Handspan, handspun: navigational lines in the work of artists Inge Thomson and Deirdre Nelson

This essay considers projects by two multimedia artists working in Scotland to propose that culture and local ecology are inseparable and mutually-determining aspects of our understanding of and care for place. The work of Inge Thomson and Deirdre Nelson encompasses material cultures and oral traditions, with an emphasis on marine environments, creating new narratives of passage as works of advocacy for ‘vernacular, community-based ecology’.

‘A human community, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local meaning in place. Practically speaking, human society has no work more important than this.’ (Wendell Berry)[1]

‘Culture’ is a broad and malleable concept, as subject to political and economic manipulation on a global and national scale as it is to personal and communal redefinition in local time and space. In the most general sense, though, we tend to think of culture as the patterns or principles that give coherence and identity to societies. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson described culture as the webs of significance in which humankind is suspended and which we ourselves have spun. But spun from what? Paying closer attention to the material matrix of our cultural lives may help to give more precise and useful definition to the practices, values and motivations of real people in actual places, whose needs, skills and capacities link livelihoods to the liveliness – and liveability – of place.

I think of art as culture’s compass and emissary rather than its storage container. Art-making is a highly symbolic cultural gesture associated with meaning making: it both shapes and stimulates public perception and therefore action in the world. It is a vital tool of communication and navigation. The values, anxieties and aspirations of communities are defined and concentrated in their art, and carried forward in their culture. How we experience a place as a living, dynamic realm – a subject of increasing complexity and urgency in a time of disorientating change – is partly determined by the imaginative forms used to represent and narrate it. This is an important point, because it suggests that the stories we tell about a place become a part of its ecological reality.

Culture and ecology are inseparable elements in the coherence and value of marine environments in particular. The sea has a real, sometimes catastrophic, impact on human lives, but it is also a vast repository of liveliness, myth and imagination. For island and coastal communities, these sources of meaning and experience are inseparable. The ways in which the seas are used by local people, the stories told about them, their reflection in art and craft and the materials they provide are all part of their nature. Losing the intimacy and variety of our connection with the sea is as damaging a form of erosion as the loss of soil, biodiversity and language. Cultural coherence is also a question of inhabiting an array of niches – creating an expanded connection with all the habitats of a place through resource use, narration, the imagining and reconfiguring of environments, and the creation of new cartographies.

Art has a crucial role in bringing the value of marine environments to the surface. It draws attention, stimulates the attachment of a community to place and resources, and encourages direct engagement with them.

I want to consider two projects inspired by Scottish islands and journeys to and from them. Deirdre Nelson’s The Kildas and Inge Thomson’s Da Fishing Hands are both, in a sense, community-curated projects, shaped by and for the people whose lives and voyages they record. They are exercises in map-making in which the emphasis is on naming the space between or beyond.

Inge Thomson, Da Fishing Hands

like satellites around us
the yoals lie, out from the island
searching dark water
deeps, on a fishing hand

reaching for the seabed
on co-ordinates handed down
lines like radar
sounding the fishing ground

sending lines into the darkness
on a mission far from home
out on the airless ocean
for the silver fish they roam

launched from the beaches
along memorised paths they go
day after day, it takes
a hundred years of days to know

through wind, tide and weather
as daylight comes and goes
the way on the surface
to the fishing grounds below
(Lise Sinclair, ‘Satellites’)

Da Fishing Hands is a work of reorientation which proposes that human culture and marine ecology are co-extensive. The piece is a song cycle with lyrics by Fair Isle native Lise Sinclair and music composed by singer and multi-instrumentalist Inge Thomson. It is based on the Fair Isle tradition of fishing by ‘hands’ – extrapolating from precisely defined and intimately known landmarks to conceptual ‘points’ in local waters. Fair Isle’s fishing hands have been preserved through use for generations, and their value and accuracy rely on the maintenance and precision of oral tradition. ‘Da Skeo o’Buness an da Skeo o’Brecks o’Leogh’; ‘Da Burrian an da Apron o’Heelie Stack’; ‘Da Muckle Keel in da Slack o’Uren an da Rock’: these phrases are rigorous tracking devices, but they’re also incantations, unintended love poems to a people and their place.


I trace your features
‘til I know where I am
I find your face in my hands
(‘Song for Sheep Rock’)

By drawing landmarks together offshore, a sense of place is transferred from land to sea. In effect the island fishers have found a way of beating the bounds beyond their rocky shores – walking the edges of their parish out into the water to extend their sense of being at home beyond the few square miles of the island. The fishing ‘hands’ are intersecting storylines, akin to Aboriginal song lines, which name physical features and phenomena, events and appearances, and produce a stability of knowledge and connection in a sea of change.

