Five Questions for... Amanda Thomson

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Amanda Thomson is the author of A Scots Dictionary of Nature, a collection of nature-related Scots words from 19th and early 20th century sources and a beautiful representation of the relationship between the Scottish people and their landscape. She teaches at Glasgow School of Art and in her art and writing she explores themes of place, home, nature and migration.

Amanda has just signed a book deal and is currently working on a collection of hybrid essays about landscapes and a video and writing project about an alder tree. She’ll be the artist in residence at Small Halls Festival this November, and travelling to Southern Africa with other nine writers as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival initiative Outriders Africa

What does home mean to you?

I’ve been thinking about and actually writing about home a lot over the summer. For me, it can go from the micro, and being with my partner, to the house that we live in, or the place where it is. It’s about a feeling of missing a place and longing to be there, and that deep exhale of relief once you reach it. It’s not something that any of us can take for granted at all, so there’s a thankfulness to know I have a place I call home, when there are so many in the world who don’t.

Which place do you have a special connection to?

Abernethy Forest, where I did my PhD and is now a place I call home; the North West Highlands. I am smitten with Scotland and the Highlands and Islands. 

What is beyond your front door? 

I have a field which hasn’t been grazed by sheep or cattle for a couple of months. It’s been full of white and red clover, germander speedwell and all kinds of grasses, occasional deer and hares, and the aforementioned alder. The farmer has just cut it and bailed hay, and the swallows and house martins are swooping by just now on their way south. 

What place would you most like to visit?

I love living in Scotland and would happily spend all my time here. I always love going to the islands – North Uist in particular for the birds, and Shetland, and I am not long back from Sutherland in the North West. Now, and unexpectedly, I am very excited to be going to spend time in Southern Africa.

What are you reading / watching / listening to / looking at right now? 

Reading, I’m jumping between books: Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing and Sadiya Hartson’s Lose Your Mother. Looking at the Collin’s Book of British Insects to figure out what kinds of moths I’ve been seeing.

Watching – This summer there have been red deer and hares in the field, swallows and house martins on the wires and just now the sun is coming and going and the trees are flouncing in the wind. The rain’s coming over from the West.

Listening to – this summer I have been listening to Braebach’s Frenzy of the Meeting a lot, also Duncan Chisholm’s music; Kinnaris Quintet’s amazing Free One, and Ali Hutton and Ross Ainslie’s Symbiosis II is the perfect album for the drive between Glasgow and the North – A lot of Scottish folk music.

Amanda's Website
Twitter
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Home Where Home Is Not, at Glasgow Women's Library and Platform

Interregnum n.1 , laser cut puzzle bricks, cork and wood, by Sogol Mabadi, 2018 / Photo Credit: Iman Tajik

Interregnum n.1, laser cut puzzle bricks, cork and wood, by Sogol Mabadi, 2018 / Photo Credit: Iman Tajik

By Sara Bellini:

Home Where Home Is Not is the brilliant title of an exhibition that combines the works of two Glasgow-based artists, jointly organised by the Glasgow Women’s Library and Platform. Sogol Mabadi and Birthe Jorgensen, both born outside the UK, explore the concept of ‘home’ in a context where people move freely and their identities are shaped by their multiple homes. 

Both Platform and Glasgow Women’s Library are arts centres involved with the local community and aiming at fostering creativity and making art accessible to everyone. The exhibition includes wood sculptures, sound art and installations and will be open until 3rd August in both locations. Admittance is free. 

As part of the exhibition, on Thursday 18th the artists will talk about Languages of Belonging with Amanda Thomson, visual artist and author of A Scots Dictionary of Nature. On Sunday 21st writer and director Julia Lee Barclay-Morton will give a performative tour of the exhibition in both locations. Check the websites about opening times and event tickets:

Glasgow Women's Library
Platform


Waiting Rooms by Samantha Whates - Part I: Dunoon

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Singer and songwriter Samantha Whates is writing and recording her forthcoming album entirely on location in a series of waiting rooms, some active, some abandoned, trains, buses, hospitals, ferries, care homes. The album will address themes of loss and waiting, of transition and of time passing in transient spaces.

The first recording took place in Dunoon in Scotland, a stunning Victorian ferry waiting room on the inner Hebridean island; the second was overnight in an art deco waiting room at one end of ta tube line, as empty trains rolled in and out; the third took place in Great Ormond Street Hospital with a full band in the public waiting room on a busy Sunday.

