Artist Diaries. 21 June 2012
21 June 2012
The days are long, bright and cool on Tobermory: only 4 hours of darkness between last gull and first dove call. Down in the harbour boats swing on the wind; clouds sit over Ardnamurchan and Morven across the Sound of Mull. On the fisherman’s pier a heap of creels is stacked by a tangle of rope among buoys and floats. Above them, in huddled twos and threes, eighty Arctic terns perch on lines slung between two lamp-posts.
Eighty Arctic terns. Beady-eyed and still, with their red beaks and feet bright against a bank of white cloud. Strange beaks, strange feet: some crocheted from nylon twine found on Mull’s beaches; some snipped from red plastic flotsam or aluminium cans. Button, pin, and black glass eyes, and knitted bodies of thick, cream and peaty wool from Ardalanish farm. Black-capped terns built to spend most of their lives on the wing, flying every year from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again, stopping off to feed and breed, to drop like stones on sand eels from the cliffs of the Orkney and Shetland islands. But these birds on Mull, beautiful eccentric wooly sentinels, hand-made by knitters from Scotland, England, Ireland, Nova Scotia and the US, have blown in on the winds of change, and have a story to tell.
Across the world, bird migration patterns are shifting and populations crashing as warming oceans propel marine food sources such as plankton and sand eels into new territory. Migrating birds like the arctic tern, which travels further in a year than any other bird or animal on earth, may arrive at the breeding grounds they return to year after year in the course of their long lives (up to 30 years), and find them empty of food. Their offspring hatch, and starve. Commercial fishing plays a part; competition for limited resources is intense. What welcome do starving birds receive on the cliffs and coasts beneath their ancient flight paths?
A heartfelt one, if the Bird Yarns project is anything to go by. Hatched by artist Deidre Nelson, the project invited Tobermory’s Woolly Wednesdays knitting group at An Tobar to make Arctic terns from a pattern created by Deirdre, using local wool from Ardalanish farm, and recycled materials. Knitters of all ages joined in, and word soon spread via Facebook and Twitter to neighbouring islands and the mainland and beyond: ‘lost’ Arctic terns would find a warm welcome in Tobermory.
So here they are, delivered by hand, by post and by boat, five of them carried from Cape Breton by Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond, to meet their peers on the pier and be strung up on a wild wet day, facing the painted houses of Tobermory and an uncertain future. For now, though, they’re safe, they’ve dried out in the mid-week sun, and they’re attracting the attention of tourists, sailors and fishers, who come to photograph them beneath swerving gulls, and put on the knitted headphones at the listening post to hear Scottish wildlife expert Gordon Buchanan describe their extraordinary annual migratory feats and their vulnerability to human impacts on land, sky and sea.
On Thursday at An Tobar they’ll be greeted by song, sound, tasty treats and tern tales, beginning with a Gaelic song workshop by Mary Jane Lamond. From the late 1700s to the 1830s thousands of Gaelic-speaking people from the Highlands and Islands sailed to Eastern Nova Scotia. They settled in kinship groups and brought with them music, song and stories which are still heard today. Scotland’s islands are processes – defined by the movement of wind and water, people, wildlife and stories. Tonight we launch Bird Yarns with Black Isle writer, broadcaster and bird man Kenny Taylor, artist Deirdre Nelson, poet Rody Gorman, songs by Mary Jane Lamond and food by chef Oliver Rowe…The birds are getting restless…It’s time to take flight.