Thursday 7 July 2011

Six Artists on Swona - An Island Odyssey


Uninhabited islands have a magical quality; even more so when that island was once home to a thriving community of people. Swona has this special magic.

Swona sits in the Pentland Firth between Orkney and Caithness, west of South Ronaldsay. The area is extremely tidal and roosts are apparent at both the north and south ends of the island. It’s a potentially dangerous approach and even large vessels are flicked about. We moored just off the Haven and transferred into a 9foot inflatable, rucksacks, food, art gear and optical equipment chucked in first then the precarious ship to ship transfer of personnel. Following the 30 minute crossing from Burwick, South Ronaldsay I, along with five fellow artists – Anne Bignall, Dominique Cameron, Sheena Graham-George, Diana Leslie and Mark Scadding – were shuttled from the Pettlandssker via the little orange inflatable in two groups, scrambling up the storm-beach at the Haven where we were met by the Orkney Bird-ringing group who were headed back to Mainland Orkney.

Most seabirds have been having a torrid time of it over the past decade, so it was encouraging to see so many puffins whizzing about so purposefully. Sandeels of all sizes were in evidence so it looks as though tiny chicks and their larger kin are being nourished. Kittiwakes and razorbills were feasting too.

Swona is a little over a mile long by half a mile wide and is home to the (in)famous Swona Cattle; left here untended for over thirty years, they are now recognised as a unique and distinct breed. They’re also rumoured to be a tad on the tetchy side on occasion – a fact which hadn’t slipped by unnoticed by me. The island is littered with memorials documenting the development of the herd – an old heifer gradually sinking back into the pasture which gave her nourishment in life, lying still in the peaceful position where she finally collapsed to the ground, never to rise again beside a tiny lochan; reminiscent of water buffalo on the African Plains. A bull turning from red fur to green algae, merging with the colour and textures of the rocks.

So – for a three night, four day stay we had to lug food and water, clothing and sleeping gear and artists’ materials. Our accommodation was basic – a couple of rooms in one of the least-dilapidated houses which remain. I did have to sweep away the decaying remains of a rabbit before positioning my sleeping bag, but the hours out on the cliffs and the odd sun-downer (at approximately 11 pm) helped sleep to come.

But the days were jam-packed with drawing and painting opportunities and rarely have I had the chance to stay in the field for 9 hours in one sitting recently. A mixture of sun, rain and breeze accompanied each outing and the occasional cautious glance to check where the cattle were at any particular time added and extra piquance to the day’s work.

Although a limited number of species were encountered (a lone whimbrel being the most exotic of the trip), the numbers of puffins and razorbills combined with their accessibility meant I filled half a sketchbook in the three full days of work. Some of these scribbles and studies have already been translated into colour paintings of the ‘Sharpie’ pen and watercolour variety.