Category: Art

The Swan Sketchbooks: John Cumming, 5th April – 29th May 2021

[John Cumming]

The work for this show has been significantly influenced by circumstances during the past year. Denied the opportunity to travel and research subjects, I turned instead to the sketchbooks I have filled over the past decade. Sketches which might have become prints or carvings in other circumstances have instead been developed in charcoal, graphite, oil pastel or clay.

Revisiting the sketchbooks has reawakened my deep love for the sea and for boats, and reengaged my concern at the loss of seabirds and those ecosystems which sustained them. The work bears references to a memorable week spent on the Minch aboard Song of the Whale as well as several trips aboard the Shetland Fifie Swan.

Last winter my sea-watching was limited to daily walks at Wharbeth with my dog, but the birds we saw there and the constant break on the Kirk Rocks has been added to new sketchbooks and further developed on paper and in clay.

East Foula.
Kirk Rocks.
Kirk Rocks 2.
Storm Ciara.
Venture Diary.
Waster Skerry.

The Swan Sketchbooks


John Cumming

5th April – 29th May 2021

Open Monday-Saturday, 10:00-12:00, 14:00-17:00

Admission Free.

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank you.

Between Islands Project: Latest Updates, Sam Macdonald interview.

Alex Macdonald, coordinator of the Between Islands Project writes:

Sam has both Orcadian and Hebridean family roots, and having grown up in Lewis, moved to Orkney where he taught art for many years. He now works solely as a sculptor and lives in Perthshire. [Sam has also exhibited at the Orkney Museum several times, as well as being a Ba’ player.]

I had the pleasure of interviewing sculptor Sam Macdonald recently for our “In conversation” film series, and the result is now online for viewing:

And we continue to receive positive reviews for the music project, the most recent posted here:

I will of course keep you updated as any other items wishes   

Alex Macdonald, Head of Performing Arts/Cultural ProjectsCoordinator, Between Islands Project

An Lanntair Arts Centre, Kenneth Street, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, HS1 2DS   

Between Islands Project 

To make a donation to any of the museums please follow the link and support us. Thank You.

Between Islands Project: Latest Updates.

Alex MacDonald, coordinator of the Between Islands Project writes:

There are lots of bits and pieces to report on Between Islands at the moment including the release of our latest film, made by Zoe Paterson Macinnes and featuring an interview with writer Kevin MacNeil.  Current restrictions are somewhat curbing our ambitions with film however we do hope to bring you some more of these as soon as we can. The channel now has over 21K views and rising, so many thanks to those who have been sharing content.

In addition, this month Dr Ian Tait of Shetland Museum will be undertaking this talk:

Edinburgh University run a programme called Prescribe Culture, offering therapy to people with mental health issues, as part of their health and wellbeing programme.  Originally for students, the initiative has grown to include public referrals, and the international membership spans all ages.  The programme comprises guest guides giving online presentations and tours on heritage topics.  The range is diverse, from sites like the Library of Parliament at Ottawa and the Singapore National Gallery, to topics such as honeybees and the Edinburgh Festival.  In March 2020 Dr Ian Tait will be a Prescribe Culture guide, explaining our Fair Game exhibition.  It will run like a reading club, where members study the content in advance, before joining later for the slideshow and discussion group.

Alastair Hamilton of Promote Shetland has written a very good review blog on the project overall which can be seen here:

Lastly, Radio Nan Gaidheal recently made our CD record of the week and have been playing it regularly since its release. The recording is also starting to yield some good reviews, one of which can be found here:

leis gach durachd 

Alex Macdonald.

GMB 100: The Centenary of the Birth of George Mackay Brown 1921-2021.

George Mackay Brown at Ness Road, Stromness.

[Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer]

On the 17th October 1921, in a small house in Stromness, a baby boy was born. The youngest of six children born to John Brown, a tailor and postman, and Mhairi Mackay. She was a Gaelic speaking native of Sutherland who had come to work at Mackay’s Stromness Hotel, which was owned by a relative of her family. Poverty and ill health plagued his youth. Tuberculosis saw him being declared unfit for military service at the outbreak of World War II.

