Virtual Symposium : Imagining an Island

Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art centre

Date Friday 25th – Saturday 26th September 2020

Venue Galleries 1 and 2

Event Types: Arts, Environment, Film, Heritage, Visual Arts

A two-day Symposium, in collaboration with University of the Highlands & Islands, Centre for Rural Creativity and the Art School at UHI, North Uist, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, foregrounding Contemporary Landscape Practices in Photography and Film.

An island is a singular place, its boundaries are clearly defined. It is both a microcosm of the World and a philosophical idea. It is a place that invites departure and return and it is a place that engages our imagination whilst continually inspiring re-definition. How have artists responded to these concepts, and how can we further engage with, and develop our understanding of these ideas through Arts Practice?

Using a range of approaches with Contemporary Artists working in Photography and Film, this event will explore the inter-connectedness between people and places, and ask how this is changing and offering new perspectives, due to newly developed technologies and the availability of virtual communication. The Symposium will address our assumptions around identity, belonging, culture and citizenship along with questioning the development of new identities as a result of global diaspora.


We will be exploring Contemporary Rural Life, moving away from the prevalent idealised and nostalgic representations, questioning who is defining and shaping the culture and landscape today, and assessing how artists responses to these new practices sit within more conventional and historic frameworks.

Proposed CONTRIBUTORS to include (subject to confirmation)
Amund Bentsen and Benjamin Skop : Professor John Kippin and Nicola Neate : Rosie Blake : Robin Gillanders: Professor Keith McIntyre : Professor Ysanne Holt : Joshua Bonnetta : Andy Mackinnon : Maya Darrell-Hewins : Dr. Roxane Permar.

Exhibitions by John Kippin and Nicola Neate; Amund Bentsen and Benjamin Skop together with an open call photographic exhibition curated by Rosie Blake will be open during the Symposium. There will be film screenings curated by Andy Mackinnon included in the programme.

Some contributors will be presenting live from Taigh Chearsabhagh. Other contributors and audience will access remotely online. Registration details tbc.


Paradise Misplaced

Weather: There have been a couple of sunny days, but for the most part of it, the weather has been overcast, damp and decidedly wintery.

There have been some calm, still wet days, that the famous Scottish midges love. For these occasions we have been given (courtesy of Dr. Sean Kippin) and are field testing  Cubby’s Midge Salve, ‘made with love in Glasgow’ . It smells very nice and we live in hope.

When London and the rest of the UK was having a heat wave, we were wearing two jumpers and needed hats to go outside. The summer solstice on June 21st was cloud covered this year – which for novice skywatchers appears unremarkable. Still what ever the weather in Uist one can always say it is ‘BIG’!

As we move into the next phase of lock-down, small changes start to become noticeable, most recently it is the wearing of masks in the shops and in all unbubbled encounters – this  was implemented on the 10th July. The experience of the mask is unpleasant. Anyone who wears glasses, which we both do – firstly you need to smear soap on your lenses – this stops them from fogging up, although we have been further informed (by key workers) that this only works for short periods. All day mask wearers, with glasses, are going to be struggling. Breathing in a mask is also claustrophobic and meeting fellow ‘masketeers’ is an almost ridiculous encounter. The fact that this very surreal happening has descended upon the world, and such extreme measures are being put in place is scary, and also, at  times unbelievable. Being here, in Uist, it has been extra difficult to comprehend, as there have been no reported cases (yet), although we are all living under the constant impending fear that we will all be subjected to COVID-19 … soon.

 “We’re doomed!”

On a very much more somber note – we have been hearing from people and friends about peculiar illnesses and there have even been some unexpected and sudden deaths, which we are sad and devastated about. This really is a very frightening and hyper-realistic time, that as regular people, we could not have predicted and certainly can not imagined. What will the new normal be like?

Our stay at Minish has been spectacular and we feel blessed to have stayed in such a beautiful location. In the past few weeks, at Minish, a splendid short-eared owl, with a face like a wizard, visits regularly, gliding low, swooping circles, mapping the terrain for mice and rats. The cuckoo, which last year was loud and clear all summer long, has not been as vocal this year. Perhaps it has a new patch, or maybe the weather was not been quite right? The seals, are definitely fair-weather creatures, they only sunbathe on the rocks when the wind is warm and calm, and most luxuriously when it is sunny. This year the Herons have used the Minish flight path, to the sea loch, to collect food for their nesting chicks. Herons in flight are a joy to see, graceful strong wing movements, streamlined, from long beak to long feet. The surrounding sheep have also got to know and trust us, the lambs are now fat and independent…

As we drove away from Minish, to the house in Lochmaddy, a Golden Eagle soared  overhead, circling witnessing our departure. According to Pure Spirit Eagle Symbolism

“When an eagle appears, you are on notice to be courageous and stretch your limits. Do not accept the status quo, but rather reach higher and become more than you believe you are capable of. Look at things from a new, higher perspective. Be patient with the present; know that the future holds possibilities that you may not yet be able to see. You are about to take flight.”

