There’s nothing like boarding a ship for a sense of liberty. When I wheeled my bicycle onto the CalMac ferry heading across the Minch to North Uist, my panniers were packed with camping things, sketchbooks, pens and colour pencils. As ropes were cast from the quay, I felt I had slipped my responsibilities.
In the summer of 2016 I signed up with the University of the Highlands and Islands for a one-week summer school ‘Art and Archaeology’ based at the arts centre, Taigh Chearsabhagh. North Uist is one of those entrancing Hebridean islands with curving shell-sand beaches and a particularly rich heritage of Neolithic chambered cairns. Spending three days with an archaeologist in the field and two days responding creatively seemed sure to bring relief from the clamour of words and the frustrations of the novel I was ‘parking’ back home. I was intent on forgetting my narrative (about forgetting) for a while.
Back in the early eighties, my degree combined English Literature and Fine Art because I couldn’t choose between them. Even then I’d been drawn to remnants of other lives embedded in ancient landscapes: the stones of Avebury, the Uffington White Horse. The layering of mysteries often surfaces in my writing — and is explicit in my novel Call of the Undertow, where cartographers delve into mythic as well as material remains. But I also think of the process of fiction-writing as archaeological.
I learnt on North Uist that the making of a stone circle might have been more meaningful than the resulting monument; how to scrape at a midden to reveal strata of bones and burning; the use of a 5 x 5 grid to make an accurate site drawing. I learnt about the palimpsest, buildings on top of buildings, revealed, for example, by excavations on the north-west peninsula of Udal which proved a continuous legacy of occupation from Neolithic times through to the nineteenth century.
It was on these successive layers that archaeologist Iain Crawford was to concentrate for 30 years, from the early nineteen-sixties onwards. His discoveries included circular buildings from the Iron Age, now thought to have been homes and referred to as ‘wheelhouses’. Extraordinarily, the knowledge that he gained wasn’t published at the time and therefore wasn’t shared. Additionally, the location, far out on an Atlantic promontory, means that remains are gradually being eroded by storms. Here was a story of erosion, tides, encroaching sea and amnesia.
Amongst the finds were two quartz pebbles painted with curved lines and dots. They’re similar to decorated pebbles found in Caithness, Orkney and, particularly, Shetland. Experimental archaeology suggests that the long-surviving pigment was made from distilled peat tar, possibly connecting them to metal workers. The origin and progeny of the Udal stones are not yet determined, but the Shetland equivalents are dated from the middle through to late Iron Age and into the Pictish period. It’s speculated they were charms of some sort.
I decided on this place, and these pebbles, as the focus for my creative work, and cycled to Udal, pitching my tent on the Western dunes. For the next twenty hours I had a two-mile long, west-facing beach to myself. At low tide I collected twenty-five washed up quartz pebbles — the whitest and smoothest ones. I let them dry for a short time and then painted designs onto each with waterproof inks. I used a wide palette, but imitated the original patterns — Saltire-like arrangements of curved lines and dots, and other simple motifs. I loved the materiality of the whole experience: the clack of the stones together, the ink and sand on my fingers.
My writing process often involves physicality. I understand the interaction of characters with specific landscapes through explorations on foot. I sometimes sketch as a way of getting under the skin of a place. It’s a way of making my narrative real and material. Visiting a recent Joan Eardley exhibition, I was struck by the immediacy of her preparatory sketches. A flurry of overlaid pastel put me amidst the scratch and scent of a rich autumn hedgerow; energetic bursts of line and shade stood me in the face of an approaching storm.
When asked about her artistic influences, she said: ‘As a matter of fact my greatest influence is looking at nature. I never look at other paintings at all.’ The excitement I felt at this exhibition made me long to get my hands dirty and face the elements; it reinforced my impulse to really look as a way of knowing. I’ve become increasingly convinced that all my writing arises from the looking I learnt to do through drawing and painting; that literature and fine art are not so far apart after all.
On my Atlantic beach, engrossed by observing the sun and tide as my process gathered its own momentum and rules, problems with my novel could not have been further from my thoughts. I raced the high tide to prepare my pebbles, ran up and down the dunes to my tent, took photos, documented time and stages in my notebook. At 18.32 I committed words in black waterproof ink to the reverse side of the stones. Each of the twenty-five had some significance to the place I was in and the story of encroaching amnesia.
The tide reached its full height at 19.15. Wind came up and the sky suddenly cleared, the low sun highlighting white sand, the weathered grain of a timber post, my rows of stones waiting, luminous. Extensive views opened north to the peaks of Harris and east across the grasses and flowers of the machair to the island of Oronsay. Finally the retreating tide allowed me to settle my 5 x 5 pebble grid. It was a game with the forthcoming high tide. Afterwards, I’d discover which words the sea had selected for my ‘found poem’.
By 9.25 the next morning the sea had been in and out far enough to reveal its choices. But on the still-wet sands, it was clear that, unlike the pigments I’d mimicked, my so-called ‘waterproof’ inks had not stood the test of this blink of time. I wandered the shoreline, found quartz pebbles whose shapes seemed familiar, but were blank. That is, all except for two. Both had lost their coloured pattern. But one remained clearly marked with the word ‘wheel’ and another retained a ghostly remnant of the word ‘share’. Appropriate words, I felt. The wheel of time. The need to share memory, if it’s not to be eroded.
I cycled back to Lochmaddy, to rejoin my fellow students. I’d forgotten from my art college days the conviviality of the shared studio, where ideas transfer – sometimes wordlessly – and spark against each other. Some of my peers had taken an oblique, playful approach to past, present and materiality, mimicking archaeological processes and producing artefacts, an approach like something I’d seen in the work of Cornelia Parker. Emulating archaeological methods, I collected my two lightly-marked pebbles into small bags, categorised and recorded them as ‘findings’, and constructed a small book in which they appear. My outcome was negligible, yet I felt content.
I learnt about archaeology as a discipline that week too: the territorialism arising from individuals belonging to a particular institution, defining themselves by period, approach and geography. How they might refrain from using imagination as a method of understanding the past, even though in our own discussions we agreed that our experience of being human could itself provide insight. And I learnt of the tendency, and danger to a community’s learning, of some archaeologists continuing to dig rather than writing up and sharing their knowledge.
When I returned home to my novel, I quickly realised what should have been obvious to me, that my protagonist had trained as an archaeologist, aware of the possible dangers of being a ‘digger’ rather than a sharer. The core theme that I’m working with, the erosion of memory, was central to both stories; at home and away. It turned out that this ‘time out’ was an opportunity for my subconscious to find a different way of looking at my material while I thought I was off-duty.
I’m determined to board more ships soon, and sail for other art forms.