In July 2011 Cape Farewell embarked on a month-long expedition by boat across the Scottish Islands, bringing the notion and experience of expedition home to the UK, with an exploration of island ecologies and cultures, and of the strategies for sustainable and resilient futures being implemented across the Scottish Isles. More ›

The Crew

The expedition crew of 40 includes island artists, storytellers, film makers, playwrights, architects, designers, musicians, community leaders, social scientists, ecologists, marine biologists, oceanographers, poets, acclaimed Gaelic singers and a chef.
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Video highlights

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Barra – Memory and Landscape (Back to the Future)

As we sail into Castelbay a familiar environment gradually reveals itself. This is the island of my mother (nee. MacNeil) before she moved to Glasgow in the early 60s. And of my Grandparents and many generations before them, possibly as far back as the 13h Century. This is the island of childhood Summer holidays. I see the house my grandfather built, and the croft where my grandparents had sheep and hens, grew potatoes and carrots, and had a small clinker-built boat for lobster & crab fishing – a traditional island life, tough but mostly self-sufficient.

We are on Song of the Whale, a 74ft sailing boat equipped with hydro-phonic equipment that records and tracks the sounds of fish and sea mammals. I am with a group of artists, scientists and sailors who are passionate and critical about how we live in relation to our environment. As we sail we exchange ideas and observations. I begin to see how people respond to the same thing or place in different ways. This is an important aspect of the trip for me as it not only deepens my understanding of what I am looking at, but also highlights the complexity involved in the actual process of looking at an object, image or place.

Likewise it has also been the case that when expert knowledge is pitted against local knowledge that the two stories don’t match up! This makes me realise that notions of veracity and value may be more fluid than we often think.

As we motor towards our mooring place, the medieval Kisimul Castle becomes the dominant presence within the bay. It functions as a solid link to the past; a mnemonic object as well as a witness to the constant shifts and changes over time. Behind Castlebay, Ben Heavel rises up as a dramatic and protective backdrop. And between Heavel and the sea, houses, hotels and public buildings begin to describe the community that lives here.

As I absorb this scene, childhood memories unlock; climbing Heavel, fishing under the pier, digging for cockles, trying to forget stories about ghosts and ‘unexplained events’ before going to bed, being thrown about by giant Atlantic waves, testing boundaries, taking risks, experiencing nature first hand; seeing life and death interconnected. Reality was a natural yet heady mix of the real, the imagined and the magical as well as the religious and the superstitious.

Like history, knowledge and memory becomes inscribed in landscape and place. Multiple perspectives and bodies of knowledge become important aspects of culture, industry and progress. This raises interesting questions about what we leave behind as we move forward, or what we should take forward with us.

This connects with ideas about conservation, preservation, reconstruction and re-enactment – related to history, nature and culture. What is it that keeps a community alive? Is it the preservation of its history, culture and natural resources or is it the need to move forward and progress in order to survive? What is sacrificed in the name of progress? Or, as may also be the case, what is sacrificed in the name of conservation and protection? Can these two states successfully coexist and if so what takes precedence?

During the course of our journey so far, and our short stay on Barra, it became clear that these kinds of discussions and issues are very much alive and current.

In the Community Hall on Tuesday evening, there was a generous exchange of contemporary art presentations with traditional songs and dance; this included highland dancing and an energetic session by the women of the Waulking Songs group. There was also some discussion about the proposed designation of a cold-water coral reef near Barra as a Special Area of Conservation. This ‘protective act’ raised issues about indigenous rights to govern land and sea in relation to the rights of a distant beaurocracy. I also met several old friends of my mother, which for me made the event both a personal as well as public experience. On Wednesday some of us met with Barra & Vatersay Wind Energy Company. This was an interesting introduction to their plans for wind and wave energy and various other local sustainable energy initiatives and food projects. I began to see that this kind of development could lead to a twenty-first century version of self-sufficient living.

Islands such as Barra are involved in a slow, yet continual, state of invention and reinvention. In 2011 Barra coexists in many states of being, including occupying a rich ‘historical world’ – where innovation and determination have been a necessity for survival (Conquer or Die!)*, and a parallel ‘future world’, where new technology, renewable energy and sustainable farming mark a promising route forward.

