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Ink on paper, 2002

30 x 40cm

Original drawing for etching produced for An Leabhar Mòr / The Great Book of Gaelic exhibition (An Lanntair, Stornoway, 2002, toured internationally) and book (Canongate, 2002).

A response to the Gaelic poem The Gloomy Woodland by John MacLean (c.1787-1848) from Tiree, who emigrated to Canada in 1819.

It was composed when the poet's brother, Donald, wrote him a letter asking him to describe what Canada was like after he had emigrated there. Instead of writing a letter in reply, he composed this poem describing in detail what it was like.

The lines I responded to for this image were:

'I'm all alone in this gloomy woodland,

my mind is troubled, I sing no song:

Against all nature I took this place here

and native wit from my mind has gone...

...each night and day, in each task I turn to,

the ache of memory grows more and more;

I left my dear land beside the ocean

and now no sea laps my dwelling's shore...

...I must keep digging to win bare living

to hold these wild threatening woods at bay...'

The poet is homesick for his native Hebrides, and feels alienated in the dense forest - a stark contrast to the open treeless horizons of home. Many of my ancestors, some of whom were MacLeans, emigrated from Lewis to Canada in the 19th century.

I wanted to evoke the overwhelming animistic presence of the forest, writhing with material and immaterial entities, disorientating and even threatening.

On that note, I was as much inspired by the writings of Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen as I was by the poem.

Gloomy Woodland