Gigha Gallery: The Hirta Portfolio

Dani and I had a lovely 4-day trip to Campbeltown,  Scotland, with our friends Iain and Shelley. It was a 10-hour drive from the London area and we all made it there and home in good spirits, so, success! 

On Saturday, in a wee window of sunlight, we took the ferry to the Isle of Gigha, where I was absolutely delighted to find a poetry-art exhibition on in their Gallery

Gigha: photo courtesy of Islayblog.com

Poet Bill Duncan and printmaker Susan Wilson collaborated to tell the dramatic story of the Isle of Hirta, also known as St. Kilda, a wind and bird-strewn Isle lying far off the Northwest Coast of Scotland. 

The inhabitants of Hirta used to survive entirely through use of the thousands of sea birds on the island, and ‘The Hirta Portfolio’ shows this with stunning simplicity: etchings of a gannet skull as a pin for the roof material, or a thigh bone used in weaving; these, woven with Duncan’s spare words, produce a powerful tribute: for Hirta was evacuated in 1930, and all the islanders were dispersed to new and unfamiliar jobs. ‘There Were no Trees on Hirta,’ is a poetic example of a baffled islander sent to work in logging. 

The lady tending the Gallery, a Ms. Macaulay, gave us a walk-through of the exhibit, explaining the images and references in further detail. There is a limited-edition run of the gorgeous hand-printed ‘Hirta’ portfolio, which ties with a ribbon, for £20, and I bought one. This article talks a bit more about the making of the Portfolio and the contact details to purchase one.   

Every other page has one of Wilson’s etchings and then one of Duncan’s poems, and they reflect each other. There was a special copy of the large Hirta Portfolio for £350, and the prints and poems are currently displayed in the Gigha Gallery.

Hirta Portfolio: photo courtesy of St. Kilda Today

I must admit that the power of the Portfolio is enhanced dramatically with the personal explanation of the creation of the book and the story of Hirta, though I think if you read the poems you’d be inspired to look up Hirta anyhow– I was. Ms. Macaulay told the story well, and I only wish I had time to stay longer and look more at the larger prints– unfortunately we were off to catch the ferry, but I’ll get to mull over the smaller book. I love this art/poetry collaboration and I absolutely want to do something like this some day. 

It is also worth mentioning another book the Gallery has for sale, ‘The Prisoner of St. Kilda,’ which looks fascinating. It was written by Ms. Macaulay’s mother, who I believe also lives on Gigha, and is the true story of Lady Grange, an 18th-century upper-class woman who was kidnapped– by her husband!– and left to perish on St. Kilda. It’s safe to say that both Gigha and Hirta are fantastically inspirational Islands.

6 thoughts on “Gigha Gallery: The Hirta Portfolio

  1. I’ve never heard of these islands but they look marvelous. i do have a “thing” for remote islands. And I’ve been intrigued by the collaboration between visual artists and poets, too. Do you know the work of Susan Richardson? She’s a wonderful poet specializing in the natural world, and she’s done a fascinating exhibition with a painter, I believe.

  2. Delighted to see the Exhibition of the Hirta Portfolio reviewed on Kelley Swain’s writing site. I am always pleased to know that the work is appreciated and that it continues to encourage interest in the history of St Kilda. On a very personal note, I would say that it is the piece of work of which I am most proud and even now I cannot but be moved by the stories and especially the evacuation of St Kilda in 1930. Those of you reading the comment may be interested to know that the Hirta Portfolio itself was produced in a limited edition of 36 with 6 proof copies, one of which was presented to the National Trust for Scotland as custodians of the island. When we were deciding how large the edition should be, we realised that it had to be 36, one for each of the islanders. Therefore each folio is dedicated to one of the St Kildans who left. It means that the edition is not sold consecutively but buyers may choose which name and house. The work is not only in private collections but has also been purchased by the National Library of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament.

    • Hi Susan,
      I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post/review! Thank you for creating such an amazing artwork. I hope many people see it & read it.

  3. If anyone is interested, my mum’s book The Prisoner of St Kilda was shortlisted for Scottish best first book award this year and is available in paperback through Amazon. It has been well reviewed. The hardback edition sold out and it has been reprinted in paperback. My sister’s gallery The Gigha Gallery is open for business pretty much every day on the lovely island of Gigha – do go and visit and say hello….

  4. We purchased folio no. 12 in 2005, or possibly earlier. We are only just working out how to display this wonderful work in our home. I love the work and the portfolio itself. We have decided to have the poems, the etchings and the interleaves displayed in a series of frames. We’d love to have some suggestions as to how we can display the portfolio!!

    • Isn’t it beautiful? I’m afraid I am no use suggesting displays, but maybe now that you are part of this conversation, you can get in touch with the artist who has made a comment below, and get some suggestions…

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