Scotland and The Arctic: A Conversation

Posted 8 months ago by John

“ARCTIC PASTS AND FUTURES”

SCOTLAND AND THE ARCTIC: A CONVERSATION
 
The ‘festival’ set out with the broad aims to consider narrative, history, representation (visual and literary), environment and ecology and artistic engagement between Scotland and the Arctic. I wished to emphasise the two reasons that gave the event geographical legitimacy in South West Scotland. A paragraph preceding the on-line events ‘brochure’ made that clear. These aims were reinforced when Dr Lizanne Henderson and I began working together on an all day conversation at Glasgow University’s School of Interdisciplinary Studies:
 
“The history of Scotland's relationship to the Arctic has been one of exploration and exploitation. The undoubted heroism of early Polar explorers, such as Dumfries-born Sir John Richardson, has to be seen alongside the remorseless work of the whalers from east coast ports like Dundee and Aberdeen. Nowadays, there are concerns of fresh exploitation of natural resources, of the effects of climate change which can be 'read' in the behaviours and feeding habits of the Arctic geese who land here each autumn, and of the impact of a global culture on fragile ecologies. The time has come for Scotland to re-evaluate its connections to and relationships with the Arctic.”
 
Early cultural contacts make compelling studies, even ones that are tragically imbalanced. For example, ‘First contact’ between Australians and invaders still lies at the core of what are termed the ‘history wars’ in Australia. The unveiling of a plaque to Sir John Richardson (1787-1865)  outside his old school Dumfries Academy was the first act of the festival, a belated acknowledgement of his achievements as an explorer and as a natural historian. He has a place in the history of Scotland’s relationship with the Arctic, as someone involved in the drama of Franklin’s disappearance and as someone who experienced terrible starvation, cold and tragedy. That was one aspect of his story, but his greatest contribution to the north was as a naturalist; he edited the four volumes of the first Natural History of North America.
 
Emeritus Professor Ted Cowan brought all of this alive in his lecture – one of the Crichton Conversation series - while making clear Richardson’s dependence on the knowledge of local Voyageurs for survival. Developing this theme, in the opening session of the conference, Paula Williams (Curator of Polar Collections at the National Library of Scotland), gave an illustrated overview of the geography of the Arctic and the historical connections with Scotland. Barry Lopez, author of the landmark, Arctic Dreams, also ensured that narratives of polar exploration were included in his comprehensive account of the Arctic. Nevertheless, Paula’s session concluded with her belief that more research (and funding for additional archivists!) needs to be done to see how Scotland is seen from inside the Arctic circle.
 
Each species of Arctic goose lands in South West Scotland. 40,000 barnacle geese arrive in Caerlaverock WWT each autumn from Svalbard. Caerlaverock also hosts flocks of pinkfoot geese from Iceland. Dr David Borthwick, a self-confessed ‘barnie’ obsessive, sees migratory birds as part of our ‘commons’ - they extend the meaning of ‘Dumfries’ encompasses to Svalbard and to Iceland. It was for this reason that two family events were planned in the town centre with Scotland’s Natural Heritage to celebrate and to enjoy wild pink-footed geese as they fly over the town on their migration path to the Solway Estuary. However, the geese had their own reasons for not fitting in to the time table!
 
Thankfully, there were other options. The WWT at Caerlaverock, hosting its second Wild Goose Weekend, celebrated the return of the wild geese to the Solway with guided walks on the reserve, talks from experts and many family-based activities. Local author Stephen Rutt told how the geese had won his birder’s heart and led to his new book, Wintering: A Season With Geese... (His first book, The Seafarers – A Journey Among Birds, has recently been short-listed for the Saltire first book prize.)
 
