The Finished Show Visuals and Review

April 12, 2009 by

Press and Journal Piece:

North visitor centre hosts off-beat display
Published: 11/04/2009

A NEW art exhibition is open to the public today, after it was officially opened last night.

Studio 1824 is at Helmsdale Ice House until May 17, and marks the end of the two-year artist-in-residence programme at Timespan, and is the first in a series of three exhibitions. The works, by Chris Dooks, were commissioned and curated by Timespan’s youth arts group, led by Ruth Macdougall. Mr Dooks said a linguistic survey sound recording from 1964, featuring fisherman Neil MacKay and wife Mary, nee Sutherland, had never been heard by their next of kin.
He said : “A knitting group helped me track them down. “Using the acoustics in Helmsdale’s Ice House, I shaped music from the recordings, adding fresh elements to create a mini album of ‘folktronica’ with accompanying photographic cover art.”

The project became a “netlabel”, – a live electronic concert, community workshops and a gallery exhibition.

Heather Macdonald from the youth group said they chose Mr Dooks because they liked his enthusiasm and the originality of his ideas. She said: “Working with Chris was a good experience. He took interest in other peoples ideas, and his positive attitude made things even more interesting. “The sound workshop shed a whole new light on the different styles of music and how they can be made. “I’m sure Studio 1824 will be innovative and thought-provoking as well as interesting and enjoyable, exactly what is needed to bring the icehouse into the spotlight.” The exhibition is on from Monday to Saturdays, 10am to 5pm, and Sundays, noon to 5pm.


The performance is today!

April 10, 2009 by

Hi folks! At 6.30pm you are all invited to SCALES, at Helmsdale Ice House! It lasts just over 30 minutes (1824 minutes to be exact) followed by a photographic show at Timespan. Free chocolates and wine!

FREEZE-FRAME! Amsterdam Artist makes proud

April 7, 2009 by

Every so often you come across a stranger on the internet, that you call out to, rattle a knee-jerk phrase to, or send a request to – and let the ether take care of encrypted delivery down the wire, up to satellites and into a near-anonymous in-tray. At least if you are me you do. I am forever looking for collaborators that come up with the goods, that actually, you know, run with it, and that spend minutes of this finite life coming up with something really worthwhile. Tonight was the culmination of one of those occurrences where the internet just WORKS. Because t’internet is only as good as the DNA either side of two keyboards. If the funders of this project read this, and I hope they do, I want to them to know how tonight, the project just got amazing value for money. We owe an artist big-time.

So… I met this artist either on facebook or linkedin. I’ve had a bottle of Zinfandel tonight so I can’t really remember. Don’t judge the wine. If I am honest, I was a little disappointed by my recent lack of audiences to shows. I type this text in a village of 900 in the far east corner of Caledonia. There’s an opening on Friday. We’ll be lucky to get 20 or 30 – but if you are reading this, you might make it 21 or 31. Mind you, I’ve been impressed by Sutherland audiences before. If you can read this text you are invited.

OK. I set up a record label.

The label is for recordings about, or made in, Helmsdale Icehouse. I am now expanding my rules a little to say it can include other icehouses. It will primarily be a netlabel. is launched this coming Friday. is the end of my residency, this week in Helmsdale Icehouse. But I will manage the label after the end of my residency.

I’ve been to the village of three times now. One of those times was a month. And I wanted this record label to release these recordings I have made from a 1964 cassette recording of a fisherman called Neil MacKay. And it is. Lots of it. But I have also made it global. At least European.

Shailoh Phillips is about my age and works as a Researcher and screenwriter at VPRO Television in Amsterdam. She has made for me “a short underground film and audio piece. Literally underground.” Her words. And it was. Underground. Sort of. She found an icehouse near Amsterdam. She found musicians. She got in. She was good to her word. She made a superb professional recording of this collaboration by writing lovely lyrics and making a film I am jealous of and then posting it on youtube. She’s a do-er. I am actually slightly moved, well, no, moved that someone would find time in their week to write words, music, use their creative network and a no-bullshit approach for free, for me and you, to make a wonderful piece about an icehouse at her end of the world. I will be screening this piece on Friday night at the opening in Helmsdale. I want her to come and be part of it.

I just want to say Thank you miss Phillips. I haven’t posted to this blog in a few weeks. I feel rough. I had to take a half day off work today. But I suddenly feel a lot better. This is great, confident work.

We have never met.

SCALES live show at the Icehouse

March 27, 2009 by


It’s on it’s way!

March 23, 2009 by
It's all there folks!

It's all there folks!

Update Soon

March 15, 2009 by

Hey folks, I just wanted to say that I have been super busy and making masses of work for the grand opening / live show on April 10th. Update for the blog imminent!

Chris x

Soundtoy Workshop One : Achoo

February 26, 2009 by



Tonight was the first “Soundtoy” workshop held at Timespan. It ran from 6.30-9pm and it was attended by Heather, Jamie and Gillian and Ruth (please email me folks if I have spelled your names wrong!). During the session we looked at what a Soundtoy is and I did a quick impromptu soundtoy gig which lasted five minutes. Then we cracked on and made some noises with whatever was to hand. We used sweet wrappers, voicework and daftness to create a pallette of sound. We then edited the material and then I demonstrated how easy both Audacity and Soundtoy is to use. Then I split the group up to both practice with Soundtoy and to explore all of Timespan’s nooks and crannies to make sounds with. Everyone recorded their own sounds on a Zoom H2 recorder by themselves and learned how to edit the files in Audacity and export them into Soundtoy. Which we hacked a bit, to play our own sounds and not just the ones that come with the excellent CD of music and software from bip-hop. It was designed by Studio Tonne.

Our first track can be heard below. I am writing this post in The Bridge Hotel opposite Timespan and out of respect for the guests and wonderful manager Shanaz I am not going to play it loud in the bar! So it is a little raw and unedited right now. But I was really impressed with everyone’s contribution and am really looking forward to part two on Saturday!!!

