Celebrating A Decade of A’Chraobh

16 Nov 2010 in Highland, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

IN SEPTEMBER 2010, at the entrance to A’Chraobh, the Gaelic Spiral Woodland walk in Borgie Forest, writer and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch quoted an apt Gaelic proverb for her opening address in front of one hundred and fifty adults and children, writes Sue Jane Taylor.

Lesley, like so many of the folks present, had returned to celebrate the wood’s tenth birthday celebrations. After her talk, the ceremonies and processions began. Children from Tongue Primary School Gaelic Medium, disguised as forest animals, sung in celebration. They were framed by a giant upright large branch hoop decorated with wild fruits from the autumnal trees.

Framed by the Branch Hoop at A'Chraobh

Visitors framed by the Branch Hoop at A'Chraobh (photo by Jim Johnston)

A young piper from Feis Air an Oir, playing a Slow March, led the procession. Behind him walked two children, dressed as Atlantic salmon (echoing a Gaelic mythological re-enactment of salmon who ate acorns fallen from the Tree of Knowledge, thus gaining the wisdom of the ages and passing this onto man).

The other children and adults followed the two-legged salmon and masked forest animals. They stepped through the branch circle to enter the wood and onto the path which slowly wound its way through the spiral wood’s mature ten-year growth.

Atlantic salmon costume at A'Chraobh

Atlantic salmon costume at A'Chraobh (photo by Jim Johnston)

When the procession reached the heart of spiral A’Chraobh, a beautiful drystone dyke symbolic in its function, children read out an ancient Gaelic blessing. Rowan berries were then tossed into the air and a berry crown was placed on Lesley’s head – Queen of A’Chraobh!

The piper led the procession out of the wood and down the track to North Sutherland Community Trust and Forestry Commission’s magnificent warm log cabins, where displays, activities, face painting, refreshments and a barbecue were awaiting everyone.

As I walked down to the cabins I reflected back on 1999, when the concept of this wood was born amongst friends over tea and talk round a kitchen table in Skerray, a few miles from Borgie. The Millennium Forest for Scotland asked for proposals for tree-based projects to celebrate the Millennium. There were no Millenium Forest Trust projects north of Inverness, so something had to be done.

A’Chraobh – the tree – was born. Seven hundred trees would be planted on a  hectare clear-felled site on Forestry Commission ground in Borgie Forest close to Borgie River. On its opening, one December 2000, some 211 trees were individually planted.

Environmental art complements nature. It mirrors the natural environment in as much as it is transitory. (Bruce Sandison, Living History, visual arts section, The Scotsman, 7 November 2000).

Sue Jane Taylor and Lesley Riddoch at A'Chraobh

Sue Jane Taylor and Lesley Riddoch (photo Jim Johnston)

In an arts supplement to The Times on 29 November 2000, Giles Sutherland eloquently described A’Chraobh thus:

“Early medieval Irish and Scottish scholars traditionally used different species of tree as a basis for naming characters in the Gaelic alphabet. The idea of An Ogam Chraobh (or tree alphabet) forms the basis of woodland walk – a collaborative project involving the artists Sue Jane Taylor and Ian Westacott, and a number of others – in Borgie Forest on the north coast of Sutherland.

“The walk takes the form of a spiral, a powerful symbol, common in Celtic culture and deeply resonant with meaning, but linked strongly to the cycle of life. Within the spiral are the groupings of trees each representing a different and sequential character in An Ogam Chraobh. Also within, at intervals, are Caithness flagstones with the etched motifs, based on the designs of local schoolchildren. At the heart of the spiral is a stone structure constructed in the best tradition of the dry stone dyke – but its function is, again, symbol, rather than actual. It embodies within its curved and undulating form a number of significant elements. While its shape recalls elements of such as leaves and trees themselves, a gap in the structure hints at the architectural rather than the organic. It is deeply significant, therefore, to learn that the stones themselves came from a ruin near Langdale, the site of a Clearance village. Thus, the very real and significant physical link is made between this work and some of the historical processes which have made the Highlands the place they are today. It is a bold yet poignant statement.

The procession walks through A'Chraobh

The procession walks through A'Chraobh (photo by Jim Johnston)

“In this context it is impossible not to mention the German artist Joseph Beuys whose “7000 Oaks” project, initiated in the German city of Kassel, came about through surprisingly similar channels as the Borgie Forest project. Inspired by Celtic, rather than Germanic mythology, Beuys recognised the sacred quality that that oak tree held for the Celtic peoples. Beuys succeeded in persuading local people to buy and plant these trees – each one accompanied by a basalt column. While the stone remains constant, and acts as real and symbolic protection, each of the trees grows and changes – a vast, growing sculpture. This, too, is the case with Borgie Forest, as all members of the community were invited to become involved and will continue to be involved in its continuing care. A bond has now been established between this community and its trees, and the great gap between humanity and nature has been narrowed. This is the essence of community ownership, and the hopeful beginnings of a reversal in dispossession and despair.

“Accompanying the project is a 50 page book which includes ann essay by writer Mary Beith on the origins of the alphabet, the significance of each tree in Gaelic culture and practical uses Highlanders have made of the timber.”

© Sue Jane Taylor and Giles Sutherland, 2010