Duncan’s piece amused me as I used to share a flat with him and afew other friends (the flat featured in the photograph below) and it’s very characteristic! It was also really lovely to see Richard Demarco, now in his 90’s and looking as energetic as ever.
Obviously my favourite dapper gentleman of the evening was my partner Adam Brewster, looking as though he’d stepped out of a James Bond film in his black tie!
For contrast to the poshness of the event we dropped into a Pizza hut afterwards with our good friend Giles Sutherland. It was an unusually misty evening in Edinburgh, the Haar from the sea making the night lights of Edinburgh look very mysterious!
Place-names can tell you so much about the history of a place. If you find an old enough map of the Isle of Iona you can see that, tiny though the island is (three by one and a half miles) it has been inhabited by people for thousands of years.
Cnoc an Oran, for example – ‘hill of song’ in Scottish Gaelic, or Sìthean Mòr – ‘hill of the angels’ as it’s translated, though Sìthean also translates as ‘fairies’. Back in about 500AD when an exiled Irish prince, St. Columba (or Collum Cille as he was known) arrived here to set up a religious community, he would have encountered the ancient remains of previous dwellers going back to the iron and bronze ages. Iona has always been a an important spiritual place.
Map of Hy (Iona) 1874
Known as ‘The Dove’ Collum Cille seems to have been anything but! (Maybe this was an early example of sarcasm). He banned women from the island, saying; wherever there are cows there are women and wherever there are women there’s trouble, or words to that effect. He was known as a powerful political negotiator across Scotland. ‘You wouldnae mess wi him’ as Scots might say!
He did set up a Benedictine Monastery though, and an Abbot of the abbey, named Adomnán, wrote of the miracles conducted by Collum Cille, which included facing down a sea monster (it’s since been speculated that it was in fact Nessie).
I first visited Iona in my early twenties seeking, I suppose, spiritual understanding. I did find it a deeply affecting place, which is why I’ve returned so many times since then. On that first trip, I visited the craggy south end of the island, where the rusting machinery remains of an 18th century marble quarry still exist.
The beautiful lucent white marble is streaked with deep grass-green serpentine and it made the perfect material for the alter that was created for the abbey in the early 1900’s when the abbey was restored. For hundreds of years, children of the island have sold little pebbles of the sea-washed marble to visitors for luck, they still do today.
On my first visit though, I decided to take a slightly larger piece, about 4×5 inches – a large chip from the marble quarry cuttings. It has travelled everywhere with me, you could say it’s been ‘my rock’! Though I think it’s time for me to return it to its home on Iona by way of a ‘thank you’ for everything the island has given me.
It sounds trite or contrived in the usual way of island sayings, when you read that ‘Iona always gives you what you need’, but I’ve found that to be true. There was the sense of spiritual discovery and wonderment in landscape in the first place- an inspiration for me to paint landscape – as well as the more difficult times when I’ve been struggling with life and visited the island to contemplate.
Contemplation sounds peaceful but those visits were turbulent in a variety of ways. For example the time I spent 21 days in a tent by myself, feeling that I needed a break from noise and people. In fact it made me deeply appreciate people since my main companions for those 21 days were spiders, a drove of slugs crawling over my tent, midges, a corncrake whose harsh mating call kept me awake half the night, and a team of baa-ing sheep who decided that my airing sleeping bag was a good place to urinate. (That’s a stench that never washes out, the sleeping bag was indeed a wash-out after that!)
Luckily the campsite owner had a stash of beautiful wool-lined sleeping bags and didn’t bat an eye when I told him of my predicament, lending me one of these for the rest of my stay.
Two tents, one to live in and one for paintings
There was also the time I stayed there in the wintry months, as part of an artist’s residency project. During that fortnight I shared a dwelling space with some very troubled people. Iona attracts pilgrims from across the world who desperately seek healing for emotional or physical wounds. It’s not easy to deal with that sometimes and I found that the atmosphere, combined with a few of the demons of my past, haunted me for months to come.
