HALLO DAVID

PLUM CLOUTMAN: Lyon & Turnbull Residency, 2018

When writing about Eigg, the lure of words like ‘magical’, ‘dream-like’ and ‘fairytale-esque’ is difficult to resist.  By the end of my week there, my refrain became that I was sick of rainbows.  Sick of them!  Everywhere I looked I was confronted with another glorious technicolour arch: over my shoulder, out of the window, in the reflection of a teapot, in the bottom of my hiking boot.  If I reached into my pocket for a cigarette, I would probably pull out a rainbow.

The beauty of the island was relentless, and there is nothing as distracting as perfection when you’re trying to find inspiration for work.  Like most Grimm fairy tales, however, when I looked a bit closer I realised that there was something unsettling under the surface of the island’s postcard-beauty.  There is an eerie, unplaceable feeling that radiates from all ancient places, and I never felt it so acutely as I did on Eigg.

Eigg is a free range island, so you share the roads and paths with sheep and cows more often than with people.  Sheep are skittish and uneasy, and give you a wide berth, but the cows stand like thugs at the side of the road.  Sometimes I would hold my bag a bit closer when I passed.  Anthropomorphising is normal when you live in a city, and are removed from the realities of farming, and the often cruel, cyclical nature of the wild.  In my world, animals have first names and surnames, they have complex personalities and jobs, and, when they die peacefully surrounded by their loved ones, they are mourned.  Sometimes worshipped.

On one sunlit walk along the Singing Sands, I was confronted suddenly, due to a break in the low wall I was walking beside, with a dead sheep – eyes gone, but not yet decomposed.  Another time, on another walk along the cliffs, I found two more – only these casualties were much older, amounting to sad piles of greasy yellow wool, the living arrangement of their bones intact, like a set of school clothes carefully laid out for the next day.  I felt ashamed of my squeamishness.  A natural death on a hillside by the sea was a lovelier way to go than most living things could boast, but still I wondered – where would the service be held?  Did they leave husbands behind?

On another walk through the elevated pine forests in the middle of the island, the sight of a small group of red spotted toadstools lured me to edge of the trees.  The pure air in Eigg meant that the forest floor was bedded with an impossibly thick blanket of moss, that when walked on, felt as though you were walking on the fleshy belly of a sleeping giant.  As soon as you entered the trees, what little sound there had been on the path disappeared, and you were met with a silence that seemed to squeeze you.  All of a sudden I had the feeling that if I turned around to face the path again, I’d find that it had never been there in the first place.  This, combined with the ghost-like presence of ‘old man’s beard’, a lichen that clings to the branches of dead trees, makes it easy to feel as though the forest has a human presence – one that ought to be tiptoed past.

With this experience of the island in mind, it is easy to see why Eigg has such a rich mythical history.  One of the most prominent myths associated with Eigg is that of the big women – abnormally large female warriors who were said to have massacred St Donnan and his 52 monks on the island.  The big women were subsequently lured to their deaths by a mysterious light in the middle of a loch – known in Eigg as Loch Nam Ban Mora, Loch of the Big Women, or a better translation still, Loch of the Powerful Women.

I couldn’t read about this story without immediately calling to mind the women in the illustrations of R. Crumb: a curious juxtaposition between gross-out exploitation genre American comics and ancient Hebridean folklore.  R. Crumb’s depictions of women are invariably endowed with caricaturish large breasts and hips, but they’re also undeniably powerful.  Built with thick, muscular legs and broad shoulders, they tower over their male counterparts, warrior-like.  Whether dressed in tight clothing, or completely naked, they are confident, unabashed, and completely unapologetic.  This is how I liked to imagine these legends, and it excited me to think that these terrifying female spirits might have a malevolent presence on the peaks of the Sgurr.

Another captivating local myth was that of Sweeney, the bothy’s namesake.  I was thrilled by Seamus Heaney’s repulsive description of King Sweeney of Dal-Arie, cursed by the priest Ronan after a territorial dispute into the form of a hideous bird-like creature, and doomed to wander the wilderness until his death.

“His brain convulsed,
his mind split open.
Vertigo, hysteria, lurchings
and launchings came over him,
he staggered and flapped desperately,
he was revolted by the thought of known places
and dreamed strange migrations.”

To me, wrapped up in front of the fire with a thick piece of buttered toast, this visceral description of Sweeney’s doom seemed absurdly incongruous with the wonderfully warm and comfortable bothy.  I felt sad, and a little smug, while I imagined Sweeney in his grotesque bird form, crawling around trying to find watercress to eat.  (Why was he always eating watercress?  Eigg has so many mushrooms.)

