut in your imagination, and your right and freedom to have it’. All the same, the Bothy Project is offering up a blueprint for the hutters of the future. Soon they will be making prefab bothies available for sale, adapted from the original Inshriach design. ‘We’ll have two options’, Bobby said, ‘a volumetric one, that will be delivered to a site complete on the back of a truck; and a panelised flat pack version for self-assembly. You’ll be able to put them anywhere’. Their initial projections for this service are relatively modest: sell ten bothies in their first year, twenty in their second, and forty in their third. It is part of Bobby’s plan to turn the Bothy Project into a dedicated charitable organisation – on the one hand developing the creative network by running residencies, on the other selling pre-fabs and related materials. These include the work of the ‘Bothy Stores’, an initiative which is challenging designers to develop new products specific to the needs and locations of individual bothies. So far the results have ranged from a terracotta cool box and an ‘eco-dyed’ apron, to a 20-litre duck canvas shower bag and pulley system. ‘One strand is about the imagination and supporting people, the other is practical and tangible’, Bobby said.
The ongoing development of the dwelling bothies remains central, however. The plan is to supplement Inshriach and Sweeney’s with another eight residencies within the next five years. Each should be bespoke, Bobby said, the product of further collaborations with artists and architects. ‘And we will always be asking ourselves, “what is the need for it, why here, how can it contribute and be a part of the community?” The both- ies can’t just exist as facilities for people who don’t live there.’ They may
explore building on a bigger scale, establishing some dwellings for groups rather than individuals, and encouraging wider access. This is a project with international ambition. ‘We could form partnerships with institutions abroad for a residency exchange project or even a new bothy build’, Bobby continued. ‘There’s a hutting movement happening globally. And as the Scottish contingent we’d like to do exchanges and share our traditional material and carpentry processes – along with our innovations.’
It may be this last point that has the widest relevance. All of the bothies are developed under the auspices of the project’s commitment to sustainability, renewability and low carbon. It’s something Bobby doesn’t mention overtly because, as he puts it, ‘its intrinsic, there’s nothing less inspiring than people telling you the obvious’. Yet what is perhaps not so obvious is the potential for the scalability of the bothy designs. They provide the opportunity to experiment with new materials to showcase how they might be used. They can try things, they can make mistakes and, somewhere down the line, they can make a contribution to the essential conversation about how we all should build. ‘We don’t want to over-promise’, Bobby said. ‘But on some level it has to be the ambition of the project to achieve that’.
After a grey morning, the sun had pushed through. I was back on the ferry, sitting out on the deck, facing backwards to watch Eigg drift away. It occurred to me that one of the most fascinating things about the bothies is that, in the style of the hutting movement, they are built in such a way that they are movable with little or no trace at the end of their lives. Both Inshriach and Sweeney’s are ‘soft touch’ builds, erected on two-metre-long concrete pillar foundations. Which means that they can just be pulled out and taken away, and it will be like they were never there in the first place.
‘It should be that way’ Bobby had said. The bothies make no claim to legacy or permanence – they are visitors in the landscape, not fixtures. Where so many buildings are fixated on lasting, the bothies are preconceived as ghosts. What if, I wondered idly, somewhere down the generations, this becomes the new norm? Just as the digital age seems to offer up the eventual end of the physical archive – no one actually writes anything down anymore – will there be a new wave of buildings, a new generation of builders, that actively avoid inscribing anything in the landscape? What might this mean for our understanding of our past, if we evolve a built environment that leaves nothing behind – no litter, no detritus, no sign? Of course, we are not there yet – we are very far from there. But it is something to think about: that a time may come when what we build will no longer be left behind to tell us who we once were, and who we now are.
And would it be better that way?
Who Built Scotland: 25 Journeys in Search of a Nation by James Crawford, Kathleen Jamie, Alexander McCall Smith, Alistair Moffat and James Robertson is available now on Bothy Stores
JAMES N. HUTCHINSON: Collective & Outset Scotland, 2016
Sidhe Vicious. Had the first two photos in this blog entry been taken using a 35mm camera, I would likely be fretting about having them developed, such that they may reveal a dreadful ghostly apparition. They are pictures of burns at Bealach Clithe (above) and Cathalaidh na Marbh (below), along the stretch of road between the primary school and Cleadale, places where, in Eigg folklore, lone travellers – as I was when I took these photographs – may encounter the grimmest of all Sidhe. Appearing in the form of a little old lady, this particular Sidhe would be washing the shroud of the traveller who encountered her, in preparation for his immanent death. She is one of many Sidhe who shared the island with their human counterparts, but is the only one so specifically described. The Sidhe were believed to have been thrown out of heaven at the same time as Lucifer, but not deemed bad enough to be sent to hell. Instead, they were despatched to an intermediate world parallel to that occupied by humans, living in a state of perpetual in-between-ness. The islanders claimed that the Sidhe would occasionally intrude on human affairs to negative effect, primarily at times of transition such as beltaine, or during the birth of a child (a baby born disabled was said to have been swapped with a Sidhe, the ‘perfect’ version existing in the parallel Sidhe world).