‘North Beach,Twilight. Isle of Iona’. Mixed media on 6×6″ wood block. Rose Strang 2018. Sold.
‘North Beach, Twilight II. Isle of Iona’. Mixed media on 6×6″ wood block. Rose Strang 2018. Sold.
‘Pisces Moon, Isle of Iona’. Mixed media on 10×10″ wood panel. Rose Strang 2018. Sold.
On the other hand, each day brought blessings: the endless beauty and colours of the landscape, the turbulent energy and colours of the tide changing at twilight, which inspired a series of paintings titled October Tide, then there were fellow creatives who arrived with songs, music and ideas, and new friendships …
Mary McCormick, a grounded and unassuming women in her 70’s from the American mid west, was someone who observed without judgement or drama. She loved to collect small pebbles from her daily walks, pour them into a little dish and invite us to admire them, sharing her photos of the day with residents around the kitchen table. If the conversation veered into turbulent waters, she’d succinctly say her piece with calming compassion and just leave it there, resonating with understated wisdom.
One day we walked to SìtheanMor, ‘The Hill of Angels/Fairies’ and she said that she’d heard in a book that you had to listen here for nature, or God, or for whatever beliefs you had, to give you an important message. I stood for a while, watching a wash of slate grey cloud blowing across a dazzling blue sky – it looked like a painting in progress – and the phrase ‘You are meant to enjoy it’ came to mind.
Mary at the north beach
Rainbows and clouds over the north beach
Afterwards we dropped in to the Columba Hotel and I told Mary about the troubled thoughts that had been stirred up by time spent on the island this time and the company, or demands as I felt, of emotionally troubled people. I’d felt so upset I’d taken to hiding in my room in the evenings, worried that I’d affect others with my mood, that I was ‘losing it’. Mary immediately exclaimed ‘Oh, no Rose! ..’ jumping up from her place next to the log fire and coming over to hug me, ‘You’re the most grounded person here, you’ve been a friend during my time here’. My worries felt washed away. We’ve stayed friends since then of course, though Mary is now back in the US, writing, exploring grasslands of the Midwest and finding opportunities to be involved in her main occupation of landscape gardening.
During the residency I’d been reading the poems of Virgil, and on my return I began to explore Medieval philosophy, which led to a new series of paintings about the planets as understood in Medieval cosmology. It was an incredibly enriching time when I read Planet Narniaby the author Michael Ward, which explores the planetary influence in the works of C.S. Lewis.
Sketch. Iona 2018
Sketch. Iona 2018
I found that contemplating the influence of each planet changed me. Working through the ideas connected with Saturn for example – winter, introspection, hard lessons, death … (my dad had died just two years before) during the months of December and January 2018, led to a new understanding of how to live life – you’re meant to enjoy it.
Spring arrived at the same time that I was painting Jupiter, which alligns with the change from winter to spring – winter passed, guilt forgiven as C.S. Lewis writes in his Planets poem on the subject of Jupiter – and with it a new relationship.
Last year my partner Adam presented me with an engagement ring that he’d designed himself, made with a small piece of the Ionian marble (my rock, that I’d found on my first trip to Iona in the early 90s!) After celebrating, we discussed where we’d like to get married, but each idea was fraught with planning troubles – we wanted to get married in the countryside, but how would we bring all our relatives from different parts of Britain to the celebration?
In the end, it made most sense for just the two of us to go away to get married, what’s known these days as ‘an elopement wedding’. It was Adam who suggested the obvious – ‘how about Iona?’ I was struck by the fact that I was surprised (and delighted) by the idea. Back in my twenties I’d thought to myself ‘I’d like to get married here, if I ever get married’. Somehow that dream had been buried in the back of my mind until Adam took the idea out, gave it a dust and – there it was!
And so we’ll be in Iona this May (the green, fertile month of love, art and expression, as understood in Medieval cosmology). Inspiration for my next series of paintings. I’m going to take my Iona rock back to the south end of the island and leave it there as a thank you to Iona.
I hope someone else discovers it, and that it brings them enjoyment … C.S Lewis says it better than I can:
“Meditation in a Toolshed” By C. S. Lewis.