We feel forever hopeful…

We have now moved into the Big City of Uist – Lochmaddy. It is a cute cottage, with lovely neighbours. There is a garden that ends at the moorland, which stretches out to the horizon, with some good looking fishing lochs. We have already spotted red deer stags at the end of the garden, so close that the velvet covering on their antlers was easily visible. The deer are not always revered here, they have a reputation of increasing the tic population and destroying gardens, but we love them, and sat watching them, whilst they also watched us looking at them, until they silently danced away, disappearing into the camouflage of the heather and bracken.

Our time here, so far, has in some ways been idyllic (even with COVID-19) and much of what we describe is the beauty of this place, but we are not naïve in our expectations and our decision to take up residence here has been very considered. Remote places can be challenging environments to interact with and the communities can, at times be inscrutable –  this period of lockdown has proven intensified and tested the best of us.

Andy MacKinnon, the curator at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts centre has done an exemplary job, embracing Virtual Reality software to develop and create online exhibitions and events.

The virtual opening of our exhibition ‘In this Day and Age’ (work in progress) was on 3rd of July and this was shown as part of an event that included The Living Wall, Uist Arts Association – Summer Open Exhibition, and Ecognosis by Benjamin Skop and Amund Bentsen

Our Exhibition will run, in a virtual and eventually, (hopefully) actually until 24th September and it will coincide with the Symposium and the Open call, projected and virtual Photographic exhibition. We are thinking, perhaps, a closing event might be permitted by this time?

This has been a very busy period for us, despite the fact that there have been no actual physical social events or distractions.

We have moved house, selected and hung our photographic images for the work in progress exhibition, we have taken part in a zoom conversation for NEPN and the zoom seminar for Shetland College UHI, Centre for Rural Creativity –  A3 Session – ‘Imagining An Island’. We have also been preparing for the forthcoming Symposium ‘Imagining and Island’ and are part of the selecting panel, along with Rosalind Blake for the open call exhibition, which is now confirmed to all take place in September

Meanwhile, there have been numerous and significant Black Lives Matter protests in other parts of the U.K. Statues have been tumbling and H.M.G. is busy confusing everyone about what they may or may not do, (even senior government advisors).. The football season has restarted. After a promising re-start, Newcastle United have been knocked out of the cup (surprise!) and the Scottish easing of lockdown is slowly unfolding. We are expecting to see summer visitors to the island with the ferries fully operating again around the 15th July or so. 

Our cats have had a wonderful time in the fields surrounding the Minish house. Angelo is the boss cat who comes and goes as he pleases. Alice, our young, slightly clumsy Siamese cat, was so excited one sunny morning, whilst chasing a fly in the bedroom, that she shot out of the roof window and fell 20 feet onto the ground below – Completely, unhurt and unflustered. Her beautifully bred characteristics make her a liability in the natural environment and we are concerned about her new love of the outdoors because of the risk that an Eagle might take her. We will ensure this does not happen to her!

We would sincerely like to thank all those individuals who have contributed to the work in progress, In This Day and Age. THANK YOU!

In This Day and Age

In this Day and Age is a photographic project about people who have moved to the Western Isles from other places, both from within and from outside of the U.K. This work was conceived as, and will later become a book publication. An island is a singular place, with clearly defined boundaries. It is both a microcosm of the World and a philosophical idea. It is a place that invites departure and return and it is a place that continually inspires re-definition.

We are interested in the interconnections between people and places, and how this is changing and offering new perspectives. We are here to listen, to and to incorporate the reflections and experiences of the people in this place, whatever they may be. Important questions for us are, Why have people made the islands their home; What are the relationships forged between people and places; Who belongs where?

By working and photographing new settlers rather than indigenous people, we are exploring some of the common assumptions around identity, belonging, culture and citizenship, along with investigating the development of new identities as a result of global diaspora.

We are focussing on present-day elements and characteristics that are developing in communities due to increased social mobility, and are interested in how (and if) this has liberated and benefitted this place. From our base in North Uist, we are also making images of the surrounding places and landscapes. These are contextual, and are intended to create a narrative which we hope has the potential to tell numerous stories.

Through our blog, social media presence and community involvement we are interested in creating a more participatory and socially engaged practice.

Kippin and Neate   2020

The exhibition will be a virtual one initially until the gallery, at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre, in North Uist, can re-open to the public once again.

Imagining an Island

To coincide with our ‘work in progress’ exhibition at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Gallery there will be a Symposium ‘Imagining an Island’, together with an opportunity for the wider public to become involved, through an open photographic exhibition.

