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Issue 14 - Islands of inspiration

Scotland Magazine Issue 14
May 2004


This article is 14 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Islands of inspiration

The outer Hebrides have become a haven for artists inspired by the contrasts and isolation of the islands. Ian Sclater travelled to meet them

Forty miles off the North West coast of Scotland, the remote and sparsely populated Outer Hebrides are home to a colony of talented artists who have been drawn to the area by the unique light and landscape from which they draw their inspiration and by the space and time to pursue their work.

Visitors are welcome to drop in to find the inhabitants dabbing at their easels, turning a lathe or ‘throwing’ a lump of clay.

Often set in idyllic surroundings these small galleries offer visitors an intimate place to appreciate the work, chat with its creators and pick out a unique souvenir of their visit.

Anthony Barber
Close to the Port of Ness at the northern tip of Lewis, stands one of Europe’s smallest art galleries. Overlooking a stone quay and a strip of beckoning sand, the Harbour View Gallery could not be more aptly named.

Owner Anthony Barber, originally from Stoke-on-Trent, moved here from Yorkshire in 1994 during a recession.

Anthony explains the allure of Lewis: “It’s the contrast.

“The colour of the sea on a good day is so intense, and there are so many things to paint, you can never run out of subjects.”

Anthony works mainly in water-colour and last year he started to use mixed media, such as acrylic, for “a bit more body”. Prices of originals range from £225 ($400) (12” x 12” size) to £1,000 ($1,800) (30” x 20”). There is also an extensive range of cards and prints.

Borgh Pottery
Owners Sue and Alex Blair have turned a strip of land which the previous owner had declared “dead” into a flowery garden surrounding a sunlit pottery and shop.

Originally from Bolton and Burnley respectively, Sue and Alex celebrated 30 years residency on Lewis in January this year. They saw in the island a chance to live what they call “the good life ideal”.

Sue says: “The environment gives you a sense of where you are as a human being: extremely small! You certainly don’t feel in control. In places like this, the weather dominates everything.”

Initially based in Stornoway, they started with the aid of a grant and a bank loan and later received council backing. More recently they have also attracted EU funding.

Sue says: “We’ve had far more financial support here than we would ever have done on the mainland, because here any sort of business has value.”

They now have year round trade selling exclusively from their pottery shop and over the internet. Recently they have been making more dinner sets and one-offs, although their mainstay items are still bowls, vases, jugs and – the most popular – goblets.

Iain Brady
Stornoway-based Iain Brady’s work is seen by virtually every visitor to the local Tourist Information Centre, where a large mural – one of his “3-D paintings” – celebrating island life hangs on the side of the building. One of several large works of his which adorn offices and buildings in the Western Isles.

Iain makes these pieces initially of paper, which he coats in resin. He then scrapes away the interior to leave a semi-translucent tissue.

A Glasgow-born and Aberdeen-raised immigrant of some 20 years standing, Iain Brady first came to Lewis to teach art.

One striking feature – virtually a trademark – of Iain’s work are his figures’ huge hands.

He explains: “When I first came here, every time I shook hands with a crofter, I realised how practical their hands were, how working – and how insignificant ours were.”

“It seemed to me that even if they were doing it unconsciously, as they shook your hand, they were making an assessment: ‘Is this man going to be any use in our community?’”

Samples of Iain Brady’s work can be seen at

Steve Dilworth
It is no accident that Steve Dilworth lives close to some of the oldest rock in the northern hemisphere. In places nearly three billion years old, it has been forced up to the surface from 30 kilometres down in the earth’s depths.

Steve explains: “I felt there was something powerful about this place. I really appreciate going out into a landscape which is relatively untouched. And it’s so quiet at times you can actually hear your own heart beat.”

Originally from Hull, Steve first saw the islands 21 years ago. Immediately declaring the place ‘paradise’, he and wife Joan later bought a derelict house on the east side of Harris which they got “for next to nothing.” It was restored and is still home today.

