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10 Nov 2022

Contesting Landscapes: A Hymn to the Banished

Written by Annalee Davis
Detail from A Book of Healing Plants, Annalee Davis 2022. | Photo by Iain Turnbull.
Barbadian artist Annalee Davis reflects on her exhibition, which was held at Balmacara Gallery earlier this year as part of the Trust’s Facing Our Past project, along with related community engagement events that took place across Scotland during her stay.

I am intrigued by the subversive role of botany. In this project, I reconsidered the part imported plants played in the expansion of the British Empire. I see sugar plantations as defining instruments: shaping the West Indies, impacting on the modernisation of Europe and, ultimately, playing a crucial part in climate change, brought about through global extractive practices of monocultures and made possible through coercive labour structures.

Francis Humberston McKenzie, Lord Seaforth, governor of Barbados from 1800-1806 and one-time owner of the Trust’s Balmacara estate, introduced many West Indian plant species to Britain’s botanical gardens. Much has been written about Seaforth’s interest in plants, as well as his role as governor of Barbados and owner of plantations and enslaved African people in Guyana. I focused instead on those left in the wake of the plantation, and the comparatively less well-documented tactics of refusal and survival employed by the dispossessed and marginalised in Scotland and the Caribbean. Altogether, this meant that Balmacara was an ideal location for my research to kick off.

Connections between Scotland and my country, Barbados, reach back to the early 17th century. Numerous prisoners were transported to the colonies in the Americas, including Barbados, following the Covenanter Risings.[1] There they worked as indentured servants, whilst other Scots came as tradesmen, planters, doctors and colonial administrators. Of the almost 2,500 Scots who came to Barbados, only 152 were women. I focused on the 15 female prisoners who were exiled to Barbados from the Edinburgh Correction House. Theirs were deeply buried stories: Margaret Ramsay was one prisoner whose crime was not having a woman accompany her while she gave birth to a dead child, an offense for which she was whipped in the city’s streets and deported. Records tell us that others were exiled for interrupting a church service or not having a Book of Psalms in their home.

Detail from A Book of Healing Plants, Annalee Davis 2022. Plants L–R: Wonder of the World, Blood Root, Nettle, West India Bay Leaf, Cerasee. | Photo by Iain Turnbull.

Closer research aided my understanding of plant traditions across the Gaelic-speaking peoples of the Scottish Highlands – traditions which proved to be remarkably similar to those found in enslaved Barbadian society – such as the use of plants in incantations and charms. Spirit-based rituals and healing methods survived forced migrations and carried systems of knowledge crucial for both endurance and defiance. Did these distinct Scottish and West African philosophies rub up against each other in Barbados and might the indentured and enslaved people have shared their botanical heritage with one another, becoming allied healers across divisions of language, nationhood, and race?

Charming, Annalee Davis 2022. Three archival boxes, each containing a Takuhon printed drift seed. | Photo by Iain Turnbull.

Known as airne Moire (Mary’s beans) in the Outer Hebrides, and as drift seeds in Barbados, the nicker nuts or sea beans that float on the world’s ocean currents were used by Gaelic midwives for labouring women and in Barbadian enslaved African traditions. It may be that they offered comfort as amulets, held while repeating phrases to release the healing potential of plants, to bless homes, cattle, and sheep, or to ward off evil.

Scots transcribed their incantations in Gaelic and English, but British colonial powers forbade the African-derived rituals, known as Obeah. However, some did survive, having been recorded by William Dickson, an enlightened secretary to the governor of Barbados, who in 1789 praised the virtues, abilities and culture of the enslaved African people.[2]

My work, A Hymn to the Banished, was made in collaboration with the printmakers at Dundee Contemporary Arts. This limited edition of three bespoke fabric-covered boxes lined with a screen-printed fishnet unfolds through a set of works comprising two handmade books, an impossible map, a scroll of banished women, a choker, wriggling parasites, and drift bean charms.

Impossible Map, Annalee Davis 2022. Screenprint on tray box cover from scanned linen tray cloth with cut work embroidery. | Photo by Iain Turnbull.

Collectively, these seven objects imagine the smaller moments in the lives of those who were impacted by the wide-reaching ramifications of the British Empire. I became absorbed in understanding how land, oceans, and rituals sustained the evicted and stolen human beings. How did chants and incantations support people through the terrors of dislocation, offering a balm to their weary or diseased bodies? Did these uprooted people ever experience a sense of belonging, what is described in Gaelic as dùthchas, in their new and foreign worlds?

The extractive nature of imposed plantations has been likened to a long annelid parasite moving through the bowels of the archipelago.[3] My screen print and chine-collé image of wriggling hook, thread, whip, and roundworms alludes to histories of expropriation as well as diseases that newcomers to the island would have encountered. Given the nascent stage of medicine at the time, treating illnesses with what was available would have involved using plants and charms.

A Scroll of Banished Women, Annalee Davis 2022. Screenprint and laser-cut woodblock print. | Photo by Iain Turnbull.

Of course, millions of people around the world are still impacted by unequal access to resources, degradation of lands, eradication of biodiversity, displacement of people and the modification of ways of communal living. A Hymn to the Banished is a secular prayer in the form of a visual meditation, recognising the intuition, knowledge, customs and tenacity of our forebears and their capacity to confront and survive cruel, brutal conditions. The goal of shaping a more sustainable, empathic world requires that human and non-human kin are not seen as invasive species but rather as guests whom we might welcome, break bread with, and learn from. Human beings, like the soil, need to be nurtured to flourish.

Thanks to everyone in Scotland who has been so generous, welcoming, and supportive of this project. I appreciate the entire amazing team at DCA including Beth Bate, Sandra Derycker, Annis Fitzhugh, Scott Hudson, Marianne Livingstone, Claire McVinnie, and Katie O’Mahoney. Thanks to the invigilators of my solo exhibition at the Steadings Gallery, Caitlin and Ciara Turnbull and Robyn Sands. It was a pleasure to speak about this new work in the five-city lecture tour including the first co-hosted by DCA and the University of St. Andrew’s, at Plockton High School supported by the history teacher Colette Grant, with the knowledgeable Iain McKinnon at Skye Bridge Studios, serving (bush) tea to Christine Borland at Deveron Art Projects, and engaging with Emma Nicolson, Claire Ratinon, Shiraz Bayjoo, and Keg DeSouza as part of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and National Trust for Scotland panel at Edinburgh Climate Change Institute. And of course, exceptional gratitude to Claire Hammond, Hannah Lee, Jennifer Melville, and Iain Turnbull of the National Trust for Scotland for supporting this project from beginning to end and for being so wonderful to work with!

For anyone interested in acquiring a limited edition of A Hymn to the Banished, please contact Sandra De Rycker at DCA via email at


[1] Listed in Dr David Dobson Barbados and Scotland Links 1627-1877, 2005.

[2] William Dickson Letters on Slavery, 1789, with thanks to Dr Deryck Murray for bringing this publication to my attention.

[3] Antonio Benítez-Rojo The Repeating Island 1992.