For full details on the requirements for submissions please visit:
or contact Rosie Blake:
Details of the wider project can be found at:

A Pie for Breakfast

Weather: Cold, misty and windy with some heavy rain.

After a beautiful April, the weather has deteriorated somewhat. There have been spells of hot sunshine in many parts of the UK that we can only dream of but the weather here has made it difficult to get out much. This has necessitated much inward activity, appropriate during lockdown, which persists at maximum strength on the islands. We have spent much of our time making a short video presentation for the North- East Photo Network (NEPN) searching through such video footage that we have made and constructing some kind of narrative about our project from it. There have also been lots of Zoom activities, one with Photography students from the Royal College of Art (RCA). another with the NEPN and the University of Sunderland, others have been with the students at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).

There have also been those with family and friends, and it is difficult not to feel the dreaded Zoom fatigue as the situation continues unchanged. We also attended the first virtual gallery opening at Taigh Chearsabhagh where lots of folk sat in splendid isolation sipping their glasses of wine to excellent exhibitions never to be seen in the flesh (so to speak) by the human eye. The life drawing has continued although some models are viewed by such wide-angle lenses that their limbs appear to be suffering from some terrible wasting disease. Clearly the difference between the single point wide angle perspective of a basic lens and the apprehension of the human eye(s) and the brain are in need of some examination and thought with regard to online classes. We are told that in the future this brave new world will dominate our learning and cultural experiences so there is nothing there to worry about.

We have managed to get out a little, once to Balashare beach, a beautiful, windswept, west facing beach with white sand and turquoise sea. The winter storms have damaged much of the hard standing and the gravel road to the beach, and a lone operative was patiently piling stones in the holes that had been subsequently created. We were also able to retrieve out Trail camera which had been fixed onto a post close to a watering hole for deer. We have had mixed fortunes with this device although there have been a couple of good images there have also been lots of uneventful images and moving images. Due to the wind we have not yet repositioned it but intend to persevere with it once the weather changes.

The local Co-op seems to be managing lockdown distancing rules better as people get used to the space restrictions. There is, of course, the usual dysfunctional ballet when shoppers pirouette around one another, occasionally holding their breath and rushing past each other when in a rush, or they have become pinioned into a corner when they hesitate and realise that they need to go back because they have forgotten something, or approaching a check out with a single item behind another shopper with a trolley full of shopping. Such anxiety as this is an everyday occurrence as we approach the Perspex shielded tills slotting our plastic money through the gaps in biological shielding. Any serious shortages appear to have rescinded, and we now have plenty of flour and toilet paper (so are able to make papier mache items to keep ourselves amused).

We, like many others, have been busy baking and have been making Sourdough focaccia, lemon polenta cake, and brownies. These have been sent out as food parcels to places as far away as Glasgow and London, thus ensuring that the pleasurable aspects of life in lockdown experiences can be shared. We have also been nettle picking and the peat-land nettle pesto experience is not to be underestimated. The other development regarding food consumption is that we have taken to the occasional indulgence of Mrs Tilley’s sea salt fudge which is spectacular, recommended, and not for the faint hearted, oh – and we have learned that there is such a thing as a breakfast pie..

We are now 65 days into lockdown, COVID-19 has well and truly set in, of which we are constantly reminded, on every news and media channel. An apocalyptic unfolding of events envelopes the weeks, which seem to drift into each other. The recent weather on the Island, of persistent and engulfing mists, supported by a humid thick air makes it feel like we have been held hostage inside a cloud. The days are not all like this but the the cloud covering has created an hypnotic atmosphere, we imagine that this must be what it feels like to be stranded on an Island…

We have had several sightings of Herons over the sea loch – they are nesting in a near by forest plantation. A beautiful short eared owl has also taken up residence around the croft, and can be seen, particularly at crepuscular times, gliding and swooping across the boggy moorland. The lambs are bigger and fatter and are no longer threatened by the sea eagles.

The glorious flowers of the machair have started to appear: bog cotton, sea thrift daisies and many more that we are yet to learn the names of.

Why the Machair is special

We try to maintain some semblance of a routine, regular yoga, walks and a strict control on our alcohol consumption, which could easily have become excessive, and for some (looking at the emerging statistics) has. We, like everyone else, look forward to being able to meet and greet people/friends, without being chaperoned by Zoom, Skype (or any of the other platforms), that seem to have miraculously appeared, in order to minister to our needs during lockdown.

Our cats, Alice and Ange, continue to exist, confident that this is their undeniable right and that it is our duty to feed them. They are always alert and aware of each other – prepared and ready to defend their absurd territories – usually their own special basket or cat litter domains.


Weather: Cool at times with the winds slowly dropping and shifting from the North around to the more usual South Westerly direction. Sunny and bright. Small rain showers, mainly in the night.

