Adventure

The Outer Hebrides - through an artist's eyes

Photography by Sail Britain
Words by Amy Leigh-Bird

Anchored at Loch Bhrollum, staring out at infinite stars, I finally began to feel a sense of place.

After days of cold winds and lumpy seas I had found my sea legs, the undeviating streets of Glasgow, the city I left behind, a distant memory from a different place and time. I felt at ease with the ocean around me, comfortable with its tempestuous power. The solitude felt just days before had been replaced by a sense of harmony. Land and sea. Us, within it.

Before I set sail, I could never have anticipated the two weeks that lay ahead, the vibrancy of the blue skies, the freshness of the air, the knotted beauty of the craggy isles that jutted up from the water. On our very first day, one blessed with gentle winds and steady progress, some of the bountiful wildlife that calls this place home revealed itself to us: flapping puffins, diving gannets and a pair of golden eagles that soared high above our mast.

Creatively, I was spiked. Soft shadows danced off cliffs, rain-filled gusts of wind blew across the sea’s surface, a feast of sounds and textures. There was not a soul in sight, not a hint of civilisation – no homes, no farms, no livestock climbing the luscious and lumpy terrain. So close to home, we had found wilderness. As I climbed into my sleeping bag that evening, a city girl at sea, I felt liberated – an active and exhausting day like I had never experienced before. I also felt lonely. And, truthfully, a little lost. I drifted off to sleep, water rhythmically sloshing against hull, wondering what I had let myself in for. Exhilaration and personal development doubtless lay ahead – and that sense of place and purpose did eventually arrive – but two weeks, at that moment in time, felt like a long time.

Having just graduated from Glasgow School of Art, I was embarking on a journey of self-discovery. For some of us, despite being islanders, the ocean is an alien and unknown environment full of mystery and intrigue. It can also be scary. As I woke on that first morning, I felt anxious about the day ahead, what Scotland’s wild seas had in store for me. A white light shone through the hatch overhead, dislodging me from my reverie. An unfamiliar face smiled down at me. Cool drops of displaced condensation fell on my cheek. The mornings quickly became one of the most precious times of day – the calm of the saloon, the boat bobbing at anchor amidst a morning mist. Yawns and chatter filled the cool air that rushed in from open hatches. Hot tea. Stretching limbs. The building of friendships. My love of mornings also hinged on the fact the saloon became a no-go zone during the day, my legs slow to acclimatise to the shifting sea beneath them.

The voyage from Loch Shell, our anchorage on the first evening, to the Isle of Scalpay via the Shiant Islands was glorious, a day when the ocean and the archipelago truly revealed their beauty to me. The Shiant Islands, inaccessible other than by small boat, were desolate and breath-taking. I felt privileged to visit and explore such a remote collection of isles. After a foreboding approach – driving rain, the landscape bled of colour – the sun tore through the low cloud and illuminated the grassy isles around us, brightly-beaked puffins painting the skies with flicks of reds and oranges.

Seeing puffins up close was wonderful. There is a fumbling sweetness to the species, their scampering efforts to take flight especially endearing – a welcome distraction from the seasickness that has taken a hold of me. Walking along a stony beach on one of the three Shiant islands, my nausea lifting, I came across the skulls of a puffin and gannet. As a collector and still-life artist, I could not resist and deposited the bones in my rucksack, subjects for another day.

A couple of days later we found ourselves stormbound off Lochmaddy, howling winds playing with our 15-ton boat like a bath toy. The boat pitched and yawed as the wind whistled angrily around us. I had tentatively thought, prior to the storm rolling in, that I may have overcome my fear of sailing. I certainly hadn’t. Our insignificance within a roaring ocean was clear. It was a vivid and thrilling realisation that allowed me to comprehend, truly, for the first time, the power and sublimity of the ocean. Our approach into dock felt treacherous, but the teamwork and camaraderie was invigorating. I was earning my sea legs.

On reaching land that evening, sailing made sense to me. It is about challenges and rewards. Nausea, disorientation and exhaustion are tempered by inspiring vistas, life-affirming interactions and a deep sense of teamwork. These emotions and experiences are heightened when undertaken somewhere such as the Hebrides – cold and wet but full of wild beauty. By putting myself in a position of vulnerability, a city dweller outside of her comfort zone, I was stimulated in ways I had never experienced before. Those moments have afforded me the opportunity to take a new approach to my art. The residency has enabled me to develop my work, to embrace a wider canvas of Scottish life, land and sea – something I had lost sight of as a consequence of the various pressures of my degree.

The Muir Is Tir (Gaelic for ‘Land and Sea’) adventure was, ultimately, an opportunity to further develop my work, including my dissertation thesis ‘The Therapeutic Benefits of Nature’. It challenged me to create something based around a specific experience – importantly, one I had never had before. As well as the thrill of the wild ocean and the busyness of sailing in rough seas, I was also able to collect and read in a place that offered a tranquillity unlike that found in city life. I had previously produced work focusing on the calm spaces within Glasgow’s urban environment. The Hebrides, by contrast, provided me with inspiration and material to create art from the powerful therapeutic qualities of wild nature and the fathomless sea.

Perhaps the greatest discovery of all – beyond that of seals and puffins and ragged islands beaten by waves – was that of friendship. There was an intensity to life at sea, a group of strangers marooned on a floating island of their own. Awkward at first, our close proximity lead to natural friendships forming in a short space of time. At sea, emotions sway as frequently as the water around you, anxiety and buffoonery chopping about in equal measure. It makes for a special shared experience. To spend time with a small group of like-minded creatives – and the interdisciplinary discussions that came with it – was a rare pleasure. It was interesting to share ideas with more experienced and professional artists, from both inside and outside the art world, most of which were experiencing the wild ocean environment for the first time too.

The Outer Hebrides is a place of wind and power, a cluster of lonely isles in an expanse of beautiful blue. It was, for two weeks at least, also a place of learning, collaboration and personal development. It is an utterly wonderful part of our world.

Muir is Tìr is a collaboration between Sail Britain and the An Lanntair Arts Centre that provides artists and young people with a challenging and instructive experience centered on the inspirational environments of the Outer Hebrides and the seas surrounding them.

Words by Amy Leigh-Bird

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