Kiosk – Bùth: An Lanntair exhibition on the making of memories

Caption: Bùth MhicNeacail. Image: Philippa C Thomas and Hector MacInnes

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From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, Nicolson’s Kiosk stood on the plot of land now occupied by An Lanntair.

A staple of Stornoway life and an early example of the small businesses servicing the tourist trail through the Hebrides, the kiosk sold the ‘gifts, souvenirs and fancy goods’ which featured in its annual catalogue. Entirely reliant on local suppliers and makers, its range of items was a testament to Hebridean ingenuity and idiosyncrasy.

As visitors return to Scotland’s post-pandemic landscape, shopping for new memories, a collective of artists, designers and makers speculate on what the kiosk might have in stock today or in some distant and better possible future.

‘The 2021 collection, and its accompanying catalogue, is ‘in turn unexpected, funny, surreal and beautiful’, An Lanntair said.

Artists Philippa C Thomas and Hector MacInnes have been relishing the chance to dig down through the layers of local history, stories, myths and memory that surround Nicolson’s Kiosk.

‘Souvenirs are such potent, magical objects. We all give them these special powers over our memories and our sense of place, but often the objects themselves seem arbitrary and mass produced. The items that used to be on sale at the kiosk totally went against the grain in that respect – they had a real locality and a complete lack of cynicism, which they perhaps carried forward from earlier traditions like Barvasware. But they also had no pretensions to being more than ‘just’ souvenirs.

‘Clearly, these qualities emerged from a time when the islands were scrambling to come to terms with an explosion in tourist numbers and a collapse in more traditional ways of earning a living and this played to the strengths of island communities: improvisation, hospitality, multi-tasking and humour. So, with tourists who can’t get abroad flooding to a fragile post-covid Hebrides, it seems like the perfect time to rekindle the spirit and the attitude of Nicolson’s Kiosk.

‘We’ve been so excited to see how different artists, makers and thinkers have responded to being asked to restock the kiosk in 2021. Everyone’s taken a different approach and taught us something really important. We really think the old bodach Nicolson would be proud.’

The exhibition might also bring back a few memories for locals. Maryanne Macleod remembered Bùth MhicNeacail very well.

‘It used to be across from the old Gazette offices,’ she said, ‘where An Lanntair is now. You would see the tourists coming and going up and down the wee steps, usually when they were waiting for the ferry to come in. But you saw plenty Leodhasachs popping in and out as well, maybe if there was a birthday they’d forgotten about last time they were over in Inverness!

‘The kiosk had souvenirs and knick-knacks and things made on the island. Things to take away that would remind folk of their holiday or make a good gift. It was a way for local people to make a bit of money on the side. Some of it was clever and well-made. They used to send a small catalogue round the island. No-one does that any more, it’s all online now. But I worked there for a summer in the early days in 1979 so maybe if I come along to An Lanntair I might get my old job back!’