Wild Curating Iona Part 3: Elisabeth shines beneath the earth

This series of posts tells the story of my trip to Iona in July 2015 with 3 other artists and a film crew. We went to explore an idea we call ‘Wild Curating’ and the background to this project can be found here and part 1 of the story here.

A few months ago, in one of my infrequent and brief spells of trying to do more exercise, I went to the swimming pool. After getting changed I found a queue of people shivering in their swimming costumes at the entrance to the pool. In the door way was a little sign blocking the way: “Pool Closed”.

I waited with the crowd for a moment and then walked round them, past the sign to the empty pool. The life guard was sitting up in his high chair, oblivious.

“Excuse me, is the pool closed?” I asked.

“No, why?”

“Because that sign says so”


“Shall I move the sign?”

“Oh, yes please”

So I moved the sign and dived in. Which is why I have a sleek swimmer’s physique and am not still stood shivering in the changing rooms.

In my experience, artists tend to be the kind of people who will walk past the sign rather than queuing up in obedience. And this is how we got into trouble on Iona.

The naïve romantic in me had dreamt of expansive skies, lonely rocks and remote beaches that would entail the ultimate creative freedom. My mindset is so urbanised that it took a while for me to realise that even out there, at what seemed to me to be the edge of the world (although my edge is always someone else’s centre) that everywhere is owned by someone and that there are many organisations who are guardians of the land. And so we carefully picked our way through the various permissions we needed from a range of groups who are stewards of the land on Iona. One of these organisations generously allowed us to use their land for our creative work with the one proviso: no digging.

On the afternoon when I had remained in the Chapter House to paint, Elisabeth and Atle, our two artists from Oslo, set out to explore. They returned with tales of wonder at what they had created, and it was indeed a miraculous and beautiful thing.

On a patch of grass on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Atlantic they had made a pristine circle carved into the Earth, wider than the span of my outstretched arms, filled with white sand. They had dug throughout the rain of the day and shifted the sand from the beach below, a hard physical feat, to create a simple object that was peaceful and so pregnant with meaning. They showed us the photographs and it looked astonishing.

Our 4 artists at the white circle

Our 4 artists at the white circle

It was clear from the way my friends spoke about the piece that the whole process had been a profound experience. It was their deep soul response to the strong landscape of Iona and they had returned exhausted yet full of life.

This was the exact response I had hoped for when bringing creative minds to that remote island. The soul of the artist had said “yes” and the land had said “yes”.

But the rules said “no”.

Oh God, the pain of that “no”.

And so, the next morning after frantic conversations over dinner and breakfast to try and work a way through I had to tell them to remove the sand and fill it in.

That day Iona shone bright, clear as a diamond and we all set out to the site on the far side of the island. I can remember walking up to the crest of the hill to see the work for the first time, our chattering subsided and the group approached the circle with an awe-full silence. It’s hard to describe the experience but it seemed as if that simple intervention in the landscape had focussed the sacred energy of the place. We stood on the edge of the circle, afraid to touch it, with our hands hovering over the sand. It was a portal into another reality, a larger reality. Its existence evoked a deeper way of seeing and being. Then, one by one we removed our shoes and stepped over the edge onto holy ground.

We spent a while there talking quietly and some of us took turns to sit alone in the circle to meditate. We played on the beach below. And then, as the day stretched on, the time came to undo what had been done.

Wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow the sand returned to the beach. The white circle became a dark circle and then a muddy jigsaw as we returned the cut turf that they had carefully piled behind a rock. Piece by piece the circle grew smaller as Naomi, our performance artist, waved a gold flag on the rocks above us: a requiem for the little loss of something wonderful.

And then I brought out the image of Elisabeth that I had painted the day before. The painting was full of life and shone brightly in red and orange, it was an apt reflection of her disposition. On that hillside, along with her friend Atle, Elisabeth had created something that shone and her eyes were bright when she talked about it. And now that shining returned to the Earth. So we took her portrait and laid her in the centre of the circle. Then slab by slab, covered her with the thick dark turf.


I’m well aware that there is an alternative narrative here. From those who don’t experience Iona as being on the edge but at the centre of their world. The custodians of the landscape could tell a story about the arrogant artists from the city who felt that they could just come and dig into the ancient Earth.

Perhaps both stories are true.

Everyone here acted in good faith, some were simply doing their job, and the representative we dealt with from the organisation involved, whilst understandably perturbed by what we did, was a decent and forgiving individual as we tried to set things right. I’m not angry about what happened, but I am sad that rules can’t be bent when something wonderful occurs.

It leads me to question whether the urge to walk past the sign that says “pool closed” is an act of arrogance or of courage. I hope it is a generous spirited audacity that strains to see the potential beyond the rules, not because we think we’re better than other people and the rules don’t apply to us but because we sense that the world is bigger than the limits that others have imposed. Sometimes walking past the sign might be a mistake and if so we need to accept the consequences of our actions, at other times it might open up huge possibilities and the potential for beauty. We will never know if we don’t take that courageous step.

I don’t endorse digging up land without permission but neither, in the end, do I regret what happened. For a moment there was something miraculous in an amazing place and I’m glad that Elisabeth still shines beneath the earth.

2 thoughts on “Wild Curating Iona Part 3: Elisabeth shines beneath the earth

  1. It’s a tricky one – digging. I think National Trust and Historic Scotland just want to avoid people digging up archaeological stuff that is significant willy nilly. But where would Banksy have been if he’d asked permission to spray paint the walls of Bristol. I like the idea of the sand circle cut in the turf – I wish I’d seen it. Did Richard Long ask permission to mark a path by walking across a hillside or Andy Goldsworthy when he built a sheepfold?

  2. Pingback: Wild Curating Iona part 4: The Soul Antenna | I ask for wonder

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