In his session at the conference, David Borthwick, who had also led Creative writing workshops at the Wild Goose Weekend, told us that he views the environmental crisis as a cultural crisis – a crisis of the imagination. His studies focus on what the humanities (most particularly, literary studies) reveal about how humans interact (and have interacted) with the natural world. At the same time, as part of his practice, he engages with other disciplines to tell ‘stories’ of our relationship to nature. This was the theme of the opening event of the festival, Solway to Svalbard, held at The Stove. In this, musician Stuart Macpherson described his work with a film maker and sound recordist in an on-going creative response to the spring migration of the Barnacle Geese from the wetlands of the Solway Firth in South West Scotland to the Islands of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle. He was joined by Brian Morrell, Manager of WWT Caerlaverock Wetland Centre, who has studied the geese and visited the Arctic on several occasions. The conversation explored the value of the creative project and similar projects that involved conversations between scientists and naturalists. Kim Holmén is a Svalbard resident and an expert in polar bears and climate change, who both Brian and Stuart know well. In relation to the ways in which we meet the challenges of climate change, Holmén has said, ‘We need feelings and action. Feelings aren’t rational but they are real.’
 
The relationship between the arts and sciences was also illustrated at the conference. Dr Natalie Welden, an eco-toxicologist, showed how the world’s ocean currents take our plastics to the poles, our waste impacting on the remotest habitats. Jane Rushton, a visual artist from Mallaig, gave a presentation on art and the process of ‘Being’ in the landscape. She focused on work she had done as a resident artist in Svalbard, some of which involved drawing on filter papers used in bore holes in the ice which revealed patterns of contamination. Later, Mirja Koponen of Highlight Arts echoed this work distributing ice cubes to the audience. The ice cubes had frozen within them small images, substances and the folded word, ‘tomorrow’. As the ice melted in our hands, I recalled Jessie Kleemann’s poem from the previous evening, a litany of images ending on the word ‘melt’.
 
Jane is one of an Arctic Research Group which includes Dr Lizanne Henderson and Dr Monica Germaná, who chaired the session with Lizanne and Jane. The group is a microcosm of the interests that attended the conference and of the value of an interdisciplinary approach. Jane’s presentation on the ‘perception of now’ was augmented by Lizanne’s work on 19th century Scottish polar explorers’ observations of the natural world. ‘Animals,’ she told us, ‘were peripheral to the explorers.’ Consequently, like the depictions of early naturalists in Australia, their images show how difficult it is to see new things properly. An exception to this and the main focus of Lizanne’s presentation was the Orcadian, John Rae. Interest in Rae has been growing over the past thirty or so years and the festival gave the opportunity to appreciate the different strengths of the Hudson Bay employee and of the Royal Naval officer, Sir John Richardson. (The collaborative research project with which Lizanne, Jane, Monica and Dr Ingibjörg Ágústsdóttir of University of Iceland are involved is titled, The North and the Scottish Imagination: Arctic Pasts and Futures.)
 
One of the most striking visual moments of the festival came in a presentation on Film, photography and creativity in the Arctic, by Colin Tennant, who had just sailed through the North West Passage, and Dr. Saskia Coulson. In their recent photography and film assignments, many of which showed powerful and affecting images, there was one terrible sequence of the ice relentlessly calving from a glacier. They discussed the difficulties and the urgency of documenting this important but rapidly changing environment, while honestly admitting the moral complexities of their involvement. (A number of their photographs were on show at The Stove, one of three small exhibitions – the others being one on Sir John Richardson at Dumfries Museum and an instructive  polar bear installation at Moat Brae.)
 
Film, photography and creativity in the Arctic was part of the programme of The Arctic in Film – four film evenings, three at the Robert Burns Centre and one at Cample Line, the independent arts organisation at Thornhill. Audiences were presented with Woman at War, a thriller about a 50-year-old environmental activist who crusades against the local aluminium industry in Iceland; Atanjarjut, The Fast Runner, the first feature film to be made in the Inuktitut language; the documentary film and photography presentation; and Sameblod from Finland with dialogue partly in southern Sami, whose speakers number 500. Sameblod showed with power and poignancy the lifetime’s cost of leaving a traditional culture that is repressed by a dominant one. 
 
