Exhibition chronicles historic links in Western Isles

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The links connecting Orkney, the Western Isles and Scandinavia will be celebrated this summer in a major contemporary art installation at St Clement’s Church in Rodel, Harris – managed by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) and recognised as the finest medieval building in the Hebrides.

Dave Jackson and Erlend Brown’s Seven Waves is an interpretation on a spectacular scale of George Mackay Brown’s cycle of poems Tryst on Egilsay. It’s the story of how, nine centuries ago, the devoutly Christian Earl Magnus Erlendsson, joint ruler of Orkney and Shetland with his cousin Earl Haakon, under Norwegian oversight, was betrayed and murdered on the island of Egilsay, ushering in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity in Northern Europe.

Each poem, in English and translated for the first time into Gaelic by Ruairidh MacLean, is matched with a huge hanging canvas ‘wave’ suspended from the St Clement’s roof.

George Mackay Brown called the martyrdom of Magnus ‘the most precious event in Orkney’s history’ and Seven Waves makes explicit the Western Isles’ and Scotland’s Scandinavian heritage.

Ruairidh said: ‘Old Norse and Gaelic interacted a lot, especially in the Western isles. A very high proportion of the place names in the Western Isles are actually Norse.’

Dave Jackson added: ‘Erlend and I have interpreted George Mackay Brown’s beautiful and insightful poetry in a way which conveys both the haunting physical landscape of Egilsay and the huge political and metaphysical power of what happened there.

‘St Magnus’s martyrdom and his search for peace in a viciously warlike world has resonated down the ages and is as powerful a symbol today as it ever was.’

Being able to mount the exhibition in St Clement’s was both a thrill and an immense privilege, he said. ‘This is a building of worldwide historical importance and enormous spiritual and emotional power. Erlend and I really hope our art and the poems about one of Europe’s greatest religious and political martyrs is both appropriate and inspiring in this context. It is a real privilege to be here and tremendously exciting.’

Erlend said his uncle would have been happy with the project. ‘George would have been pleased with the translation of his poems into Gaelic as his mother (born Mhairi Mackay) was a Gaelic speaker from Sutherland and she was a strong influence as he grew up.’

Claire Whitbread, Exhibitions Manager for HES, said the organisation was delighted to be involved in the project. ‘It’s wonderful to have been able to bring this truly extraordinary art installation to Harris, and to be able to stage it in such a historic and atmospheric space has really created a special experience.

‘We have worked closely with Dave and Erlend  and believe that Seven Waves complements St Clement’s architecture and spirit, as well as bringing together aspects of Gaelic, North isles and Norse culture in an effective and moving way.’

Seven Waves is open to the public from June 1 until September 1.