As I headed back to Sweeney’s Bothy after taking these pictures, I was reminded of another site that I happened upon earlier in the project that has brought me to Eigg: the Grotta delle Anguane, a cave just outside Bolca, in the Province of Verona, Italy. Bolca’s economy is heavily dependent on the nearby Pesciara lagerstätte, a fossil site containing the remains of tropical Eocene fish and plants, which is considered a national treasure by the Italian government. The fossilization process that took place there is interesting due to an unusual combination of factors: the specimens all died in con-catastrophic circumstances over many years; they sunk intact to the seabed, which was soft, allowing for a number of layers to build up through time; and the water was so salty and so lacking in oxygen at that depth, that the dead fish remained undisturbed by other organisms that might normally feed on their remains. This has resulted in samples that have been preserved in remarkable detail, including significant (sometimes entire) non-skeletal parts, and also in such abundance that they are still being mined today, almost five hundred years since the botanist Pietro Andrea Mattioli first made reference to them. It has been said that on their discovery they were believed to be the remains of the last supper, though the general hypothesis until the late 1700s was that they were evidence of the Great Flood. Since the 1600s they have been highly collectible, appearing in various wunderkammer and other public, private and royal collections all over Europe, culminating in a dedicated museum which opened in Bolca in 1996 (below).
Eigg, of course, has also seen important paleontological finds, most famously a plesiosaur skeleton unearthed by the Edinburgh geologist Hugh Miller during a field trip in the mid-nineteenth century, and like Eigg, the geology of Bolca is also formed of volcanic activity. Over the week I spent in Sweeney’s Bothy I found myself thinking more and more about Bolca, despite having only been there for a single morning, as the modes of encounter and the natural histories of each place not only intersect so vividly with their cultural histories, but also with the natural and cultural histories of each other. In both places, as a tourist, one is encouraged to traverse the evidence of volcanic eruptions, and it is on descending into the limestone canyon on the western side of the basalt ridge at Bolca that one encounters the Grotta delle Anguane (below).
Anguane are Veneto’s equivalent of Eigg’s Sidheanan. They appear in female human or semi-human form, mainly around water and – particularly in the province of Verona – wash the clothes of the villagers in the streams in which they are seen. Unlike the Sidhe, Anguane are not portents of doom, being seen more as a representation of an earthly bond inaccessible to humans, so the villagers of Bolca would perhaps not approach the Grotta delle Anguane with same trepidation that a traveler might hold as he passed Bealach Clithe or Cathalaidh na Marbh on his way to Cleadale. The Anguane’s hold on the locals’ collective imagination was broken by the onset of the Counter-Reformation, which sprung from the Council of Trent (1545-1564), an event that coincided with the first written documentation of the discovery of the fossils at Bolca. The Anguane, along with other magical beings, were seemingly banished to the caves by Cardinal Carlo Borremeo during the Council’s third phase, where they would co-exist with the mysterious newly-discovered images that had appeared in the stratified limestone. The Grotta delle Anguane thus represents a strange and potent container of mythology, superstition, religion and science, the fossils being images of a time the villagers were unable to imagine, the Anguane being apparitions that gave form to a world that doesn’t exist, an imaginary world being discredited by a religion attempting to modernize and organize in the face of challenges from Protestant Reformers, a religion continuing to saturate the science of the site for at least a further century – the deep belief of the Council yet to encounter the deep time of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Like the Anguane in Bolca, the residents of Eigg have, on many occasions, found themselves banished to the caves that form an important part of the geology and subsequent culture and economy of their island. In Scotland, holding Catholic Mass became punishable by death in 1560, the year Borremo was made a cardinal, and two years before he convened the final phase of the Council of Trent. A letter to Mary Queen of Scots was the only attempt the Council made to implement its Counter-Reformation in Britain, but although the attempt failed at an