Sumburgh Head Artist in Residence

Arriving into Lerwick in the early morning by ferry, Shetland is wreathed in a fine low-hanging mist which blankets the landscape, softening and enveloping its edges. Later in the day glorious summer sunshine will break through creating dazzling patterns on the sea. It is emerging from a lingering pocket of mist into such sunshine that there is the first glimpse of Sumburgh Head Lighthouse. From land which has tapered away almost to sea level the ground suddenly surges upward again to create one final jutting headland of rock, scoured meadow and cliffs, home to the Robert Stevenson designed lighthouse and nesting site to thousands of seabirds.

Constructed in 1821, Sumburgh Head was the first lighthouse in Shetland and the Smiddy building which also served as accommodation quarters for occasional or visiting lighthouse keepers now became temporary studio and home for two weeks. 

Arriving in a new environment can be exciting but also daunting - where to start, what to draw first, how best to capture a sense of place and above all how to do it all in a finite period of time. Not to mention battling with wind, rain and a drawing board determined to take flight on those days when the weather is a dramatic sequence of shifting light and wind-blown spume but every movement is a struggle against the elements.

There is however something about more demanding conditions which sharpens the senses and a rush of energy to get it down on paper before the moment passes. In this drawing made on Noss, the crest of the hill or Noop of Noss was catching a strong breeze and wisps of cloud and mist being blown up and over the cliffs. I had initially hoped to include a group of gugas (immature gannets) just the other side of the wall but after only a few strokes of the pencil their initial inquisitiveness turned to nervousness and one by one they took flight, dropping down from the edge then catching an updraft to soar along the cliff. My attention shifted to this viewpoint of the birds at eye-level and constant wheeling of their white forms above dark caves in the cliffs.

The quality of shifting light was one of the most attractive aspects of Shetland, and of many islands where the expanse of sea heightens the effect of varying conditions. From stark, almost painfully bright glints on water and wet rock to the soft blending of low cloud where it becomes impossible to distinguish the horizon line.

The lighthouse became a focal point in many drawings, this one made from a sheltered cleft between huge slabs of black rock. It had been windy enough to whistle constantly through the keyholes of the cottage and transform the sea to a white froth of spindrift and spume. What particularly attracted me was the contrast of slick black rock, seafoam and scattering of boulders and pebbles thrown up at my feet by previous storms. On some of the rocky outcrops just the other side of the cliff wall the shags clustered together in large groups, feathers ruffled, waiting for calm. The next day they were gone, only to be glimpsed on thier more habitual low lying perches at the sea edge.

The landscape itself has many different aspects to give, on Mousa the impressive Iron Age Broch, stone walls and beaches are home to the beautiful storm petrel. Coming to land only after nightfall its call is a strange combination of whirring chirps and inspite of its diminutive size (a little bigger than a sparrow) it spends most of its life at sea. I had the rare priviledge of seeing the birds at close quarters thanks to a team who were undertaking some ringing and documentation work. The storm petrel has an unexpectedly musty scent similar to an old house which has been closed up for too long and a wonderful way of stretching the wings skyward for a moment or two before take-off almost like a gymnast or high-dive athlete poised in the moment before action. Then a swift ficker and they disappear back into the dark.

Each day at Sumburgh brought a fresh perspective on the same subject. Looking out from the lighthouse over Scatness to Quendale or south to Fair Isle, watching weather systems passing through, fulmars effortlessly gliding by with the merest tremble of the wings to change direction and occasionally a glimpse of things that the landscape has concealed -  both man-made and natural.

I will be returning to Sumburgh in June 2017 for a month during which time I will be exhibiting work produced as a result of the residency. Some works from Shetland will also feature in my forthcoming solo exhibition at the Rendezvous Gallery, Aberdeen during Novemebr 2016.