The Orkney Blast, a military newspaper that was written and compiled in the Stromness Hotel and printed by The Orcadian in Kirkwall.

The influx of service personnel into Orkney was generally welcomed by local people, but George’s blood boiled when he read the army poem ‘Bloody Orkney’, which lambasted his much loved native islands. It starts with the lines:

This bloody town’s a bloody cuss
No bloody trains, no bloody bus,
And no one cares for bloody us
In bloody Orkney.

While the poem is attributed to a Canadian, Captain Hamish Blair, it is in reality a standard military poem into which you inserted the name of your posting. There was even one for the Libyan desert, with heat and sand replacing the cold and ice. George picked up his pen and wrote a letter to the local military newspaper, The Orkney Blast, which was printed on the 4th June 1943:

“…Whenever I mention to servicemen stationed in Orkney that I have never seen a city or a theatre, and that trams and trains exist only in my imagination, I am answered by looks of shocked amazement or amused pity. I don’t quite know why this should be; for I have met servicemen who, until they came to Orkney, had never seen the sea, had never beheld a farm-house or a haystack, and had never watched a fish, other than a goldfish, swim in the water, yet I do not regard them as abnormal creatures.

in spite of this mutual tolerance and good will I believe there is an undercurrent of animosity, very faint but persistent, between the civilians and the Servicemen of Orkney.there is a pernicious tendency among men of the services, admittedly the more illiterate ones – to regard Orcadians as ignorant and debased yokels of the most primitive type!We welcome you to our islands as brothers and comrades-in-arms. If you like Orkney, we are glad and thank you. If you don’t, better landings next time!”

Orkney Islands author of Letters From Hamnavoe, GMB - Stromness, Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK
George Mackay Brown. The Orkney Library & Archive.

George would later find his place in the world by attending the adult education college at Newbattle Abbey near Edinburgh (under the guidance of the warden, the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir) and later Edinburgh University. Here he worked on his poetry, drawing on inspiration from his island home. The influence of Dylan Thomas can be seen in his poem about his home town, Hamnavoe:

My father passed with his penny letters
Through closes opening and shutting like legends
When barbarous with gulls
Hamnavoe’s morning broke

On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,
Puffing red sails, the tillers
Of cold horizons, leaned
Down the gull-gaunt tide

And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.
A stallion at the sweet fountain
Dredged water, and touched
Fire from steel-kissed cobbles.

George Mackay Brown by Alexander Moffat. This portrait can currently be seen in the Baikie Drawing Room of the Orkney Museum.

George would go on to write short stories and novels, as well as continuing with his poetry. He became a highly respected writer around the world and his works have been published in many languages but he remained living in his native Stromness. He drew on the islands’ history for inspiration, especially the Orkneyinga Saga and the story of St Magnus in particular.

.As a Catholic convert George saw in St Magnus all that was good and pure contained within the character of this Orkney Jarl. He was guided by his faith and forgave (or ignored) references to a more warlike Magnus, considering him a martyr who died in order to bring peace to Orkney. George died on the 13th April 1996. His funeral in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall took place on the 16th April; St Magnus Day. He would have loved that.

George with Gypsy, the cat who inspired ‘Letters to Gypsy’. Gunnie Moberg Collection, Orkney Library & Archive.

In this centenary year the Orkney Museum will be paying tribute to the writer by holding an exhibition that will tell his story and feature his works. When I approach an exhibition like this I want to make it personal, to tell a story in the person’s own words, where possible. Using George’s autobiography, ‘For the Islands I Sing’, along with his poetry and extracts from his stories and newspaper articles, I want to give a balanced view of the man and the influences that shaped his writing and his life.

This is only one of a whole series of events that will be held during the year to make the centenary, either live or online (we are not in a position to plan these things yet). The Orkney Museum exhibition will run from June-October, to take in the date of George’s birthday. We will be working with our colleagues at Stromness Museum and Orkney Library & Archive to create the exhibition. I am indebted to Jenny Brown Associates for permission to quote George’s work throughout the exhibition.

