Field notes – Week two of my residency

It’s been a busy second week here for me in my role as Artist in Residence for Timespan. As part of my residency I’m keeping this blog to record my work in progress. I’ll be making new work in response to the excavation of the longhouse in the Caen settlement in the Strath of Kildonan. My initial research will look at notions of home, the Kildonan Clearances (including diaspora/immigration/migration), the impact of architectural buildings on our lives, excavating and documenting, art and archaeology. Out of this research and time spent daily at the dig I will make new work. My approach will use a variety of photographic techniques to create new artefacts that can sit alongside the findings of the excavation.


The evolving exhibition

This week I have been installing a new exhibition in the Foyer area outside the Gallery at Timespan. Throughout my residency this area will change to reflect the new work that I’m creating. Presently, I am displaying twelve text panels, which reveal the stories behind my series ‘Realm’ currently on show in the gallery. These have been very rewarding to write up this week, as this project represents four years of work. These panels create a series of ‘Field notes and folklore’. I am currently working on a small publication, which will incorporate these notes. A mock up of this publication is available to look at in the Foyer and Gallery area.

Foyer exhibition - 'Field notes and Folklore', the stories behind 'Realm'

I have also created a gallery reading seat, with a small reference library of books for visitors. These are a selection of research books that have informed my project and children’s story books, which are relevant to ‘Realm’. Here are some of the books currently on display in the Gallery:

  • Colin Bord and Janet Bord, The Enchanted Land: Myths and Legends of Britain’s Landscape, 2006
  • Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, 1908
  • Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1812
  • Alexander Porteous, The Lore of the Forest, 1996
Reference library on display in the Gallery at Timespan

The third component of the new display I have created this week is a ‘Residency Blog’ display wall. I will be printing my weekly blog entries and displaying them on this wall for Timespan visitors. New artefacts from the workshops I facilitate will be added to the display. Here is a picture of the finished Clearances Story-Quilt, a collaboration between me and the DIGIT group. DIGIT are a group of local teenagers from surrounding schools. The patches for this quilt were created during a fabric sun-printing workshop for the DIGIT group, that I facilitated on 30th May. The images and objects come from the Timespan archive, which together create a narrative of the Clearances, a ‘Story-Quilt’. I sourced the backing fabric from local tailor and kilt maker, Julia Jappy. It is thought to be a vintage Scottish design from the 1950s.  Local lady Evelyn Smith kindly lent me her sewing machine, which greatly speeded up the creation of this Clearances Story-Quilt. I have enjoying spending the evenings up here in the Highlands sewing this quilt together.

Residency Blog wall in the Foyer at Timespan
The Clearances Story-Quilt


Research time before the dig

The excavation process started on Saturday (8th June), which gave me this last week to visit the site before the dig (more on that below!). It’s been great to have this time to reflect at the site. My parents have also been visiting from London this week and, as keen historians and nature lovers, enjoyed a walk we took from Helmsdale, along the river to the Caen settlement. It was a change to walk the route, instead of driving along the single-track road. The drive takes less then five minutes, where as the walk was an enjoyable amble which took around an hour. We got a real sense of the distance from the Caen settlement to Helmsdale, the route of migration for many in the Clearances. It was inspiring to be in nature and to sit amongst the longhouse footings. More so than researching in books and online, there was something about being on the land that helped me imagine what life could have been like at the settlement, over 200 years ago.

Here are some initial research photographs taken at Caen this week before the dig started. I was delighted to find a nest of bird’s eggs within one of the longhouse footings (identified by my birder Dad as a Meadow Pipit nest). This is a poignant ‘find’ for me. This longhouse has been abandoned for over 200 years, yet nature still dwells here. Bird lovers will be relieved to know after taking a photograph, I left this area well alone. We will not be excavating this particular longhouse. In some ways it feels like we are intruding on nature and the quietness of this site. As part of the excavation we will make sure we return the turf and rocks to preserve the natural beauty of this site.

Bird's nest in the longhouse
A lone tree on the Caen hills
What lies beneath

The rocks along the footings of the longhouse are the only evidence of the dwellings. In the summer the heather completely hides these. The landowners have burnt the heather recently, which has helped us find the footings. As part of my research I visited the Orcadian Stone Geology Museum, in Golspie, to learn more about the local stone. I’m considering working with the local red granite and printing images onto stone. The fossil room at the museum had some intriguing ‘pseudo fossils’. This picture show one that looks like a fossil of ferns or leaves and reminds me of Anna Atkins cyanotype photograms. It is not actually a plant fossil though, but merely a crystallised mineral deposit. Printing photographs onto stone could create some ‘pseudo fossils’.

A pseudo fossil at the Orcadian Stone Geology Museum, Golspie

The visits to the site and the geology museum have been very helpful in developing my research. I also found an excellent paper by Paul Basu, UCL, ‘Narratives in a Landscape: Monuments and Memories of the Sutherland Clearances’ (1997). This has given me a broad reading of the Clearances in relation to the land, memory, history and myth. Basu notes that ruins are part of the fabric of the land, representing a kind of history and heritage of the Highlands. Basu’s bibliography is also proving to be helpful.


The excavation begins

Yesterday (Saturday 8th June) the archaeologists, Keir Strickland (site director) and Rick Barton (site supervisor) arrived and after a delicious lunch in the Timespan café, a team of us drove to Caen with the equipment. Keir and Rick had analysed the geophysical survey and after a tour of the site, decided on which longhouse to excavate. I decided to take some photographs of this site before we removed any earth. Here are some of the shots taken on my digital camera. I also took some on my Mamiya RZ (a medium format film camera). This camera has a negative size of 6x7cm, which creates an image of superb detail and tonal richness. I have posted the digital images here for now and will update the blog once I get the film back from the lab.

View north along the longhouse, with the hills of Caen in the background
View of whole excavation site, showing L-shaping markers and bell tents. Looking towards the river
View of the outhouse, next to the longhouse

It was such a glorious sunny day yesterday and a small team of us put up three tents, for the equipment, refreshments and a portable toilet. Keir and Rick, then set out markers on the site. Scale photographs were taken. String was stretched out to mark out the trenches. There will be two L-shaped trenches, which will capture some of the walls, the hearth, the doorway and an out building.

Today (Sunday 9th June) Keir, Nick and a small team of volunteers began digging. The first stage is to remove the turf. Jacquie made the first cut of the earth and gave an impromptu speech! Here are some more pictures of the excavation. Read more about the process and the project here:

I’m looking forward to being involved in the excavation, discovering the ‘finds’ and hearing the stories that come out of the process. Jacquie and I are driving up to Wick on Tuesday to be interviewed by Janice Forsyth, on the Culture Studio, BBC Scotland! Our slot will be around 3pm, so please listen in.


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