ART & NATURE IN THE OUTER HEBRIDES
Whittles Publishing, 2023, 224 pages
Paperback: £18.99 | ISBN 978-1-84995-566-9
Review by Barry Larking
Author Bruce Kendrick states: “This book combines my nature writing with the stories of several artistic folk who create their wonderful art in these remote islands”.
Since the early 19th century the attraction of the countryside or sea shore has been a pull on creative types, and not just visual artists; Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh, or Peter Maxwell Davies’ Orkney come to mind. Earlier examples include Samuel Palmer’s Shoreham pals, the Cranbrook colony, the Newlyn School and the celebrated St Ives group, plus many other, lesser-known artists’ colonies dotted about the British Isles. One of the attractions was financial; places to live and work in what were then neglected regions, once attractively cheap. Thanks to artists in large part raising the profile and gentrifying these places, very few are today. Nature, solitude and eking out some sort of creative existence has its history.
In a country where when strangers meet they greet each other by commenting on the safe subject of the weather, the variation and unpredictability of climate draws something out of artists, poets and writers in a way, say, Greece or Italy, cannot. Shakespeare set his plays in foreign parts, but for drama he chose storm and fury falling on deserted coasts, or desolate moors, and magic in forests. Character is found in mood and transformation, and these islands still have some of that.
But one has to travel further now to discover genuinely remote vibes. Just under a century ago Eric Ravillious and Peggy Angus could sample it in deepest Sussex. One would be pushed now to experience anywhere in an increasing and unstoppably expanding population to get what they found on the Downs then; Where now is truly remote? And why is that a prerequisite for some artists? For some it is out there on the fringes of this archipelago of many islands. Bruce Kendrick finds it about as far as one can go, without leaving altogether.
Across the Highlands of Scotland many artists and makers have set up homes and studios. Yet the tranquillity and remoteness, chiefly once the draw, has been opened up. The first pioneer’s hand painted signs along single-track roads have been superseded by bespoke corporate style advertising hoardings, the only realistic way to stop a car doing 60 on a proper A class road.
Bruce Kendrick has been visiting the island chain of the Outer Hebrides since 1971, just ahead of me. So we who went in those days have seen many changes, but fewer in some islands than others. Getting out to the Hebrides and from one to another has also been transformed, but the tide of progress has not yet reached it all.
Kendrick makes a road (and boat) trip starting from the north:
“For reasons I can’t quite fathom, I always travel south from Lewis, slowly by many causeways and two ferry crossings, to Vatersay a small island off Barra.”
Along this demanding journey, he takes in birds, people and some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere, that at times defies description, inspires simple veneration. The journal of his adventure is the books spine. He meets with avian rarities and engages with history, stories, legends and brutal economic history. There is a healthy amount of realism here. No attempt to deny the world outside; this is no tourist guide with all the gritty bits and rough edges filed away.
This refusal to be just passive sightseers pervades the makers who provide the Art of the title; this is not of the gift shop variety. Each is challenging themselves to understand something greater than the pleasing. They succeed in deepening our attention. One, a ceramist, has taken a Celtic understanding of the earthly underpinnings of our direct physical relationship to place in her Feminist practice; the land, our bodies and Nature encompassing our human condition. We cannot be separated from ourselves and the implications of life, birth and knowledge, thoughts that press against the mind here like in no others. Paints scrapped and scarified, stones laid one to another as ancient as any Neolithic tomb, or pots shapely as seals, fired with local sawdust and seaweed, contribute to the birth of engaging responses born of empathy.
Several times Kendrick’s keen eye comes across ‘blow ins’, birds driven on those perpetual westerlies that make the Atlantic the great ocean of continuous movement and changing mood, to find safety on a strange shore. These wanderers (vagrants is surely a worn-out terminology?) make their landfall here, evading hordes of fans with telescopes as elsewhere, a precious discovery and lasting record.
However, culture is never far from thoughts here out on the edge. One can barely look for seeing its forms and leavings, and no present enthusiasm can blot it out. Here stones do speak. This dimension is amplified in an excursion Kendrick makes out to St Kilda, but is not felt only in that emblematic place. History endures. It is not ever over. It is all around on these islands.
Thoughtful, never glib, Art & Nature in the Outer Hebrides will stir up memories for many readers and encourage others to make similar journeys of the mind as much as sight.