The Spring tides have been exceptionally high as is usual, for time of year. The full (pink) moon on the 7th of April, was largely obscured by cloud. What could be seen did not appear pink sadly. There have however been some glorious sunrises – the colours of a peach, which have reflected gold into the surrounding lochs and there have been some beautiful sunny days with a fresh cool breeze. We have managed to have a couple of picnics in the garden, and even put the tent up for a couple of days (also in the garden) – although this was a little optimistic.

This is day 44 of Lockdown, May 5th 2020, it feels as if we are sleepwalking. To date there are no cases of COVID-19 on the island, so just in case.. all of the necessary precautions are being taken, and all of the distancing recommendations are being followed.

The Co-op shop, once a pleasant and social event, has now become a little stressful. The tills are surrounded with glass barriers, like they have in banks, and the floors are marked with angry fluoride tape pointing one-way directions, for customers to shuffle through, 2 metres behind someone else. Toilet rolls are scarce and flour and liquid antiseptic soap is still absent from the shelves. Other shops have workers wearing what look like clear welding masks, these mist up with their breath, and are open at the bottom. It is safe to say it has become unpleasant to go shopping, and a process of grabbing the required items hastily has become our norm, we no longer stop to chat. Nevertheless, under the circumstances the local shops are all doing sterling work, and we applaud them.

We have heard that the Post Office is going into overdrive, busier even, than at Christmas. Certainly, we have both contributed to this, sending parcels to our lockdown kin, parcels that would not have been sent, except for the unusual circumstances.

The local lochs are also amazingly untroubled by anglers, the fish at least will be celebrating our COVID-19 plague, and the traffic, even in this remote part of the world, has been reduced. There have been no tourists and no caravans or motorhomes.

April 13th, we were exercising by a nearby loch. The air was cold and sharp but the day was sunny and still. We, stood, watching some seals lolling about on the rocks – a stunning sight, and to have it at the bottom of the garden (better and more magical, even, than fairies).

We feel blessed to be here and fortunate that we chose to be here, at this time in our lives and ‘In This Day and Age’.

Our crofting neighbours Andy and Effie, have put four of their ewe’s together with their eight, now sturdy lambs, into the fields around Minish house. Their bleating and dancing presence is a reminder, should we need one, that spring is a special and optimistic time of year. Two of the ewes had twins, one had triplets and one had single lamb. Apparently, many of the sheep across the islands have had twins this year – this is a great fortune for the Crofters, doubling and in some cases further extending their existing flock.

Luckily for us and the people who live here, there has been more local fish produce available to buy, because of lockdown. We celebrated this and had a wonderful seafood weekend with langoustines, crab and lobster (a delicious cholesterol fest) with a loaf of Raphael’s wonderful sourdough bread. He and Rosie also gave us some starter dough to make our own bread. We, like the rest of the Nation, are all baking away! 

The internet has been a lifeline for us and for everyone else, it has come into its own. We have conducted online tutorials, conference calls. Schools are providing Zoom classes – a new era has undoubtedly begun.

We have had some excellent family, social-media events courtesy of Skype, Zoom and Facetime, including inter-generational Easter egg painting, life drawing and some essential social catch ups.

Online classes have enabled situations such as:  The Thursday life drawing class, that we have been doing, which is hosted in Glasgow with the model in Brussels and the contributing artists from throughout the U.K. and one from Australia. It is, of course different to drawing from life in a room, as it uses the eye of the camera to define the model rather than the eye of the artist – this could be a useful tool and way of working, in the future, for people living in remote places. There is, even, the talk of smartphone monitoring apps to test for the ‘virus’ the new world will be accountable, trackable and privacy will be carefully controlled.

However, lockdown and seeing only each other for days and days on end can be challenging, even in paradise. At this point we both consider and talk about some of the difficulties that some people and families are going through this time. Families without gardens, with dependency issues, with financial concerns and there must be people (even) without the internet.  We are delighted to have been asked to donate one of our works to Trace, an online art fair offering affordable work by international photographers in aid of the two charities charities Crisis and Refuge.

Our daily online Yoga sessions have taken on a new importance, enveloping the house in incense and transporting us to a retreat in India as time appears to have slowed to accommodate this practice.  Alice, cat enjoys these languid, soothing sessions and participates freely, but not in any helpful way.

Trail camera

There have been lots of movement from the abundant bird life in the area. We have seen many owls, thrushes, geese, swans, many varieties of duck and gull, cormorants, shag, redwings, skylarks, oyster catchers, curlews, sandpipers, herons and redshanks and most recently, a cuckoo ‘the sound of summer’. There is much nesting and mating activity. The grey seals are plentiful and sunbathe on the nearby islands, silver in the sunshine and occasionally making strange impatient sounding barking sounds. On a recent walk, close to Lochmaddy a pair of Golden Eagles passed close by over our heads. It was the closest sighting yet. For once the binoculars were at hand, and we were amazed at these incredible birds as they flew over the high ground before spiralling high into the distant blue sky. It was a breath-taking experience. We frequently see both Golden Eagles and Sea Eagles close to the house but it is very unusual to see these amazing, almost prehistoric, creatures at such close quarters.

