Living memory is a response to the stories of two Lochaber woodlands affected by the World Wars. Mossed-over stumps and charred trunks visible today are the quiet memorials which provided the
inspiration for a series of cast-iron sculptures and photographic works.
The ‘Old Forest’, in Glenmallie by Loch Arkaig, and a small woodland near Banavie - in the Cnoc Alasdair/Mount Alexander area - both prompted me to explore the idea of commemorating habitats that have been affected by war.
In Glenmallie, the pine wood was accidentally torched by the Commandos training there as they prepared for operations all over Europe. A forest of dead trees remains standing on the hillside, nearly 80 years after being burnt. The tree portraits that make up the series of work Living Memory and Glenmallie aim to capture the individual character of each pine that stands still today where it once grew. I can trace my own fascination with these pines back to the age of 10, when I first saw how strange they seemed standing out against the hillside on a hot summer day.
Cnoc Alasdair, or Mount Alexander, lies between the Caledonian Canal and the river Lochy, and is referenced by historian Donald B. MacCulloch in his book ‘Romantic Lochaber’ (first published 1939). MacCulloch tells the story of seven1 clumps of pine planted in the 16th Century by Ewen Cameron2 as an act of repentance for a long life of cattle stealing. After conducting a Taigharm ritual at the instruction of a local Cailleach (witch), involving the roasting of a cat in a turf hut, he encountered the Devil (in cat form) who told him to build seven churches. However it was far more likely, thought MacCulloch, that instead of building churches, Ewen planted trees to serve as a living reminder of his misdeeds.
Following MacCulloch’s description of the Cnoc Alasdair clump’s location, one can see there are no pines there. The area is made up of broad leaf species, but quietly sitting in the moss and fallen leaves are the resinous stumps of a previous woodland.3 The trees belonging to these stumps - the descendants of Ewen Cameron’s pines,4 were felled during the First World War, at a time when the national demand for timber increased to an unprecedented level to meet the needs of an industrial war.
The circular cyanotype images are taken from the point of view of stumps, showing the space the tree would once have lived in and the present-day broad leaf canopy that has slowly grown up to become a new woodland.
Similarly, the iron pieces are casts from the stumps and an attempt to give solid form to the fragile remnants of a story that says much about our continual struggle to try and do good in difficult circumstances, be they personal, political or ecological.