Grave of Orkney Islands writer George M Brownat Warbeth Kirkyard, Stromness, Orkney, Scotland.
George Mackay Brown’s grave at Warbeth Cemetery, just outside Stromness. Around the gravestone, carved by Frances Pelly, are George’s own words. ‘Carve the runes then be content with silence’.

For more information see the links below.

GMB Fellowship

Images: ‘Echoes of Orkney’ paintings by Tom Nugent, The Orkney Museum, 9th February-26th March 2021

Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer

I have been asked if it was possible to photograph the current exhibition of paintings by Tom Nugent. Unfortunately the photos are not of high quality and have a glare from the lights, but are the best that we could produce under the circumstances. So, my apologies to Tom for the colours, which don’t ‘sing’ like they do in the originals. If you can visit, then I suggest that you do. All the pieces, with the exception of ‘Hupe’, are for sale. Contact the museum by leaving a message on here.

1. Stones over Windwick. 76cm x 52cm. £800.
2. Hupe. 61cm x 46cm. Not For Sale.
3. St Andrew over Kirkwall. 84cm x 59cm. £1,000.
4. St Magnus Waves Goodbye. 84cm x 59cm. £1,000.
5. Stones 1. 134cm x 92cm. £3,000.
6. Echoes of Orkney. 270cm x 134cm. £7,000.
7. Stones 2. 134cm x 92cm. £3,000.
Stones 1 & 2 hung as a triptych with Echoes of Orkney.
8. 84cm x 59cm. £1,000.
9. Bishop. 84cm x 59cm. £1,000.
10. Windwick. 84cm x 59cm. £1,000.
11. Last Selkie. 84cm x 59cm. £1,000.
12. Jerusalem. 84cm x 59cm. £1,000.
13. Light over St Mary’s Church, Burwick. 84cm x 59cm. £1,000.
14. St Magnus. 84cm x 59cm. £1,000.
15. Whisky. 84cm x 59cm. £1,000.
16. More Cows. 84cm x 59cm. £1,000.

Exhibition: ‘Echoes of Orkney’ paintings by Tom Nugent, The Orkney Museum, 9th February-26th March 2021

[Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer]

We are delighted to announce the opening of a new exhibition today by the local artist, Tom Nugent. ‘Echoes of Orkney’ will be displayed at the Orkney Museum from Tuesday 9th February – Friday 26th March 2021. We are still operating under COVID-19 restrictions, so the museum is only open on a Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 10:00-12:00 and 14:00-16:00 with only eight people allowed in at any one time. There is a one-way system entering through the usual front door and exiting from the side door. There is no need to book, a member of staff will inform you when it is safe to enter. This is done for your own safety as well as that of the staff. Thank you for your continued support in these unprecedented times.

Artist statement by Tom Nugent:

“This series of interconnected canvasses explores Orkney’s historic and ancient narratives – its myths, legends, stories and events– set in modern Orkney landscapes that offer fresh perspectives and deliver new relevance.  Inspired by the theme ‘ancients in a modern world’ the works bring Orkney’s past into a present context encouraging viewers into thinking again about the legacy of their history and to consider their stories afresh. I am excited by the idea of culture as a collective consciousness rooted in time and place. Drawing on my colourist roots, I have developed an ‘Orkney palette’ that conjures the air of stillness and reflection at Orkney’s twilight and sunrise through which the featured narratives reverberate.”  

The large ‘Echoes of Orkney’ forms a triptych with ‘Stones 1’ and ‘Stones 2’.
‘Hupe’, the only painting in the exhibition that is not for sale.

The Eynhallow Laments

How the Fin Folk Lost Eynhallow. Bryce Wilson.

Tom Muir, Engagement & Exhibitions Officer

During the Orkney Storytelling Festival in 2019 one of the guest storytellers, Gordon MacLellan, invited Fran Flett Hollinrake and myself to contribute something towards an environmental arts project called CelebrationEarth! The idea was that it would be a storytelling event in 2020, but that obviously wasn’t possible. Instead we contributed other things. Fran, who is the Visitor Attraction Officer at St Magnus Cathedral, decided to combine music and story to give an account of the spiritual and the strange within the cathedral. You can view it in another blog page (see ‘St Magnus Cathedral’ in the Main Menu).