Here we go! It’s called Achoo

Like it? Why not download it here

Thanks to Douglas Benford for his help in locating bits and pieces for his workshop. The participants (who are really my bosses) liked your work on that CD a lot as did the artist in residence here, Ruth Macdougall. I wish I could do this job forever here. I love it. Ellie is away in Elgin till Saturday arranging high fallutin’ book signings at Waterstones and other local booksellers in that neck of the woods. Tomorrow I am going to record some material at Helmsdale School on their piano after hours. I can’t wait. Then on Saturday we have Soundtoy part two plus Cath Whippey is coming up so I can film her on Sunday dressed as a Salmon of Knowledge.

Glen Loth (Shepard’s Cottage?)

February 26, 2009 by

This house is not the easiest to get to, it’s starting to fully ruin now but I absolutely love it. I’d done a morning’s quite intensive audio edit for my icehouse audio work and then seen Ellie off at Helmsdale station for her Elgin work trip. And then I needed some fresh air. I caught caught in quite bad gales and a wee bit of hail and had to take my socks off to cross to the house. The quality of the film is poor – you tube hates the file formats I am giving it, so I may re-upload this again! It lasts ten minutes and features and over excited me. Today I am preparing a workshop on creating electronic music with something called Soundtoy. Back soon.

Good Reads (from Ellie)

February 25, 2009 by

Last night with the writers we got talking about our favourite books, and I said I’d put a post up on a few things I’ve really enjoyed. Those listed below are favourites from my last two years of reading. Some are in my current rolling top ten. 

Add your comments here, or send in recommendations of your own.

Here are five from me:

1. That Never Felt a Wound is a brilliant short story by Glasgow-based author, Alison Irvine, a wonderful new talent. It can be read online. Click on Alison’s picture below to go directly to her story.



Alison Irvine, Author

2. I really enjoyed this short novel, The Secret, by Philippe Grimbert, which was very popular in France. This is the English translation. We did metaphors about the ice house last night, and there were good metaphors in this one.


Click to view on Amazon

Click to view on Amazon


3. The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken. I wanted to use an excerpt of this to show you, but couldn’t get hold of a copy. It’s a beautifully told story.


Click to view on Amazon

Click to view on Amazon


4. Scottish author, John Burnside’s Glister haunted me completely for a week. I read it in almost one sitting, (perching under a bus shelter in Tarbert, Harris on a very wet, misty, miserable Sunday in July). I got a really sore bum and the pages curled with damp, but it was worth it.


Click to view on Amazon

Click to view on Amazon



5. If you like longer novels, and classics, here’s one I really enjoyed, Germinal by Émile Zola. This is the English translation from the original French. A favourite author of mine. When Zola died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a stopped chimney in 1902, angry crowds marched through Paris chanting the title of this novel. Find out why by reading this edition with its fascinating introduction.


Click to view on Amazon

Click to view on Amazon



Now I’m going to cheat and add a sixth because I can’t not include Scottish author, Janice Galloway’s brilliant This is Not About Me, set in the 50s and 6os.

Click to view on Amazon

Click to view on Amazon



Thank you to Eddie in Glasgow for suggesting a brilliant addition to my list. Fup, A Modern Fable by Jim Dodge. I think anyone who liked ‘Go With Me’  by Castle Freeman, which I recommended in January, will also love this one. And it’s got a duck in it. 


February 20, 2009 by

A sneak preview of the sound work I am making based on recordings of Neil MacKay of Helmsdale. The “numbers” in the recording were recorded in Helmsdale on May 07th 1964, and the rest of the music was added yesterday. This track will probably be edited down and remixed from it’s current mix and length by a couple of minutes, but I thought I’d post this slightly rougher version of it so you know where my head is at.

You can hear the results below!

And in the video below you can see where I recorded the melodica section! (apologies for quality)

Writing Group

February 18, 2009 by

Have a look at the following page to see what the writing group has been doing:

We’ll have another audio file coming soon too. 

It’s not too late to join the group if you would like to come along for our last session, just turn up on Tuesday 24th February. We’ll be meeting from 7-9 PM at Timespan. Everyone over 12 is welcome and no writing experience is needed. I never force anyone to read their work out loud if they don’t want to, because for a long time I never liked doing that myself. Next week we will be visiting the ice house for inspiration and it should be a really fun evening. Bring warm clothes!



The Helmsdale Planets Suite

February 18, 2009 by

And yes, some of them are supposed to be upside down!

Studies around the Brora Icehouse down the road

February 17, 2009 by


February 16, 2009 by

I have been looking at the way in which the ice up the strath splits and flings itself downstream. Sometimes these are in quite standard geometric shapes, squares, triangles, hexagons sometimes. I watched them for an hour or two on Sunday morning from various bridges 7-8 miles upstream from the Icehouse. I wanted to see what local ice was like, given that little of it used to be used in the icehouse. This stuff is far too thin and thaws out in no time at all. But occasionally, just occasionally, you’ll see a really great anomaly in the shapes. One of these pictures I am sure, shows an ice fracture that through glacial motion and continental drift, has become the State of California.

Day Trip to Embo and Dornoch

February 14, 2009 by

Six-Word Workshops

February 11, 2009 by

A modest cluster of brave souls battled the snow and ice to make it to Eleanor’s first creative writing workshop at Timespan yesterday. Some had phoned in to say they were stuck in Gartymore, which is just up the hill, but very icy for cars and folk alike. We were going to pull the plug, but were saved at the last minute by daughter-mum team Heather and Lisa. Inspired by the accessible nature of flash fiction, microstories and the like, Eleanor designed a workshop around the concept of six-word stories based on the the Hemingway bet that he could write a novel in six words which became:

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn

So we decided to have a go ourselves, firstly brainstorming on a large sheet of paper (below).


Then we distilled the chaos into several six word stories / statements / headlines.

You can hear the results below!

Driving North February 7th 2009

February 11, 2009 by

Images taken mainly from the car window. All somewhere between Glasgow and Helmsdale.