Atanjarjut drew on a number of Inuit tales and myths to tell a story that was Shakespearean in its depth. Storytelling was one of the principle drivers of the festival – economically and in its programming. The festival, in the form it took, would not have been possible without the financial support of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. It financed two professional storytellers in the Yurt at the Wild Goose Weekend (Tony Bonning and Anne Errington), a family storytelling event at Moat Brae on the final weekend (with Jean Edmiston) and it paid for the involvement of storytellers Dawne McFarlane from Toronto and Louise Profeit Le-Blanc from the Yukon. The SISF also paid for the participation of Robyn Stapleton, who wove whaling songs (and a gift of ‘Ae Fond Kiss’) around the storytelling of Dawne and Louise (at Moat Brae). The generosity of a private funder allowed the necessary presence of Inuit poet and performer, Jessie Kleemann (also at Moat Brae). It has been said that, ‘To understand our origins, scientists look to the stars. To understand our demise the glacier is ground zero.’ Jessie’s work was called Arkhticós Doloros (The Arctic in Pain). It involved a short film and a live performance. She drew on story and on myth to create images of hardship, isolation and suffering. She also read poems in Greenlandic – incantations of loss.
 
Her work spoke of our ruptured relationship with nature, the chaos that threatens us. Both Dawne and Louise, in their stories (and at the conference), showed how stories, by focusing on the intimacy of lived and inherited experience, have the ability to speak to the heart and to heal. Of the conference, Jessie said, ‘It was very promising with all the knowledge gathered in one room.’ Of course, as Yasmin al-Hadithi of Highlight Arts pointed out, a greater variety of voices present would have further strengthened the conversation: but this was not financially possible, so never a realistic prospect.
 
A festival is a story that unfolds unexpectedly.
 
Two ways in which this one unfolded unexpectedly happened when the Scottish Government’s Arctic Policy was unveiled two weeks before Scotland and the Arctic began. Knowing how hard it can be to contact people in government, it was a real boost to have Francesco Bertoldi, the Senior Policy Adviser and author of The Scottish Government's Arctic Policy, speaking at the conference. Francesco spoke of Scotland being a European gateway to the Arctic region. He proposed that Scotland and the Arctic had not only historical, cultural and economic connections, but had opportunities to share expertise in terms of educational provision and services: for example, working together with Iceland on the creative industries, with the Danes on housing and with Finland on digital health. The Arctic Strategy, he claimed, is a prospectus for greater conversations between an open, outward-looking Scotland and the Arctic.
 
His assertion that Scotland and the Arctic face similar challenges was seconded by Dr Dwayne Ryan Menezes, Managing Director of the Polar Research and Policy Initiative. He sees Scotland as part of ‘the rural north’, a vast area where there are opportunities and challenges for Scottish and Arctic communities. When he was coming to Dumfries for two nights for the conference and storytelling events, he told me that he was also very interested in the work of the Midsteeple Quarter. A meeting with Katharine Wheeler of The Stove Network Curatorial Team was arranged. I was a spectator as Katharine told him of the ambition of those involved in the Midsteeple Project (to re-animate the town centre through community-led planning and embedded creative work). Dwayne saw that solutions in Dumfries could be shared with communities in the Arctic facing similar problems of low (paid) employment and an ageing population with young people heading elsewhere. Perhaps, the connections between the ambitions of those finding creative solutions to better the town of Dumfries and those envisaging similar work in the Arctic could form another thread in the possible conversations between Scotland and the Arctic.
 
This has been a narrative account from light notes and impressions made over the two weeks of Scotland and the Arctic: A Conversation. I wanted to show that the two weeks unfolded like a story and like a story there were moments that rhymed and themes that deepened. I hope to have made plain that it was a source of many conversations, which I hope will continue in some form between those who took part.
 
I wish, through this incomplete precis, to express my gratitude to all who participated and who supported the Conversation. If you would like to make a comment about the event as a whole or on one element of it, it would be welcome. Best wishes to you all.
 
Tom Pow
Creative Director, A Year of Conversation 2019


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