Image preview
Gordon MacLellan, storyteller, poet and artist.

For my piece I decided to revisit poetry, for the first time in years. A storytelling event was fine, but this saw me outside of my comfort zone. I decided to focus on the tiny island of Eynhallow; Eyinhelga in Old Norse, meaning the holy island. I decided to write three prose poems that dealt with different aspects of Eynhallow. I used folklore, medieval history and an invented boating disaster in the 19th century as the basis for the poems. They take the form of three laments, giving the trilogy the title of ‘The Eynhallow Laments’

The Fin Folk’s Lament

There was a folk tale about how this was one of the vanishing islands of the Fin Folk, a magical race of beings who lived under the sea, but whose summer homes were islands that float on the surface of the sea. These islands were normally invisible to mortal eyes. A local man, whose new wife had been abducted by a Fin Man, seeks his revenge and gains the knowledge of how to see the island and to win it from the Fin Folk. He and his three sons reach the island, but the Fin Folk conjure up magical sights to frighten them off, but to no avail. The island was taken when nine rings of salt was sown around the island and nine crosses cut into its turf. The youngest son had big hands, so the last ring was not completed. I decided to write it from the perspective of a Fin child who was there that day and witnessed the tragedy that befell her people.

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Eynhallow Church and monastery, 12th century. Gordn MacLellan.

Brother Dagfinn’s Lament

The second poem is told from the perspective of a monk living on Eynhallow in the 12th century, and draws heavily from the Orkneyinga Saga. He is at peace now, but he reminisces about witnessing the martyrdom of St Magnus and his own fate for disobeying the orders of jarl and bishop. Again, the constant here are the selkies that sing on the shore. They appeared in the first poem and will play a more prominent role in the third and final one.

Eynhallow (centre) as seen from Rousay. Max Fletcher.

Clara’s Lament

The third, and final poem had to be the most challenging for me. It is set in the 19th century and told from the perspective of a young woman who had just been widowed when her husband’s boat is capsized in the Eynhallow Sound. It brings in her grief and her feeling of hopelessness. Here the old tales and beliefs come together to create the final conclusion. I had originally wanted to have a young woman read this, but Covid 19 and the lockdown made that more difficult than it would have been normally. Having to read it myself I decided to just be me, no Monty Python type impressions of a female voice. It is not comedy. So, I had to read it as the writer, but using my storytelling skills I had to put as much emotion into it as I could. I had to feel Clara’s grief and despair. It is not up to me to say whether it worked or not, but I did have tears in my eyes after I had finished recording it in a small attic bedroom in our home.

One of the powerful ‘roosts’ that lie on either side of Eynhallow. For the scale of these waves, note the seagull in the bottom right of the photograph. Max Fletcher.
Selkies. Tom Muir.

For more information on the CelebrationEarth! project, follow this link.

For more information about Eynhallow, follow this link to Max Fletcher’s excellent ‘Rousay Remembered’ website.

The Unsilent Cathedral

St Magnus Cathedral. Dr Raymond Parks.

Tom Muir

Image preview
Gordon MacLellan.

During the Orkney Storytelling Festival in 2019 one of the guest storytellers, Gordon MacLellan, invited Fran Flett Hollinrake and myself to contribute something towards an environmental arts project called CelebrationEarth! The idea was that it would be a storytelling event in 2020, but that obviously wasn’t possible. Instead we contributed other things. Fran, who is the Visitor Attraction Officer at St Magnus Cathedral, decided to combine music and story to give an account of the spiritual and the strange within the cathedral. The music and story are all Fran’s own work. My contribution will appear in another blog. Here is Fran’s piece, ‘The Unsilent Cathedral’.

For more information about CelebrateEarth! you can follow their blog here.

Between Islands Online Exhibition

The Orkney Museum is excited to announce that the Between Islands Online Exhibition is now live. It looks at the heritage, arts and crafts of the three island groups, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland. Here is a brief introduction to the exhibition.

Alex MacDonald, coordinator of the Between Islands Project writes:

I am delighted to say that the first of our Between Islands museum exhibitions is now online!

