Ghosting the Castle

Ghosting the Castle is a project by the artist Nicky Bird. The project focuses on layered histories and issues related to Helmsdale’s medieval castle and the A9 bridge which replaced it, exploring them through Timespan’s Archive and by collecting memories and knowledge of the site.

The project will develop through a series of research trips throughout the spring and summer of 2017, and will culminate in a site-specific public event in September 2017. Each research visit approaches the site from a different perspective, and invites different people to share their particular memories, knowledge, and experience, building a multi-layered and multi-voiced understanding of the site’s histories.

Research trip 1 | March 2017 | Show and tell: community memories

Research trip 2 | May 2017 | Mapping the site (part of Festival of Museums)

Research trip 3 | tbc | Planning matters

Final event | September 2017

Ghosting the Castle draws on archival imagery held both within Timespan’s Archive and in personal collections in the wider community (and beyond). A display in Timespan’s new public archive shows some of the items from our archive alongside information about the history of the site and about the artist. We hope that new material will be found as the research develops, and this display will evolve to show these new discoveries.

A Short History of Helmsdale’s Medieval Castle

Helmsdale Castle occupied an imposing site overlooking the mouth of the River Helmsdale from the fifteenth century until its demolition in 1970.

The castle is believed to have been built in 1488 by Margaret, Seventh Countess of Sutherland.  In 1616 Sir Alexander Gordon of Navidale is said to have rebuilt and repaired the castle. By 1887 the castle was a ruin.

In 1567, Helmsdale Castle was the site of a poisoning plot. Isobel Sinclair tried to poison her nephew, the Eleventh Earl of Sutherland, so that her son could become the earl instead. Sadly for Isobel, her son drank the poison and died. The poisoning is thought to have inspired Shakespeare when writing Hamlet.

By the late 1960s the south part of the castle had been destroyed by erosion and the rest was in danger of collapse. In 1970 the remains of the ruin were demolished to make way for the new A9 road bridge over the River Helmsdale. Today a stone monument commemorates the castle in a car park near to the former castle site. A large inscribed fireplace lintel from the castle can be seen in Timespan’s Museum.

About the artist

Nicky Bird is an artist whose work explores the contemporary relevance of found photographs and the hidden histories of archives and specific sites. She is interested in a key question: what is our relationship to the past, and what is the value we ascribe to it?

Collaboration is an integral part of Nicky’s process of making work and she is particularly interested in collaborating with people who have significant connections to materials originally found in archives. She is also interested in creating artworks that make visible this process of collaboration.

Nicky Bird holds a BA Fine Art from Bristol Polytechnic, a MA Feminism and the Visual Arts from the University of Leeds and has completed a practice-led PhD. In 2016 Bird completed Travelling the Archive, an Atlas Arts commission supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, in the village of Kyleakin on the Isle of Skye. Alongside residencies, exhibitions, and contributions to arts journals, Bird is currently a part-time PhD Co-Coordinator at the Glasgow School of Art.