16 Jul 2008 in Orkney, Shetland, Visual Arts & Crafts, Writing

A Rich and Strange Flotilla

PAMELA BEASANT reports on a fascinating collaborative project from the Northern Isles

COLLABORATIONS between writers and artists don’t always work; it depends on the basic idea, and the people involved. In the worst case, egos clash to produce something that is simply words stuck on art, or vice versa. When they work, however, they produce something wonderful. And, as artist John Hunter says on the subject, “artistic collaboration always brings out the unexpected”.

Mailboats is such a thing: collaboration not only between two creative disciplines, but two island groups. Perhaps it’s partly because the instigator, John Cumming, is an Orkney-based artist who’s a Shetlander. His commitment to both communities – his knowledge of their similarities and differences – and the gently persuasive way he has of facilitating communication, and being encouraging through the sometimes uncertain process of sharing very personal ideas, has been a large factor in its success.

Not only that, the basic idea is gripping. It stems from the mailboats historically launched from remote islands such as St Kilda or Foula – hollowed out logs of wood containing urgent pleas for help. There was no way of knowing if anyone would pick up the SOS, or, if they did, if help would come in time. It catches the heart and the imagination, and the Mailboats project, harnessing some of the best talent available on Orkney and Shetland, has produced an astonishing collection of poems and artworks, which will be launched into the briny blue yonder from Shetland in August.

Eight writers and artists in Orkney and Shetland were paired randomly (names out of a hat – see end of article) to collaborate on their particular mailboat, and its poetic cargo, producing eight vessels as vastly different as they could be. Within the scope of the idea, the possibilities are tantalising, and have yielded some unexpected and remarkable things, despite the underlying recurring themes, historical and personal, associated with boats, messages and sea-faring communities.

Each pairing went about the collaboration differently, but it’s apparent in most that it was a truly organic process, ideas bouncing back and forth, tentatively at first, then with growing confidence and understanding of what might be done. (Having had a privileged glimpse of some of the e-mail correspondence between the pairs, it’s interesting to watch the initial self-deprecating panic gradually giving way to excitement and confidence.)

And the end product is glorious. Three-dimensional, seaworthy sculptures, with integrated poetry and all sorts of bits and pieces as additional cargo: stone, bone, floats, string, metal, ribbon, wool. Some are beautifully touchable, like Colin Kirkpatrick’s smooth wooden salmon, containing the powerful poem sequence of canonical hours by Yvonne Gray.

Others are mesmerizingly intricate, like Mike Finnie’s sea chest of delights, where compartments open to reveal secrets and trinkets, and more compartments. Laureen Johnson’s poems exploring the earliest islanders are stowed away like captain’s treasure, or written on the glazed sides of the box, inside and out.

It makes you think of permanence; of people taking to the sea with all their bravery and individuality, and surviving – making it to a new shore. By contrast, the fragility of painter Laura Drever and poet Alison Flett’s creation – the words beautifully printed and folded into paper boats, with tiny floats that will remain when the boats are mush, shows the other side: those who didn’t make it, and all our loves, thoughts and hopes bobbing around helplessly, at the mercy of weather and tide.

Artist Jo Jack’s yole is also simplicity itself, with Jim Mainland’s beautiful love letter My Dearest glazed into the structure, which includes treated wool. The boat floats generously upside down, with poem uppermost.

By its very nature, this temporarily land-locked exhibition is full of voices: Laureen Johnson’s rich, earthy Shetlandic, Morag MacInnes’s full-throated Orcadian, James Sinclair’s evocation of sea-dogs and weather-watching, Mark Ryan Smith’s historical letters (one of which is stuffed into a wooden rolling pin).

They all speak – and not just the poems, but the boats themselves. John Cumming’s lovingly carved pencil-box boats, open to reveal tiny neat bones, or one carefully chosen stone. And his main vessel, Hirta, with Morag’s extraordinary cycle of message poems, has been tested for seaworthiness, looks as reliable as the Hrossey, and much more interesting to travel in.

One of the oddest boats, by Roxane Permar, is a group of small silvered bottles, fixed together in a boat shape, all with coloured ribbons at the necks and containing the rolled up poems of James Sinclair, written on thin metal like messages for the milkman. Each bottle is marked, ‘please open’. And another, John Hunter’s silver discs securely fastened together, looks like a spaceship, or something George Bush would blow up, to be on the safe side (though it would be a terrible shame if he does).

Frances Pelly’s fibreglass Inuit-inspired canoe, with its perfectly round blue lifesaver, rewards looking at the making process documented in photographs and on the website, as each layer has been painstakingly built up and covered until the structure looks like it will last forever (I hope it does).

Inside, John Aberdein’s poem lamenting the lack of official recognition of explorer John Rae, will be sealed on a memory stick, along with the boat plans and drawings, as it is too long to fit inside in any other form. An interesting contrast between history and modern technology.

They are lovely pieces, and will make one of the richest and strangest flotillas ever to take to the sea. When they are finally launched in August, who knows where some will end up? They might be fished out of the sea as art pollution, or found in Stavanger and thrown away, or treasured.

The early mailboats cried out for help. These speak with a different message: about permanence and fragility; the possibilities of communication between artists and writers, Orcadians and Shetlanders. They end up speaking somehow with all our voices, past and present, holding out despite everything: living, loving and dying together, and occasionally setting off across the real or metaphorical dangerous sea.

If we’re no longer clinging to basic survival, and communicate in a bewildering amount of ways, we’re still crying out for something; an acknowledgment that we’re alive, and it’s all been worth it. Mind you, as Laureen Johnson puts it below, a bit of communication uncertainty is not always a bad thing:

Brakkin oot o da wub

As we come ever mair
trackable, traeceable,
always contactable,
everywhaar finable;
as da treeds ida wub
o da world wipps tighter,
an we spin i wir sylken trap

sometimes you feel laek
freeing an airm,
firin a message ida sea,
an takkin
an owld-fashioned chance
on it ever


The collaborating writer/artist pairs are:


Alison Flett and Laura Drever
Yvonne Gray and Colin Kirkpatrick
Morag MacInnes and John Cumming
John Aberdein and Frances Pelly


Laureen Johnson and Mike Finnie
Mark Ryan Smith and John Hunter
James Sinclair and Roxane Permar
Jim Mainland and Jo Jack

© Pamela Beasant, 2008