Back in the summer, Alex from Unit 7 - an artists' studio complex in Glasgow - got in touch with us at the RSPB office in Stromness for some advice. In September the group was planning to send five artists to Orkney to carry out some unusual residencies for a project called Odyssean, supported by the OIC Culture Fund. The artists were each to wild-camp or otherwise immerse themselves in the landscape of Orkney and take their experiences as inspiration for their work.
Alex and I had an enjoyable chat coming up with ideas of possible locations for the artists, and I managed to wangle a promise that - if the artists were willing - they would do a guest blog for us afterwards about their experiences of Orkney's nature. I was sure they'd have some interesting perspectives and intriguing artworks to share and they certainly do. So thank you Alex and Alistair, Alexander, Blazej, Natasha and Simon for agreeing!
First up we have Alistair Grant, who went to Papay...
My residency period was spent wild-camping on Papa Westray, with my tent pitched at Moclett beach with the links golf (pitch and putt) course behind me. I went with intentions to imagine a Sci-Fi or future version of the island, as well as responding to the golf links course collecting sound recordings and images as research for a virtual landscape version that I would make in retrospect when back in Edinburgh.
I spent most of my week facing out to sea. The sheer openness of the landscape, the small size of the island, the unavoidably gigantic sky and the flattened topography meant that my gaze was constantly fixed a good few miles away from where I actually was situated, either out to the surrounding sea horizon or neighbouring distant islands. The change in environment between dense city centre and the minimal, sparse open landscape had me a bit bewildered. I found it a challenging week for a few reasons, namely its complete lack of trees, as I am a bit of a tree lover.
Papay has a very strong connection to its ancient past as evidenced by its historical Neolithic landmarks of the Knap of Howar and the Holm. Archaeologists were giving talks on the island that week and we had the good fortune to meet with them. They were a lovely and very interesting bunch as well as all the friendly island folk who very kindly came along to myself and Natasha Rosling's talks on the Friday evening at the Kelp Store. We the artist group had our residency culmination talks the following day as an artist group at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness.
The presence of experts-in-the-field on the island did intimidate me and in advance of the trip I decided to not respond to Papay's ancient past. Being aware of the very short time we had on the island I thought that I could not properly engage with or respond in any meaningful way to its history which is so embedded, dense and well studied. I did not want to do it any disservice, and in many ways this decision defined my time spent there. I did not want to create, as Alex (residency leader) put it well, '...a worse contemporary art version of the thing that already exists'. I was keen to not become a pseudo-artist-archaeologist, so instead I became a pseudo-artist-Science-Fiction-enthusiast and a full grade fool.
I was thinking that if we were to come into contact with the future, how would that happen? Perhaps instead of unearthing things covered by time, the future would fall from the sky and would be washed ashore. So I made some beach sculpture using space blanket material and attempted to address and approach the natural entity which the island is defined by, the sea.
This residency helped me realise that for the last two years I have been making artwork that has been presented in exhibitions which have been the primary catalyst for their existence. I have realised I have not had an on-going studio-driven artistic practice which is centred around experimenting, dabbling, investigating and tinkering with materials and ideas. I will be getting right back into that, because that’s what I love! I am revisiting the short stories I wrote on the island, the mixture of film and digital photographs and the audio recordings and I plan to weave them together and hopefully return to the island, in the future.
Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
This year there were a total of 17 confirmed calling males across the county, a drop from last year’s 36. Nine males were confirmed calling on Mainland, 5 on Westray, 2 on Shapinsay and 1 on Sanday.
The poor weather this spring may have meant that fewer corncrakes made the journey to Orkney, with strong north winds and heavy rain around the time birds were returning.
The weather also affected the growth of vegetation that provides corncrakes with cover when they arrive, with noticeably less grass available than last year. This may have forced the birds into poorer habitat and possibly made them more vulnerable to predators.
In order for their population to remain stable, corncrakes need to produce one successful brood. If their numbers are to increase, they need to produce two successful broods.
Through the Orkney Corncrake Initiative, we can offer to pay farmers to delay their silage mowing until mid-August and ideally into September, buying time for the corncrakes to raise their chicks undisturbed when they are found to be nesting in fields.
Many corncrakes were found in natural vegetation at the start of this season, only later moving into silage fields. With farmers faced with one of the worst harvests in history, it was difficult to ask anyone to delay their mowing. Four agreements were signed this year.
With many birds sheltering in natural cover early in the season, we hope these males found a female and were successful in producing at least one brood. We will only find out next year when hopefully we hear their ‘crexing’ call in Orkney again. Meanwhile we’re working on figures from across Scotland to get an idea of the national picture and will post again soon about that.
Thank you to everyone who reported a calling corncrake - your help is vital every year in helping us locate all of the birds. A special thank you also to the farmers who were able to help the corncrakes in such a difficult year.
Pauline has just emailed round the total from last Saturday's bag-packing efforts at Tesco - a wonderful £658.37!
This is an amazing amount that will all go towards helping wildlife in Orkney. A big thank you to all the shoppers who generously filled up our buckets over the course of the day, Pauline for organising the collection, all the Local Group members and committee who came out to pack bags, and of course to Tesco for having us.
(About this time last year the Local Group celebrated its 30th anniversary. For the occasion we totted up the amount that the Local Group had raised over the last four years alone through pin badges, bag-packing and Love Nature collections - over £14,000!)