It takes time for me to leave the place I’ve come from. As the aircraft took a descending sweep south of Greenland and the visibility cleared, Christine insisted that I lift my eyes from a screen filled with prose. This was a job I had to complete – a book to put to bed, before opening the mind to the opportunities of a poetry exchange in another continent.
I leaned over to take in the breathtaking sight of breaking pack-ice, out from the Gulf of St Lawrence. Last Autumn, I’d introduced Tim Severin, navigator and author of The Brendan Voyage at Faclan, the Western Isles book festival at an Lanntair, Stornoway. Tim relived the experience of encountering a wall of ice off Greenland and escaping it only to meet other drifting floes, out from Newfoundland. Now, our arrival in Canadian airspace presented an image of the forces he described.
Brendan’s Voyage (for Tim Severin)
edges of ice
and the leathern integrity
of a saltcured hull
there’s no chance
of even a glimpse of extent.
belie our forecasts.
It was venture and error,
repair and retreat.
Not a trail
but a trial.
Christine makes her own visual work as a response to observations of the natural world. She took her images and I closed the laptop and leaned again to the window.
Sometimes I’m scared to take my own photographs because I fear the act of capturing a startling image will ease the disturbance it causes. We were told that this was the first truly clear day for some time. I was filled with a sense of huge distance, a bit like the feeling of putting boots over the edge of a cliff. No matter, the safety margin, the tolerance of the protection, you get that intoxication. I’d been snooty about the practical need to approach this continent by air. But that’s the way it happened. Of course I’d wanted to sail to this place, in the wake of the Brendan. Now we plan to travel across a large section by train, to compare that passage with crossing open water – seeing the prairie as sea.
But right then, I found the controls on the new phone fast and tried to hold it steady. It’s simply a tool for catching and sending. It’s still your own eye. And I don’t think that eye can ever be free of the images it has experienced, to date. They get written over but they can’t be deleted.
In the frame
This high, it’s too easy to observe –
fissure and melt.
Blue snakes awake
on this first foolish day
of bare naked light.
The aperture is sensed,
shutter speed set.
In conditioned air
you touch the screen
The wavering line
is a long way left.
A continent is no more nor less
than an island, bigger
than my own home.
That’s under our airtrack,
about four hours back.
Nothing’s square now,
Except when we see it
within the corners
of our framing tools.
I think I navigate by images. I was taught to recognize and name unique features, to fix fishing marks, when I was young. Now it’s difficult for me to take in the wide visible sweep of this terrain until my eyes lodge on a specific feature.
The constant white runs
in the mottled weave of terrain
have to be water,
suspended for now.
And the running edges,
parallel for so long,
have to be
a human road,
taboo for now.
But there is an intersection,
more of a saltire
than a crucifix form.
In a given area,
all elements of one
are contained in
the other but
from this perspective
how can you say
which is the major highway
on its side.
We’re in the city of Toronto now. It’s not all modernist towers. It’s full of contrasts, in smells as well as architecture. Already we’ve had conversations and invitations. Like most Scots, I’ve Canadian cousins. We plan to meet. I met the novelist and poet Anne Michaels at the Tip of the Tongue Festival on Jura, a couple of years back. It looks like we’re meeting up, too. I’m thinking back to her large scale novel, The Winter Vaults now. That’s a work that moves seamlessly between continents and ranges also in time. Jura to Egypt to Toronto and the passing trails of generations.
The Stephen|Morrison collaboration is on another journey, this time mainly land based (once we got over the pond!) and made possible by the support of the Scottish Poetry Library project Commonwealth Poets United and Creative Scotland Professional Development Grant.
Opening night performance of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, Scottish Storytelling centre, Edinburgh.
Click here for a short trailer of the performance
A short video mapping the moods of part of the passage from the North Minch to the ‘Hole’ north of Fair Isle: Cape Wrath to Sule Stack
It’s not only the angle of the observed island, in relation to your bow or stern. The degrees off the wind at the time and so the point of sail you were on. Even if it’s the same vessel, the mood aboard her will not be the same. Not even if the crew is composed of the same individuals.