Trail camera

Whilst walking on the moorland nearby we watched as the herons make their noisy way to their nesting sites in the nearby woods. There is a beautiful site on top of a rocky outcrop to stop and have lunch by the burn. we rested here, whilst fixing a wildlife ‘trail’ camera to a nearby bridge. When previously using this camera closer to home we made some relatively unimpressive images of sheep but we are hoping for something more exciting at this new site.

Boris Johnson has returned to work. What it is to have a hero at our time of need.

Ange (AKA the white lion) has been enjoying the warm, light nights and rewards us with an array of dead, headless rodents. The ticks are back and we now need to check his dense white fur for the nasty black ‘crawlies’. Alice cat is sweet and loving, she chases flies, whilst subtly conducting psychological turf wars with Ange.

We watched ‘Contagion’ on Netflix, it is difficult to say why, but at least we now know that it was Gwyneth Paltrow that started it…

Bat Shit Crazy 😜

Weather: this is improving, with milder and fewer windy days and there have also been breaks from the incessant rain.

We have now experienced two weeks of ‘lockdown’ and on the surface the alterations to daily life are not as obvious as they would be in a city or in a more populated place, but the quality of the days have changed. Somehow the knowledge that COVID-19 has resulted in a global lock-down permeates and threatens all places, even remote ones.

The days, however, continue to get longer and lighter, the wind still blows but the promise of Spring is in the air. The primroses have started to come up, we even spotted a couple of summer daisies and the roadsides are now lined with windswept, almost fading, daffodils.

Although there is not a massive shopping mall, to stroll around, the public social venues that are here: The Westford Inn, Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre, Sgoil Lionacleit Sport Centre, the various little cafés, the travelling Screen machine Cinema, all the yoga classes – have all shut for an indefinite amount of time. This has impacted the community. Social distancing has also been firmly implemented in the super-markets, which all now have 2 metre distancing, warning tape stuck to the floor throughout. Logistically, maintaining a 2-metre gap between customers, at all times, can be difficult. The narrow aisles and small spaces are not designed for these extreme measures, and can make for some awkward encounters. Despite there being a small population here there was still a ‘distancing’ queue outside MacLennans Supermarket in Benbecula, although this appeared good natured and somewhat baffled.

The local, North Uist gin distillery ‘Downpour’ is now making hand sanitiser, the first batch of this they gave free to caress, nurses and essential staff – this is in  the true ‘Island’ spirit, which is much appreciated and community minded. This sanitiser is also, now available in all the local shops to ‘fill your own container’. Great initiative, lovely people, well done Jonny and Kate but don’t forget the gin!

Social media has come into its own, and the daily Facebook, Instagram and Twitter inserts express a variety of ways in which we are all dealing with our new isolated existence.

There are the songs, pictures of fun social events or holidays. Food and baking have been very popular (in fact flour has been, along with toilet roll and soap rather scarce). We have, ourselves, even put some themed dinners online, an amazing Indian curry and a tribute to the two beautiful freshly-caught loch trout. Hair cutting has also been a popular activity. Humour is still present in a lot of posts. There have also been some inspired online classes, which include yoga, drawing and a diversity of other pretty amazing initiatives. Hobbies are foregrounded, motorcycles polished to perfection and fabrics sewn and all are proudly ‘shared’ for the greater and wider community that exists in a slightly alarming virtual ‘big brother caring’ kind of way.

 At other times, it is possible to feel that we are trying to tell ourselves that we all have the inner resources to cope with loneliness and isolation, to work through difficult problems of noisy neighbours (something we don’t have here) and complex relationships issues that become highlighted and exacerbated due to too much proximity and time together.

Most of our normal indoor activities remain as ever, focussed on our artwork, but we have expanded our leisure time to include Backgammon and we have now purchased a draughts and chess set. Our new routine has been to open the day with a yoga session (each to their own level…) and weather permitting, to take a long walk. This helps with cabin fever and keeping fit and ensures that we continue to engage with the world. We feel blessed to have this much freedom of movement and cannot imagine how families are coping in high rise flats, or how a single person is coping with the solitude of their own company. Our evenings begin around 5- 6:30pm with a game of Backgammon, this has been enjoyable and we are even becoming reasonable players.

This pandemic, COVID-19, has developed so quickly and globally. Everything is set to change, many shops and major retail outlets will disappear, pubs will remain closed, much of education, finance and commerce will use the opportunity to develop their programmes online, jobs will become even more casualised.

