ISLA MACLEOD: RSA Residencies for Scotland, 2013

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.”

Morrie Schwartz

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.”

Maggi Hambling



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.

OSCAR GAYNOR: Self-Directed Residency, 2013

On the way back home, on the way to get the train, I went to the Alpine division of Waterstones in Aviemore and bought Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. On the journey, through the feet of the loafy mountains, the Cairngorms, to Edinburgh I inadvertently made the film adaptation of the book. The ground was heavy with water and streams were wrenched out of the side of rock in thrashing white spasms and wrested into glassy black lochs. Through the cinemascope window, a cut scene to decaying bracken in shades of bruise and spiky gorse, and then the bare arch of the mountain back, and moving to its descending nape. Flickering telegraph poles made a zoetrope-view that may well have never have ended if it were not for the peppering of buildings that became small towns, then towns fringed in industrial buildings and orange-lighted concrete lots.

Shepherd walked into the Cairngorms, through them, on top of them, saw through them to a vessel carrying shadows, and swam in lochan and burn. The top didn’t mean a lot to her. The summit is only a human invention, a measurement, and through walking across and in between peaks and sleeping on the downy moss, she sees, equally, with the eyes of the mountain:

“… As one slips over into sleep, the mind grows limpid; the body melts; perception alone remains. One neither thinks, nor desires, nor remembers, but dwells in pure intimacy with the world.” [1]

The book is the crystalline form of a lifetime of seeing, of patterns and routines over land and time. She warns of hocus pocus and faeries, but cannot deny it has life – a skin, and an interior.

Day to day, I woke in darkness, I cooked breakfast which often led to lunch time, washed (occasionally), urinated, smoked a cigarette after chopping wood or fetching water and  darkness came quite quickly again. Never have I experienced a night lighter than the day but for when the full moon shone on the fresh snow, and then I couldn’t sleep but dozed through the dim afternoon.

With the exception of walks to find phone signal and visiting the Spey to see how it grows in the night, the bothy became more an observatory than an outpost for adventures on the ground. It is through the pages of The Living Mountain that I assimilate with my own wonderings. My imagination was given the sovereignty of experience, and the body could often feel unnecessary, unless of course it got too cold and skin started to tingle.

It was dark and it was quiet, and this is the basis of the retreat – the production of silence. Silence is a relative concept. For something so cerebral, so intentionally removed from action and friction all that remains is bodily activity on the scale of essential internal movements. Of blood coursing, joints under tension, squeaking, and a distant buzz in the head, not dissimilar now to the wind buffering the walls. In the act of retreat in any circumstance the movement is backwards, to where we have come from. In silence we are alone, and in that deliberate division are completely singular. In this space afforded by distanciation we can reign in our own kingdoms of radical subjectivities, removed from physical relations.

The monastic chamber provides a view of the world almost as if one is external to it. In the passivity of staring we can venture to observe things in isolation – a leaf falling, settling and blowing away. Olav H Hauge, the Norwegian poet and orchard-keeper lived in relative isolation in western Norway. The titles such as The Last Spider, The Sledge Hammer, Seed and The Log suggest space created around an object, examined and lifted from the world by scrutiny. They also suggest nobility in their humble natures – something earthy, honest and further irreducible from a complex system.

The summer was cold and rainy.
The apples are green and flecked.
Yet I gather and sort them
and stack boxes in the cellar.
Green apples are better than none.
Where we live is 61° north.


In the appreciation of place and object we seek to experience something as a singularity, which is the search for the ‘purity’ of nature, or moreover the logic of its appearance to us – as a thing without the complicity of complex social interactions or paths of distribution. Trying to grasp the abstract processes of the distribution of power, goods and so on can be an alienating experience.

To say what appears in isolation or silence is inherently truthful most be a misnomer as the differences in experiences of isolation are earth-shatteringly broad. Hauge earned his living as a gardener, leading a modest life, getting by, and buying books occasionally.  The monk deliberately denounces wealth and takes up chastity in search of spiritual purity. A lifestyle of asceticism is logically only available to those that feel weight of excess in the first place, itself then a privilege to those that can afford it. Weight meant perhaps in the sense of wealth, but also commitments, meetings, the obligations of work, and then manifest in feeling the need to ‘escape’.

Silence also springs from fear, from grief, from a lack of a political voice, as well as in historical patterns in which silence has been imposed. Lead by Ned Ludd textile artisans destroyed the mechanized looms that threatened to employ low-skilled workers instead. The Neo-Luddism of the Unabomber who lived in remote Montana living self sufficiently in a cabin was manifest in the letter-bombings of intellectuals and airline companies. Speaking in an interview before the killings on the island of Utoya by Anders Breivik killing 77 people [3], a confidant of Ted Kaczynski, and Anarchist author John Zerzan said in an interview with The Guardian:

“Will there be other Kaczynskis? I hope not. I think that activity came out of isolation and desperation, and I hope that isn’t going to be something that people feel they have to take up because they have no other way to express their opposition to the brave new world.” [4]

At best, the retreat allows for the production of unexceptional events; the effects of sunlight through glass; depths occluded by dark water. The phenomological observation and descriptive eye of Shepherd, is shared by the poetry of Michael Hamburger in From a Diary of Non-Events, Dieter Roth’s habitual cataloguing of the ephemera of daily life, or in Ellen Altfest’s meticulously rendered paintings of knees, plants, hair… But allied closely to the notions of beauty made by each, are those of shame, that can’t be rendered palatable with such a close gaze. Variously, bodily hair, arguments, changing nappies or idiotic or insincere thoughts – the embarrassing shame of the non-event, the almost nothingness, is emancipating when with them we come into close quarters.

“I gave up all the theories. Even the atomic theory. I don’t believe in them and it leaves me with a clear mind… When something comes into it you can see it.” [5]

So there I sat in the bothy, book in hand or Women’s Hour on the radio, picking my nose, listening to the voice of the eagle as it pivoted across the plateau. In washing up, peeling skin, and dangerously and amateurishly flailing an axe around to chop kindling was quietude that aids a wandering mind. This is a box for the freedom of mental travel by doing nothing, staring into space and fully entering into fantasy. For our desired return to nature, to places of meaning, for retreats, are as fantastical as any novel, memoir, children’s story, but that doesn’t really seem to matter at all.

[1] Shepherd, Nan (1977) The Living Mountain, Canongate
[2] Hauge, Olav H (2003) Leaf Huts and Snow Houses, Anvil Press Poetry
[3] http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/07/03/completely-without-dignity-an-interview-with-karl-ove-knausgaard/
[4] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/apr/18/mayday.features11
[5] Martin, Agnes, An Interview With, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_-JfYjmo5OA