St Kilda World Heritage Day Project

25 Apr 2011 in Heritage, Outer Hebrides, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

IAN STEPHEN reports on the World Heritage Day collaboration between artists and secondary school pupils from Tarbert

THERE may be a focus on Scottish Islands this year but we islanders do not have a monopoly on arts projects linked to heritage sites. This year’s World Heritage Day (18 April) saw a series of events throughout Scotland which celebrate those of our heritage sites deemed to be world class.

Now, I can’t tell you the criteria for selecting these, but they range from the signs of human habitation on the landscape of the St Kilda archipelago to the tumbled and overgrown barrier that was Antonine’s defence against those the Romans thought of as barbarians.

The industrial utopia of New Lanark was also celebrated in the south, while the astonishing richness of Orkney’s  heritage was displayed along a route in Stromness leading to the Pier Arts Centre. And Edinburgh itself, with both old and new towns awarded World Heritage status, also featured strongly in the day’s events.

An example of the pupil's art work from the project

Art work from the porject

I was contacted by Tim Fitzpatrick, the artist contracted by Heritage Scotland, to co-ordinate an approach to create the five celebratory events.  He saw storytelling as the core of both the linked education project and the performance event itself.

In the Hebrides, a link was established with Sir E Scott School in Tarbert.  Harris and North Uist had strong links with the St Kildan community, for obvious geographic reasons. Other storytellers were engaged in the different localities to bring the heritage emanating from one place out to a wide audience.

Tim’s approach is to edit key images produced by the workshop group and combine them with more documentary photographs of the heritage site. So in Tarbert, the Secondary 1 students’ drawings and paintings were juxtaposed with  photography showing the familiar line of village houses on Hirta or the gannetry of Stac an Armain,

The cleitan, which look like a contemporary land-art intervention, were of course built for the practical purpose of drying and storing food. A photograph of these is also set beside an exquisite simple drawing of the detailed stonework.

Ian Stephen and participants on St Kilda

Participants on St Kilda (Ian Stephen centre, with microphone) (photo Christine Morrison)

The system combines distribution of information on the site with display of the target group’s reaction to the stories which have been broadcast from it, by word of mouth as recorded by travelers or visitors. It runs a risk, however, because the drawings and paintings produced by the Tarbert students, guided by their art teacher who was completely committed to the project, make the stock images look a little safe.

But there was a real opportunity in the parallels in the lines of some of the Tarbert houses and the famous street of the Parliament. This did provide a route and a natural progression through the phases of stories.  It wasn’t really dark enough for the illuminated windows to be at their most effective, but the installations set a route for the promenade storytelling performance which combined English and Gaelic.

Another art work from the project

Art work from the project

The Secondary 1 class engaged completely with the St Kildan stories. We took a clear route through a historical tradition to the story of a sea journey, which navigates you to the archipelago. And then there is our key story which takes you 5 nautical miles further out from Hirta to the steep green slopes of Boreray(see the current issue of Northwords Now for a version of  the Stranding story, also recorded on the Northwords website).

Recorded versions of a tale of survival which has parallels with the Shackleton voyage are not consistent when it comes to dates and numbers. Why should this be different, in that respect, from other histories, some of them much more recent?

But for me, the choice of storytelling as a main medium provided real opportunities. These traditions would of course have been passed-on in a spoken voice and in Gaelic. But the extant recorded versions are mostly written in English – either as transcriptions or simple summaries. Maggie Smith was the vital player who was able to build up the confidence of the more nervous Gaelic speakers in the class. So the stories were returned to their native language.

Maggie Smith performs on St Kilda

Maggie Smith

Maggie’s own performance skills are powerful. She has the most natural spoken style, in contrast to more declamatory tellers, but is able to project her voice. She has strong presence so she can also speak quietly and draw the audience in close.

Her own contributions, in Gaelic and English, voiced in stations along the promenade route, were gripping and moving. But she was also able to draw our new performers in. The students were able to make that difficult transition from re-telling a story in their own intimate classroom situation to projecting it out to the main street.

There were some star performers but I would say the strongest part of the project was the way they worked as a team under the guidance of a very supportive school system. Their use of language in the classroom was very sophisticated, as was their drawing and painting.

For me the result was a very worthwhile way of immersing a chosen group into the heritage of a chosen site. But it also shared their research with visitors and the larger community. I would think the end-result could be even stronger if there was a bit more of an individual approach to developing each of the five projects. That would take a longer run-in time. And of course you risk losing a bit of the power which comes form producing a final result at a crisp pace.

© Ian Stephen, 2011