Orkney: Between Islandsexplores the inspiration and legacy of islands in the arts, crafts and literature of Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides. Material includes books and prints documenting island journeys and scenery, paintings by island artists, portraits of island writers and their publications, and examples of island crafts, with a particular focus on Harris Tweed and Fair Isle knitting, but also exploring the lesser-known Orkney and Shetland tweed industries and the promotion of contemporary makers by The New Craftsmen. Featured objects are drawn from the permanent collections of Orkney Museum, Orkney Library and Archive, Shetland Museum and Archives, and Museum agus Tasglann nan Eilean.

Material from the partner museums is complemented by historic photographs, archive recordings, interviews with contemporary artists and craftspeople, paintings, objects and links to makers and collections across Scotland which further illuminate the stories behind featured objects, places and personalities.

The Orkney Museum collection has been curated by Rachel Boak, and designed and produced by Rebecca Marr and Mark Jenkins of cultural heritage and arts creative partnership Kolekto.  Many thanks to them for all their hard work in creating this resource. 

Making the Scar Viking Age Brooch – a replica by Jan Bana

Scar Brooch replica by Jan Bana, Storrvara.

[Jan Bana, Storrvara]

One of the star items in the Orkney Museum’s Viking Gallery is the Scar brooch, found in a boat burial on the island of Sanday (see previous blog). There will be more about the Viking brooch in a later blog, but meanwhile let us marvel at the beauty of this piece of Viking bling when it was shiny and new and see how it was made, thanks to the talents of silversmith Jan Bana of Storrvara. Below is an account of its making in photos and text supplied by Jan. The Orkney Museum is very grateful to him for supplying them.

The original Scar brooch.

My name is Jan. I come from the Czech Republic and I am a member of Czech living history group Skjaldborg. The group focuses on the so called Viking era (Northern Europe 8th-11th century), recreating items of everyday use and building a small camp site on our very own meadow.

Our love for viking culture affects us also in “real” life and several members of our group have already started their specific craft as a part/full time job.

I would be the group´s silversmith. It is interesting to cast bronze and silver in the camp site using charcoal, clay moulds and bellows but to offer the highest quality I co-operate with a professional silver casting studio here in Dublin.

The rough shape is drawn on a block of wax.

I use the usual jeweller’s wax – Ferris, this is a medium hard wax. Most of the tools I use for carving are a bit modified ordinary sculpting tools for clay. Then files and sandpapers.

The worst part of every job is getting usable photos – that means big enough for me to see the details. Then the dimensions. If I have good quality photos and exact measurements it’s all easy then. [Images were supplied by Gail Drinkall, Curator at the Orkney Museum.]

The rough profile of the brooch is formed.

I don’t really like cutting the block and then shaping it into the basic shape. But once this is done, I can finally get to the fun part – carving the details! I am a bit weird in this (to my advantage, I suppose) as I find this work very exciting and relaxing at the same time.

The intricate carving begins.

The vast majority of people who see my work say that they would never have the patience to do it and I tell them that I never have enough time to work (father at home during the day) otherwise I could sit at it till my eyes bleed, hee hee!

After all the carving is done, I hand the wax to the casting company here in Dublin – I cannot do my own casting yet. And if it goes well (there is always a risk a wax will miscast), I get back a cast piece with all the sprues. Those need to be cut off and the whole piece needs to be polished all over several times going from coarse sandpaper all the way to a fine polishing wheel that gives the surface a mirror finish.

The Scar brooch cast in silver.

Then, in this case, the piece is gold plated in 18ct gold, silver bosses are riveted on and an iron pin is attached to the fittings on the back.

Aaand done!

The finished brooch, just like it once looked over a thousand years ago.

As I say the most difficult part is trying to make a replica of something I have never even seen. But I always spend a lot of time online, looking for all the resources I can find.

Thistle brooch from the Viking treasure hoard found at the Bay of Skaill, Sandwick, Orkney, in 1858. Replica made by Jan Bana, Storrvara.
The size of the thistle brooches comes as a surprise to many people. Replica made by Jan Bana, Storrvara.

We are indebted to Jan for his text and images. If you would like to see more of his work you can visit his sites online.

Viking Age treasures, brought to life by Jan Bana, Storrvara.