We were due to take a small boat to the island of Swona this morning (Monday 18th August), but unfortunately the weather was not on our side and the dangerous high swells meant we couldn’t sail. We are hoping to try again tomorrow morning but the local skipper Magnus does not look hopeful. The weather gets better later in the week so I’m hopeful we will set foot on Swona soon!
Swona is a tiny island positioned in the notoriously dangerous section of waters called the Pentland Firth. To get to the island you must pass over tidal races, swells and whirlpools, so it has to be a relatively calm day to cross to Swona. The island is just over a mile in length and has high craggy cliffs surrounding it, with a small pier at the ‘Haven’. The island’s name comes from the Norse words, Svíney or Swefney, meaning either Swine or Whale island. Now uninhabited, apart from a herd of feral cattle, the island was populated from Neolithic times until 1974. Rose Cottage was the home of the last two inhabitants. The are around 10 dwellings marked on the OS map, two chapels and one neolithic burial cairn.
Not being able to visit Swona today turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I was able to meet with Cyril Annal this afternoon (who along with his brother is joint owner of the island of Swona). He sat with me for a couple of hours and told me many stories about the islands inhabitants and ways of life. Cyril has an amazing memory for the stories that have been passed down the generations. His grandmother Eva Margaret Rosie grew up on the island and I was shown many photographs of island life from that time. Eva married and moved to nearby South Ronaldsay, but went to stay on Swona each summer. This was to become a family tradition, that carried on so Cyril also enjoyed 6 weeks annual summer holiday on Swona as a boy. I heard tales of survival, love, shipwrecks, hiding away, impatient pastors, a naughty school master and a banished governess. Cyril’s stories are too countless to describe here, but they will bring Swona alive with memories as I finally set foot on it this week. Perhaps some of those rich stories will spill into this blog and my work. If we can’t catch the boat again tomorrow, I’m looking forward to a day in the dusty local archives at Kirkwall Library, discovering more about this gem of a place.
I leave for Orkney in just two days time. I’ve decided to drive up from London, visiting my Grandma on the way in Preston and then up the A9 through the breathtaking mountains and Highlands. Driving will allow me to take more camera equipment than I’d be able to carry on the train/plane. And a car will be handy on Orkney to get to the port etc.
It’s been 6 months since I originally applied for the New Collaborations Bursary. And I’ve been imagining and dreaming of what the island of Swona will be like. I know it was last inhabited around 1974, and the only residents are now a herd of feral cows (which I’m slightly concerned about!). I’ve spoken to one of the owners of the island, Cyril Annal, on the phone a few months ago. He is supporting our trip and we hope to meet with him next week to hear stories about the island, which his mother lived on. Cyril quoted Erik Meek during our conversation, who reports that Orkney is made up of 76 islands. Meek defines an island as ‘That upon which a bird can nest’. Swona is officially part of Orkney, but not many visitors get the chance to visit this abandoned island. I feel very privileged. On a side note, there is an interesting back story to getting Cyril Annal’s permission and phone number. By a very strange coincidence, my artist friend Kate Murdoch, whom I met several years ago when we both had studio spaces at Cor Blimey Arts in Deptford, has a connection to Swona! Her husband Pete is related to the Annals (a forth cousin I think), and visited them last summer. I spoke to Pete’s dad Eric Annal on the phone, who in turn provided an introduction to Cyril Annal. It’s a very small world!!
The original idea to visit Swona was Keir Strickland’s, the archaeologist I’m collaborating with. My next blog post will include a short interview with Keir to explain his interest in the island. We are unsure how our collaboration will take shape, but I’m trying to keep my ideas loose and not pre-plan too much at this stage. I’m reading Islands: A trip through time and space by Peter Conrad for inspiration. It begins ‘On an island you are disconnected, with water all around you. On an island you are alone, even if you share the place with others…’. I will be thinking about how the sea surrounds this tiny island, and how nature is eroding the dwellings. I’m also enjoying reading Adam Nicolson’s Sea Room about a man who inherits three lonely islands in the Outer Hebrides.
For now, I’ll keep reading and imagining (and I suppose start packing!) about the island, waiting for us to arrive.
I am a photographic artist, interested between the relationship between photography and archaeology. For this a-n New Collaborative Bursary project I am collaborating with Keir Stickland, an archaeologist working in the Department of Archaeology at Orkney College. Keir’s primary research interests are the collapse of complex societies, landscape abandonment, and the archaeology of islands. Together we will conduct an archaeological survey of the abandoned island of Swona, off the coast of Orkney. Keir is interested in making a full archaeological survey of the abandonment on the island, which was last inhabited in 1974. This New Collaboration Bursary is funding an initial research trip to the island in August 2014. Whilst Keir carries out an initial archaeological survey of selected dwellings over a one week period, I will conduct my own photographic survey. My art practice explores home, the poetics of space place and memory. Last year I worked as an Artist is Residence at a longhouse excavation in the Highlands. I am interested in the parallels of the process of excavation, of peeling back the layers of earth to reveal evidence of the past and the indexical quality of a photograph to record reality.
During this initial research trip to the island of Swona I will visit the site to document the abandoned houses, capturing clues about the old residents from the belongings left behind, using photography and video. I propose to make a new body of work on the island of Swona exploring the archeology of abandonment. Taking into account the specifics of this story: the hurried abandonment, the intimate size of the island, the proximity to the restless sea, and of nature taking over the domestic spaces.
This bursary is allowing me to begin the process of a new type of collaborative practice with a specialist from a completely different discipline: archaeology. I discovered a link with my practice and the process of archaeology during a residency I undertook last summer at the Timespan Heritage Museum in Scotland. Timespan organised an excavation and invited me to be an Artist in Residence during the excavation because of my interest in the home and abandonment in my previous projects. This new collaborative bursary opportunity is enabling me to continue this research stream and work together with an archaeologist to create a joint survey of the site of Swona: exploring the archaeology of abandonment, through a traditional archaeological survey and visual art response. The first being far more about absolute measurements, mapping and plans, with the second concentrating on the emotion and perspective of abandonment.