Dylan White, who is working with Samantha on the project will be writing a series of posts for the Elsewhere blog from the different locations of the recording sessions. First up, Dunoon on the Isle of Bute:

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We're all waiting. Everybody waits. Hospitals. Train stations. Airports. Life itself is a waiting room. In writing and recording her new album entirely in waiting rooms Samantha Whates has tapped into something vital, universal, and as the country creaks and lurches towards who knows what, something urgent and essential.

I set off with Samantha to scope out a former ferry terminal waiting room on a Victorian pier in Dunoon on the Isle of Bute. Gulls swooped and circled as we loitered, ourselves waiting for the harbourmaster to arrive and let us through the padlocked gates. Just as we began to worry we had the wrong day a member of the crew arrived, all hi-vis and friendly bustle. As he led us out over the gangplanks towards the turrets and timbers of this strikingly restored space, Ian regaled us with tales of the great paddle steamers that would ferry Glaswegian holiday makers across the Firth of Clyde from the 1800's right up until the 60's, and tales of the wild Saturday night parties he'd DJ at here in the 80's. Only afterward I learned this town had a US nuclear submarine base around that time, it's location a faintly obscure Harvey Keitel movie, and imagine raucous squaddies quarreling on these boardwalks. With the fall of the Soviet Union the navy moved on, the base closed and along with much of this little town these rooms fell into disrepair and ruin, awaiting its next chapter.

Recently refurbished and completely renovated into its new incarnation as a local community centre and civic attraction, the freshly painted walls sing back at us with reverb and history as Samantha tests the sound of this space.

Ian leaves us to it to check the fittings and the sockets and the practical repercussions of using this place as a recording location. Beyond accessibility and acoustics, the navigation of bespoke bureaucracy and email tennis, one of the challenges facing Samantha is sheer logistics: aligning the calendars and itineraries of geographically disparate musicians and their instruments into remote locations.

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"One of the songs we recorded here Sailors has been arranged for Shruti - Lute - Voice. We went on the Ferry from just outside Glasgow with all our recording gear and instruments including a double bass! It felt so in keeping with the songs we choose to record there - something about the journey on the ferry looking out to the water and seeing the pier appearing in the distance. Knowing it was the first recording - I really got into the feeling of the start of the journey. Where all these songs came from. Something about putting the songs back to the source of where they were written - the sentiment and emotions felt through the subject of these songs feels so much clearer when you're on your way to these rooms to go back to that feeling and record them...."

I'm researching and drawing these buildings as part of my involvement in this project, but right now I just loiter and listen, looking out at the circling gulls over the grey waters beyond as the lilting sound of Samantha's guitar and voice stirs life and warmth back to these old rooms, summoning the ghosts of holidays, labourers, sailors and fisherman who've watched these same waters from this spot for the past hundred and fifty years or more, waiting for a bite, a sign, a passing moment.

My reverie is curtailed by Ian's sudden return. "I'm sorry to cut you off I gotta deal with that boat."

And we are hustled back out into the world as he runs to greet the next ferry's arrival. This is a port and he's on shift.

Time and tide wait for no one.

Watch a film about Waiting Rooms from Julius Beltrame, a filmmaker and photographer with an eye for place, architecture and the arts:

We are looking forward to more blogs from Dylan as the project progresses. In the meantime, if you would like to support Samantha as she goes along you can make a pledge in return for different goodies via her pledgemusic page.

Dylan White’s website / twitter
Samantha Whates on twitter

In Orkney

By Ian S. Grosz:

I am headed north for Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a landscape both largely devoid of trees and deeply sedimented in vast layers of human history. I surge up the A9 from Inverness, skirting the bleak seascapes of Caithness, and eventually reach Gills Bay. Here I will catch the ferry for the short crossing to St. Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay, the most southerly of the Orkney archipelago.

On South Ronaldsay I camp at the wonderfully eclectic Wheems Organic Farm – just the right side of hippy - and fall into an easy sleep listening to the calls of oystercatchers and the swooping chirrup of swallows in the dusk. The next day, I head out on my bicycle to see the evocatively named Eagle’s Tomb, and the less compelling but well marketed Tomb of the Otters. That night I dream of bones. 