establishment level, the islands were already resisting Protestantism, primarily because the clansmen continued to assert their independence from the Crown. On Eigg, the locals held illicit services in a cave on the southern face of the island, which became known as Uamh Chrabhaiche, or Cathedral Cave, the large rock formation on the left hand side being used as the pulpit and alter (above). Like the Grotta delle Anguane, Cathedral Cave is at the base of a volcanic rock formation, on this occasion the pitchstone An Sgùrr inselberg. A similar tourist walk to that in Bolca takes in An Sgùrr, Cathedral Cave, and a third site on the southern coast, St.Francis’ Cave, known these days as Massacre Cave. In 1577, a serious dispute between the islanders and the MacLeods of Dunvegan lead to Eigg being invaded by the Skye clan. On seeing the approaching boats, the islanders, knowing they were at a severe disadvantage, retreated to St.Francis’ Cave, which has a tiny entrance obscured by a waterfall, but an interior that could fit all 365 of them within it. The MacLeods searched Eigg for three days, but were unable to find the islanders, apart from an old woman who refused to impart their whereabouts. As they were sailing away again, they saw a lookout, who’d prematurely left the cave to check whether the coast was clear. The MacLeods returned, tracing his footprints to the cave. They diverted the waterfall, piled up kindling at the entrance to the cave and set fire to it, killing all those inside of asphyxiation. Like the fossils of Bolca, the skeletons of the dead islanders remained remarkably intact for many years. In 1788 the Revd. Donald MacLean visited the cave, observing that the bones appeared fresh, the skulls entire and the teeth still in their sockets, and a further six decades later the aforementioned Hugh Miler reported seeing human bones during the same trip on which he found his plesiosaur. In 1814, Walter Scott visited and took a skull as a souvenir to display at Abbotsford, though further tomb plundering was prevented a few years after Miller’s visit, the remaining bones being gathered by Lawrence Thompson, Eigg’s then proprietor, and – much to the anger of the island’s residents – given a Protestant burial.
Although one does not encounter human skeletons when visiting the cave today, its narrow entrance (above) and dark, damp and foreboding interior comingle with its history to provide sufficient spinal chills the deeper one progresses into it. But to offset the potential disappointment that may be felt by the contemporary dark-tourist who expects something akin to the Paris Catacombs, somebody has kindly left an example of a bone next to the entrance, perhaps as an aide-imaginaire. It is juxtaposed nicely with a blue hardhat (below), perhaps signifying that there are health and safety lessons that can be learned from the events at Massacre Cave. With regard to the burns at Bealach Clithe and Cathalaidh na Marbh, on my visit, perhaps due to the season, there thankfully did not seem to be sufficient water flowing to adequately wash a shroud, even for a magical creature, so I’m pretty confident that Eigg’s bean nighidh Sidhe won’t suddenly appear as I upload the images to this blog. If there’s a glitch in either of the first two pictures when you look at them, please don’t get in touch to point it out, as it’s likely only you who can see it…
MICHAEL BARR: Glasgow School of Art Residency, 2014
According to Seamus Heaney’s version of the Buile Suibhne, Sweeney – having got into a spot of bother, and been turned, naked, into something between man and bird – lived a life in fear of human contact. His avian roamings took him all over Ireland. He flew to various parts of the British Isles as well, and spent six weeks living ‘in a cave that belonged to Donnan on the island of Eig off the west of Scotland’.
Heaney’s text suggests that, during those mad, flighty wanderings, Sweeney supped on the following: watercress; brooklime; sorrels; wood-sorrels; berries; wild strawberries; blackberries; raspberries; wild garlic; black sloes; dark sloes; sharp-tasting sloes; nuts; hazelnuts; oyster-grass; apples. This list is not exhaustive, but these were the morsels which I thought might be edible by those of us, more human than bird.
My research whilst on the island was to focus on the mapping of two things: caves, and the growth of these foodstuffs.
* * *
(I was delayed in getting over to Eigg for a couple of days – the ferry was twice cancelled due to bad weather. When I finally approached the island, I guided the boat to the pier, just to be on the safe side.)
* * *
Once I got to the island, the first strand of my research saw me walking to several of the caves which dot the island’s coastline.
