On your island, does the night fall later? Day 1: I make my way to Eigg from Glasgow by train and ferry. Seven hours of looking out at misty skies, deep inky lochs and archaic green mountains, remembering why I needed to return to Scotland. Brooding nature. Something deep and dark and ancient lurking in the shadows.
From the ferry, Eigg is hardly visible, enveloped in heavy mist and drizzle. Eddie picks me up from the pier and takes me to the Bothy, which is cosy and inviting. Close to his and Lucy’s beautiful house in Cleadale, it is perfectly hidden behind a mound of land, protected by lush green bracken and the mountains of the Beinn Bhuidhe ridge.
An evening of unpacking, thinking, plotting and listening to the heavy rain. Browsing through the carefully selected library, I am happy to find a selection of my favourite authors and poets: Solnit, Berger, Eliot, Bashu. From the big armchair I watch the clouds grow thicker, forming an impenetrable wall of whiteness around the bothy. Previous bothy dwellers have left their marks and notes. I strongly feel their presence. I am not alone here.
Awake early after twelve hours of heavy, dreamless sleep. It’s still cloudy and damp outside so I spend the morning preparing surfaces for drawing and painting. At midday Lucie and Eddie take me to the other side of the island, where I am fortunate enough to catch the last day of the Howlin’ Fling music festival. I recognise many faces from the ferry, and am excited to be seeing some of them play later. Cellist Oliver Coates, the previous bothy resident, is performing music from his album ‘Towards the blessed islands’ as well as songs written on the island with Chrysanthemum Bear. Their music moves me deeply; drony, monolithic soundscapes, and haunting folk songs. The intense and pure quality of the cello seems to foreshadow some of the experiences I am about to have on Eigg. Feeling elated and inspired I decide to watch two more sets from multi-instrumentalist Ichi and his wife Rachael Dadd, then take the long road back to the north of the island. I stumble upon the small museum of natural history. Dusty, eccentric display. I am intrigued by the little pieces of Belemnite fossil and plan to go searching for some later in the week. Walking further, I pick up odd bits of debris lying by the roadside to use in small sculptures. Sticky ground. Lush vegetation. The sound of water falling. Silver light.
I wake with the sunlight and I start the day with small painted sketches. Overwhelmed by all the green everywhere, I find myself unable to use colour, so I work in monochrome graphite instead. Three-dimensional structures are starting to take shape from bits of plastic picked up the day before. Cluttering the shores, I might as well make something beautiful from it.
Finally Rum emerges from its blanket of white mist. I watch the movement of clouds and patches of sunlight passing over. Around late morning, I decide to make the most of the warm weather and head to the Singing Sands, ambling my way through swampy fields, passing cows and sheep. The beach is a sparkling jewel hidden by impressive sandstone formations protruding from the cliff face, with fine quartz sand that is incredibly soft and beautiful. All alone, I explore the little caves and waterfalls, and pocked stone formations strewn over the beach. The landscape projects strength and resilience.
Inspired by my discovery, I decide to clamber further north towards Talm and then up Dunan Thalesgair. It is much steeper and further than it looks (in the middays sun most things look confusingly close and inviting here) but I make it, climbing the last few meters on hands and knees. The clear view from the top out over Skye, Rum, and the mainland is exhilarating. I keep thinking about the continuity of time and experience when existing outside of one’s daily routines chopped up by travel/work/social commitments. Time is felt differently here, measured by the intensity of experience. I continue walking south along the flat plateau of the lava cliffs of Beinn Bluidhe, looking at the tiny bothy below, which is now finally visible from its shelter. It is peaceful up here but I feel exposed. The ruthless sun offers no shelter.
A few hours later, and I am still walking, but slowly running out of water . Hoping to find a sheep path down somewhere near Corraigh I keep walking but it’s all overgrown, After a brief moment of panic, I decide to descent straight through the chest-deep bracken and heather, unable to see the ground but trusting gravity to lead the way. I finally emerge back on the road next to a waterfall. Back at the bothy, I feel compelled to start a few small paintings. Veils of colour interrupted by structured brush strokes. The landscape is larger than me. I am embedded in it.
Inspired by my long walk the previous day I continue to paint. Colour now comes easily, but I use it one colour at a time, isolated, jewel-like. Early afternoon, I take the path down to the beach at Bay of Laig. It’s very warm and there are families enjoying the water. I walk along the bay past a cow and its calf trying to find some cool, and scramble unto the pebbles, circling the bay. I pick up a few unusually textured and light stones but doubt they are the ancient fossils I am looking for. Back at the beach I drift off in the sun. Wild dreams, my first dreams here. I continue in this internal state back at the bothy, where I paint monochromes using graphite and glue. Carved inner landscapes.