What I have really come for, like most people, is the enigmatic group of monuments centred around Brodgar and Stenness - the latter the site of an ancient stone circle that pre-dates Stonehenge by a thousand years - and the mysteries being uncovered at the Ness of Brodgar, where a five thousand-year-old complex of ceremonial buildings has been unearthed. Approaching the head of the isthmus that separates lochs Harray and Stenness, linking the dark and brooding Ring of Brodgar with the other sites, I find myself in a natural amphitheatre dominated by the two peaks of Hoy to the west. At mid-winter the sun sets between these hills and, for three weeks either side of the solstice, illuminates the deep interior of the incredible feat of engineering that is Maes Howe Chambered Cairn. 

This is a liminal place, a portal between worlds: between our time and theirs, between the setting sun and the mountains, and the shimmering waters of the lochs. It is a place between life and death, and not without atmosphere. Taking in the monuments in context with the surrounding landscape makes sense of the location of these sites, and bridges the vast gap in time between the people who built them and us. Here, in the low lying fertile ground, where fish and wildfowl were plenty, and the sun’s light fell at year’s end, was where they found and made their place. 

Maes Howe, still a striking feature in the landscape today, pre-dates the Great Pyramid at Giza by several hundred years, and commensurately, to view it I must join an official tour that needs to be booked in advance. No photography is allowed inside the tomb. Pictures of it for a keepsake are available as part of the official brochure. Still, it is worth the expense, and the unwanted chitchat with other tourists on the bus from the visitor’s centre to the tomb itself.    

Once inside the tomb, we crowd around the guide in a reverent hush, as ages layered on ages are revealed in the light of her torch: from the standing stones re-used in its construction and the Viking graffiti on the walls, to the Victorian roof repair. Swallows nest above our heads while the ages are unpicked for us, and once or twice the lights are dimmed to bring the tomb-dark that bit closer. The earthen smell is both sobering and strangely comforting, and the now empty spaces where the dead once would have lain seem no more than generic storage places. Those people of so long ago are absent, and yet moment-by-moment their presence seems to come closer.

Between the layers of larger facing stones that make up part of the walls are many smaller pieces, wedged in to level each course in the wall. Seeing this calls to mind the dry-stone walls that still criss-cross the countryside all over the British Isles.  I begin to feel a connection to the people who built these impressive monuments, building with hands just like ours, looking out at the Universe, and trying to make sense of it all.

Later, in Stromness, I visit an exhibition entitled Conversations with Magic Stones that is part of an island-wide collection tracing our relationship with stone: from those who work it, collect it, or simply have special pieces that have been passed down in the family or come to them by chance. How many of us pick up pebbles on a beach, are drawn to stone sculpture, or seek out these ancient memorials in the landscape? Stone is aeons old, constituted in stars, formed in the earth, shaped by ice and water, and worked by people. In them is an impossible journey spanning time we cannot imagine.    

Whilst camping at the Sands of Evie, I take a walk along the crescent moon-shaped bay as the sun dips toward the horizon. There, amongst the many stones and pebbles grouped and sorted by the tide along the beach, I spot a long, pale, tapered stone. It is smoothed and rounded at the edges like many of the other stones gathered by the waves, but has a shape I am drawn to. I pick it up and turn it in my hands. It has a weight and a presence that communicates with me. It fits in my palm perfectly. It seems made for my hands: for pounding or hammering. It has a feel, a life: imminence. Although smoothed by wave action it has an overall size, shape and balance that cannot be accidental. The Broch of Gurness - occupied between 500 BC and 100 AD - lies just beyond the headland. It could be wishful thinking, but perhaps this stone in my hands is a once discarded Mace Head, now washed to the shore on to this beach.

Barbara Hepworth said that ‘…it is a perfectly natural feeling to wish – to take a rock and turn it into life and to make, in that way, an image which has a magic to preserve life in one’s own personality.’ In this stone I now hold in my hands, I feel a personality coming through; as though someone is speaking to me from a time I had thought unreachable.   

About the author:
Ian is a writer interested in the themes of Place, Landscape, Belonging and Identity. He writes both poetry and prose and uses photography to supplement his non-fiction work. He has recently completed a Post Graduate Certificate in Social Research and is now enrolled on an MLitt in Creative Writing at the university of Aberdeen. He is currently planning a trip for a project in the Outer Hebrides.  