January 31, 2009 by

The ice house is 185 years old.
It is thought to have been built in 1824 though the exact date is unsure
1824 seconds are equal to 30 minutes and 24 seconds (1800 seconds in half an hour)
1824 minutes are equal to 30 hours and 24 minutes

Can you identify…?

January 30, 2009 by

I always get lost on my way to visit the archives at The School of Scottish Studies. The place is tucked away like something mislaid, hidden in the corner of an an old terraced house in George Square, part of Edinburgh University. You’ll find it up some stairs, through a library, behind a locked door, up some more stairs. Anyone can make an appointment, but I bet most people arrive late and a little disorientated. It’s probably a pain for the archivist, but this isn’t a bad state of mind to be in when you’re about to delve into the wonders of the sound archive. It’s the closest thing to time travel I’ve ever experienced.

I’ve used the sound archive twice before, once for my work on ingressive pulmonic speech, and again researching The Tin-Kin. Nothing has changed. Shelves holding huge leather books cover one wall. Each book is indexed on the spine. They begin some time in the 1950s in the top left corner of the room, and are ordered chronologically. On the opposite wall are more books and boxes of cassette tapes. These are recent recordings. A filing system fills the entire third wall, and opposite, across the huge table in the middle of the room, are two windows overlooking The Meadows. At a smaller desk under the windows there are two reel to reel machines, a computer, and a tape recorder; in a box on the left, tangled headsets. 

I do a keyword search, and in seconds am presented with a series of numbers which correspond to certain books. I scribble down the numbers.




I look for the first volume. Top left corner of the room. 1951…52…54…56…

1957 is bound in maroon leather and it slips easily from its place on the shelf. I open it at the huge table, and without bothering to pull out a chair, peel through the pages. When I find 0.51 I lay my finger on the top of the smooth paper and let it run over the print. Recorded 17-23/08/1957 /Hamish Henderson/ Portree-Wick-HELMSDALE 

The process of finding is a drip-drip of information, each step hinting at what might come next. It’s exciting wondering where each trail will lead. I take all the numbers to Caroline, who brings the tapes up from a store. The old ones, which need to be threaded onto the reel to reel, have to reach room temperature before use. I telephone Chris to discuss what I hope we’ve just found. I read and look out the window, and occasionally I glance at the small, square boxes, waiting for the past to warm up. I have a good feeling about today.

One by one, I go through the recordings. Two contain songs, one an interview, and two more are a combination of songs, stories and material from a linguistic survey carried out in the mid 1960s. I listen right the way through. Closing my eyes, I am in a living room somewhere in Helmsdale with an old man and a wife making tea. I can hear her placing the cups on the saucers. Every fifteen minutes, half a century ago, a clock chimes on the mantlepiece.

The interviewer is a posh voice, probably dressed in tweed. He prompts a man to say a long list of words, most of which rhyme. They go through these long lists in a systematic way. Sometimes they slurp tea.

Eat. Heat. Beat.

Gate. Great. Grate. 

“Mmm hmm,” says the interviewer after each word. He sounds like a doctor doing a medical examination. 

Catch. Cat. Caught.

The Helmsdale man goes over some words quickly. Other times he stops and explains himself. “Round here we say this… That’s how we say it.” This man’s name is Neil Mackay and he was obviously a fisherman from Helmsdale. His wife, Mrs Mackay sings Gaelic songs. She has a beautiful voice.

Chris and I would like to hear from anyone who can help us find Mr and Mrs Neil Mackay or their descendants. 

We would also like to contact the following people who sing or speak on the recordings:

Colin MacDonald

Hugh MacDonald (A fireman on the railway, born in Brora but lived in Helmsdale, recorded in 1957).

If you can help us find any of these people or their relatives, please get in touch!

We are bringing the recordings to Helmsdale and anyone interested will be able to listen to them at Timespan. Chris hopes to use them in the Seance Project.




War Memorial Clock and Back of Icehouse Video

January 25, 2009 by

The Sound of The Icehouse / Ellie’s Podcast

January 20, 2009 by

Eleanor tends to post words and I tend to post pictures. This is the first sound post. Below is a button. If you press play, you will hear me doing some sound tests in the ice house made on the 13th January in the afternoon. I am basically going la-la-la-la- but at one point it sounds like I am saying “Allah” – I am referring to “A La” as opposed to any creator. But you never know. If you listen very carefully at around 50 seconds, you can hear a crow outside and then some wind later. Problems? Try download here


Just before and just after our research week in Sutherland I was putting the finishing touches to a podcast I did for Eleanor for her book launch in March. We are both really proud of it. And because we presented some of it at our Art Ceilidh I thought you might like to hear it on the stream below.  Problems? Try download here


January 18, 2009 by

Our little car made it through miles of snow and ice, and we are back safe in Glasgow. Gus has been fed and he is now sitting on the sofa, quite content. At this very moment, outside our tenement flat, someone is walking along the pavement singing opera. He’s actually pretty good! 

Keep in touch, and so will we.




A Man of One Word

January 18, 2009 by


Day 7

January 17, 2009 by

Today is the last day of our research week in Helmsdale. Tomorrow we’ll be going back to Glasgow where we will be thinking about the project and visiting archives, but we will return on February 9th for a month. I put that bit in bold because really, we don’t want to go. We have fallen in love with Helmsdale and Sutherland, and you’ve made us feel so welcome. We’d much prefer to stay and continue working with the lovely people we’ve met, while the winds whoop at the door. There’s still so much we haven’t done. I can’t wait to explore the mountains and get out and about a bit more. But… for now we have to get home to feed our cat, Gus. The great thing is, he’s coming with us to Helmsdale in February. Here he is:

At 7pm this evening, while gusts of wind howled off the sea and whipped over the village, Chris met a handful of brave Helmies to reveal his thoughts so far. If you couldn’t be there, below is something of what you missed, taken from Chris’s notes. Pictures may be uploaded later if Chris is not too busy.






If you were here on Wednesday night for the Art Ceilidh, you might have heard me describe myself with a word I had altered or tweaked. A newspaper once said I was a polymath, and because maths is my weakest discipline of all, I decided to call myself “polymash” instead, with the mash bit reminding me of mashed potato. And I think mashed potato is friendlier than algebra. So you see, I flirt with words. 