In these island places we can dig deep into the past and learn from generations of people dating back to the Neolithic period – while at the same time we can also project, or calculate, into the future: digging and data, side-by-side. Looking back whilst looking forward: a Janus-like existence. An important stage, a testing ground. A balancing act, a leap of faith. An inspiration.


* Clan MacNeil motto: buaidh no bas, which translates from Scottish Gaelic as “to conquer or die”, or “victory or death”


Author: Stephen Hurrel


Joins the expedition for week 2 Stephen Hurrel works with various contexts to produce temporary and permanent site-specific installations, utilizing digital and analogue media. His areas of interest include an investigation of feedback, self-generating systems and unconscious gestures.
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Sea Change Programme

Puffin from the Bird Yarns project, part of Cape Farewell's Sea Change programme.
Grown out of the Scottish Islands Expedition, Cape Farewell’s Sea Change is a four-year programme of research and making across Scotland’s western and northern isles. Sea Change involves over 30 UK and international artists and scientists, working collaboratively and independently to consider the relationships between people, places and resources in the context of climate change.... Read more ›

A timely reminder of how valuable an outsider’s perspective can be

Community Energy Scotland’s annual conference offered a timely reminder of how valuable an outsider’s perspective can be.  It was reported on some research into how different countries are taking forward the development of renewable energy. The study looks at several European countries including Scotland, as well as five states in America. The most striking feature... Read more ›

First there was an island – then there was a boat

Shiants 2
“First there was an island – then there was a boat”, so begins a poem by Shetland writer Laureen Johnston.  Since owning my first boat at the age of eleven, I have been an obsessive explorer of islands, the smaller and more remote the better.  Once, in the grip of a sudden attack of aquatic... Read more ›

‘On these isles’

Lawrence has a 7am coffee break after feeding cattle.
‘On these isles’ is a project by photographer Ed Smith, whom we had the great pleasure of meeting when visiting the Island of Eigg. Ed has spent large periods of time on Eigg and other Inner Hebridean isles capturing life there in pictures. Have a look at more of his images and this project at... Read more ›

A gaelic song

Mary Jane Lamond, Jo Royle and Julie Fowlis Video by Ruth Little

Cape Farewell – we know what to do, can art help us get on and do it?

The following is an excerpt from Sara Parkin’s article found on the Forum for the Future website. …I was fortunate enough to join the crew for one week of a four week tour of Scottish Islands, starting with Skye and Canna before crossing the Minch to Mingulay, Barra and South Uist. The weather was kind,... Read more ›

Islands and Visions

Eigg Barbecue on Song of the Whale
There is a sea view when travelling from Eigg to Mallaig where you have a 360° vision of the Small Isles, Skye, the mountains of Scotland, Mull and, far into the distance, the Outer Hebrides. At 6 am yesterday the grey of the sea bled into the numerous blues of the mountains all dramatised by... Read more ›

Annie Cattrell and Jo Shapcott in conversation about week 4 of the expedition

Annie 1
JS Annie, what is it about islands? AC I like the fact that there’s a larger proportion of sea than land mass visible. There appears to be a completeness and self-sufficiency about the individual islands even though they are all distinctly different. There seems to be a big distinction between uninhabited and inhabited islands –... Read more ›


Photo by Sion Parkinson
(1) On the crossing from Ullapool to Stornaway on the Calmac, I wrote myself a list of rules, a set of behaviours that would concentrate my efforts, or assuage any guilt from any feelings of impotence, in my seven days aboard the ship. (1.1) Rules: (1.1.1) Take photographs, more than you need to, get in... Read more ›


Cotton Grass marking  Dwelling Rona
It was my birthday when I went to Rònaidh first. A place I wanted to see since I was little but I had always missed the boat. It is about forty miles north of my house near the Butt of Lewis. I went on the sixth of August aged thirty eight on the yacht ‘Song... Read more ›

Mary Arnold-Forster

Skye architect Mary shows the house of Fred Taylor she designed and reflects on the progress on Eigg and other green based aspirations for the islands architecture and energy supply.   Video shot by David Buckland     Sketches by Mary Arnold-Forster

Farewell and Ahoy: Log of a Voyage

Photo by Mary Smith
“Back in the kitchen.  A new group has joined Song of the Whale. There is an overlap of crew, Cape Farewell folk, and the artists and scientists who will sail together this coming week. They are planning to sail to North Rona, the Shiants and the coasts of Skye. But I’ve left the ship though... Read more ›