Pop up grasses

Look what’s popped up in the windows of Northlight Gallery in Stromness. A meadow of mixed grasses. And in January too.

There in the south window False Oat-grass and Pendulous Sedge have sprung up.

Pendulous Sedge
Carex pendula

The wind gaes reeshlin through risp gress
till a wheesht comes at the stillin o the air:
quaiet gies a sough, mair a glisk nor a soond.

Valerie Gillies

risp gress, sedges 
wheesht, silence, hush 
sough, whisper, murmur 
glisk, perception 

In the north, Great wood-rush and Soft Rush. And there in the east most window Tufted Hair-grass.

You can find Valerie Gillies’ poems for Tufted Hair-grass, Great wood-rush and False Oat-grass here.

The grasses will be in the windows of Northlight until Friday, but you can walk further in the sound of the field anytime you like in our new collection When the grass dances.

Thank you to Cary Welling at Northlight.

When the grass dances

Valerie Gillies & I invite you to walk with us among the grasses in our new collection of poetry and photography When the grass dances

The collection is in four parts. The first ‘Approaching the grasses’ is our introduction.

‘Knowing the grasses’ is about coming to recognise the grasses as individual species.

‘Using the grasses’ is concerned with the social history and customs around grass.

‘Living with the grasses’ sees the grasslands populated with the animals and birds of the field.


This project was supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland. 

On cloud nine

I was very chuffed to have one of my cloud photographs along with an early 18thC Chinese Buddhist Monk’s poem featured on the Cloud Appreciation Society‘s Cloud-A-Day. In case you are wondering the Cloud -A-Day is a subscription prescription where a cloud floats in to your inbox to lift your spirits, yes being under a cloud is a good thing.

The poem is from a book ‘The Clouds Should Know Me By Now: Buddhist Poet Monks of China’, it is full of clouds, and grass. It’s the sort of book that winks at you out of Stromness Books & Prints window downstairs. That’s the pleasure/pain of living above a bookshop, too much winking.

The photograph is one of a series where I was thinking about the possibility that we are all capable of becoming clouds in the vapour we breathe out. It’s an idea that Gavin Pretor-Pinney (member No. 001 of the Cloud Appreciation Society) wrote about in his book The Cloudspotting Guide, only he was thinking about joggers and perspiration.

The series of breathing clouds went on tour to Papay where it has settled and become part of the community’s art collection and is on show at Beltane. One broke off and floated to Westray.

Wondering about the origins of ‘cloud nine’? It comes from the late 19thC Cloud Atlas classification of Cumulonimbus capillitas, the tallest cloud, as number nine. Imagine being on that.

Orkney Photographica online talk in FLOW photography festival

I will be presenting ‘Orkney Photographica’, an illustrated talk, as part of the FLOW photography festival on Thursday 16 September at 7:30pm.

This free talk can be booked through Eventbrite here.

Orkney is a place rich in photographic history, not only is there a wealth of Orkney based photographers stretching back to the early days of photography, and a remarkable photographic archive held at Orkney Library & Archive, many well-known photographers have come to the islands to make work. 

Magnum photographers have been here: Eve Arnold came in the 1970’s, Fay Godwin visited several times and her Orkney work appears in her books, Martin Parr’s Orkney photographs formed part of his recent ‘Think of Scotland’ series, Elliot Erwitt, known for his New York street images, swapped urban for rural when in Orkney on assignment for Macallan Whisky.

What did these world travelled photographers see when they came to Orkney? This talk will ask if they saw what they wanted to see.

The camera as a machine cannot make aesthetic judgements, it cannot decide where to point the lens or when to fire the shutter, photographs are seen in the mind first, then through the lens. We ‘see’ a photograph then lift the camera to make the photograph. In this way these remarkable artists have responded to the Orkney that speaks to them – Elliot Erwitt is drawn to the humour of a mock wedding in Harray, Martin Parr sees the punchy colourful possibilities of the Agricultural Shows, and Fay Godwin stands at the edge of land and sea.

Is there a particular affinity between Orkney and photography? Gunnie Moberg fully turned her artistic intentions to photography after arriving in Orkney, it was like she was hungrily devouring what she saw, processing it through the lens. Her book ‘Stone Built’ book remains one of my favourite photography books.

Gunnie Moberg sits in a trajectory of photographers from, or settling in, Orkney. Perhaps the one most familiar in Orkney is Tom Kent. Marr intends to show some of the less well know Tom Kent images and underline his important contribution.

Two other books will feature in the talk. Chick Chalmers 1979 ‘Life in the Orkney Islands’ and Keith Allardyce’s 1992 ‘Sea Haven’,  both significant bodies of photographs that operate on a social history level as well as an artistic one. 

Bringing the timeline of ‘Orkney Photographica’ up to now, the talk will include work of Frances Scott, Ingrid Budge and recent graduate Sarah Wylie, as well as others.

images: Tom Kent, Orkney Library & Archive.

The Shape of Farming exhibition

A new show has just opened at the Kelp Store, Papay (Papa Westray), Orkney. It is a collaboration with Mark Jenkins through our partnership Kolekto.

Unable to travel back to Papay during the preparation for the show (yes, you know why) we went back to initial photographs made before lockdown and started to look at the rooflights, gates, tractor tyres and barns, isolating and repeating the shapes to create patterns.

We used archive material from Papay Archive and Orkney Library & Archive as a starting point, drawn to the strong shapes in the archive photographs, the repetition of the circle in the cartwheel and later the tractor wheel. With the question in our minds What does farming in Papay look like? we took shapes as a vehicle to cross time.

You can view the work on the exhibition website here.

Thank you to Jonathan Ford and Jennifer Foley and special thanks to Jocelyn & Neil Rendall for access to Holland Farm.

Papay Koinobori

Arriving at Papay airport early the other day, I went over to watch the windsock. Every now and then it would tilt down and I could see the sky through its funnel, it felt like a conversation. As I stood there trying to understand what the windsock was saying, I was unaware of the centuries old connection between windsocks, Japanese culture and carp. Just days before thousands of carp windsocks were flying all over Japan.

‘Koinobori, carp windsocks, streamers or banners, decorate the landscape of Japan from April through early May, in honor of Children’s Day on May 5.

In Japanese culture, the carp symbolises courage and strength because of its ability to swim up a waterfall. 

Originally (possibly 17thC)the event was known as the Boys’ Festival, when Koinobori expressed the hope that each boy in the family would grow up healthy and strong like wild carps. During this festival, people set up a warrior doll or a yoroi armor set in the house, and Koinobori outside the house’.

More about the custom and its origins here.

Text from https://koinobori-japan.jp/koinobori.html

Image from International Folk Museum

But what was the windsock saying? Windsocks orient themselves against the wind billowing out in the opposite direction. An east wind will blow the windsock west. Depending on the speed of the wind, some parts or all of the windsock will be lifted. So what was being said that day? Well the wind must have been around 17mph and coming from the west.