I’ve called this blog post ‘Landing on the moon’, as that was kind of how it felt walking around the island of Swona. Five of us spent two days there at the end of August (here’s a brief video of ‘the team’ on route to Swona). We spent the entire time cocooned in full waterproofs, with multiple layers underneath to insulate from the cold wind. Swona felt quite desolate, there were no trees and no people have lived there since 1974. It might seem like an exaggeration to compare it to a moon landing, but wrapped in our all weather gear, movement was slow and trampling over this quiet landscape, I felt like an intruder, out of place. This feeling of intrusion felt especially acute inside the houses, which had been long since abandoned. Rose Cottage was the last home to be abandoned, now 40 years ago. It was the home of the Rosie family, with twin brothers Arthur and James and sister Violet living there until their old age. Arthur had to leave the island due to ill health in 1973 and his siblings left the year after. It appears they left in a hurry, with Violet possibly considering returning, as Rose Cottage has been left as if the family will be back. But they never did return. Books, papers, cutlery, tins and clothing are to be found in the main downstairs room. The two bedrooms upstairs still have the beds made ready to be slept in and boxes of personal items in suitcases.
Rose Cottage was the first of the houses Keir and I explored together. I was interested to see how our approach (art/archaeology) might differ on encountering the abandoned interiors. However, it was remarkably similar: we both tentatively explored Rose Cottage, photographing as we went, speaking occasionally to remark over different items. The soft light coming through the windows illuminated the decay almost beautifully. We were careful to leave everything as we found it, making sure we securely roped up the door, to stop the cows wandering in (as one had done a few winters back, and died in the other half of Rose Cottage, which is now boarded up). But even so, our carefulness and respectfulness of the past still felt intrusive. Previous abandoned houses I have photographed elsewhere didn’t have that tangible sense of it being a family home full of secrets and treasures. Keir will write a second guest post soon for this blog and will be able to share his thoughts. But I wonder if through the eyes of an archaeologist this dusty evidence of past lives was seen as artefacts or ‘finds’, or whether it was overwhelmingly somebody’s private home? We spent quite a bit of time in Rose Cottage, as initially this seemed to have the most material to consider and respond to. There are about six other houses on the island, with numerous outhouses, but these were all abandoned over 60 or 70 years before (with the exception of a very tidy house near the harbour, which is kept inhabitable for regular visiting bird ringers and the occasional ship wrecked sailor).
From initial sharing of our photographs of Rose Cottage, Keir’s and my photographs were remarkably similar. One of Keir’s questions about our images of Rose Cottage is how much they might actually say about the wider picture of the abandonment of Swona (something we are attempting to research through this project). As an artist I didn’t want to merely repeat what many other explorers of Swona have done before me and photograph only the dereliction (this has already been covered extensively in John Findlay’s book A Photographic Portrait of Swona). I was there to begin to make new work about the specific abandonment of Swona. Something that really struck me whilst researching and actually on the island was its remoteness and the sense of the smallness of the landmass against the surrounding sea. The sea is key to understanding how people survived (including the resourceful use of the shipwreck cargos as described in an early post). The remoteness because of the sea is the main reason why people eventually left this island and other similar islands nearby, for example Fara and Copinsay. Any work that I make should reflect this barrier, the sea. Initial ideas are to combine the photographs I took in Rose Cottage with field recordings of the house, the wind and the sea. My assistant and sound man Ralph was using a Zoom H4n and external stereo microphone rig wherever we went. I will post a work in progress on this blog soon with a sound and image piece.
Elsewhere on the island I found the old school house and captured ‘moving photographs’. I set the camera up on a tripod and filmed each interior for five minutes. The view was fixed, but as wind blew through the open window, overgrown vegetation moved, rain dripped slowly through the roof eaves, light played on the walls. Ralph recorded synchronised stereo in each location, as I filmed in many of the abandoned structures. I also filmed sequences of the sea, which I plan to merge with the interiors, so the sea consumes the house. I will post a work in progress soon of this too.
Much of the two days on Swona was spent walking, exploring and quietly thinking about the island. Keir will share his ideas here soon, but with only two days he didn’t have enough time to carry out a proper survey or consider an excavation. Could this be something his wishes to return to do? We also had two other archaeological specialists with us from the Survey and Recording department of RCAHMS (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland). George and Alison worked tirelessly for the whole two days (even staying overnight on the Thursday night to get more hours on the island) mapping the island. They referred to existing ordinance survey maps and updated measurements using surveying equipment. This updated survey will hopefully be incorporated into our wider collaborative research project.
It’s been 12 days since we were on Swona, and as well as taking a fair few days to make the long drive back down south, I needed time to reflect. However, I still need more time to think about this haunting place. I’ll keep updating this blog with my work as it progresses. For now here is a selection of the photographs I took on Swona: