‘A lot of my work is to do with straightforward affection (liking, appreciation), and it always amazes me how little affection for ANYTHING there is in art today.’
- Ian Hamilton Finlay, from a letter to Ian Stephen (1994)
Our ferry at Tsukinowa is sailing with Ian in El Vigo, and travelling the Pentland Road in Jon’s blue Berlingo
Our remains of Sato Shoji’s castle is Dun Carloway, on the Isle of Lewis
Our family graves is Dalmore cemetery
Our the first of Satsuki is the last day of September
I’m in Stornoway to run school workshops around the exhibition at An Lanntair, Ian Hamilton Finlay: Sailing Dinghy. I’m working with artist Jon Macleod, and together we work with pupils in the gallery, in schools, and on beaches. Finlay had a fondness for the poetry of fishing-boat names, and the unnamed sailing dinghy which forms the centrepiece of the exhibition gives scope to the kids to come up with their own names for it – here’s a selection.
the Big Red
the Pride of Gress
the Sea Skimmer
the Star of Coll
Finlay ‘rhymed’ fishing-boats with lemons in many works – a visual, rather than a sound, rhyme, and on the last day we give the kids lemons to name, and launch them with much glee at the beach.
Clouds have cleared and it’s a fine bright autumn afternoon. Ian Stephen has suggested a sailing trip, but the only problem is there’s next to no wind. I board El Vigo across Kaylana, moored for a repaint, with James, who lives on the top floor of Ian’s harbourside house, and we engine out from the quayside.
Once we’re out in the bay Ian and James raise the sails. Today’s drink of choice is cider, which I haven’t tasted for years. I’m allocated the tiller, told to steer towards the Arnish yard’s landmark green, and as we get closer what I feel as a slight breeze on my cheeks fills the sails enough to get us moving. We pass the big blue CalMac freight ferry MV Muirneag, and a few smaller vessels, even pick up a bit of speed.
Turning, the boats slows, but we repass the Muirneag, and watch a group of young seagulls gathered hopefully around a seal who’s surfaced with a fish he eats showily, seeming to enjoy the attention. We’ve just about enough behind us to inch our way back to the quayside where we started. . Ian’s off to a meeting, despite the clement weather I’m chilled, and lightheaded from the cider, and James steers the boat back to her berth.
After the morning workshop at An Lanntair with kids from Carloway and Brager primaries, Jon Macleod and I drive west along the Pentland Road, and wait by the cemetery above Dalmore beach for the school coach. Jon’s an artist, works part-time at An Lanntair on the education programme, is just back from Finland where he hooked up with Gerry Loose and Kirsty Law. Surfers emerge from a van, wet-suited and boarded. We wonder future archaeologist-anthropologists ignorant of surfing might make of the sight – a woman in a tight-fitting black suit and matching head-piece carrying a white board slightly smaller than herself, followed by two men also with boards and wetsuits but bare-headed, one bushy-haired and the other quite bald. You’d surely read some sort of intent into that last detail, wouldn’t you?
We spend an hour with the kids happily making circles and sand-poems and sand-drawings – though Adam writes too close to the water’s edge and, despite the fact the tide’s going out, loses his poem to a wave. What did it say, I ask, and he replies, I can’t remember. Nothing beside remains…
The kids depart and Jon drives me to Dun Carloway, then heads off to see his ex nearby, whose father died last week. Jon sat at the wakes, and attended Monday’s funeral.
The broch’s similar in size and shape to those at Glenelg, but alone, and higher, and with a view, and covered in a film of pale-green lichen, with the odd patch of vibrant yellow.
There are visitors – a serious photographer, couples in outdoor gear, a German-speaking family whose dialect’s mostly lost on me. I sit inside the wall out of the wind drinking a Japanese black tea, himifuuki.
It’s climbable too – famously so, as when in the 16th century Donald Cam Macauley climbed the broch to smoke out a party of Morrison cattle raiders who had taken refuge in the ruin. Less calamitously the German boy scrambles up the side, excitedly helloes his mother, Gruss Gott! When they leave, there’s silence, or something like it, for the gate-spring’s broken, but the sound only emphasises solitude and absence.
In the centre of the drystone circle I libate and drink Aberlour, for the builders, look to place another hokku-label, and a second poem of the day is lost, this time to a gust of wind, but I’ve managed to record it first.
I walk up to a cairn on a knoll and look west to sea and the blank horizon.
Down in the carpark I see the blue Berlingo. As Jon enjoys the himifuuki he points out the ramshead gatepost on the new house below the broch. The visitor centre blends into the landscape, the house is plonked down on top of it.
The Big Field
Returning we stop at Achmore, one of the few inland villages on Lewis. An Ach More just means The Big Field, a wry take on the expanse of moorland stretching more miles in each direction. Thirty years ago peat-cutting revealed a stone circle, though all but two of the stones have (been) toppled over, and some are missing.
The view south reminds me of North Uist, and Langais in particular, a patchwork of lochs, a small forest, the moor rising gradually to higher hills, though here you see further. In the car Jon pointed out Sleeping Beauty, a range of hills like a recumbent figure – an outcrop just the right shape and scale forms a nose that gives the notion legs, as it were, and the information board points out that only from the Achmore stone circle does the hill range look like a pregnant woman. It’s where we’ll head tomorrow – to Harris, Seilebost on the west coast, and Rhenigadale on the east.
Coda – The Little Seamstress
The exhibition Ian Hamilton Finlay: Sailing Dinghy at An Lanntair includes the print The Little Seamstress – a drawing of a sailing boat whose wake looks like a seam. Here’s a photo of a motorised seamstress, working the Kyles Scalpay a few years ago.
Ian Stephen is a writer and artist from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. His latest work is a collaborative exhibition, 'Is a thing lost if we know where it is?', exploring the relationship between the tradtional boats of Lewis and Orkney.
An Lanntair Arts Centre, Stornoway, Western Isles - a beacon for the Arts in the Highlands and Islands
Explore The Isle of Lewis - an online guide
National Galleries of Scotland - Ian Hamilton Finlay
Historic Scotland - guide to Dun Carloway