Papa Westray is one of Orkney's smallest islands. Known locally as Papay, it may also be home to the world's most unique boutique arts event, the ØY Festival. We have been following one of the curators, Jonathan Ford (aka The Papay Ranger), for a while now and, following our recent interview with fellow Orcadian impresario Erland Cooper, we wanted to find out more about him, his work and the influence of Orkney on his practice.
Orkney has some fascinating folklore - can you tell us about a tale, a place or creature that has inspired you and/your work?
I have chosen to talk about a creature, a place and a tale. All three are inextricably linked, so to omit one would diminish the rest. The sea shaped the place, the sea made the creature, and the sea brought me, the teller of the tale, to Orkney.
The place is Fowl Craig, a small outcrop of vertical cliffs on the north east side of Papay, and summer home to colonies of auks, taking in guillemots (aaks), razorbills (coulter neb), black guillemots (tysties) and puffins (tammie norrie). The only one of our auks not to have a recorded Papay dialect name is the extinct Great Auk. The last British breeding pair were shot on Fowl Craig in 1813. Within thirty years the birds were extinct worldwide.
The taking of ‘the king and queen of the auks’ from Papay has entered into the lore of the island and travelled around the world. The tale became the signal for me to make my pilgrimage to the island in 2013.
I had become obsessed wth black and white birds. I took on the alter ego of a deceased rocket scientist, with a natural talent for communicating with dead birds. Using typewriters and morse code machines (birds can only tap, so analogue was best), I began a series of avian seances. This trail of the dead inevitably led me to the great auk, arguably the greatest of all black and white birds. What better way to connect with an extinct bird than to visit where they once lived and thrived?
Artists and writers associated with Orkney - Gunni Moberg, George Mackay Brown and Peter Maxwell Davies - have been continually drawn to the sea and the shoreline. Why do you think this is such an enduring interest?
Orkney is a rich resource for artists, writers, thinkers, map makers, musicians, conchologists, ornithologists - all of those that span these areas and more. The coastline is a place where we look into a world we cannot inhabit. We can move into that watery space for a time and take what we need.
But much like the seabirds, we need our natural environment. Perhaps those artists you have listed were the ones who did step out from the safety of land and into the realm of the sea. Bringing back with them a view from afloat, a view to land through the window of the sea, and the filter of the coastline.
For artists, the awareness of the visibility of change at the edge of land, either the daily tides or the annual arrival of migrating birds, provides a time in flux that lasts all year long. Orkney is blessed with many natural clocks and calendars which, due to the openness of the land and seascape, are very apparent.
Folklore, mythology and storytelling concerning the sea is interwoven onto the lives of folk in the North Isles. We must see it as part of our island duty to take on the role championed by Hugh Marwick. In the 1920’s he came to Papay and, with the help of local folk, documented the coastal place names of the island, along with the stories that these names had to tell.
“It is often the case.
That something inexplicable.
By itself - on an all alone stone.
May help to explain something else.
And be in turn explained thereby.
And though we may not arrive anywhere ourselves.
We may be leaving the trail.
By which others may reach knowledge.”
Hugh Marwick (remixed by Jan Van Ghent)
How do you feel about myth and folklore in the digital age? Do you think it is an antiquated thing? Or perhaps the present day gives the old tales more resonance?
I don’t feel that myth and folklore has become antiquated in this age we live in. It is up to us to keep the stories going, not only to remember and pass on the folklore of the past but to make new stories.
Perhaps we look back on folklore as something that was created at a certain time by certain people; yet that basis is still there and is as important as its ever been. But in no way should this stop us from being the pioneers, the watchers, the listeners who make note of the world around us, and imagine that there is much more to it than meets the eye.
We should use the opportunities that the digital age presents to explore, seek out and distribute folklore old and new. These stories need to be passed on and spread - only then do they become useful.
The great auk story is sometimes hard to believe sometimes. But it and lore, mystery, and mythology surrounding the bird serves as a very real-time warning for the future of all nature on this planet. If we turn a blind eye now, the spectre of other seabirds becoming extinct could soon become very real.
I have a sense of foreboding that before long our great auk will be joined by other members of its family, and fowl craig will become a summer silent memorial to lost birds.
What’s the next big thing you’ve got coming up?
I am currently editing a dialect book for Papay which will include sections that illustrate the names of birds and the coastal places on the island. The book will be published in the coming weeks and will hopefully encourage interest in the ongoing use of the Doondie Dialect.
Coming up later this year is the ØY Festival which I co-curate with artist Saoirse Higgins. A three-day celebration of islands held every November at The Kelp Store on Papay, it features a a programme of films, exhibition, performances, workshops and lectures. This year's theme is Space Station ØY and we are set to imagine the pioneering spirit of islanders and their future journeys to other satellites of the sea.
The third endeavour I am looking to finish this year will be the installation of a new monument to the great auk up on Fowl Craig. I am working with the Natural History Museum to create a bronze cast of the bird that was taken from Fowl Craig in 1813. We currently have a small monument to the great auk in place, but I think it is time that the island brought the original auk back home. For me this would be a fitting finale to the work that I first started here five years ago.
“For those of us who cannot fly.
Could never fly.
Could ever fly.
The Auk is dead long live the Auk”.
Jan Van Ghent 2018
Photographs and images courtesy of Jonathan Ford.