Thisssssss: Sound and Silence


Jessica Ramm and Emma Nicolson




Yesterday was bookended with both a real and a transmitted experience of the same place, Hallaig. In the morning, Emma Nicolson led the group on a walk to this cleared village situated in the south-east of Raasay. In the evening we watched we watched Francis Mckee’s copy of ”Hallaig: The Poetry and the Landscape of Sorley MacLean’ 1

‘Back through the gloaming to Hallaig,
Through the vivid and speechless air,
Pouring down the steep slopes,
Their laughter misting my ear.’ 2

Emma Balkind, one of our illuminators, has been recording the sound of our field trips and conversations. When we interviewed her for the short film we are making about the residency, she said, “I felt I was switched on all the time”. She and her microphone have captured the layers of words and movement of the group, alongside the land and the sea around us. I asked her if she has managed to record silence at Hallaig and she said no. Even when Johnny Rodger, one of the most ebullient in our group, asks for silence on the hill, the put-put-put of a boat out on the Sound can be heard, followed by the musical tone of a button on a digital camera.

In the evening, the cadence of Sorley MacLean’s voice and his delivery of the word ‘Thisssssss….’ sticks in my mind. The letter ‘s’, a spiral in form, fizzes in his mouth, shaping the word into a new sound and entity.

How can something, as Sorley MacLean has it, be ‘vivid and speechless’ at the same time? Much of our discussions have circled around pairs of words that come from different realms but are interwoven in order to exist: Faith and Doubt. Rational and Spiritual. Discipline and Devotion. History and Present. Interior and Exterior. Both Clare Lees and Kathryn Maude from King’s College London talked of the desire for dates in their field to evidence an occurrence or event versus the reality of the gaps that exist. As Clare put it, “My career is half-knowing things”. There are many different ways of learning, from the academic to the intuitive. In our discussions over Raasay, “The landscape has unsettled the theory”. 3 We have referred to the remoteness of the past whilst being surrounded by three billion year old rock.The Spiral is still turning, but it is important to acknowledge “Thisssssss”; that the disjoints, impossibilities, gaps and unknowns occurring are as important as the entities that surround them.

1 ‘Hallaig: The Poetry and the Landscape of Sorley MacLean’, originally produced by The Island House Film Workshop, Alva (1984), a film by Timothy Neat.

2 ‘Hallaig’ by Sorley MacLean, translated by Seamus Heaney.

3 Francis McKee’s observation

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