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it. Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.
And from ‘Surprised by Joy’, C.S.Lewis:
In other words, the enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment; for in hope we look to hope’s object and we interrupt this by (so to speak) turning round to look at the hope itself. (…) The surest way of spoiling a pleasure was to start examining your satisfaction. But if so, it followed that all introspection is in one respect misleading. In introspection, we try to look ‘inside ourselves’ and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortunately, this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment for the activities themselves.
Above Beinn Odhar Bheag, Glenfinnan. Oil on 32×23″ wood. Rose Strang 2020
Back in my twenties (when money was even scarcer than it is today) one of my favourite things was to drive up to the west coast of Scotland with a friend or two and camp wild among the ancient oaks and white sands of Arisaig, Morar or Ardnamurchan.
Cooking over a tiny gas stove under heavy rain required ingenuity – an anorak served as a tarpaulin over the bushes above my head as I cooked spag bol from scratch, in the dark, with a torch strapped to my head. Numerous swigs from a bottle of red wine helped with the ever present midges, in as much as I was beyond caring after a while, though I’d awake the next day with a face so covered in midge bites it resembled a shiny pink football!
Something about camping wild can lead to the most immersive experiences though, I remember sitting at the foot of a freezing waterfall, dipping my head in the water to cool down the midge bites, until my face felt numb – a strangely pleasant sensation, relatively!
I’ve never much enjoyed constant city-life, and have from time to time lived in more rural locations (in Orkney, and on the Isle of Paros in Greece). So it’s a surprise even to me that it’s taken so long to move out of the city – next year I hope to move permanently to the countryside.
One of my favourite stops on the road to the isles was at Glenfinnan. Leaving the constant noise of Edinburgh we’d drive for a few hours to Fort William for supplies, then it’s just a half hour drive west to Glenfinnan. Beinn Odhar Bheag sits just south of the village of Glenfinnan, a place redolent with history and atmosphere. It was here that Charles Edward Stuart first gathered Highland clans from across Scotland for the fateful last war of independence which culminated at Culloden. And it’s the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct bridge here that featured in the Hogwart Express journeys in Harry Potter films.
Harry Potter hadnt been written back then, and I only vaguely knew about the Jacobite connection back then. What I loved was to drop in to the Glenfinnan House Hotel for a cup of tea. No matter how scruffy and muddy our car, or boots, we always felt welcome there. As soon as you enter the hall you’re greeted with a Scottish Highland miasma of huge log fire, vast dark oil paintings depicting various moody mountains, wildlife or battle scenes, a mish-mash of antique furniture and dark wood panelling.
On a sunny day, you might carry your pot of tea into one of the sitting room areas, clad in fading green tartan comfy chairs, where floor to ceiling windows look out on one of the most stunning views in Scotland – across the silvery Loch Shiel to wild mountains beyond. More likely though, you’d sit warming your damp feet in a huge sofa next to the fireplace and find that your head would be almost reeling with … the silence. The sheer redolent and resounding silence after all the city noise!
I painted Beinn Odhar Bheag (pronounced ‘Ben ower beg’ meaning ‘the little dun coloured hill’ in Scottish Gaelic) a few years ago and didn’t think much of it at the time. Dusted off and looked at again, it’s better than I remembered! So I’ll be submitting it for a landscape painting award, and we’ll see what happens.
I’ve left the wood showing through and there’s very little paint used. I added a swathe of darker colour to the left to suggest the ever changing light on the mountains as the clouds pass over.
Adam and I were lucky enough to stay at the hotel for my birthday in November 2020. Though it was lockdown it still felt warm and friendly and we absolutely loved it.
I’m sorry to hear that the couple who managed and cooked for the hotel have moved on to new projects after twenty years. So it’s temporarily closed at the moment, presumably due to open again soon once they’ve appointed new managers, I hope. I wish them luck!