During my time on the island, I faced a constant internal struggle between my desire to see every inch of it in the short time I had there, and the sense of responsibility I felt to be suitably invigorated and inspired to create a singular body of work that represented my feelings about the place.  Before I went to Eigg, birds were just things you kept your chips away from, but on the island, I became obsessed with them – ornithology becoming the convenient changeling that kept me from trying to articulate my thoughts with charcoal.

In fact, it’s almost impossible not to become a birdwatcher on Eigg.  Each islander I encountered had a vaster knowledge of birds than everyone else I know combined, and I tried my best to assimilate.  My ears strained so hard to hear the distinctive cry of a Corncrake that I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d had an aneurysm.  I also found it fascinating that the island’s birdwatcher in chief, John Chester (known on the island as ‘John Bird’), longed more than anything to see a magpie on the island – never in Eigg’s history had one been spotted there.  I liked this idea, that on an island which to me seemed so ethereal and otherworldly, a single magpie would be magical.

In the end, exploring the Island won out over the work.  I came away from Eigg feeling bloated with beauty and folklore, and I set about thinking how I would turn it into a series of pictures.  With the exhibition planned for August 2019, the work exists now in sketches and ideas, but my experience of Eigg left me with a heightened awareness of how we engage with our surroundings and our history through myths and legends.  My work for RSA New Contemporaries 2019 took inspiration from the story of Bacchus and Ariadne, and an exhibition I’m working on for Arusha Gallery in September 2019 takes its inspiration from Brewer’s Phrase and Fable, a dictionary of out of fashion and antiquated words and phrases that have unfortunately fallen out of favour.  Attempting to align a story we tell ourselves to explain where we come from with an image is tricky, and sometimes seems depressingly futile.  To simply illustrate a story like the big women of Eigg, or the transformation of Sweeney would pale in comparison to the rich image of them I had formed in my head, but I can’t help but feel compelled to.  Revisiting these stories again and again, and rendering them in different guises feeds into the ever changing nature of folklore and legends, not diminishing them, but making them stronger, and more real.

JULIA HESLOP: Baltic Residency, 2018

An Island Estate. I’ve been interested in the Isle of Eigg for many years, since reading Alastair Mackintosh’s brilliant book Soil and Soul in which he traces the community buyout of the island over twenty years ago.  My work has always been about land (although it’s taken me a while to realise that).  From making paintings at the Glasgow School of Art about gentrification, to building a prototype home with a group of homeless people in Newcastle, I realise now that land is the common denominator.  Ownership of land brings control and self, as well as collective, determination.  Yet land is also place – it is a facet of identity.

I came to Eigg on a BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art residency.  I wanted to use my time there to inform a project that I’m working on in Newcastle called Dwellbeing which is a social arts project in the neighbourhood of Shieldfield.  Shieldfield is an estate which lies on the edge of the city centre and one that has seen a huge amount of new student development in recent years.  As a result the estate is an island in the middle of speculative development, (mainly foreign) capital and generic block architecture.  Over the past five years residents have tried to fight these changes, but have largely failed.  The results of this are a burnt out community, which has been further hollowed out by cuts due to austerity measures.  And so the capital that circulates around the neighbourhood hasn’t penetrated into the estate.  Furthermore, development pressures may continue, and even heighten, in coming years as cuts bite deeper and local authorities continue to marketise their assets like land and housing.  As the closest social housing estate to the city centre and the universities, Shieldfield’s land is very valuable.  In response to this situation Dwellbeing is working with a group of residents to examine the issues in the neighbourhood as well actioning community-led and creative responses to this to challenge further speculative development.

Shieldfield

There is a sense in Shieldfield that people have no right to the land upon which they live even though this was common land until it was enclosed in the mid eighteenth century.  Residents feel that future development and displacement of existing inhabitants is inevitable and feel that the future is out of their control.  And so I went to Eigg to understand what could be learnt from Eigg’s experience of community land ownership, as well as other community-led ventures, such as energy and food production, for Shieldfield.  Inevitably the two places have hugely different histories, demographics, cultural frameworks and importantly, relationships to land.  However, I wasn’t so interested in wholly transferring ideas or approaches from Eigg to Shieldfield, instead I was more interested in understanding how, through collective action, it is possible to build up a cultural bond and right to land, even in an often transient and multi-ethnic urban location.

