If photography is the temporal art of the gaze, what is its condition at the edge, or the limit of space? What bonds, what risk of naming can secure it from being drawn off in the ‘undertow’? Frances Scott walks the native territory.
My home is Orkney: a group of islands off the north coast of Scotland where the North Sea meets the Atlantic. I grew up there, mostly, though my first years of school were spent in the Borders before returning north aged nine. I have Orcadian heritage on my father’s side, but neither of my parents spent their childhoods in the islands, and I don’t have the accent. Orkney was always ‘home’, whether I lived there or not, but growing up I always had the feeling of being half-incomer, half-not.
When I returned to live in Orkney as an adult, I wanted to get to know it better, to experience it fully. I had moved back in with my parents after five years studying in Glasgow, and for the first year Orkney felt small, enclosed, limited. Maybe, if I explored the edges, found out how all the familiar spots linked together, saw it from every angle — it might grow and change. I might really know it. In March 2016, when winter had given way to longer days, I started walking the coastline of the Mainland. I set off from my home down to the low cliffs that mark the edge of our garden, and walked around two narrow headlands — Work and Carness — which reach north and east like fingers. I started with a set of rules: I would record my walks using GPS, and track the distance of the coast, as well as the miles returning along roads or through fields. I took note of the duration of each walk, and whether I was alone or had a companion. Each walk would take place only once, and I had to stay as close to the edge as was safe. Initially, the project was completely led by walking; after four years at art school, experiencing life from behind a lens, I wanted to be free from the need to document and exploit every lived experience for an artistic purpose. It was important to be free to walk without interruption, to be present, and to find a good rhythm to move, look, engage. I left my camera at home — I couldn’t afford the film anyway. It was joyful to be free.
That spring, I flitted from coast to coast — walking from Yesnaby to Skaill (grass salt-yellow from winter, loose stones lifting easily from their mud-cracked pattern), anti-clockwise around the edge of Tankerness (jumping a stream that smelt of the purest, most delicious water, the air alive with fulmars), and the long eastern edge of Scapa Flow (April sun bright and blazing while I struggled through the heathery ravines under Gaitnip). I recorded my findings on an OS map, making small handwritten notes alongside my route. I used my iPhone for ‘photo-sketches’: quick, non-invasive image-gathering — not hunting out anything more photogenic, or backtracking for a better angle — letting the landscape be what it is.
When I was little, I spent my early school holidays visiting my dad in Orkney, where he taught me — from a boat, or a plane, or the top of a hill — to recognise and name the different islands of the archipelago. He helped me find the smooth green-purple curve of Gairsay, the staggered slope of Rousay’s dark hillsides, and the satisfying wedge and winding tail of Copinsay. Later, when I moved home after my studies, I found a job working as cabin crew on the small planes which service Kirkwall airport. For the few minutes after take-off, or coming in to land, I was strapped into my seat, with a window a short distance in front. Fragments of islands would materialise and slip from view — tidal currents curling in the firth, dark wind-scoured waves against rock. I liked to play a game: how quickly could I identify and name each island from these small, fleeting glimpses? There is a satisfaction in recognising, knowing, claiming. Soon, the land below began to contain the memories of my coastal walks, and release them back to me when I flew over in sharp thrills of connection.
I took two years to complete the circumference of the Mainland — 36 separate walks, covering 180.89 miles of coast including its tidal islands. I’ve walked the seasons into the land — Marwick, Black Craig, and Deerness are thick with the shining grass and sea-pinks of summer. Stromness and Clestrain are calm under an autumn hush, birds flitting in a darkening sky. Costa Head is frozen underfoot, waves booming below, while Woodwick barely emerges from the darkness of winter. I now live in Glasgow, but I continue to walk the coasts of the other islands which make up Orkney. In autumn 2018 I was supported by Stills Centre for Photography to undertake a residency researching the work of Margaret Tait and Gunnie Moberg, two artists who made work about Orkney. Gunnie Moberg’s book, Stone Built, was of particular significance to me — a series of aerial photographs of stone structures throughout the islands, taken from the window of an Islander aircraft. I let her images guide me northwards, and followed her footsteps from below, first walking the coast of North Ronaldsay, then travelling to Papay and Rousay. Now, when I return to Orkney from Glasgow, I am citified. Everything has become spectacular, significant, and I write it all down, my words spilling off into the sea. I draw every finding from the performance of the sky, the sea and the land:
waves meeting/folding amongst blazing light
a pair of seals flip and dive in unison
white lichen, rippling pools
scattered stone circles
light milky to the north
golden paths, shipwreck pieces
snow storms and gold tipped waves
steel rippling sea, sleet storm closing in
eynhallow dark between wild silver roosts
deep heather, thin pale flare
fiery clouds bloom over dark hills
salt air, honeyed light
heron below, pale and grey
doubled in black reflection
swona ink-smooth black line
behind: dunnet head caught in sunset blaze
On these new walks around islands where I have never lived, I now bring my ‘real’ camera, loaded with black and white medium format film. Initially, finding a balance between photographing and walking was a struggle — I was being pulled in too many directions. It brought a new pressure to the experience: jolting interruptions, stopping and doubling back, and a wistfulness for different weather or light conditions. But working in this way has been vital in sharing and communicating my experience, and I am adapting. Photographs from North Ronaldsay and Papay were exhibited last year at Stills in the group show AMBIT: Photographies from Scotland, and this year work from the series was published as a photobook by the Another Place Press, an independent publisher based in the Scottish Highlands.
There is a lot left behind by choosing to work in black and white — the colours, the sounds, the smells, the feeling of the air. It would be impossible, however, to try to encapsulate a walk in full, and to try and present it minute-by-minute, detail-by-detail to an audience would stifle it. Between my route-maps, writing, and photographs, I hope to suggest rather than dictate, and allow each walk to bloom in the imagination of the viewer.
Finding a title for the work took some time — I gathered words relating to edges and brinks, lines and limits, but these were all too sterile. I looked into the meanings behind the Norse place names where I had walked, but again found nothing I could settle upon. Then, while reading about coastal erosion and the phases of a wave in ‘The Observer’s Book of Sea and Seashore’, I found undertow: a current beneath the surface that sets seaward. This force will take hold of you and pull you along, but only if you make the decision to put your feet into the water. The rhythm and repetition of the waves, seasons, and of walking itself were all contained by this word. Orkney’s pull had been waiting beneath the surface, and when I chose to enter in, it took hold and has held tight ever since.
Gunnie Moberg described the ancient structures of Orkney as ‘pieces of jewellery far below’. Her wording clarified something about my project — jewellery is usually small, personal, and can be collected and treasured. These walks are my way of collecting Orkney piece by piece, my route-maps shrinking the experience of each journey into something small and intricate that can be kept forever, carried and held close. Having walked these coastlines, I see and understand the land and seas of Orkney more clearly — the contours and details lifted into clarity, as if under a magnifying glass, or lit by a beam of light. By walking, I have forged my own sense of belonging; I have made Orkney my own.