Peat Art as Insight into Scottish Past
Flow Country is a region in the Northeast of the Scottish Highlands, far from any major cities. The atmosphere and energy of this place is otherworldly. It can feel like stepping into an earth of the past, where the modern world hasn’t caught up quite yet. Like much of the Highlands of Scotland, it’s sparsely populated and beautifully preserved. Because of this, many artists have found inspiration in the marshy terrain.
I was able to speak with Shaun Fraser, a Scottish artist, about his own cultural connection to the Highlands. Shaun focuses a lot on his concepts of north, distance and defining what the word "center" means. It’s really a statement on perspective and the human condition, and how we all value things differently.
Shaun Fraser and Flow Country
Shaun Fraser is someone whose take on the landscape of the Flow Country not only offers insights on a unique biosphere but inspires some thought-provoking questions about what we value, and our spatial perspective. An artist who grew up in Inverness, and whose work comments on notions of identity and connections with place, Shaun works in the mediums of bronze, glass, metal, and soil, as well as print.
Meg: Could you tell me about your upbringing, and how that may have impacted your sense of self?
Shaun: I was born and brought up in Inverness, the biggest settlement in the Highlands, and the landscape bled into how I view myself and who I am. It very much goes to the core of my sense of self on a tacit level. I didn’t overtly notice that happening as I was growing up, but when I moved away when I was 18 to do my undergrad at Edinburgh College of Art, I started to realize what home is, and the Highlands really started to show itself within me.
Meg: How did leaving the Highlands help you develop that sense of self?
Shaun: During the four years I was studying in Edinburgh, I started to develop my own aesthetic, my own style, my own kind of language, and my own accent. People say to me that when they walk into a group show, without even looking at names, they can say, ‘Well, that piece is yours.’ The mark of the maker will always be in the work, because it’s an extension of your voice.
Meg: What would you say connects your pieces? Is there a central theme across your art?
Shaun: All my work is bound by that sense of landscape, sense of place. I’m very interested in the idea of ‘north’ and ‘distant’ and the perceived notions of what these things are. What is north? What is distant? People don’t usually see where they are located as ‘distant’, and there’s always some place further north. Where is the center? I studied my master’s degree at the Royal College of Art in London, and that’s when I really started to think a lot about this idea of the center and the periphery, and peripheral communities. What are they peripheral to? To the people in these communities, they are in the center.
From Glass to Peat | Art Media
Meg: I know that you use glass as a medium for your art, what led you to that?
Shaun: When I went off to art college in Edinburgh, I got introduced to glass. Before, I had no idea that glass existed as a creative medium to the extent that it does. It was a revelation, and I got really interested in the material process and the alchemy of it all. I was introduced to a lot of the material properties and incorporating metal oxides and natural organic matter into the glass and mixing that through and the chemical reaction that happens. You can get different results in texture and quality and color and the spectrum of what’s available with that is just immense.
I started to work with firing organic matter into the glass process. When it’s in the kiln, the glass is being heated up and then turned to the consistency of honey on the end of a spoon. When it’s molten, it runs into the mold. As a part of that process, I was incorporating firing soil into the pieces, so it was integral to the work. Then I started with peat and crushing peat, and firing peat into the work. That was the landscape becoming integral to the work. It is all very earthy.
Roads That Lead to Flow Country
Meg: What brought you to Flow Country?
Shaun: I did a residency in The Flow Country in partnership with a multi-agency organization called The Flow, the Peatlands Partnership and the chief organization leading that was RSPB, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The Flows are fantastically bleak, and for me, the residency was going back to that idea of far away and landscapes perceived as hostile.
Meg: Tell me a bit about why you think Flow Country is so significant.
Shaun: The Flow Country in the interior of Sutherland is a massive ecological wonder. It’s one of the largest areas of bog land, of peat land, that exists in the world. It plays a really important role in carbon capture. But in the 1970s through to the early 1990s, before any of this was known scientifically, the Forestry Commission and the UK Government planted quite a lot of coniferous Canadian trees there because they just thought it was just a dead land, kind of empty and wasteland.
Almost nobody lives in interior Sutherland in the Flow Country because of the clearances and the displacement of people a couple of hundred years ago. They kind of thought ‘Well this is just empty barren land so let’s plant a load of trees on it’, for tax relief initiatives.
But the tree planting was actually just catastrophic in terms of the ecology and the environment. It destroyed a lot of the peat land. It dried it out and that fed into the wildlife, which is where the RSPB came into it. Now it’s known that these peatlands are very precious and actually the trees that were growing there were no good because the ground is so saturated and it’s so acidic that the trees were only good to be chipped.
Now, there is cultural funding and EU scientific funding and a lot of the land was purchased back from the Forestry Commission and is being stimulated back to its natural bog state.
Representing Flow Country Through Art
Meg: Once you were immersed in Flow Country, how did the landscape inspire you?
Shaun: For the residency, I was based in Forsinard for a few weeks and I linked in with a lot of the community there--gamekeepers, fishermen that fish the streams and the burns and the lochans, some crofters, different people that kind of worked the land and made their living from the landscape there. Those conversations fed into my developing a new body of work.
I did a bronze triptych called Soil Immemorial as part of the Flows Project. My thought was to take this substance of peat and to consider it in a different way, to attach a value to it that isn’t often perceived. It’s not just a sod of earth, it's precious.
Meg: Can you talk a little bit about the cultural significance of peat, especially the process of harvesting it?
Shaun: In these communities historically, each family would have their own peat bank and they would cut the peat, stock it, dry it, and that was a laborious process. But if you didn’t have your stock of peat, you couldn’t heat your home, you couldn’t cook your food, you couldn’t keep your family well and healthy. Peat is a very precious matter socially and economically; it’s also very precious in the role that it plays in carbon capture.
Peat is halfway on the way to becoming coal and it’s made of decomposed heather and vegetation and stuff like that. Because the climate is so wet, this decomposes, but it’s preserved in a certain manner that holds all this carbon in the earth rather than escaping into the atmosphere. If all the bog lands and all the peatlands in the world suddenly just released all the carbon that is held in them it would be enough to tip the planet into some new environmental reality.
Meg: And what do you think people are missing by skipping out on places like Flow Country when they visit the Scottish Highlands?
Shaun: A lot of visitors just stick to the North Coast 500 tourism route and it’s worth taking a turn off into these kinds of interior roads, and going to places like Kinbrace and Forsinard, and Altnaharra. In these interior Southerland places like The Flows, you miss a lot of the traffic and these are fantastic roads to drive if you want to just have a bit of fun, you won’t come across many other folk.
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