The arts will take years to recover with increasing amounts of public money being used to support the major flagship organisations to the cost of all others. Cash transactions will most likely now will also soon be prohibited. No doubt we will all soon get use to this new regime, we are adaptable, if nothing else.

Let us hope that the heroes of this pandemic, the frontline workers, in particular the NHS teams will not be quietly forgotten, and put back in the shade, and let us hope that those of us in Education and the Arts will have the opportunity to ensure that the things we value the most will grow and be valued in the future. Let us also hope that the Arts are not further side-lined, as creativity in the Arts and Sciences will deliver the only hope that we have for all our futures.

There are no known cases of the virus so far on North Uist although it has been mentioned, through the grapevine (the post office) that there are couple of confirmed case on Lewis.

The virus has also reached Orkney and Shetland.

Alice cat and Ange (AKA the White Lion) are seemingly unperturbed by this crisis, even though cats can be infected by COVID-19!

The Siege

Weather: Rain, rain and more rain.

Reporting as John Kippin and Nicola Neate : We have been living on North Uist for just over a year. During that time we have moved house on three separate occasions; we have had a catastrophic general election resulting in a reactionary Conservative Government; much of the World has caught fire due to accelerated Climate Change; the U.K. has ‘left’ the E.U; has been one of the wettest winters for years; and if we were not isolated enough by virtue of living on the Western Isles, we are now obliged to further isolate ourselves due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) sweeping across the World, although at the time of writing , there are no known cases in the Outer Hebrides.

A one year commitment to writing a diary/blog, to document our time and activities for the  project ‘In this Day and Age’ was our goal, however, we have reconsidered this decision…given  the extraordinary sequence, of almost apocalyptic events, it feels incumbent upon us to continue to relate our experiences of life, and work, on this island and to further reflect upon these times, whilst continuing to work on our photographic book publication ‘In this Day and Age’.

Everything is being cancelled. The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) closed it’s doors on Wednesday the 11th March. Online teaching and tutorials are being put in place. We cannot go to the pub. The swimming pool and gym are closed, even yoga classes have dematerialised. The Arts Centre events have dwindled to a standstill. Our planned Symposium ‘Imaging an Island’ has been postponed, at least. Various exhibitions have been postponed although our ‘in progress’ exhibition will take place at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre, this summer.

There has not yet been a recorded case of COVID-19, however, there is an ageing population and should an out-break occur, it could prove catastrophic, as there are minimal medical facilities for intensive care patients. Consequently, the isolation and separation that is applied is essential. Quarantine in a remote place is different and possibly freer than it is in an urban environment. There is still the space and freedom to go on beautiful walks (weather permitting) and there is less temptation to want to go shopping or visit cinemas and cafés, but the silence has intensified and become slightly ominous and we worry about our children (now all adults) and grandchildren. We have had to cancel a planned Easter trip and meet-up (with family) in Glasgow, this is difficult and makes us feel a bit cut-off. Other small things that we have noticed are that people are becoming more cautious with each other and if there is an impromptu meeting, with a fellow being, there is a visible concern and distance is silently being adopted and added to the normal greeting behaviour and mannerisms. A new way of thinking and acting has perhaps begun and will likely not be undone easily.

The Co-ops here have also been afflicted by the much talked about ‘toilet roll collecting’ disease. Kitchen roll is also popular, as are boxes of tissues. The reasonably priced bottles of quality wines are thinning quickly, as alcohol has an obviously beneficial effect on (the concept of) impending isolation, tinned scotch broth is in short supply.. dried lentils are still happily available (for now) although the tinned bean shelves are considerably depleted and there is absolutely no hand sanitizer or soap which is in short supply. In addition to this, the Sunday papers have not arrived on many occasions over the winter due to the high winds making ferry crossings impossible … so no relief there either!

The Co-op’s staff however are commendable, cheerful and stoic in this crisis. A special ‘THANK YOU’ goes out to all those working directly with the public –  in ‘frontline’ services.

The characteristic weather here has been predominantly wet – evidently wetter than is usual. Taigh Chearsabhagh basement conference room flooded with the high Spring tides on the 10th and 11th of March (not all together an unusual occurrence). There is at least some encouragement with these floods in that ‘SPRING’ is on its way. The daffodils have begun to bloom.

About 6:00 Dawn and 19:30 Dusk in North Uist and the clocks have not even changed yet! The world is always a little easier to handle when it is warmer and lighter.

We took Alice, our one –year old Siamese cat to the Vet to be ‘spayed’. This has been the cause of much discussion and soul-searching but we are resolved that it was necessary. She is eating well and is recovering well in front of the fire.. Although, scratching and licking her bandaged wound has become an intense occupation, which is challenging to deter. Our other cat Angie (AKA the White Lion) continues to decimate the local rat population and to proudly present their eviscerated and dismembered carcasses at our door. Bless. 

‘End of Days’

Weather: Wet, wet, wet with hail, wet with some sleety snow and lots of wild wind storms, although still relatively mild with some welcome brief bursts of sunshine.

The puddles on the drive way/ car track, to the house, have become enlarged and a great plume of water envelops our vehicle when going to and from the homestead. The water sometimes makes one of the engine warning lights come on and reduces the efficiency of the brakes for a while, but we are still able to drive through without drowning. The storms, of which there have been three (Brendan Ciara and Dennis) have caused some coastal erosion and loss of land – this was highly evident on Balashare Beach. This beach is a special haunt for many of the North Uist residents, and Nicola and I spent much of our summer camping and swimming there. Not only was the coast line altered, a Minke whale and a baby seal got washed up alongside an enormous amount of plastic waste. This whale was then cut into pieces by a scientific team, to ascertain its stomach contents. Many pieces of the whale sadly remained on the beach looking like massive steaks.

The storms have of course, affected the whole country, and in many ways, this area has had some of the least damage. Possibly this is partly because houses on Uist are built with storms and flooding in mind. The landscape is already more water than land and seems to soak up additional water with only small visual adjustments apparent.

Some other, more humorous effects of the storms are: opening the car door can take up to 5 minutes. A handy tip: only open one door of your car (or house) at a time – if you want the contents to remain inside. Swans and other large birds can sometimes be seen suspended in mid-air – flapping their majestic wings – but not moving.

The waste and re-cycling wheelie bins are best left lying on the ground with their lids secured tightly with bungees, otherwise these will be found scattered, often with contents, along the roadside. Our post-box is weighted down with a heavy stone and this is sometimes challenging to lift in a stiff wind. There is always the abandoned microwave oven which is used as a backup for small items.

There has been a lot of hail with ice pellets that fire at your face, making trips to and from the house to the car, the car to the Co-op and back like crossing a mini firing range. The electricity has been temperamental, which has caused disruption – Internet blips; UHI College closed for a day; the local Co-op had to shut for a few hours on a couple of days; there have been no Sunday newspapers for 3 weeks! due to stormy seas; and the swimming pool closed early, which I found out, only after driving 25 miles… However, we are still here, and have been for one year as of the 15th February, which is both astonishing and unexpected and has been life changing for both of us. It has been over this year the Nicola and I have decided to permanently move to the Island. This adds a new dimension to our work here, which has become more open ended and is an ongoing venture that will in time unfold to a different plan.

We are a year into our project ‘In this Day and Age’ – it has been an epic undertaking. Making portraits of people and representing a community as diverse as this takes time. We are committed to an interactive kind of portraiture where all parties concerned can make an input to the final result, both in terms of their visual representation but also with some additional written inputs as appropriate. Nicola and I are steadily collecting a range of portraits and landscape pictures which we take, make and craft together. We enjoy the process of engagement with people and the extensive research and exploration that this involves. Some of this in progress work will be exhibited at Taigh Chearsabhagh in June. There will also be a two – day Symposium to discuss some of the issues that our work has precipitated, these are exiting times for us.

Our first portrait of the new year was of our next-door neighbour Andy. Andy is married to Effie who comes from North Uist. Effie makes fantastic cakes which we spent a half-hour or so eating, whilst drinking tea and having a catch-up blether, before the photo shoot. Andy has a beautiful 1950’s tractor which we managed to photograph him on, in between the rain and hail storms.

Trail camera

We have also visited J.P. who is the manager of the seaweed extraction plant on the island. J.P. generously gave us ‘the grand tour’ of the plant, introducing us to the people who work there, also showing us some video clips of the seaweed gathering processes that have been developed to efficiently collect this complex and valuable plant. Seaweed is being used as a bio- catalyst fertiliser and is relatively sustainable given sensible harvesting practices.

During the absence of our close neighbours, Nicola has been feeding the sheep on the croft that surrounds the house where we are staying. They are a mixture of black face and cheviots. She shouts out ‘trot, trot’ to them at feeding time, and they obediently trot to her, which is touching to see. It is said that sheep are rather stupid, but it seems that they just know what they want to know…

The weather has also brought about some magnificent sights, with pitch black skies lit up with spectacular fluorescent rainbows. We have had lovely romantic, cosy fireside dinners with euphoric ASMR rain sounds and sleeping in a storm can be quite exhilarating. The landscape has become a pale, damp yellow although there are signs of shoots emerging.

Winter is long and dark, but the geese are gathering, for their spring migration, and the daffodils are now in bud.

Alice has not ventured outside this winter, she prefers the safe warm haven of the house the fire and her lovely warm basket. She is also very fond of her toy mouse which she adores and wants to tirelessly play with. Ange will rush out the house, reluctantly (often with his ears back) for his toilet and the odd rat, but he too, seldom stays out for long before rushing back to the comfort of his basket.