Above: Atzi Muramatsu playing at The Heriot Gallery exhibition launch of The Living Mountain: Dreaming a Response
I think this is the first time Atzi Muramatsu and I have collaborated publically since the beginning of lockdown, it felt like old times and the performance, inspired by the atmosphere of the Cairngorms and Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, was really beautiful!
I couldn’t have wished for a more convivial atmosphere, lots of interesting conversations and lovely responses to the paintings – a big thank you to friends old and new who turned up to the launch.
Thanks to Adam Brewster, who remembered to take a few photos capturing some moments, I always get distracted and forget! And of course to Sue Dean and Stephen Edwards of the Limetree Gallery and Lorna, owner of the Heriot Gallery, who thoroughly enjoyed the launch and cello performance too. It was a most enjoyable evening.
The Heriot is a beautiful light-filled space, especially in this April spring light, so do drop in if you find time – the exhibition continues until this Sunday lunchtime (23rd April).
Above – Washed in Blaeberry. The Living Mountain Series. Oil on 30×20 inch linen canvas. Rose Strang 2023
Exhibition – The Living Mountain: Dreaming a Response launches today at The Heriot Gallery, Dundas Street, Edinburgh and is on for just one week, finishing this Sunday April 23rd.
As well as the Living Mountain series, I was inspired to paint several more works for the exhibition. They’re looser and a bit more abstract than the original paintings which were created for the The Living Mountain book, so these new paintings are also larger.
I had a lovely time yesterday helping Sue and Stephen, owners of The Limetree Gallery, install the show, which looks really lovely in the Heriot Gallery (The Limetree collaborated with the Heriot for this exhibition as they wanted the exhibition to be in Scotland).
The eight-minute film about the project, with specially commissioned music by Atzi Muramatsu, will also be on show at the gallery, adding to the atmosphere of a project that has been really special.
Two paintings from the Living Mountain series have already sold. You can view the entire series on this link which includes contact details if you’d like to reserve or buy a painting –
(Above: It is luminous without being fierce. Living Mountain Series. Rose Strang 2021).
Exhibition launching on Monday the 17th of April at the Heriot Gallery, Dundas Street, Edinburgh – The Living Mountain: Dreaming a Response
The paintings will be on exhibition and sale from the 17th to 23rd April at The Heriot Gallery and are now available to view and reserve from this link – The Living Mountain Series
The Heriot Gallery, 20A Dundas Street, Edinburgh, EH3 6HZ
“A stunning series of images – a symphony of subtle essences, distilled experiences, fleeting memory fragments and deep, heart-felt lingering impressions.” ***** Giles Sutherland, the Times, 21st February 2023
This series was very special for me; commissioned by the Folio Society London for their 2021 publication of Scottish literary classic The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, the paintings were created between December 2020 and April 2021.
I had already read The Living Mountain several years before and I was honoured to be chosen to paint a response to Nan Shepherd’s beautiful book, which expresses her response to the Cairngorm plateau in the north of Scotland.
When I first read the book, I felt a thrill of recognition; Shepherd observes as a mountain walker, but also as an artist – vividly describing the colours, moods, flora and fauna of her beloved Cairngorms.
Her approach was to explore the mountain’s effect on all of the senses, and this is a sensual work in the true sense of the word – also visionary and spiritual. Shepherd’s words have inspired many writers and artists, myself included, because through her experience of the mountain she explored what it is to be human. She questions the loss of innocence that can take place in our effort to conquer life through will and intellect; she was partly influenced by Buddhism, but the Cairngorms were her teacher.
As an artist, I related to this quest to communicate how landscape affects us. Nan condenses a lifetime of understanding and wisdom into this book, her shortest and, at first, her most overlooked work.
To paint this series in response was a daunting challenge, but one that I welcomed wholeheartedly. I’m very grateful to The Limetree Gallery and the Heriot Gallery for presenting this series – they have been wonderful to work with and I’m looking forward to seeing the exhibition in April.
Along with the Living Mountain series, there will also be additonal paintings created in response to the project and a short film inspired by the project as a whole, with specially commissioned music by Atzi Muramatsu.
