By Brian McHenry
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 kilometres west-northwest 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 says more about the observer than anything else. Each tempers their gaze as they become the latest in a long line of outsiders 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 observers; each of us constructs our own sense of place to project, 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 kilometres 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 relationship can 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 observers 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 an 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 remember David Hockney talking once about drawing as reportage, that his instinct was always to respond after the event. Perhaps there’s 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 are what interest 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 its own wings and takes on a momentum of its 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. Its beginnings were in a small insignificant 'zine that I produced some years ago. The 'zine 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 I am content to let things drift.
Words and Music
MacLean M. & Carrel C. (Eds.) (1986) As an Fhearann From the Land, Mainstream Publishing Edinburgh, an Lantair Stornoway, Third Eye Centre Glasgow
Gannon A. & Geddes G. (2015) St Kilda, The Last and Outmost Isle, Historic Environment Scotland, Edinburgh
Neat T. (2000) When I was Young, Voices from Lost Communities in Scotland, The Islands Birlinn Limited, Edinburgh
White K. (1989) Travels in the Drifting Dawn, Mainstream Publishing Edinburgh
Alastair Roberts & Robin Robertson (2013) Hirta Songs, Stone Tape Recordings/ STR-006LP
Erland Cooper (2018) Solan Goose Phases
Gayle Brogan (2008) The All-Alone Stone, Curiously Euphonic Record