We will be moving from this house shortly, as it has been sold. It is a special place, beautiful, elemental and challenging and we are both grateful to have stayed here. Our project is developing successfully and we look forward to the future. This blog has been an essential part of our work to date, and we will continue to discuss important developments regarding this project in due course.

Sheep Whisperer

Weather: Some wet days, mostly dry and bright, the 25th of December was particularly glorious. 28th December onwards – windy, stormy, very wet and overcast.

So much has happened in such a short time. The General Election unfolded pretty much as expected. Mr. Corbyn gifted the government of the UK to Boris Johnson by allowing  this election with its inappropriate timing to be all about Brexit – we now have five -long years to wait for an opportunity to vote-in a government with an agenda which is meaningfully socially progressive. Boris must have thought that Christmas had come early (for him)! Certainly there is no surprise in Scotland, what with virtually only representation from the S.N.P. – the cries for independence have understandably become ever more demanding, other agendas and policy discussions are inevitably taking a back seat. The call for ‘Indyref 2’ (ugh) becomes the only show in town..

Ordinary life, nevertheless, prevails – schools closed and the festive preparations began. The blissful lack of advertising on the island made the rampant Christmas consumerism less obvious and even gave me and Nicola space to appreciate the ‘gaudy’ Xmas jumpers worn by the co-op staff – although I have recently been informed that “Christmas jumpers add to the plastic pollution crisis”. ‘We humans’ have become an environmental disappointment!

Trail camera
Trail camera

The Hebridean Smokehouse is situated in Clachan on North Uist. The Smokehouse is a notable place to shop, whatever the season, and over the festive period (I am told) this becomes an extremely popular place to shop in and online. Their products are being sent to UK and non-UK addresses as well as to select Super Markets. Food Hampers are such a great gifts and Scottish Salmon, such as that produced at the Hebridean Smokehouse is a commodity that is scarcer than might be imagined. Most the Salmon farmed in Scotland is from Norwegian stock rather than from local strains as they are larger, and wild salmon are becoming a scarce commodity. Many people from this island work or have worked at this institution, and when in Newcastle recently, shopping at Waitrose, it was hard not to feel a certain pride in the elegant packing and presentation of their prime peat-smoked salmon and to wonder who had packed it… 

Nicola and I planned to spend Christmas in Glasgow with Abigale, Nicola’s youngest daughter, and to this end, set off in our van complete with Alice (our siamese cat) in her portable transporter, Needless to say she complained so loudly that by the time we had reached Portree on Skye, she was sitting on Nicola’s lap in the front passenger seat. This pattern continued for most of the day, with Alice being intermittently returned to her travel basket when she became too difficult. She did settle down though and the journey, although long and mostly in the dark with pouring rain, was tolerable. Angelo (the other cat was left in Uist, in charge of rat control, and was checked on by our friends and neighbours Keith and Fran).

Christmas eve – shopping in some of Glasgow’s more fashionable independent shops together with a visit to the local Morrison’s before taking off in a taxi to the Arlington Baths Club, where Abi is a member and Nicola and I could attend as guests. As before, it was ladies’ day in the wonderful Turkish Suite and Nicola and Abi could make the most of this. We also attempted swinging on the loops above the pool (with limited success) and Nicola shamed us both into jumping off the diving board. The rest of the Christmas period was spent quietly in the usual way, with periods of mild indulgence and relaxation, interspersed with a sharp winter walk in nearby Queens Park.

Boxing day found me on the Megabus to Newcastle to complete the Christmas agenda of visits including an excellent Sunday lunch at the Tanners Arms on Stepney Bank before returning to the Western Isles via train and bus the following week end. Nicola stayed on with her daughter and returned to Uist on the 28th December.

December the 30th, I arrived in Uig at 2 pm and the ferry was due at 6pm. This was my only booking option, as I had not pre-booked and the other connections were full. There is a lesson in there somewhere?

In Uig the Café’s and pubs were closed. I spent 5 hours in Calmac Ferry’s Terminal waiting room, reading a crap novel that I had hastily acquired together with some nuts and a flapjack during the 15 minute lunch stop, at Fort William. During my time in the Ferry Terminal I noticed the changes to the Ferry Port Terminals planned for 2021, to accommodate the new ferries being constructed for this route. It looks as if the Lochmaddy service will run from Ullapool for a few months..

Nicola met me off the boat at 8.30pm, after a relatively calm crossing – a mere 12-and-a-half-hour journey from Newcastle.

30th Dec. Back on the island and the winds have started to blow. The sheep are once again on the croft surrounding the house and there is a hiatus as the old year ends and we celebrate its passing in the usual fashion. The new year promises much.

Our cats are pleased that normal service has resumed.