By Brian McHenry
A series of vague thoughts and unanswered questions for an incomplete project.
‘There is no mysterious essence we can call a ‘place’. Place is change. It is motion killed by the mind and preserved in the Amber of memory’. – J.A. Baker
The archipelago of St Kilda is situated 64 km W/NW of the island of North Uist and is made up of the most westerly islands of the Outer Hebrides. Inhabited for well over two thousand years, the last inhabitants of St Kilda were evacuated in 1930. This much is true(ish) but statements and even definitions of St Kilda tend to be littered with words and adjectives such as ‘remote’ and ‘isolated’ that do nothing other than distort our perspective. Each comes loaded with its own narrative that perhaps says more about the onlooker than anything else. Each tempers their gaze as they become the latest in a long line of observers who have poked and prodded at the notion of St Kilda over the centuries.
I am somewhere there too.
Yet we cannot be anything other than onlookers, each of us constructs our own sense of place, projecting it like so many flickering Edwardian newsreels onto the cliffs and sea-stacks of St Kilda as they rise from the waters of the North Atlantic. Never visiting, I have poked and prodded at St Kilda remotely. For almost fifteen years I lived on North Uist and from the top of Mullach I would watch Hirta and Boreray as they breached beyond Heisker, those 64 km distant. St Kilda’s existence spoke to me of an internal geography as much an external one. St Kilda and the St Kildans haunted the books I read, the conversations I had. I became fascinated by the relationship we have with a landscape in terms of place and memory and how transient and abstract that relationshipcan be.
Islands of course are different and St Kilda is different again.
If you choose to live on an island there always seems to be a point when your sense of being from, of belonging to, becomes blurred. It’s the same way that English becomes blurred when spoken by someone who has had Gaelic all their life. When I lived on North Uist I remember being asked if my parents would be returning home this summer. With that one question, notions of belonging and home were turned upside down. North Uist wasn’t their home, it wasn’t even my home in a familial sense. Yet in that question the act of returning, to visit the island, was seen as an act of homecoming for all. It doesn’t happen this way on St Kilda. They are not there anymore. We are forever the onlookers now, the only return gaze is from the photographs that remain and the questions they pose as we look. For me there was a challenge in that gaze, I felt uncomfortable being the onlooker, unsettled by the act of looking.
I am aware that none of the drawing for this piece was done when I lived in The Western Isles. Perhaps it needed to be that way. I seem to remember David Hockney talking once about drawing as reportage, that his instinct was always to respond after the event.
Perhaps there is something in that. Perhaps this project is a response that could only have happened once I moved away. I live in the north east of Ireland now, still surrounded by the sea (it was never going to be otherwise). I remember being told once that it took 12 hours to skipper a fishing boat from Ireland to Barra Head. Maybe I needed those 12 hours in order to start drawing.
That distance has become another lens, another layer of looking. The layers were what interested me. I draw in layers, always starting with a sketchbook, always rubbing out and drawing over, changing. I scan things and create more layers on a computer. I rub into them again, uncovering, allowing space for random marks. For me there needs to be a point where a drawing stretches it’s own wings and takes on a momentum of it’s own.
That’s the important part.
My drawing is unsettled.
In his poem ‘In Praise of Walking’ Thomas A. Clarke says that a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way. It’s the same with this, l am aways going over things, revisiting. As a piece ‘You Cannot See them Anymore’ has been shaped by this process. It’s beginnings were in a small insignificant ‘zine that I produced some years ago. The ‘zine is still is still there but it troubled me, I worried that it was a singular way of seeing. I was not interested in subsuming existing narratives, the story of St Kilda is long and complex and it doesn’t need me churning its waters.
So I am content to draw, each drawing a provocation, another layer in an ongoing process of poking and prodding at notions of place and landscape and in that sense I am content to let things drift.
A Working Drawing based on ‘The St Kilda Mailboat’. The text is from the petition requesting government assistance to leave the island and consists of the signatures of the 20 Islanders who signed the document.
The St Kilda Mailboat’ was a piece of wood sometimes fashioned into the shape of a waterproof boat and kept afloat by a sheepskin bladder. It was used by the islanders of St Kilda to convey messages at times of need and launched in a N\W wind.
The mailboats were originally attributed to a journalist staying on Hirta called John Sands who found himself becoming an increasing burden on the fragile resources of the islanders. Following Sands’ rescue, the islanders began to use their own versions of his ‘mailboat’ but mostly these were for the benefit of the growing number of tourists.
In retrospect there seems to be something eminently sad about these home-made vessels and the messages they contained. As they floated towards the Hebrides and beyond, they become almost emblematic of the St Kildans’ growing attachment and dependency on a wider world as their own self-sufficiency and culture waned.
Based on a photograph of Norman MacQueen holding a lamb on Soay sometime in the 1930’s. There’s a sense of attached poignancy and remembering that exists when looking at old photos like this and the sense of loss and absence that inevitably comes with time. Norman MacQueen isn’t there anymore, there is nothing but the silence of the space where he used to be.
A working drawing of the Reverend Angus Smith who is a Minister in the Free Church of Scotland and led the protests against the first Sunday ferry to Skye in 1965. He is pictured next to the radar array on Hirta. The sketch is based on a photograph of the Reverend Smith taken by Sam Maynard in 1986.
In 1698 Martin Martin wrote of seeing the Great Auk referring to it as a witch.The last recorded sighting in the British Isles was made in 1840, when islanders during a terrible storm suspected it of being ‘a maelstrom-conjuring witch’ and stoned it to death.
A working drawing for Finlay MacKinnon is on Hirta Again. The first scheduled visit by a commercial steamer took place in 1887. The S.S. Dunarra Castle sailed from Glasgow on a cruise of the West Coast of Scotland taking in Skye, Harris and St. Kilda. During these times both the Islands and the Islanders themselves were the subject of a romantic curiosity and were firmly cast in the role of ‘primitive’ by visitors from an increasingly urbanized world.
The S.S. Dunara Castle sailed weekly between Glasgow and the Hebrides in the summer months carrying cargo and passengers. During the high season her route was extended to St Kilda and in 1930 she was used in the evacuation of the last St Kildan residents.
Brian McHenry is a freelance illustrator who currently lives on the north east coast of Ireland. He works with both traditional and digital media, exploring the act of remembering and the physical and emotional landscape inhabited when this happens. See more of his work at cargocollective.com and on Instagram at lostcontrolcollective