Wednesday, November 23, 2022


I devised the word-mntn poem while I was on an intermittent tour of Scotland, the road north, guided by Basho's oku-no-hosomichi, in 2010-11

The form itself is a simple pattern poem, or visual poem, using the letters a name offers. I've drawn hundreds of these poems on square paper, creating archives of mountain ranges, marilyns and corbetts. 

The word-mntn was a way to enter the detail of language and letters, seeing how a name falls into a pyramidal form, using a simple rule. There were reminders of the connections that exist between languages and landscapes, and where they differ. 

A big hill may have a small name, and vice-versa. 

The word-mntn was also a journey into the Gaelic landscape and, as time passed, I began to add place-aware translation of the names at the foot of each label. Through them I was entering a different mental perception of the uplands and becoming aware of names as an ecological record.

The labels themselves are everyday parcel tags. I add a rubber stamp rectangle to each, creating a holding space. In a vague way this is influenced by Chinese and Japanese paintings and woodblocks. 

I call these 'poem-labels'. Since the road north I've used them to write poetry in places. The labels were where the word-mntn became more than a minimal poem. Returning the names to their places introduced the lyricism of weather and outline. And I was there, in wild places.

The poems emerge from an experience of disability. I couldn't walk up mountains, but I was determined to continue to make art in wild places. Poetry, the arrangement of letters, the offering of the name to its outline, was a way to renew a relationship with the landscape. I could point my camera at the hill and frame the skyline I'd never walk. 

What emerged was a renewed sense of belonging and a gentle sense of purpose. Where the Munroist ticks of a limited number of summits, I had the advantage of an infinity of hill names and views to play with–and it was playful. 

The one thing that isn’t available to the hiker on a summit is the form of a mountain. I fell in love with silhouettes and outlines, which Gaelic culture saw as shoulders, herdsmen, tits, cocks, and noses. I loved the ways in which those forms altered depending where one was looking from. I saw Schiehallion reveal itself, or herself, as a mother mountain from particular viewpoints.

The word-mntn were so transportable that I began to ask friends if they'd send me word-mntn from places they visited, or lived, whether these were taken up on the snowy peaks, or showed the view of a volcano in Iceland. Alistair Peebles made a survey of the hills of Orkney. The word-mntn form allowed him to see the islands in new ways. 

Those early word-mntn photographs gave birth to the idea of mapping mountain culture on Skye, from ground level, in collaboration with Emma Nicolson and Luke Allan. The little form I'd happened on was growing into a practice of place-awareness. Viewing was an alternative to constrained walking. I could make art about mountains without climbing them.

For Còmhlan Bheanntan, A Company of Mountains, I added the conspectus visual poem, a view in a circle, made from place-names. The single alignment of the poem-label, which allowed me to connect ancient viewpoints on duns, evolved into the circular sweep those viewpoints offer. Names allowed all this to happen. The week Emma and I drove around Skye, in her jeep with her labradoodle in the back, discovering views from ancient duns, was crucial in two ways: I perceived an ancient culture of viewing that looked up to mountains from accessible viewpoints, and I recognised that these creative approaches arose in my own adaptation to disability–a term I’d avoided until then.

This then is a small selection of word-mntn, some my own, some made with friends, including Lesley Punton, Ken Cockburn, Alistair Peebles, Pat Law, Louise Emslie, Alison Lloyd, Claudia Zeske, Amy Todman, Luke Allan, Emma Nicolson, Astrid Johnson, and others I may have forgotten.


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