The sea’s our living, we have bartered
Her silver for our land, our homes
We’re part of her story, and the story goes on
(‘The Fishermen and the Sea’)

Everything here is connected: phytoplankton supports zooplankton which feeds sandeels which sustain seabirds and the fishery; the seabirds, sea fishing and local biodiversity are woven into local culture, which, along with them, sustains environmentally-engaged tourism, and this in turn supports local culture and local stewardship of precious resources. Close-knit, is how you might describe the interrelation of human culture and marine ecology on this island of spinners and knitters. The greatest risk here is the risk of this fabric unraveling.

And change there is – some of it incremental and barely noticeable, some of it, like the decline of kittiwake, shag and arctic tern breeding populations of late, catastrophic: ‘Something’s gone, something’s lost, something’s broken’. Some of it is taking place underwater, with change marked by absences where there was once abundance – of sand-eel, ling, cod and halibut, and of lobster which once filled the creels of local fishermen but have been overfished by commercial boats from outwith Shetland’s islands. ‘White below’ once described a hold full of herring; white above was the seabird guano staining cliffs and stacs around the coast. Now local fishermen come back almost empty-handed, and more and more of the stacs are dark and quiet.

The wind and waves have wracked boats and people here for hundreds of years; but they’ve also thrown unexpected gifts on Fair Isle’s shores. A nineteenth-century newspaper described Fair Isle immigrants to Nova Scotia as having ‘an eye to the windward’: change isn’t always for the worse, and Fair Islanders have always looked for opportunity while blessing what they have. Multi-skilled, multi-tasking, with long horizons and deep and broad roots in land and water, they are the best, the true custodians of their local environment, and they have earned international support and respect for their tireless efforts to maintain its health for the common good. In 2016 Fair Isle was awarded Research and Development Marine Protected Area status; the only such designation in the UK and an acknowledgement of the local and communal approach to environmental stewardship and data collection proposed by the islanders.

Research shows that small-scale communities are more likely to have the formal conditions required for successful and enduring collective management of the commons. These include visibility of the resources in question and behaviours towards them, iteration and acceptance of rules for their protection, understanding of the values expressed in the rules and the backing of those values by socialisation, culture, standards and strict enforcement. These are all issues of communication and storytelling.

Coherence and identity within these communities are maintained by a combination of respect for local knowledge and tradition, along with curiosity and an enthusiasm for innovation. The participatory nature of socially-engaged art and cultural practices can help to evoke allegiance to common rather than separate interests.

Fair Isle’s resilience depends on the resilience of the larger system around it. The islanders have long argued that their local marine ecology extends to encompass the entire island community, its way of life, its culture, language and economy. Inge Thomson argues that ‘the Sea represents life, in the very deepest sense, to islanders. As artists we seek to confirm this and raise awareness of the importance of nurturing our marine resources.’ Da Fishing Hands combines local knowledge with the strength of Fair Isle’s music tradition, making this a campaigning work, a cultural tool, a living archive and a symbolic concentration of meaning, values and aspirations.

Map of St Kilda by Martin Martin, 1697 (www.nature.scot)

Deirdre Nelson’s The Kildas project was commissioned as part of Culture 2014 for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Nelson describes the work as a ‘modern day pilgrimage in search of Saint Kilda.’ There are six St Kildas: the original archipelago in Scotland (known as Hiort in Gaelic), three in Australia, one in New Zealand and one in Canada. Each is a real place of stone and sea, and each is simultaneously a fiction: (mis)named for something that came before it; a progressively receding echo of an error which carried a myth on currents that bore the Scottish diaspora away from home during the Clearances of the 19th century and towards new nations built on indigenous clearances of their own.

There are six St Kildas, but there is, and never was, an actual Saint Kilda. An article in Melbourne’s Evening Star (13 January, 1979) sets out the mystification of the place name in Australia: ’St Kilda Officials are laughing at a [recent] British report that there is no such saint. They’ve known that for decades.’ Research undertaken in the 1920s suggested that the name St Kilda may have originated in the Scandinavian word Skeldur. ‘The theory 50 years ago was that the English linguists changed the word to St Kilda, making it easier to pronounce.’ In fact the name may have been based on a whole series of 16th and 17th-century cartographical errors. It’s also likely that both the borough and the suburb of St Kilda in Victoria took their names not directly from the islands but from a boat named after them – the Lady of St Kilda, a small schooner which sailed from England to Australia and occasionally anchored off what is now St Kilda beach. The historical Lady of St Kilda was Lady Grange, hapless wife of Jacobite sympathiser James Erskine, Lord Grange, who had her kidnapped and confined on St Kilda for six years to keep her from sharing knowledge of his treasonous activities. Erskine held a funeral for his wife while she was still alive and in unwilling exile. When Samuel Johnson heard the story while touring the Hebrides 30 years later, he suggested that the islands might profitably be used for the confinement of ‘naughty ladies’.


The Kildas is the story of an archipelago named for a saint who didn’t exist, which became the prison of a woman whose funeral preceded her death, who gave her name to a boat which sank after sailing to a nation that hadn’t yet been born and whose first inhabitants it didn’t acknowledge. The islands were named for the non-existent saint; the woman for the islands; the boat for the woman, and two places in distant parts of the Commonwealth were named for the boat.

