mapping Islay

I wanted to say a little more about working on our Islay book. This a project which from the beginning has meant a great deal to me, perhaps because it emerged from a very personal place: the place in which Tom and I were married. The project began as the context for two designs I’d already made – the cardigan and kilt hose we wore to be wed in.

At the beginning of the project, this personal connection concerned me slightly. Was there something a little presumptuous about including garments associated with my own marriage in a book? And who, anyway, would be interested in my very personal sense of connection to a particular Hebridean landscape?

But as work on the project gathered pace, I saw that those personal connections were precisely what was going to make this book and the designs in it really special. Tom and I first visited Islay fifteen years ago, and had spent part of every subsequent year in and around the island. Without my even really being aware of it, the island had taught me so much it had become a part of me. As I sat down to make my first sketches of the collection I found there was no scrabbling about for ideas: I immediately knew I was going to draw on the history and heritage of the Oa peninsula to create a colourwork allover, I knew the island’s high crosses would be echoed in cables, and I knew that the rainbows familiar to wide Islay skies would feature too.

Every project involves some sort of historical exploration for me, and this one took me to places I’d not had opportunity to visit previously. I discovered a profound connection to the work of Islay bards, Duncan Johnston and William Livingstone and learnt much more about the cultural complexity of the medieval western Isles.

Then I thought about others I knew who had different kinds of knowledge and expertise, and asked them if they’d like to be involved. With the help of Gordon Yates (Islay wildlife), Anna MacQuarrie (Gaelic in the landscape), Susan Campbell (handcrafts in Islay) and Jane Hunter (Islay geology), a much broader cultural picture of the island started to emerge.

I began to see our book as a collective act of map-making: together we were, in our own individual ways, tracing and articulating our own senses of Islay as a place. Through Tom’s photography, through my designs and words, out of Gordon’s forty years of wildlife observation, Anna’s Gaelic connections and Susan’s deep local knowledge we were creating an interpretative record of just some of Islay’s many meanings. And Jane’s contribution literalised this process.

Jane transformed her knowledge of, and insights about, Islay’s landscape and geology into a map of Harris tweed.

All maps are made things – they are acts of subjective interpretation, not documentary fact – and one of the things I love most about Jane’s work is the way that it brings the made-ness of all acts of mapping to the fore.

Jane’s maps are not transparent windows on a landscape: she enacts the particularity of her understanding by literally making it up.

So many maps (and maps of this area of Scotland particularly) falsely purport to be objective. There are maps of territory, of ownership; maps that convey an idea of island landscapes as barbaric or exotic, maps that, in rendering the Hebrides peripheries of a distant political centre, erase the important cultural specificity of island populations. Yet all such maps are fabrications: they all re-create a landscape through a series of imaginative claims. So I think it is significant that each of Jane’s maps allows you to see the process behind her acts of making-up, that the very movements of her hands can be perceived in the stitches.

Working with Jane, I enjoyed discovering more about her thoughtful map-making process . . .

just as much as I did the finished object.

And because Jane’s map was also our map of Islay, created for our book, she made a mark on it for us.

On the reverse of the map, Jane stitched a heart at Finlaggan, the place where Tom and I were married.

This mark does not represent any sort of claim to this landscape, but it does suggest the profound and respectful nature of our connection to it. In many different ways, I think that this connection was felt by everyone who worked on this project, and that’s why the resulting book feels so special to me.

Through this book we’ve made our own map of Islay. This map has been created from number of different perspectives, but each is individual, partial, personal. Our map is in no way objective but I hope it conveys our collective love of, and profound respect for this place, as well as giving a sense of the rich culture and history of the island and the depth of inspiration it affords. Many other maps exist, and there will be many more to come.

You can read more about Jane’s geological map of Islay in our book, and find out about her and her work here on her website. If you are interested in maps, and the history and politics of mapping in Scotland, I heartily recommend Christopher Fleet, Charles Withers and Margaret Wilkes beautiful and incisive Mapping the Islands available from Birlinn Press.