Another evening spent watching the sunset. The outline of the Rum Cuillins soon turns into a cardboard cut-out. Clarity. Stillness. At one point the sun is so blinding, I have no choice but to sit on the porch with my eyes closed, waiting, listening to my own breathing amongst the soft rustling all around.
John Berger’s ‘And our faces, my heart, brief as photos’ seems to be my constant companion and guide here, and I finish it by the last bits of daylight. I reread “Once in the highlands”: “Here between the land and sky it is like a shore. And as the seashore smells of seaweed, so this shore smells of uncounted time. The uncounted time is heavy with a sense of loss. The highlands lament those who have disappeared, supremely those who were forced to disappear.”
The sun is heating up the back porch. It will be too hot to work inside later in the day so I return to the drawing desk early. Working intuitively, many clear, yet abstracted moments experienced on Eigg take shape on the pieces of paper. Immediacy. I recognise mountaintops, hazy skies, waterfalls, dense bracken. Being within.
Around twelve, I walk to the pier across the island. The midday sun is glaring down at me and I pass other tired looking walkers. Past the forest I make my way to the caves. Watching happy bathers amongst the stones makes it a less haunting experience than expected. Still, Eigg’s history as a site for battle and lost lives becomes more apparent.
Back in Cleadale it’s time for a swim. Lying in the sun I keep thinking about painting. It’s existence outside of language. Where does a painting start and when is it finished? At the moment of an encounter? Paintings are static yet imply a passage of time. They are timeless in that they refer to the past, present and future. They speak about the far, the invisible, and the ephemeral, alluding to a whole world beyond their edges.
My boyfriend James joins me at the bothy. A morning spent enjoying the sunshine and watching islanders and many tourists by the pier. I meet Sue, who runs the shop and restaurant and who fell in love with the island in her early 20s and never left. I wonder if I could live in a remote, tightly knit community. I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of place and belonging and the implications of displacement since coming to Eigg. What does it mean for me, a German living in England, to keep travelling to remote northern islands (Eigg, Skye, Orkney, Traena, in the last two years)? Am I looking for more than solitude and distance from my ‘busy’ life in London, more than an experience of otherworldly natural beauty, so different to where I grew up? How much of these places do I take back with me to the city, and how does this temporary adoption of a quiet way of life find its way into my artwork?
Back on the beach at Laig Bay, I continue reading Berger. Am I really experiencing these places, or am I lost in what Berger calls “non-being” or ‘unreality’, due to my own loss of ‘home’: “To emigrate is always to dismantle the center of the world, and so to move into a lost, disoriented one of fragments.”
Another day of bright, hazy sunshine. By now the bothy has heated up so much it is impossible to stay inside, even in the morning. We hike up to Talm, the uninhabited northern tip of the island and enjoy a peaceful lunch looking out over to Skye. Desperate to cool off we climb over to the Singing Sands and spend many hours swimming, exploring, listening.
While James is busy exploring the many shapes and archways created by lava cutting into the sandstone, I start reading “Soil and Soul” by Alistair McIntosh, found in the library. Wishing I’d picked it up earlier, it provides many answers to yesterday’s questions. It speaks to me in that it addresses “Celticity” or ‘Celtic Mysticism” as something felt on a level deeper than inherited history, folklore or language, but as a feeling of reconnection with human community, the natural world, and spirituality (society, soil, soul).
Romanticism in art is often looked down upon as something that is purely feeling, but McIntosh claims that we can KNOW by feeling, that romanticism has both a purpose and a reality, that it exists in the threshold between mundane and spiritual consciousness. “The imaginal realm of dream, viion, legend, and faerie, [inherent in Celticity] is the source of imagination and creativity and, therefore, the upwelling of poetic reality itself.”
After seven days on Eigg I am finally coming to realise the full extent of the amazing spirit of the land and the people here on Eigg. Such a tiny place, but so forward-thinking and strong; a place where ancient traditions and learning go hand in hand. A glimmer of hope for the rest of the world.
I say goodbye to the Bothy with last night’s thoughts still deeply resonating inside me. The rain has returned on my departure. Half an hour before leaving James discovers birdking Sweeney perched on top of a small hill overlooking the bothy. I cannot believe I didn’t discover the path earlier! It seems a fitting goodbye to dwell with Sweeney for some time and let our thoughts wander, then make our way to the pier. On the ferry, the rain thickens and Eigg soon disappears from sight. Through a tunnel of cloud and raindrops, I arrive on the mainland, knowing I will return.