Above, one of today’s painting experiments.
I’m playing around with ideas for this year’s project, which will be three paintings, a video, also music by Adam Brewster, inspired by the 7th century Celtic pilgrim’s route from Iona to Lindisfarne via Aberlady. Aberlady was on the route between the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne, on the east coast of Scotland between Edinburgh and Berwick.
Although I’ve been visiting this area all my life, I never realised Aberlady’s importance until I discovered info on the Aberlady Conservation Society’s website. Clues are found in place names and from the 7th century Celtic cross discovered at Aberlady which was very similar to those found in Lindisfarne, which also related to crosses in Iona.
Iona and Lindisfarne are famous for their ancient abbeys of course, but Aberlady’s only apparent claim to fame was its railway station, which shut down in the 1970s. Since then it’s mostly known to people as the village you drive through on your way to Aberlady nature trail, or the road to North Berwick and Berwick-upon-Tweed. I remember as kids we sometimes stopped there on our way back from North Berwick to buy fish and chips, it just seemed a sleepy sort of place, not significant at all.
I always find this sort of thing quite moving – the changing significance of places through time (just think of the discovery of Richard III’s remains, discovered some years ago, under a carpark!)
Near Aberlady you’ll find places named after St Bathan, such as Abbey St Bathans. Nowadays there’s a Kirk there, the abbey no longer remains, just the name.
It’s now believed that this name refers to Baithéne mac Brénaind, the second abbot of Iona after St Columba’s death. Bathan (a contemporary and disciple of Columba’s) would have continued Columba’s legacy – to spread Christianity through Britain, which was exactly why Lindisfarne monastery was created.
The ‘Bathan’ or Baithéne – related place names between Aberlady and Lindisfarne (and the 7th cent’ Celtic cross at Aberlady) therefore mark the fact that this was an important pilgrim’s route from the 7th century.
At Abbey St Bathans you can see the remains of a 12th century Cistercian Priory, nothing relating to Bathan. In the 1960’s though, excavations revealed an ancient midden, with pottery remains and dedications to St Bathan. Even more significant – the remains of an iron-age broch were found, also a knife dating back to the iron age.
Brochs were very important buildings of the iron age, marking the sites of places that were significant then, if not now. Orkney, for example, has the remains of ancient brochs. Just think of the significance of the Ness of Brodgar and its stone circle in Orkney – far older than Stonehenge and far more significant in its time, though why it was so significant is still a mystery.
This is maybe part of what I want to express with my paintings of Aberlady, Iona and Lindisfarne – peering back through the mists of time, feeling the human significance of a place without fully knowing its story – enjoying the mystery and trying to make sense of it through a combination of fact and creative instinct. The creative part allows me to retain respect, and I suppose wonder, for the sacredness of these places; so their significance and inspiration is not reduced to mere fact.
For those interested in the creative process (see images below) – I painted the dunes and coast of Aberlady a few days ago, then today covered this in a film of gesso (semi-transparent white paint usually used to prime the surface of canvas etc before painting) then wiped that back to reveal the landscape through mist. I then re-gessoed the painting and wiped out an area to reveal a sort of window to the landscape. I re-gessoed the painting, popped it in the oven to dry, then I drew the line of Scotland’s east coast and the pilgrim’s route from Aberlady to Lindisfarne.
I played around with carbon paper and a rotary thing to create the dotted line that suggests a route or footpath, then I scrubbed off the surface layer of gesso with steel wool which destroyed the painting underneath, but I quite liked the effect. I also love the look of black carbon paper with mysterious markings that are difficult to see.
All of this will (eventually) result in a series of three interesting paintings on a much larger scale at some point later this year!
(Thanks to the Aberlady Conservation Society and East Lothian Heritage for Aberlady pilgrim’s route info. Find out more here: http://eastlothianheritage.co.uk/aberladyconservationsociety/linking-iona-and-lindisfarne/ )