Some caves were quite easily accessible – such as Massacre and Cathedral caves at the south of the island – and have very particular histories. Cathedral cave was used as a place of worship, and Massacre cave was the sixteenth century site of the death of nearly four hundred islanders at the hands of the MacLeods. One of today’s islanders theorised that the latter would have been the cave for Sweeney, though he’d have been long gone (almost a thousand years long) by the time of the massacre.
The two caves pictured above are big, but some were much smaller, such as this one at Laig:
Others were more difficult to get to, such as the one pictured next, below the ruined settlement at Grulin. In his book, Soil and Soul: People Versus Corporate Power, Alastair McIntosh speculates that this is the cave that Sweeney would have inhabited.
And some may not have existed at all. One of the islanders told me about a cave beyond Grulin. He knows much more about these things than me, but I couldn’t find it. It may be somewhere in the following image. It was a lovely walk, anyway.
* * *
Whilst I didn’t always find what I was looking for on my walks, I did find other things. Instead of the cave beyond Grulin, I found this:
And I found myself reading from Heaney’s text, whilst perching, wobblingly, in the buff/in a bush.
* * *
The second strand of my research involved talking to various islanders about foraging. With their knowledge, I built up a picture of where the aforementioned foodstuffs grow when in season. At the moment, this picture looks like a map:
* * *
All of this was done with the help of quite a lot of people on the island. That help came in different forms, and it came from the following: Eddie; Lucy; Brian; Camille; John; Dan; Brendan; Mairi; Berni; Dean; Phil; Alan; Bob; Jamie.
I think that these people are important to acknowledge.
Whilst I don’t necessarily see my work on Eigg as a social engagement project, I do think about socially engaged art quite a lot. It was nice to be welcomed at Tash and Gabe’s wedding on my final day on Eigg. That was a very social engagement.
The bothy itself was a wonderful place in which to be on my own, but the community within which it is situated offers a very particular set of possibilities to those who like to work with people. Given what I knew of the island before my arrival – its size, for example, and the circumstances of its ownership – I had imagined that ‘community’ would be a meaningful, vital and important thing there. I’m under no illusion that Eigg is a place devoid of social friction, but during my short stay, the willingness and the ability of islanders to engage productively with me in my work was notable. That ability came through their engagement with the landscape that they inhabit, through their engagement with the people with whom they share that landscape, and through their happiness in sharing the knowledge which arises from these engagements. Mapping the growth of wild foodstuffs, for example, became easy, because everyone whom I asked about it either knew where things grew, or knew whom I should ask.
The research that I carried out on Eigg will hopefully allow me to return to the island in the summer, to realise a happening of some sort involving food, caves, text and people. With luck, I’ll update this blog post once that has happened.
Michael Barr, Glasgow, March 2014
This residency was supported by GSA Exhibitions and GSA Sustainability in Action Group
Sweeney’s Bothy: Introduction
Sweeney’s Bothy mid-build, December 2013, photograph BN /
Welcome to Bothan Shuibhne (Sweeney’s Bothy). The project is a collaboration between The Bothy Project (Bobby Niven and Iain Macleod), and artist-poet Alec Finlay. We are also working closely with Alex Webb Allen and Luke Allan, as well as a host of contributors. /
Together we are going to design and construct a modest zero-carbon dwelling, a bothy, on the Isle of Eigg, off the West coast of Scotland. Once it is complete, towards the end of the summer, Bothan Shuibhne will host creative residencies, with a focus on wilderness ecology. /
Over the course of 2013 a host of collaborators will add to the project, and each of them will publish a post on this blog. /
Before we finalize the plans for the building – and before we start ordering materials and taking the handles of the wheelbarrow in our hands – we will share some reflections on what such a bothy might be, or become, drawing on hut traditions, the thoughts of fellow poets, artists, and architects, as well as the words and images of residents at the first bothy that Bobby and Iain completed, at Inshriach, in the Cairngorms. / /
Simple dwellings enact a vision; they may, over time, gather a significance that extends beyond their walls. Bothan Shuibhne is one suggestion of what a hut-bothy-residency can be, in Scotland, today. / /