If you are interested in the paintings or would like to reserve one before the exhibition launches on 17th April (two have already been reserved), please contact The Limetree Gallery (who are working in collaboration with the Heriot) with any queries on their website Limetree Gallery
(Above: Among Elementals. The Living Mountain Series. Oil on 60x42cm wood. Rose Strang 2020.)
“A stunning series of images – a symphony of subtle essences, distilled experiences, fleeting memory fragments and deep, heart-felt lingering impressions.” *****
Giles Sutherland, the Times, 21st February 2023
It was an absolute delight to read Giles Sutherland’s sensitive, insightful review (link below) in The Times today. Not simply the understanding of intention and inspiration behind the paintings, but because it so succinctly gets to the core of why Nan Shepherd’s beautiful book The Living Mountain inspires artists and creative thinkers everywhere, especially in our contemporary times.
Here’s a link to the article (if you can’t access the article the text is copied in full below):
Not that long ago, in the mid 80s, in response to a question from a brave, young, female north American student, my Scottish literature lecturer opined that the reason there were no women writers on the syllabus was there that there were ‘no Scottish women writers of substance’.
How shocking that such nonsense was then so deeply imbedded in academe. The hapless lecturer had clearly not heard of Nan Shepherd, born in 1893, a native of Deeside and contemporary of literary luminaries such as Neil Gunn, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Marion Angus, Helen B. Cruickshank, and Agnes Mure Mackenzie.
Shepherd – whose literary ability was at least equal to that of her male peers – is currently undergoing a reappraisal and revival, supported by such talents as the writer Robert Macfarlane, and the artist Rose Strang. Strang’s paintings, which form the basis of this show, were commissioned to illustrate a new edition of Shepherd’s classic of nature writing, The Living Mountain, first published in 1977.
Following in Shepherd’s footsteps, Strang travelled to the Cairngorms, to places such as Càrn Bàn Mòr. Her journey provided inspiration for a series of nine oil paintings, inspired by the mountains’ genus loci and the fluid poeticism of Shepherd’s prose.
The result is a stunning series of images – a symphony of subtle essences, distilled experiences, fleeting memory fragments and deep, heart-felt lingering impressions.
Strang’s painting makes us ask deep questions about what painting is, how it functions and gives us answers to its ultimate purpose. Like Shepherd’s words, and indeed the Cairngorms themselves, these paintings work slowly, generatively taking hold of our senses and our imagination, striking deeply at our core or, if you like, our souls.
‘One cannot know the rivers till one has seen them in their sources but this journey…is not to be undertaken lightly. One walks among elementals and elementals are not governable…’ wrote Shepherd in the first chapter.
Strang’s ‘Among elementals’ deals with the idea of seeking the source of things, for like Gunn, Shepherd’s thinking was infused with the power of symbolism, so important in Eastern and Celtic culture. Here, as in the other paintings, there is a sense of wonder and the fragility of the human presence among the mountains’ deep geological time.
A wonderful film by Strang, with atmospheric music by Atzi Muramatsu, provides yet another accompaniment to Strang’s imagery and Shepherd’s words.
See this small but perfectly formed show if you can.
*The exhibition runs at the Heriot Gallery, Edinburgh, 17-23 April.
(Above, from left to right: Anna Fleming, Kerri Andrews, Erlend Clouston, Merryn Glover, Rose Strang, at The Scottish Poetry Library).
I’m very excited to share a new video (link below), created in response to my recent exhibition The Living Mountain. Dreaming a Response, which is currently showing at The Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh until the 31st March. If you don’t get a chance to see the paintings at the Scottish Poetry Library, the exhibition continues at The Heriot Gallery, Dundas Street, Edinburgh from 17th to 23rd April 2023.
The video showed at the Scottish Poetry Library as part of a launch event of the exhibition and as part of an evening celebrating what would have been Nan Shepherd‘s 130th birthday (author of The Living Mountain)
It features really beautiful music by my friend (and collaborator on many projects since 2013) Atzi Muramatsu. I knew Atzi would respond to the themes with talent and sensitivity but I was deeply moved by his interpretation. Listening to it for the first time was a ‘hairs-standing-on-end’ thrill for me! I won’t go on too much, but do have a watch and listen. A heartfelt thank you to Atzi.