My time on Eigg was largely spent cycling over the hills, chatting to people over cups of tea, walking, writing, filming and taking photographs.  I was interested in learning about the history of the community buy-out, but I also wanted to find out what came after and some of the challenges that have occurred in the last twenty years.  Stepping off the boat onto the pier on a Saturday afternoon Eigg was bustling with folk drinking, chatting, people shouting greetings and catching up.  I met a lot of people in my first half hour on the island that I ended up chatting to further over the course of my week there.  In my conversations I found that access to, and control over land was the primary factor that gave birth to other collective endeavours on Eigg, whether these were cultures of sharing (my first encounter at the Pier with Lucy, my host for the week, was with someone who had just come back from fishing and so mackerel was exchanged for beer), swapping (through the island’s brilliant, overflowing, Swap Shop), learning (through Eigg’s archive), self-building (using timber felled from the site), the production of green energy or reforesting (using seeds saved from around the island).

Wind power on Eigg

There were some particular ideas and approaches on Eigg that triggered new ways of thinking about Dwellbeing and about the potentials for Shieldfield’s future.  Firstly I was interested in how Eigg had nurtured a deep understanding of the history of land ownership and cultural erasure.  I learnt how through the community buy-out campaign, residents drew on the past – remembering that the land was once held in common and thus the control of the laird was not ‘right’, ‘true’ or ‘natural’, nor was its continuation inevitable for the future.  This process of reawakening history and making it active in the present was all part of nurturing a collective right to the land, which was finally symbolised by the raising of the great Sgùrr stone pillar when the community buy-out was realised.  And so an active knowledge of history became a way to project forward into the future.  This is something that needs to be harnessed and used in the Dwellbeing project.  In fact, John, a Shieldfield resident, once stated in a community meeting: “This isn’t a project, it’s a pro-ject.  We’re pro-jecting forward into the future”.

Eigg’s Sgùrr stone pillar commemorating the community buy-out

Yet the history of Eigg is not just in written or oral memory, it is also physically present, particularly at Five Pennies and Grulin – abandoned settlements/crofts which I visited.  Grulin lies in the shadow of the great An Sgùrr – Eigg’s volcanic ridge that lies at the south-west of the island.  In 1853 families were forcibly removed to make way for sheep farming – many of these families making the treacherous boat journey to Nova Scotia in Canada.  This removal is still very present in the landscape – the stone walls of Grulin’s homes are very visible.  The agony of displacement is somehow preserved here.  When I visited Grulin I couldn’t help think about how current forms are clearance still are, yet in very different contexts.  In cities, what I would call ‘urban clearances’ happen all over the world – the rapid turnover of land, from social housing estates to luxury developments.  Yet they are not physically present like in Eigg – history gets buried under concrete, rubble and new foundations.  Whilst there may be less physical violence in this process (in the UK anyway), the agony is still there – there is a certain social violence that breaks up communities up and breaks the ties that connect people through generations to place.  In the same way that sheep were more profitable than people during the clearances, some people become more profitable than others in cities around the world today.  And so there is shared experience in very different times and contexts.

Grulin

Eigg’s present reality is built on a sort of radical localism – on striving for autonomy through energy production, food growing, self-building and much more.  Throughout my residency I began to wonder: what if Shieldfield was an island?  In the bothy I drew a map, mapping Shieldfield onto Eigg.  It was just a bit of fun, but it helped me to think beyond the limitations of an urban environment.  On the map Shieldfield’s lost culverts and rivers are opened up and harnessed for hydro-electricity, solar panels sit on the roofs of tower blocks, underused green spaces are used for local food production, there is a swap shop and a self-built community/learning centre which offers a space for gathering together and the chance for (re)education about land and living lightly on the earth.  A neighbourhood plan, written by the community, determines land use in Shieldfield, whilst a community bakery (which is already planned in Shieldfield) offers good, locally made food, and training and job opportunities.  I also wrote a piece which connected the stories of two places – Eigg and Shieldfield together – regardless of time or context, and filmed the places on Eigg that I walked through for a film to accompany this.  Whether urban or rural, learning can occur across difference, and this can open up new ways of seeing a place and the future of  a place.

An Island Estate: Mapping Shieldfield on Eigg
An Island Estate: Mapping Shieldfield on Eigg (detail)

In Eigg: The Story of an Island Camille Dressler, who I spoke to whilst I was on the island, writes about the concept of duthchas, meaning ‘kindness to the land’ – an old Highland sense of connection to, and respect for, the land.  Whilst on Eigg I kept wondering what this meant for an urban location?  Can duthchas be harnessed in Shieldfield to connect people back to the land and to form the basis for a movement that can challenge displacement pressures, protecting the land for coming generations?  Seeing and hearing how a right to space became the basis for collective determination, through various individual and community ventures and ways of being (like reciprocity, sharing and swapping), as well as harnessing the natural resources on the island, made me think differently about the future for Shieldfield.  Perhaps this is not inevitable.

 

Thank you to everyone I met and chatted with during my time on Eigg.  Particular thanks to Lucy and Eddie for their hospitality.  Thanks also to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art for supporting me to undertake this residency.