Sorrow and Stones

“The stone was dipped in some water, where, in defiance of nature, it floated miraculously on the surface like an apple or a nut, for that which the saint had blessed could not be made to sink.” 1

Through listening to the artists’ presentations and talks on Raasay, there have been a number of links to stones and sorrow.

Ceara Conway, the artist commissioned to make work for the Derry~Londonderry knot on the Spiral, has been part of our group and gave a talk on Tuesday night on her practice and this particular project. As part of her research she visited the Stone of Sorrows at Gartan, St Columba’s birthplace in Co. Donegal. This was the stone it is said St Columba laid down and slept on, during his last night on Ireland before he was exiled. He was so full of loneliness and sorrow, but as he lay on the stone, the stone took these feelings away from him. Ceara went on to say that the stone became a site of ritual, for those leaving Ireland through the ages, in exile or emigration, to spend their last night in Ireland there. This longing and sorrow became part of her performance and sung lament, ‘Vicissitudes’, which took place in a boat on the River Foyle.

Kathryn Maude from King’s College London gave her talk last night to the group on her area of research, looking at the texts both on and by women in the Medieval period. With so few texts remaining- approximately 5 letters and 2 poems over a 500 year period- she read a section from ‘The Wife’s Lament’ in Old English, which is written in a woman’s voice. “I sing this poem full of grief, full of sorrow about my life”. 2 Kathryn went on to say as well as the distance in time she feels from these women there is also an ’emotional gap’.

Jessica Ramm sang the Gaelic song “The Cave of Gold” as part of her presentation, where a playing piper ventures deeper and deeper into a cave, in search of gold he has heard lies at the base of it. Those outside can hear the spiral of sound moving away from them, getting fainter and fainter, until the sound of the pipes at the end is transformed into unbearable discord, as the piper has met his end with the ‘Green She-Bitch’.

Over the course of this residency, the scholars and artists have offered several texts and song from different languages and times, including Latin, Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Old English. Performing these to the group, it brings forward Professor Clare Lees’ notion of performative time: “See! Look! We’re here!” Rather than time being linear, in this moment the link to emotion and voice brings the past breaking through the surface of the present.


1 ‘Life of St Columba’, p.182′, Adomnan of Iona
2 ‘The Wife’s Lament’, translated by Eavan Boland, ‘Making New the Word-Hoard. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon poems in translation’, edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto, published by Norton

Lewisian Gneiss, Raasay

Encountering Some Questions on the Spiral

Brochel Castle

Jessica Ramm's sketchbook

Raasay Field Trip

The group at iron ore mine

Today the group journeyed by minibus to both the north and south of Raasay. In order to find a foothold in history, and to find a way from our contemporary perspective to respond creatively to the legacy of Colm Cille, Convocation has been structured to begin with a series of questions that can give the historic background to themes that have been identified to be of interest, and also to offer the opportunity to engage with and open up the subjects through discussion within the group. The questions were illuminated by Professor Clare Lees and Kathryn Maude from Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s College London.

Our first stop was the beach at Brochel Castle, to look at aspects of time. To what extent can this project genuinely engage with the extreme past? Should we connect a contemporary response to the extreme past or should we maintain the gap between present and past?

We then moved onto Calum’s Road, past the ‘deep time’ represented by the oldest rocks on the island, thought to be 3 billion years old, Lewisian Gneiss, to explore the subject of landscape and spirit. How was ‘place’ thought of in the past? Words such as nature and environment are a contemporary concept. At the third site, Calum’s Cairn, positioned at a commanding viewing point looking over the Sound to Skye, we discussed Peregrinatio and began to identify the different ways in which we can think of travelling or the journey, whether through pilgrimage, exile or from life to death. Throughout our day today, St Columba and his life and death, evidenced 100 years later by Adomnan of Iona, were present. We looked at the questions and contradictions within the life of St Columba, standing round the cist at Eyre, in itself a holder for the dead. What was more important during this time – life or afterlife? Rational truth or devotional truth? How should the book be read? Is it formulaic or symbolic? What is the nature of justice in this book? Then onto the iron ore mines, we stood inside one of the ruins and looked at the notions of the monastery as a way of working. Is there a tension between the individual and the community? What is the economy of the monastery?
Tomorrow we will begin the morning of artists’ presentations with the last question, on The Spiral. How do you navigate the Spiral? Where do you enter and exit the Spiral? What do we do with this knowledge? Is contemplation a privilege?

Entering the Spiral

How do you navigate the Spiral? Where does it start and end?

Today the group of 18 artists, scholars and organisers, completed their journeys from London, Galway, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Skye to converge on Raasay for the beginning of ‘Convocation’ and the Scottish knot of Colm Cille’s Spiral.

The Citylink bus from Glasgow, drives through a brooding Glencoe, stopping long enough in Fort William for a leg stretch, then onwards, looping past the waymarkers I always look out for on the way to Skye- the best historically named diner in the Highlands Jac-o-bites, the dramatically picture postcard positioned Eilean Donan Castle, followed by the more modest white house of author Gavin Maxwell which nestles at the foot of the Skye bridge. I see some new signs to me on Skye such as Saucy Mary’s Hostel and the Happy Hand Spinner’s studio. After the arc of the road bridge, we see another- a complete rainbow on the Sound.

The group may not all know each other, but the fact that all have been asked to dip into Abbot Adomnan’s ‘Life of St Columba’, gives a shared starting point, with each having their own observations on the text. As people seat hop over the seven hours of travel, we enter the Spiral of St Columba through conversation. Emma Balkind mentions that it is can be noted in our present and past that there has always been a threat, whether from the heathens of the past or terrorists of today. Johnny Rodger, from the GSA’s School of Architecture, talks about Columba’s ‘Back of the Hill’ on Iona, and how in Gaelic it is ‘tonn air gaoithe’, an architectural principal of orientating the back of the house to face the elements, as we see in black houses. Michael Mersinis mentions he has set himself the nighttime task of celestial photography whilst on the island, with long exposures to catch the light of the stars. The next three days, if the clouds part, we will have meteor showers.

The bus driver asks if there is a party at Sconser with so many of us getting off there, to go to Raasay. Then following a 25 min ferry ride, we arrive at an island off an island, Raasay, our destination. There is much to be discovered- a napoleonic fort, the Cave of the Oars, the remains of a prisoner of war camp and the oldest and youngest rock formations on the island. Time stretches out.