There was a wonderful buzz at the event, which completely sold out (Nan Shepherd being a popular subject these days). Much of the talk included speculation on why such a gifted author only published her non-fiction work The Living Mountain in her later years. I’m very grateful to Aly Barr and all at the Scottish Poetry Library for including me in the event. They were fantastic people to work with – humorous and calm throughout!
Three authors, Merryn Glover, Kerri Andrews and Anna Fleming, shared moving excerpts from their new books. Then, literary executor of Nan Shepherd’s estate (and lifelong friend of Nan) Erlend Clouston, gave a characteristically fascinating and humorous talk about Nan, followed by a general discussion and Q+A from the audience. There wasn’t enough time for all the many ideas and experiences to be shared.
Thankfully amongst all the excitement I remembered to buy all three books, all of which, from their unique perspectives, delve into the fascinating life and inspiration of Nan Shepherd:
And here’s a link to Erlend Clouston talking about Nan as part of Simone Kenyon’s project called Into the Mountain – Erlend on Nan
The exhibition at the Scottish Poetry Library also includes a display of some of Nan’s letters and first drafts of poems. (My personal favourite was ‘Achiltibuie’ because it’s a jewel-like poem, capturing the incredible landscape of Achiltibuie – a place quite dear to my heart).
Thank you to everyone who attended the events at the Scottish Poetry Library. Thank you of course to my partner Adam Brewster who was there being supportive and creative throughout this project (which was two years in the making!) and for the stunning photos of the Cairngorms which feature in the video above. And again thanks to the Scottish Poetry Library for making the event so special and exciting. I think it’s wonderful how inspiration leads to many new inspirations, ever blossoming. It was just great to meet everyone there and share our love of The Living Mountain. Here’s to many more such events in future!
The Living Mountain. Dreaming a Response continues at the Scottish Poetry Library until 31st March, then goes on exhibition for one week at the Heriot Gallery, Dundas Street, Edinburgh from 17th to 23rd April.
Just four days now to the exhibition launch of The Living Mountain. Dreaming a Response, at The Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.
The panel discussion on the 17th February has now sold out, but the exhibition continues until the 31st March, before going on exhibition at The Heriot Gallery Dundas Street, Edinburgh. All details Here
Author of The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd, was born on the 11th February 1893. To celebrate her birthday, the Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh, has organised an exhibition and panel discussion, all details below …
The Living Mountain. Dreaming a Response
The Living Mountain. Dreaming a Response showcases new paintings by Rose Strang and goes on exhibition at the Scottish Poetry Library, and the Heriot Gallery, Edinburgh, in February then April 2023.
A response to one of Scotland’s best-loved classics of landscape literature, this series of paintings was commissioned by the Folio Society Londonfor their 2021 publication of The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd.
‘But did I dream that roe? The Living Mountain Series’. Oil on on on 37x27x2 cm antique pine. Rose Strang 2021
‘For not getting lost is a matter of the mind. The Living Mountain Series’. Grid paper, and acrylic on on 37x27x2 cm antique pine. Rose Strang 2021
Robert MacFarlane, award-winning author of best-selling books The Lost Words and The Wild Places and one of the UK’s best-known devotees of The Living Mountain, writes in the introduction to this Folio publication of the book:
Strang’s paintings are intensely dynamic, seethingly alive with stroke, dab, scratch and drip. Each of Strang’s seven paintings takes a phrase from The Living Mountain and dreams a response to it.
7pm, 17th February: Panel discussion (ticketed, 310, see link below) Scottish Poetry Library and audience Q+A with Erlend Clouston (Nan Shepherd’s literary executor, Rose Strang, Merryn Glover (author of A House Called Askival, currently writing a book inspired by Nan Shepherd) and Kerri Andrews (author of A History of Women Walking, currently editing a volume of Nan’s letters). Chaired by Anna Fleming (author of Time on Rock).