Although a self-described ‘sculptor’, this is one artist you won’t find chipping patiently away at a lump of rock. In his studio, Steve often takes to his task wearing overalls, goggles and face-mask and the front garden resembles a stonemason’s yard, with dust coated machinery, piles of rocks and tarpaulins.

And yet from all this clutter emerge exquisite works of art possible only from the mind of a fantasist and the hands of a master craftsman. His raw materials, including ‘found’ stone (some from ancient Viking quarries), wood, metals, rope, bone, feathers and (strangest of all) dead wildlife preserved in sodium fluoride, are melded by some weird yet wonderful alchemy into beautiful objects.

Steve explains the essence of his work: “All material contains energy, and by shaping it and putting it in conjunction with other things, it can be made either weaker or stronger.”

Steve Dilworth is represented by London’s Hart Gallery,

Willie Fulton
Glasgow-born Willie Fulton arrived in Harris in 1978 to teach art. Twenty one years later, he took early retirement to concentrate on painting. Now, most mornings find him in his Ardbuidhe Cottage Gallery, which he opened in September 2003, recreating scenes framed by the windows of his studio and of the living room in the house which he shares with wife Moira, herself an accomplished artist. Of his life as a full-time artist Willie says: “If being a success means selling work, it’s certainly been that. But I’m not seeking fame or glory. I’m a content man, and I’m now at the stage where I have the time and energy to devote myself to my work – and I’m loving it.” Much of Willie’s work is a response to his immediate environment, and he is heavily influenced by the ever-changing island light and the many moods it casts on the landscape.

He says: “I try to paint silence and space. You can’t help but be motivated and energised by it. There’s almost a spiritual context to it.”

Willie Fulton’s work ranges in price from £450 (10” x “10”) to £900 (20” x 20”), with some works selling for £3,000 and more.

Moira Macaulay
Moira Macaulay is something of a rarity among Hebrides artists: a native. Her exhibition last year at the Morven Gallery on Lewis established her as one of the islands’ leading up and coming young artists, and it was there that she also unveiled her trademark fishing boats – colourful, whimsical vessels which seem to bob up and down in blue-green water.

But it is what she calls her ‘non-commercial’ work which best illustrates her personal connection to the islands. Since childhood she has been fascinated by the abandoned houses scattered around the landscape, their former inhabitants deceased or departed.

Wandering through these ghostly shells, Moira finds objects – teapots, bibles, furniture – which vibrate with past lives and inspire another side of her work.

She explains: “A strand of my work has to do with the history up here, especially domesticity and family life. The things I find lying around seem alive to me. They’re the detritus of a life. What other people would throw away, I find precious.”

Samples of Moira Macaulay’s work can be seen at

David Miles
The west coast of Harris features some of the most stunning expanses of beach anywhere in the world. At Scarista a huge elbow of sand cradles a turquoise bay.

Native Londoner David Miles has called this home for 40 years. Working in water-colour, he mostly paints primitive figures and fluid scenes straight from the landscape and empty of figures or houses.

“To me it’s just a question of painting, not making money. If I sell a painting, it means I can paint some more,” he says.

“I’ll work on something, and that leads to another possibility, which leads to another. I get excited about working. I don’t have a vision of something or a fixed idea of what I want. It’s a voyage of discovery, an unknown road. To surprise yourself is the best thing.”

David Miles’ paintings range in price from £500 ($900) to £2,000 ($3,600).

Simon Rivett
An old army building on the west side of Lewis is where Simon Rivett can be found most mornings producing bold, dramatic landscapes of his adoptive home.

He explains: “You’re always striving to do work which is different and original, which college instils in you. But you have to be aware that you’re selling to people who want to put pictures on their walls.”

Simon usually draws his scenes first before completing them in the studio, choosing colours from memory.

He says: “Sometimes a piece of landscape that you thought was as dull as dishwater takes on a life that makes you think: ‘There’s a picture there’.”

Simon’s work ranges in price from £300 ($540) (12” x 8”) to £2,000 ($3,600) (4’ x 3’).