Some of my past projects have been anagrams – I once did a songwriting residency in a seaside building in Brighton called Embassy Court. I decided to name all the songs on anagrams of Embassy Court; ‘Come Stars Buy’, ‘A Yes to Crumbs’, and ‘A Mob Curtseys’, and the project was poetically titled “As Ruby’s Comet”. I developed my ideas around these anagrams. Sometimes, and it’s great when it happens, anagrams will take you further to the truth.

Here’s an example. I did a tour of a close in Edinbugh’s Royal Mile – Advocate’s Close. I named the project SELECT AVOCADOS, an anagram of Advocate’s Close. Little did I know that the word Advocate is partly derived from Avocados, and as a result, Avocados appeared in my show.

I’ve got a good feeling about this one, which is going to be the title of my project in the Icehouse.

So all I have for you so far is a word. And it’s a word you’ve heard before, although I am tweaking the pronunciation of it. I think it’s a pretty good word, mind.

I am interested in the word Seance, usually used when people want to make contact with the dead. But I am also interested in how people are in touch with the living. So between February and April, my work will involve contributions from people in Helmsdale and the surrounding rivers and sea.

I am pronouncing the project SEA-ance, not SAY-ance… and I am contacting the living. Ok, maybe i’ll invite the dead around for tea too. In archives and museums, and in Heritage centres like Timespan, the work is to bring the past to life. To be detectives, archeologists, snoops, stirrers and communicators, plugging ourselves into the past, not through second sight but through interviews, births deaths and marriage certificates, voting registers, local tax registers, old photographs, old films, sound archives and so on. It’s not as romantic or dramatic as having Derek Acorah or any other spirit medium of the moment doing a seance, but the work of these kind of centres, with your co-operation, generates a different and useful seance.

I am interested in how the word seance has the word SEA in it. It’s as if any project revolving around that word has something of the ‘essence’ of the sea. Seance even sounds a bit like “essence”.

So it’s about the sea, and it’s a meeting of minds, past and present. This is the kind of seance or “SEAance” I want to incorporate into a piece of art for the ice house. A living one.

At the time of writing this mini talk, I realised there was another reason I like the word seance. An anagram of it is “CAN SEE” and even better, it can also form the words “A Scene”, so I’m on a roll here. A roll mop Herring.

I want to tell you a little about other things that I’ve thought about this week. I’ve been very interested in the idea that salt melts ice, but both salt and ice can preserve many types of fish. Taking this further, the sea contains both salt and water. So I may go down a bit of a scientific route with my SEAnce also.

In terms of what I’ll actually make, I’ve got to check out some costings and feasibility of doing something in a damp icehouse and a dry gallery. But it will probably involve me making weird music and films like you saw a little of on Wednesday night. I thought it might also be fun to exhibit some of the ways I’ve been thinking about the Icehouse, So I call this bit “showing my working out…”

* I was struck by how few local people had seen inside the ice house. I may make a film in there, looking at unusual marks in the stones, and make a special soundtrack to go with this.

* I photographed parts of the walls using a strong torch, and these small studies revealed glittering slithers, and haunting eyes. These could be lit and framed, with myths assigned to each one.

*The outside of the building suggests a circle, or part of a circle.

* I could take someone to Norway, and drill down to collect a block of ice the same age as the ice house (1824), then bring it back and film it melting in the ice house.

* I thought of making a temple to salmon, with the central piece being a giant fly hook – so we get the salmon’s view point. The eyes of the fly would be speakers and we would fill the space with sound. The acoustics in there are great.

*I am interested in fossil fishes

*Perhaps we will make a horror film

* I was thinking of the effects of ice, and the risk of frostbite for the people who worked with the fish and the ice. Perhaps I will photograph or recreate frostbitten hands, and could even display these in ice boxes.

*I would love to create a record with a series of tracks (some spoken word, some drones, some environmental sounds), and on a series of wind up players anyone could use this as a kind of ‘kit’ to create their own musical mix. In the ice house itself, a soundtrack may be created to be picked up on wind up torch radios.

*Photographing the river, I discovered faces in almost every shot, appearing like spirits in the spray. This is called paradolia, and it is the ability to see faces in landscapes, water, trees, brickwork, or anything at all. It’s similar to the game children play, looking for shapes in clouds. The photos can be displayed, with panels showing you where to look.

Just to add…

January 16, 2009 by

If anyone was wondering about our banner picture, we learned tonight that the piper with the great hair is called Tom and he was growing his hair for a year for a bet. The year ended on Wednesday, so the afro is no more!


Day 6

January 16, 2009 by

I thought you might like to know that while on our travels we’ve been listening to wonderful Danish folktronica band Po:

Click here to find out more about Po!

Also, I’ve been reading a great short novel by American writer Castle Freeman, called Go With Me. It’s a bit of a thriller and is set in rural woods of Vermont, in a small community, perhaps the size of Helmsdale – or at least that’s how I imagined it. The dialogue is breathtakingly good, and the locations slightly reminded me of Twin Peaks, which is a favourite of myself and Chris. Click here to find out more.

So, today I do some reading and we sit by the fire in The Bridge Hotel while Chris goes over ideas and has some thinking time. Tomorrow (Saturday), there will be an event at 7pm where Chris will reveal more about what is going to happen in April, when the exhibition opens. We’ll also be doing some workshops in February and March. More details soon on that…

While we are working we see Jill, the fisherwoman we met earlier in the week. She has had another successful day fishing. I remember the rowan tree story she told us earlier in the week, which I was too tired to put on the blog at the time! It is a local story, and it would be interesting to hear from anyone that knows more about this. I’ve learnt this week that Helmies have long memories, so perhaps you know where it happened. 