Sule Stack came shining from the blue, in June 2007. I was skippering the 33ft sgoth Niseach ‘an Sulaire’ en route to joining a flotilla of working-craft in the Moray Firth. After months of working in a shed, open to the wind at one end, the vessel now had a buoyancy system, tested the night before crossing the Minch. The timbers were painted and oiled and a new tan sail was bent on to the sanded spars.
First we had a couple of weeks as the dipping lugsail craft in residence, at an international gathering of artists on Tanera Mor. My pal became a mate who knew the boat well – how to sail her and how to stow gear so it would not shift. Our crew, who linked the shoreside community with the visiting artists asked to join us, not bothered by being the only woman aboard a boat with an equal opportunities bucket.
One of the new crew judged the planned route northabout impossible and loudly stated that the Caledonian Canal was the only possible way. I reckoned on using our outboard from time to time to catch tidal gates but, with that, making a viable passage to Stromness. The rest trusted this judgement and the team stayed together.
We made long tacks out into open water in light winds but fair weather. This sighting was our reward, an iconic shape as a visual reference, lifting us from the dial of a log and the figures to plot from navigation by GPS.
Landfall was made at Stromness and then we went on to sail across Scapa Flow and the Pentland Firth to join the flotilla. Friendships developed. The open vessel was my real home for a month or so.
I met the woman who was to become my wife aboard the sgoth ‘an Sulaire’. As a volunteer, I took eleven artists out in the labour-intensive lugsail boat, as a team-building trip in strong westerly breeze. The students and their tutor tacked and gybed the boat through the gap between Tavay Mor and Tavay Beg in Loch Erisort. I was caught by the determination of Christine Morrison, working the tack. And that was that.
The same woman put countless hours of energy and skill into repairs, paintwork and canvas fabrication for the 33ft wooden sloop ‘El Vigo’. We hoped we might sail together and make work together, in response to sailing. We departed Stornoway, bound Lerwick with another Morrison friend to help, on the 23rd of August, 2013.
Forecast wind was favourable but the isobars indicated that we would have to run the inboard motor from time to time to keep momentum. So it proved, with strong breeze and fair tide to to take us well clear of Cape Wrath and almost no breeze, in the stretch west of Orkney.
This meant that fins of visiting dolphins were prominent, even at a distance. Then visibility closed in, as promised. But not before a more grey Stack Skerry and then Sule Skerry itself, the place in the ballad, appeared off to port. I took some video, intrigued by the way an accidental rain spot on the lens became an indicator of the boat’s rise and fall. When the seas are long you don’t realise how steep they may be.
Then I woke Christine, before her watch was due because I knew she would want to photograph this sight at this time. A comparison with the image I took in 2007.
A ditty box is the handful of possessions traditionally carried by northern sailors on their sea voyages. Inspired by Orkney sculptor John Cumming’s work relating to the ditty box, An Talla Solais invited a group of six artists from seafaring Scotland to create work based on the ditty box and its contemporary relevance. This unique show brings together John Cumming (Orkney), David Cass (Edinburgh), Ian Stephen and Christine Morrison (Lewis), Will Maclean (Dundee / Polbain), Peter White (Ullapool), and Frances Pelly (Orkney).
As part of the outreach programme, Stephen Morrison ran a week of sailing/drawing workshops aboard the 1935 sgoth Niseach Jubilee – the last remaining original vessel of her type.
Grateful thanks to Ullapool Harbourmaster Kevin Peach and all his willing and helpful team.
A new body of work exploring the idea of travelling through stories. A series of four photo-gravure etched plates with screen printed texts recreate a maritime route from St Kilda to Fair Isle. Using digital images of off-lying islands and traditional stories located to that specific place, these works also combine both digital and traditional printmaking techniques.
The Acts of Trust book was created in response to the outreach workshops held in schools throughout the western isles during Stephen’s Reader in Residence post in 2012. Three stories were told to a variety of classes by Stephen, then Morrison led drawing workshops to enable the pupils to visualise the story. Images of the drawings were the source material for photogravure etching plates, the texts, condensed into prose poems, were relief printed on to the same length of Hahnemuhle paper, which was then folded to make two pages of the Japanese folded, stab stitched book. Silver thread was used for the stitching and grey craft card for the cover.