A companion piece to this essay was published by our friends at The Island Review. You can read 'Orkney: a sense of time and place' here.
 

Letter to a Stranger

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By Shawna Bethell:

The thing I didn’t tell you was that I met your brother on the ferry. He was looking for you. Your father wanted you home. To this moment, I’ve never told anyone that I met either of you. I felt it would be a betrayal of sorts, though I didn’t even know your names. But I knew your stories, two parts of a whole, none of us expecting I would cross both your paths. Yet I did, within a half-dozen hours or so. Harris is a small island, after all.

I was sitting alone on deck watching grey waters when your brother approached and asked to sit. Together we watched sleek arch-backed porpoises rise and fall as they swam alongside the ferry. We watched a low sweep of rock appear in the distance, growing until it became an island large enough for a port, a village and a road up the coast that would cross a narrow isthmus to another stretch of gneiss known as the Isle of Lewis.

Eventually, he started talking. Told me more than he probably should have about your family, but he spoke with earnestness, and I couldn’t help but listen. He had tracked you to that slab of stone sprawling in the distance and hoped you were still there. In time, we disembarked and as I walked away, he asked me to dinner. I declined and wound my way up the hill, unknowingly, to you.

It was later that evening, in a hostel full of travelers, when our paths crossed. I was rummaging in the kitchen when you came in and I asked you where to find a knife for my vegetables. You were a large man, with long blonde hair bound back by a leather cord and gold wire-rimmed glasses that framed blue eyes. From the leather sheath on your hip you pulled that gracefully thin filet blade with a round wooden handle and passed it to me. I still remember how caught I was by its elegance. Casually, you also opened the cupboard and offered spices from your cache saying I’d likely not find anything but salt and pepper in the communal kitchen. Then you quietly paced the cramped space, crowded with washer and dryer and Formica table, while I sliced in silence. When I returned the knife, you left.

That night, as a woman from Skye cranked open the window above our bunk and slept comforted by familiar cold air blowing in from the sea, I was left sleepless by the same damp chill, so I took my laundry back to the warm kitchen, made a cup of tea and sat down with my journal.

I hadn’t realized any one else was around when you walked in from the TV room and spoke. As before, you paced the perimeter of the room past the washer and dryer, along the counter and back before pulling out the chair across from me to sit.

You said you were from Finland and had worked a lucrative desk job as expected by your father until a few months before. Then, with no word to anyone, you left. You landed on the island and hired on at a fish cannery off the rocky shore. You said you liked the physical labor, liked the men you worked with. You said you weren’t planning to stay on the island, but had no plans to go back either. 

We talked a lot about family and expectations. I told you about the Midwestern United States, where people were rooted by generations of family loyalty, a pull so strong that I felt my choices in life were abdicated before I was old enough to know I had choices to make. I loved my family, but when I finally left the Midwest, it was with a sense of escape. I landed in a mountain town in the western U.S. populated with out-of-work miners, scientists, artists and travelers. It was a place where people accepted you as the person you presented yourself to be, and it was where I gained the freedom to be the writer I wanted to become.

In the dark early hours of morning, you put on your jacket and went outside, cigarette in hand, and through the window I watched the orange tip burn as you paced the walk out front. Shortly you returned, explaining you had to catch the ferry for work in only a few hours and needed to get some sleep. I don’t remember that we even shared a ‘good-bye.’ You just walked away through the drafty, concrete-block hallway, and I was left to pull my clothes from the dryer and stuff them into my pack. Then I followed the hallway to my own side of the dorm where I fell easily and unexpectedly to sleep.

By daylight you were gone and I caught a ride north, jotting a quick ‘thank you’ and tucking it into your spice cache before I left. We never did exchange names. It didn’t seem necessary, I guess. But I still think of you, and I wonder if your brother ever found you. I wonder if you ever went home. I did, eventually. For better or for worse. Sometimes, I’m still not certain. But that strange triumvirate of love, loyalty and obligation will call even the most wayward of us back.

Wherever you ended up, I hope you went there by choice and without regret. I hope you found the life you wanted. I wonder, though, if you ever knew, if either of you ever knew, if you ever talked about that woman you both happened upon, who carried two men’s stories back out to sea.

Shawna Bethell lives in the central Midwest of the US. Her work has appeared in the Denver Post, The Mountain Gazette, High Desert Journal, and This Land Magazine among other publications.