Ghosting the Castle was a project by the artist Nicky Bird, commissioned by and produced in collaboration with Timespan. It focused on the layered histories and issues related to Helmsdale’s medieval castle and the A9 bridge which replaced it. These were investigated through the archives of Timespan, National Records of Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland, alongside collected memories and knowledge of the site.
The project developed through a number of public-facing research visits throughout 2017 project and culminated in September 2017 with new works by Bird that brought together past and present, memory, art, and archive, building a multi-layered and multi-voiced understanding of the site. Site-specific viewfinders throughout Helmsdale offered the opportunity to see the castle reappear, ‘ghosted’ back into its cliff-top position looking over the village and out to the North Sea, and a limited edition art map published by Wild Pansy Press.
The project drew on photographs and other material held in Timespan’s Archive and further material found in both personal and national archives. Photographs from the late 1800s to the present day document the changing image of the site – from the ruined castle in postcards and as a backdrop to family photographs, to its subsequent demolition captured in snapshots, aerial views showing major landscaping work undertaken as part of the bridge construction, and architectural images of the completed bridge. Other material includes two cine films showing the demolition of the castle, letters and newspaper articles detailing the precarious position of the castle on the edge of a rapidly eroding cliff, and plans showing the different options considered for the placement of a new bridge to cross the River Helmsdale.
Also central to the development of the project were the people Bird met and the conversations she shared with them during her trips to Helmsdale. Each research visit approached the site from a different perspective, and invited different people to share their particular memories, knowledge, and experience, building a multi-layered and multi-voiced understanding of the site’s histories.
Viewfinder No 1. Ghosting the Castle, Nicky Bird, 2017. Photographer: Graham Robinson.
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.
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 who 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 Bird’s process of making work and she is particularly interested in collaborations 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 2008, Bird received a major Stills photographic commission for the project Beneath the surface / Hidden Place< and in 2016 she 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 also a Reader in Contemporary Photographic Practice at the Glasgow School of Art.
Image credit: Ghosting the Castle, Nicky Bird, 2017. With photograph by John Ross Polson, late 1960s. Courtesy of Margaret Polson and Timespan.