On a croft not far from here, it must have been close to a century ago, there lived a man and his wife, and they had seven children. For every child born, the man planted a rowan tree, so that eventually, by the time the man and his wife were old and grey, they had seven rowan trees standing in a row. Some of the children lived and sadly some of them did not. The family lost one to the railroad and two to the sea; several never came back from the war. That was the way of things. The man noticed that whenever he and his wife lost a child, one of the rowan trees would also die. But one of the children, a girl, would outlive all the others. She became an old woman herself, a mother and later a grandmother, and then a great grandmother. Ninety years passed by in a blink. 

An old croft standing alone at the end of a dusty, potholed track; a perfect place for a fishing holiday. Jill didn’t catch a fish today but she doesn’t mind. She is at the window, watching the sunset, when she notices a car turning off the road, bumping up the lane to the house. Behind the wheel is a man and he must be about thirty years old. He doesn’t seem to be lost because he parks the car and without a moment’s pause he’s opening the gate and coming up the path to the house. He takes a step back when Jill opens the door, and begins to tell her the story, this story I am telling you now.

A few moments later, Jill and the man are walking across the land behind the croft. The man looks around the place as if he has been here before, but perhaps not for many years, and maybe it is not quite the same anymore and he feels out of place or just a little sad. His grandmother was born in this house. She is very unwell, the man says. I don’t think she will make it though the night. When they reach the one remaining rowan tree, the trunk has split in two and twisted. The wood inside is damp and part of the tree lies already on the ground at their feet. 

“I thought so,” the man says and he puts his hands in the pockets of his coat and takes a deep breath. “I thought so.”




Day 5

January 16, 2009 by

The blog seems already to have grown very long, and it reads backwards, which I find a bit annoying. If I can work out how to turn it upside down I might do that. I’m a total novice at this, and Chris is busy with lots of other work, so please have patience while I am learning.


We begin the day with a long but fascinating interview with one of Helmsdale’s oldest residents, Geordie, who remembers the ice house when it was still in use. He came to Helmsdale as a railway worker, and speaks of how much he enjoyed that life. 

Over tea, Geordie recalls large blocks of ice arriving from Wick. They were covered in cloth. The blocks were hauled to the top of the ice house before being dropped into it from a hatch in the roof. The roof of the ice house was very high, and when the ice dropped it would hit the flagstone floor and shatter with “an almighty crash!” The crushed ice was then packed into boxes with the fish, and could preserve it all summer.

For a short spell in the 1950s the ice house was used for a rather different purpose. Geordie laughs as he tells us of the enterprising Mr McMillan, who turned up one day out of nowhere and opened a fish and chip shop in it. There has never been any power in the ice house, so the shop was run on tilley lamps and a coal fire.

“Clouds of smoke would come billowing out of the door”, Geordie tells us.
“Did the chips taste of smoke?” I ask.
“Oh,” he says. “Everything, everything tasted of smoke!”

Thank you very much to Geordie for meeting us. We could listen to his stories for hours, and later we may post a small sound clip so you can hear his lovely accent (if he doesn’t mind).

Later, we take a trip to Brora and Golspie. We stop off at the distillery and Chris takes some great pictures just as the light is dying. The old buildings, which look quite empty, are particularly appealing. We’d like to arrange a visit. 

The other highlight of the day is a chat with Elizabeth at the post office. She remembers a Travelling family called Wilson in the area in the 1950s or 1960s. The Travellers in my family that came from Sutherland were also Wilsons, and very likely would have been cousins. Elizabeth remembers them selling pegs.

Finally, you may be interested to know that we have an international readership already. I’ve just had an email from Matthew in Massachusetts! 




Thank You!

January 15, 2009 by

A big thank you to the people of Helmsdale (Helmsdalians?) for making the art ceilidh such a great night.

It was a lovely evening for us. We had a really friendly, open-minded audience, who made us feel so welcome, and it was an excellent turn out of about 35 people.  

If you couldn’t make it, here’s what you missed:

1. Half way up the stairs, Chris showed a meditative video installation called Sambogakaya. 

2. At the top of the stairs Chris exhibited a piece of work that is four things in one:- 

Celtic Giraffe


Copy of his dead grandmother’s fibula

A humpback whale swimming left (or right)

4. In the exhibition room, Chris introduced himself and thanked everyone for choosing us for the ice house residency. He gave a short introduction to his work and spoke about ‘accidental art’. We watched an extract from a film he made for a project in Edinburgh, which featured a very artistic tar spillage. 

We also saw an extract from a film made for the town of Huntly, part of their Halloween in Huntly celebrations a few years ago. The film is all shot in the Aberdeenshire countryside, and features derelict houses similar to those we saw in Gartymore the other day. Animal characters wear beautiful masks made by previously mentioned Cath Whippy. They sway and caper to a haunting remix of the soundtrack from The Wicker Man, 1973. 

Chris finished by singing an unaccompanied song called Aviaphobia, and told everyone all about his paranoid fear of flying. We discovered that someone in the village has a flight simulator under the stairs, and we may arrange some therapy sessions in it for Chris next month.

3. Local girl, Natalie Sutherland, performed two Highland dances.

I really enjoyed this. I grew up in England, and when I was a little I’d visit relatives in Elgin in the school holidays. I watched the ‘big girls’ dancing at the Highland Games with great admiration, whining that I wanted to learn, but it wasn’t meant to be. They say you can do anything you want in London, but Highland dancing is definitely an exception! I still love watching the dancing though, and Natalie was fantastic.

4. After drinks and something to eat, I spoke about my novel, The Tin-Kin.

Click here for info, and here for some other writing related things on my website. The novel comes out in March and is based on some stories from my mother’s Travelling family. Half of them lived along the East coast of Sutherland, the others around Invernesshire, Morayshire and Banffshire. I passed round a photo of Travellers living in a cave close to Hopeman in about 1890 and read a passage from the book. Chris and I were also very proud to be premiering some audio recordings from the book that we made with local people in Elgin last week. 

Thanks to the following people of Elgin for helping to make the recordings, and for starring in Helmsdale last night:-

Anna Smith (as Wee Betsy)

John Eddie (as Jock)

My aunt, Helen Wilson (as Auld Betsy)

5. Piper, James Kelly played a great set of tunes. We will probably try and get him in for some experimental electronica pipe music next month.