Deirdre Nelson is a textile artist and, therefore, a fabricator. Because there is no Saint Kilda, naughty or otherwise, she set about to find one. Or many. Nelson travelled from Scotland’s St Kilda to Australia and New Zealand, gathering materials in each place with which to craft medals to commemorate and celebrate modern Saint Kildas in modern St Kildas: individuals and organisations committed to weaving and maintaining the local fabric of real people, place and resources. She used wool gathered from St Kildan Soay and antipodean merino sheep, silver coins from Scotland, Australia and New Zealand and sand from each place suspended in bio-resin to create bespoke medals.

Tane’s medal by Deirdre Nelson (Photo: Neil MacKinnon)

Photo by Neil MacKinnonThe Kildas project raises questions about the relationship between myth, romanticism, representation, departure, arrival and belonging. Here place-understanding begins with a transference of the experience of being at sea to land; it moves in the opposite direction to Thomson’s Da Fishing Hands, importing fluidity and uncertainty to cultural landmarks, a sense of perpetual displacement and displacing through exile and colonisation, which can only be resolved through acts of belonging, attending and place-making: the knitting of community by ordinary people. Nelson’s saints are living participants in local cultures. They include the St Kilda Brass band in Dunedin, New Zealand, a team of rowers who travelled 100 miles from St Kilda to Skye in a 19th-century rowboat to raise funds for charity, female footballers, mums, lifesavers, a baker, a youth wildlife ambassador and the proprietor of the Free (‘no money’) Shop in New Zealand’s St Kilda. Nelson’s saints are real people in real places, and the medals record geographical data that locates them precisely in space.

Dave’s medal by Deirdre Nelson (Photo: Neil MacKinnon)

Dave’s medal by Deirdre Nelson

Deirdre Figueiredo of Craftspace describes Nelson as ‘a maker who embodies the principles of quiet activism, making work that places craft as a central and productive force in society. She uses craft processes, sensibilities, values and thinking to empower people in communities to find agency to address issues of social justice, well-being and connectivity.’

History is an unbroken current of material and energy flows, and in those flows vortices sometimes form, and these spinning cycles, these Kildas, these loops in time, have a structure which is complex, ubiquitous, beautiful, temporary and true. The world spins. We spin. Migrating seabirds like the Arctic tern loop the spinning world. On St Kilda, men with loops or snares caught seabirds on the high cliffs and stacs. Loops of wool made socks and sweaters here and on Fair Isle with patterns, like tunes, carried from island to island — in Gaelic bho ghlùin gu glùin, from knee to knee. Knitted things pass between us like stories and songs, like fishing nets, hand over hand, constantly maintained, mended, adapted – navigational lines linking person to person and place to place.

The word ‘knit’ comes from the Old English cnyttan, to tie in a knot, to bind together. The word ‘yarn’ is connected to  the Old Norse garn or gut. There are 74 Gaelic words for yarn and the winding of yarn. Human beings have been spinning yarn from fibre for 20,000 years, spinning yarns from their guts for at least as long, binding meaning into their lives by looping the past into the present, the world within into the world beyond. Wherever we are on earth, there’s a St Kilda behind us and a St Kilda ahead; mythical St Kildas we have brought into being collaboratively through acts of place-making and wayfinding. Stories extend us, they strengthen and connect us; they propel our migrations and loop us back into the places we’ve left behind.

Nelson’s and Thomson’s work is rooted in acts of maintenance, from the Fr. main tenir: to hold in the hand. In their projects, materials are inseparable from the stories of their making; they make narratives of matter, narratives that matter. Handheld stories that weave words and wool, that value knitting and narration as ways of living more fully and more carefully; stories that are threaded through our world to keep them from passing from our hands and our hearts. In On Being, Tim Ingold traces the line from the spinning of thread to its literal and metaphorical uses in measuring and perspective: ‘In the turn from spinning a thread to stretching it from point to point lies the ‘hinge’ between bodily movement and abstract reason, between the textilic and the architectonic, between the haptic and the optical, between improvisation and abduction, and between becoming and being. Perhaps the key to the ontology of making is to be found in a length of twine.’ (218-219). Nelson and Thomson move constantly between the two – spun lines, navigational lines, story lines, between the handspan and the handspun. They are practitioners of what Gary Snyder called ‘vernacular, community-based ecology’.

Like the citizen saints that the Kildas project celebrates, the integrity, compassion and commitment of these artists to place and the idioms of place, to maritime ways of knowing, are the ‘sunt kelda’ – another, perhaps better – Norse origin of ‘St Kilda’: the ‘sweet well-water’ of our time.

[1] ‘The Work of Local Culture’, Iowa Humanities Lecture, 1988


Inge and Deirdre’s collaborative project Sleeping Starfish, on knitting and bird data patterns, is featured on Fife Contemporary Online as part of the Lines from Scotland exhibition curated by Amanda Game.

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