The original sketch that I submitted to Creative Scotland, to encapsulate the proposal, is nothing more than a rubber stamp defining a walled form, with a suggestion of surrounding thorns. The bothy begins as a frame in and for the wilderness, as every hut is. The sketch catches the gist of Sweeney’s bed in the thorn trees. /
Over the past few months Iain and I have worked from that initial poetic image:
The phrase distils the fragmentary narrative of Suibhne. I drew on Trevor Joyce’s adventurous, untethered versions of the poems, with reference also to Heaney’s and O’Brien’s. / Glen Bolcain /
abode of saints; with many hazel groves
and nuts in cluster; quick icy brooks
that sprinkle down its walls: there are green cords
of ivy, a rich mast of acorns
and the apple-trees,
heavy with good fruit they arc
their boughs / //– Trevor Joyce, Sweeny, Peregrine /
We have worked the image of thorn and shelter toward a constructive form, making sketches and sharing conversation, asking ourselves how the bothy might appear and, just as importantly, what it is for. /
Reading Suibhne, asking ourselves where the bothy may belong, we have learnt to look within earshot of ‘the hammer of the distant surf’, with the ‘shelter of a single tree’, within sight of ‘mountain blossom, mountain ash’ (Trevor Joyce, Sweeny, Peregrine). We have been glad that we are the lucky ones, with a roof and stove, fortunate to avoid ‘the pain of his bed there on the top of a tall ivy-grown hawthorn in the glen, every twist that he would turn sending showers of hawy thorns into his flesh‘ (Flann O’Brien, At Swim, Two Birds). / /
Gradually the plans will project a suitable protection for this gentle interior: a welcome desk, fire, and bunks for two. /
Future posts will detail the bothy’s final location and the evolution of the architecture, as we attempt to remain true to Lu Chi’s motto: /
only when revisions are precise
may the bothy stand
square and plumb /
Other posts will consider this bothy within the wider context of a nascent contemporary movement – one I term ‘hutopian’ – in which artists and architects create huts and viewing platforms in the Scottish wilderness, proposing them as innovative ecological, technological, and social models. / Outlandia, London Fieldworks and Malcolm Fraser architects, 2010 /
Suibhne, the mad king, inflected our thinking, pointing us toward the mountain hut, which ‘finds its congruity on the frozen peak’, where the air is ‘thorned with frost’. Arne Naess’ hut on Tvergastein came to mind, and Wittgenstein’s hut at Skjolden. /
At other times we are told Suibhne hid away in the woods, where the aspen leaves ‘sing like a distant war’. This reminded me of the felt-roofed hut that belongs to my friends Gerry Loose and Morven Gregor, at Carbeth, where a deer path leads by their door and the yaffle’s laughter is straight out of Basho. /
And the echoes of war: would they be the huts and tree-top look-outs at Faslane and Coulport, nearby Scotland’s leading artist residency host, the pods and cubes of Cove Park? /
Sweeney can’t escape his memory of spears; remembrance sticks in his side each night, in his bed amid the blackthorn tines. / Prunus spinosa / /
the blackthorn drinks my blood again
my face bleeds on the sodden wood
thorns lace my sores / //– Trevor Joyce, Sweeny, Peregrine /
These internalized memories of conflict became another problem to prompt our thinking while designing the hut; it could not simply be a ‘retreat’. Suibhne’s ‘ice and wood palisades’ are tinged with a survivor’s wariness. I invited the poet Susan Tichy to tackle the associations of the mountain huts with war veterans and the dark aspect of survivalism in her native Colorado, issues hutting in these islands prefers to avoid. / Susan Tichy’s cabin /
Our shared aim is to make a small contribution, through Bothan Shuibhne, to the common task of bringing renewed awareness to the relation between human dwelling and wild nature. We have been thankful to have received a friendly response from the John Muir Trust, who weigh the issues of stewardship and human use of wilderness with care.
The work that myself and other collaborators will post here belongs alongside existing and unfulfilled projects by artists, architects, and progressive hutters – all those who have attempted to create ‘hutopian’ dwellings, viewing platforms and shelters.
Contributors to the project will include Kathleen Jamie, Gerry Loose, Morven Gregor, Ken Cockburn, Malcolm Fraser, Dee Heddon, Misha Myers, Susan Tichy, Trevor Joyce, Heather Yeung, Thomas A. Clark, Kevin Langan, and Hanna Tuulikki. /
These sketches are our first vision of what Bothan Shuibhne could be. /
/ Bobby’s vision / Iain’s vision / / / Alec’s vision /
I began from the blackthorn thicket that Sweeney locked himself away in, taking the form and projecting it into a formal pilotis style support, so that it could assume a useful function, while still representing the blackthorn’s sharp warning. / / /
Bothan Shuibhne | Sweeney’s Bothy /
Alec Finlay & The Bothy Project
commissioned as part of Creative Scotland’s ‘Year of Natural Scotland 2013’