6. Storyteller, Lorna Jappy, finished off with the suitably spooky story of Helmsdale Castle.





The First of Many Galleries (hopefully!)

January 15, 2009 by

I’ll not say much in these posts yet. I’ll leave that to the wife. I mean girlfriend. Here are some nice diary snaps so far.

Day 4

January 14, 2009 by

As far as I am aware, we had no spooky apparitions last night. Today is Wednesday, which means tonight is the Art Ceilidh will be happening at 7pm in Timespan. We’re looking forward to it, but we’re also a bit nervous, hoping there will be some sort of audience and that we won’t fluff up whatever we decide to do or say.

Everyone in Helmsdale is invited. Before we arrived in the village, posters had gone up on just about every window and pinboard. On the poster there is a picture of Chris standing in the hallway of our flat in Glasgow. He is wearing a jacket and his favourite green gloves, and is holding a mask of a wolf. The mask was made by a friend of ours, artist Kath Whippy, and the photo was taken by a photographer who visited us from London. Chris hates having his picture taken, so this poster is something of a rare artifact! It is quite strange to see it up in the window every time we walk into Timespan, or go to Spar for a pint of milk. But we hope it does the trick…

Chris goes to Timespan early to begin setting up the room. I do laundry, which I don’t mind. Ironing, no, but laundry I quite like. For lunch we have salad and quiche, but on his way to the flat to have lunch, Chris bumps into Sandy who owns the smokehouse. So we will have smoked Helmsdale herring for tea! I’m a bit jealous that I’ve missed the viewing of the smokehouse. Chris tells me that it is like a big oven inside.

At Timespan we black out the windows so it will be nice and dark for the video projection tonight. We move stuff around and pin things to the walls. Later on, trays of other delicious snacks appear. We also bring a box of Quality Street in from the car, a present to the people of Helmsdale from my Uncle Sandy and Auntie Nancy, who live in Elgin. They have already eaten all the purple ones though. And the green triangles.

More later…




Day 3 (part 2)

January 14, 2009 by

At two o’clock we are back in Timespan, meeting a sort of knitting and nattering group. The group, all women at the moment, began to meet a couple of years ago when Timespan were looking for anyone with an interest in reviving the local knitting patterns of the East Coast. This is demonstrated for us as they unfold two beautifully handcrafted, intricately patterned blankets. These are amongst the group’s many creations, some of which can now be commissioned, though the women here knit, quite clearly, for pleasure.

Initially the group had just a handful of ‘local patterns’ to work from – each one originating from an East Coast fishing village. Each square of the blanket bears a unique design. The Helmsdale pattern, for example, contains a double diamond. Others depict hearts and anchors. After extensive research, the group has discovered many more village patterns, each one identifying its wearer as a resident of a particular place. The tradition stretches right along the length of Britain, and one theory is that it came about so men could be identified after accidents at sea. The pattern acted as an address label, ensuring that despite tragedies, they would be returned home- to be laid to rest.

No one knows how far back the patterns began. The women in the group tell me this practice is now remembered only by grandmothers, women who were taught by their own grandmothers, who were taught in turn by their grandmothers. This group of women with their clicking needles, warm energy, and tea break at three o’clock, are recording and recreating every pattern they find, rescuing them like dropped stitches from the brink of obscurity.

Several members of the group, but one in particular, regularly uses something I’ve called ‘the Gaelic Gasp’ when speaking. Before writing fiction, I was a linguist, and I studied this mannerism for nearly a year. The technical name for it is Ingressive Pulmonic Speech, and anyone interested in reading my thesis on it can find it by typing my name in the search box at

I won’t say much about the Gaelic Gasp here, except that it is common in Scotland, and it has been here for centuries. You’ll know it when you hear it. Like the knitting patterns the women of Helmsdale are rescuing, it may soon disappear. It sounds like a gasp, because it is formed through speech using an in-breath, rather than the normal out-breath. In Scotland you’ll usually hear it on the word ‘aye’, perhaps by someone who is listening to a conversation. Today I also hear it many times on the word ‘no’. It also occurs in Scots Gaelic, and around the world in many languages, but particularly in Scandinavia, and anywhere that the Vikings settled.

In the late afternoon Chris looks at the photographic archive held at Timespan. I don’t look over his shoulder, though I’ll be keen to look at this wonderful collection later on in the week. Instead I read a book about witches and superstitions in the Highlands.

Later, Chris makes dinner while I lie in bed and read some more. We have salad, pasta and veggie sausages. Afterwards we go to the Bridge Hotel. It is becoming a habit. The biscuits are great.

While we have been delving into the past and keeping warm, others have been out fishing the river. We meet champion fisherwoman Jill Forsyth, who tells us how she’s seen the salmon spawning in November. They wriggle into narrow drainage ditches in the forest to do this. She has caught two fish today.  She also relates a haunting family story about rowan trees, which she leant from a local person years ago. I will save that one for later.




Day 3 (part 1)

January 13, 2009 by

In the early hours of the morning I am woken by something. I don’t know what. In our bedroom everything is silent, thanks to my earplugs, and it seems particularly dark. But nevertheless, something feels amiss. I prop myself on my elbow and look across to where Chris sleeps, and beyond it to the door, and I see a shadow quietly cross the room, slowly open the bedroom door, and slip through it into the kitchen. As neither of us are strangers to insomnia, I assume Chris has had to get up for something, and wait for him to turn the light on in the kitchen or the bathroom. A few moments pass and I am still waiting. No lights switch on. Everything is dark. On the bed to my left, I am sure the huddle is just blankets, and that Chris will be back in a moment. “Chris,” I say. No reply, but then, I do still have my earplugs in. Wondering, I reach over to the mound of blankets and instantly my hand finds Chris’s hand. He was in bed all the time, fast asleep, and his hand feels warm and relaxed. Not thinking too much of this, I roll over, make myself comfy, and go to sleep.

At half past ten we meet Lorna for a storytelling walk around the village. The sky is blue and almost cloudless, and we’re both pleased to get outside. The first stop on the tour is just outside Timespan’s building, facing The Bridge Hotel. The restaurant on the side of the building used to be a temperance hotel, we learn, where women and non-drinkers would stay.

We begin to cross the old bridge, which I now know is called The Telford bridge. Lorna says that it can still carry heavy traffic, despite its age, and I remember seeing a very large truck, a juggernaught, parked over it the night before. We stop roughly where the truck had been, and look down at the old Tollhouse, (which now contains the artist’s flat). “We are now standing at the scene of a murder,” Lorna says, and goes on to explain that a woman, many years ago, was crossing the bridge and she was attacked by a lunatic from up the Strath. He beat her with a shovel and ran away, and the woman was dragged into the Tollhouse, where sadly nothing could be done for her, and she bled to death.

“I’ve never seen anything unusual in the Timespan building,” Lorna tells us. But she has seen three other ghosts.

I think of the shadow crossing our bedroom and quietly slipping through the door. Something happened. I’d felt the need to reach over to touch Chris’s hand, to know he was there. Was I dreaming or did I really see something?

“We’ll keep our eyes peeled,” I say.

We do a circular walk. Above the ice house we notice the runrigs marking out the land families were once allotted – a place to keep a cow and grow some food, but not so much land that they did not need to work as well, Lorna tells us. Chris is very interested to know more about the clearances, and we decide to visit a place called Gartymore, just over the hills, which Lorna says is full of deserted houses and crofts.

Lorna tells us a wonderful story about the castle, the ruins of which were swept away by road planners in the early 1970s.  We stand and imagine the place, and Lorna brings to life the story of a murderess and her failed poison plot. I love the details, the long oak table, the chalice half-full, the lord who saved his son by upturning the table with his last burst of strength, and the time it took the lord and his pregnant wife to die; twelve terrible days. The murderess was sent to Edinburgh to be hung, but she took her own life the night before the sentence was to be carried out.

We buy sandwiches for lunch, make a flask of tea, and drive up to Gartymore. It does not take long to find what we are looking for. Chris loves these places, windswept graveyards of homes, all roofless, with gaping holes for windows. Their emptiness deforms them, like teapots with missing lids. They are beautiful, but strange and sad. Through one window is a bedroom, scraps of green and white wallpaper, a fireplace, and the head of an old iron bedstead. Further up the road the foot of the bed is now a gate; behind it a field of sheep. I’m struck by the clean air, the silence, and the colours. The views of the mountains are spectacular. Looking out to sea, the naked eye can see as far as Buckie on a clear day, if the sun hits in just the right place.

Day 3 to be continued…




Day 2

January 13, 2009 by

The fishermen are awake before we are. Perhaps they never went to bed. When we cross the bridge at half past nine they are already milling around and full of energy. In the car park every vehicle has a fishing rod attached to the bonnet, or poking from a rolled-down window.  The river is ‘opened’ today, as it is every January, with a ceremony just outside Timespan’s building. This means the salmon fishing season begins. We wonder if this is made to coincide with the full moon.

The children from Helmsdale Primary School join the crowd soon after we get there. There are about thirty children in the school, which is large compared to some schools in Sutherland, Ruth explains. One school nearby has only six pupils, another only three.

The ceremony kicks off with the Sutherland School’s Pipe Band. A short speech is given before a lone piper follows a local notable down to the riverbank. The piper plays with gusto (surely scaring the fish away), while the first cast is made.  The line floats in the current for a few seconds before the fisherman begins winding it back. Looking over his shoulder he announces, “that’s it,” and within minutes the village is empty. The green-clad crowd have all scattered, each to his or her respective beat.

We decide it is time we took a look inside the ice house. First we purchase a thermos flask, a corkscrew (for our own use!) a torch, and another bright light from the hardware shop. A key is then fetched from Timespan to unlock the rusty padlock on the gate in front of the ice house. The green door beyond it is invitingly ajar.

The ice house, used in days-gone-by to preserve herring and the salmon catch, is built into a hill behind the river. It was constructed in 1824. The face of the building is flat, with a circular shape to the top, and the sides curl round at the front. The pattern of the stonework, large blocks flanked by vertical lines of smaller bricks, reminds me of a computer game involving ladders, but I can’t remember the name. Chris tells me it is Manic Minor.

To the side of the door there is a small, square window, boarded, and grass covers the roof which is twenty to thirty feet above us.  A little path leads from the gate to the door, and to the right of the path there is a rabbit, recently deceased. It lies on its side in a position that suggests a leap, and its ear is still pink, its fur wet with rain. We look to the top of the ice house, a cliff face to a rabbit, and wonder if it was suicide. I am reminded of a place in Canada where the foothills of the Rocky Mountains begin to rise from the prairie. The grisly name of this spot, which I had to Google, is Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. Here the Blackfoot tribe of Native American Indians skilfully drove herds of buffalo to their deaths, the men covering themselves with skins so they could live amongst the animals for weeks before tricking them, running them over a steep cliff. There was no waste. Every part of the buffalo was used. Skins made blankets, clothing and tents. Flesh was eaten. Bones made tools. Even the nose was put to use – Blackfoot children chewed it like bubblegum.

I look back at the unfortunate Helmsdale rabbit. Perhaps it was not suicide after all, but the work of some very cunning foxes.

Inside, the ice house is damp and dripping. Its conical structure seems to go up forever and the acoustics are fantastic. We hum notes in harmony and Chris sweeps his torch over the walls. Wet stones glitter silver like the salmon they once stored. Chris wonders what the walls contain and if samples could be sent to the city for analysis.

I leave Chris singing and musing and I walk  back to Timespan to visit their archives. An hour passes as I get absorbed in a very detailed description of ‘salmonidae’ in British Freshwater Fishes, by The Rev. W. Houghton M.A. F.L.S. The large, brown book has gold lettering on the cover and a picture of a bearded man cradling a large catch. In each corner of the book there is a swirled design incorporating three fishes, and inside there are beautiful coloured plates of fish. The chapter on salmon begins thus:


“Dr Gunther has well remarked that ‘the Salmonidae’ and the vast literature on this family offer so many and so great difficulties to the ichthyologist, that as much patience and time are required for the investigation of a single species as in other fishes for that of a whole family.”


I have yet to look up the word ‘Ichthyologist’, a word that surely must be fishy, but that I can’t help but read as ‘someone who studies itches’. In a slightly less baffling paragraph the book lists a wonderful array of alternative names for the salmon. My favourites are ‘pink’, ‘samlet’, ‘brandling’, ‘fingerling’ ‘black-tip’, ‘hepper’, ‘jenkins’ and ‘baggit’.

It is three hours before a hungry, red-cheeked Chris returns from the ice house. We chat to Ruth a little more and learn about her work. It is as gruelling as it sounds, but there is also something I find really appealing about it. She is making a sort of wooden cocoon and plans to carry it on her back like a snail from one side of Sutherland to the other, using it as a boat where necessary, and sleeping in it at night, curled up tight. I wonder how she will keep warm.

We go back to the flat. Chris shows me his notebook, where he has made sketches of early ideas for the space. We are both excited by the acoustic potential, but he also has in mind a large sculpture of a fisherman’s fly in beautiful colours, and has taken some haunting pictures by torchlight which reveal unusual shapes and glimmers in the walls.

We think about presenting something from the salmon’s perspective. I wonder what goes through a salmon’s mind. I remember my first swimming lessons and how the water, once I was completely submerged, made me so conscious of my own outline; everything else disappeared. Perhaps a salmon has the same experience? I go back to British Freshwater Fishes, and learn that salmon have four kinds of fins and something called pyloric appendages, as well as a snout. I tell Chris about the book and he likes the following poem by Roman writer Ausonius. It is presented in Latin and in two very different translations, the first, more literal one by the author.


Version 1:

“Nor will I pass over thee, O Salmon,

Blushing with thy red flesh,

the roving strokes of whose broad tail

are born from the middle of the stream to the top of the water,

at such time as the hidden lash betrays itself on the calm surface.

Thou, clothed in scaly armour, slippery as to thy fore part,

and able to constitute a remove for a most excellent dinner,

dost bear keeping fresh for a long time;

thou art conspicuous with they spotted head;

thy full paunch trembles,

and thy belly overflows with abdominal fat.”



Version 2:

“Nor I thy scarlet belly will omit,

O Salmon, whose broad tail with whisking strokes,

Bears tehe up from the bottom of the stream

Quick to the surface: and the secret lash

Below, betrays thee in the placid deep.

Arm’d in thy flaky mail, thy glossy snout

Slippery escapes the fisher’s fingers; else

Thau makest a feast for nicest-judging palates;

And yet long uncorrupted thou remainest:

With spotted head remarked, and wavy spread

Of paunch immense o’erflowing wide with fat.”

            Anonymous (Brit. Zool. iii. P. 383-4, ed. 1812.)



By evening we are both exhausted. After a dinner of mince, tatties, broccoli, carrots and sprouts, we cross the road to The Bridge Hotel, where the owners have very kindly agreed we can use the internet. We collapse into very comfortable sofas and order beer, coffee and home made biscuits. While we get tapping on our laptops, the fishermen gather to drink and celebrate.

The first salmon of the season has been caught, and we’re told it is indeed, immense. 




Day 1

January 12, 2009 by

It is the eleventh day of 2009 and the day’s last light is clasped in a fistful of cloud, held aloft just over Helmsdale. This is our first glimpse of the place. I speak about the views while Chris drives. There is no snow here, though we have come prepared; heavy coats and thermal vests. We found the weather we expected hours back, south of Inverness. Snow-speckled mountains resembled sleeping seals. We passed them by and they slept on. We came out the other side and found it clear and bright.

Our well-packed hire car crosses the bridge into the village and we park it on the main street. The village is different to how I’d imagined it would be. I expected a straight line of houses, a road in and a road out. But Helmsdale spreads itself across the river and up the hill. There are a number of businesses, among them a hardware store, a fishing tackle shop, a gift shop, a bank, a post office and grocers. We notice three or four pubs, a fish and chip shop and a restaurant. There are corners and shadowy lanes between houses, and beneath another, older bridge, the river roars darkly. A clock tower chimes over the water. At our feet, Chris points out a crab claw lying in the gutter.

We find Timespan. It is a large, Nordic-looking building on the banks of the river. The doors are wooden and decorated with fish. This is the museum and heritage centre where we will be working and living while Chris creates a new piece of work celebrating the village’s ice house, and I finish my second novel.  We are met by Ruth, the artist in residence, who tells us she does environmental art and that much of it involves ‘endurance’. I wonder if this is as gruelling as it sounds.

The flat is warm, white and minimal, the opposite of our cluttered, dusty home. It is in the older part of the Timespan building, the lower floor of what was once the tollhouse of the old bridge. It has everything we need and nothing else but space. The modern doors close with an efficient click and we unpack a brand new microwave in which to heat up our dinner. Ruth has left us a bottle of wine, some kettle chips, and a local newspaper with the front page headline ‘Fish Farm Slammed Over Latest Escape.’

Before bed we go for a walk, and notice that the fishing tackle shop is still open. It seems to be doing good business. Men in tweed caps and waders stroll along the pavement under the light of the full moon. They congregate in the shop. There is a feeling of anticipation over what the morning will bring, which we realise is not just our own.





January 11, 2009 by


We are artist, Chris Dooks and writer, Eleanor Thom. Normally resident in Glasgow, we have journeyed to Helmsdale in Sutherland because Chris has been commissioned to produce a new piece of work to celebrate the village’s historic ice house. 

This is a daily account of our experiences in Helmsdale, as artist in residence, and accompanying writer. Here you can stalk us as we go about our daily lives in Helmsdale, and witness our random thoughts and inklings as they crash and burn or develop into fully fledged projects.

We invite you to be there at the beginning!