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7 Jul 2022

Contesting Landscapes: ‘We ghost the past, we are its eerie.’

Written by Annalee Davis
A white wall which has had a number of pages tacked to it in varying sizes and covered either in handwriting or black and white images of a mountain landscape. Some of the pages overlap each other.
My evolving wall at the DCA Print Studio | Image by Annalee Davis
We are delighted to welcome back the artist Annalee Davis to Balmacara Estate as part of the Facing Our Past project. Annalee has been working on a series of creative interventions on the estate entitled Contesting Landscapes of Distraction which explore the entangled historical connections between Scotland and Barbados.

In this second blog post on the project, Annalee reflects on her work with the crofting students at Plockton High School and her creative process whilst working in the print studio at Dundee Contemporary Arts.

An exhibition of Annalee’s work will be on display at the Steadings Gallery in Balmacara Square from 18 September 2022.

Read part 1 – Contesting Landscapes: creative interventions at Balmacara Estate

‘We ghost the past, we are its eerie.’ – Robert MacFarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey [1]

My work almost always begins with words – those that I read in books, exchange in dialogue with others, recently dug up in 17th-century Scottish Privy Council virtual archives, write down in my journal, or on various scraps of paper that get tucked in between the pages of whatever I am poring over at the time. At some point late last year, I felt overwhelmed with what I had been reading about the historic entanglements between Scotland and Barbados. There were times when some words were so much harder to read than others. [2]

And then, there were words I wanted to find but couldn’t. Maybe words about banished women from the mid-1600s weren’t deemed important enough for the archives. After several months of inhaling words from Martin Martin, Mary Beith, Flora Celtica, or about Lord Seaforth, amongst others, I panicked about knowing too little about this complex and layered shared history. How could I possibly distil all these words into a communal project with teenage crofting students at Plockton High School, or into a limited-edition series of prints at Dundee Contemporary Arts Print Studio? All of a sudden, there were too many words – I reached my word limit. So I paused, put words to one side, and called up images to help me speak in another tongue and to explore the eerie ghosts of our collective past.

A group of school students, one leaning on a large wooden harp, stand outside by two garden beds.
Group photo with crofting students and collaborators at Plockton High School, Balmacara Estate | Image by Iain Turnbull

The Plot in Plockton

I crossed the Atlantic in mid-May, making my way back to Balmacara Estate in the Highlands to work with 13 young people, a medical herbalist from Skye, and several garden facilitators who gathered plants – mostly foraged from Balmacara – for the students to develop four small plots. [3] Together, we planted yarrow, St John’s wort, red clover, meadowsweet, and heather among other plants, rich with history. These plots were intended to foreground local knowledge and traditional uses of wild plants that built community among peasant farmers, drawing on the rich tradition of herbalism in the Highlands of Scotland, all while acknowledging the importance of botanicals used by the indentured and enslaved in Barbados as agents of healing and use in ritual practices.

My collaboration with Jeanette Taylor, a knowledgeable herbalist, was to co-develop three unique teas [4] made with plants mostly gathered from Balmacara, the estate once owned by Lord Seaforth, former governor of Barbados from 1800–06. We served teas at the soft opening of this living botanical work dedicated to those who laboured as crofters and cottars in the Scottish Highlands, as well as those who eked out their living on small, marginal and unproductive plots of land within or on the fringes of sugar plantations in Barbados.

Jeanette shared with the students that this collection of plants we carefully planted in the soil recalls herbal medicinal traditions which became embedded in Scottish culture via the Druids. Their use of herbs incorporated astrology, divination and charms in the healing process, and later Celtic churches herb gardens and hospitals treated patients with herbal medicine, allowing the practice to be seen as a profession. She noted that the first recorded herbal physician for the Balmacara area was the Coonacher family, who in 1611 became the formally instated herbalists for Skye and Lochalsh. Jeanette will return to work with the students, teaching them how to make teas with the plants they will be nurturing in the garden.

I then conveyed, unknown to the students, that since the 17th century, their Scottish ancestors came to Barbados as contract labour, colonial administrators, prisoners, or banished women, and would have brought their systems of knowledge with them. I shared how enslaved African society in Barbados also had healers with knowledge of plants used in bush teas, bush baths, and bush medicine. Like the Scottish, these healers used charms and incantations, releasing the healing properties of the plants in the tradition of Obeah – a spiritual practice that was illegal and punishable by torture, imprisonment, or death until the act was fully repealed in 1998 in Barbados.

The morning’s event came to a close as we gathered around the plot and listened to Izzy, a promising music student, play the clàrsach, or Celtic harp, beautifully.

Being embodied at the DCA Print Studio

From the historic county of Ross-shire on the north-west coast of Scotland, I travelled south-east to Dundee, a coastal city on the Firth of Tay estuary. Known as the city of ‘jute, jam, and journalism’, it is home to Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) and includes a well-equipped, open-access print studio. Home for three weeks, my virtual meetings with the DCA team which began last September could now take place in person, where I collaborated with the efficient team of wizard printmakers to begin working on a limited edition set of prints.

In preparation, I travelled with dried plant material including seaweed, bay leaves, and cerasee bush, and scores of words scrawled on newsprint that had been taped onto the walls of my studio in Barbados for many months. Incantations of a sort, they acted as repeating lyrics that would eventually shape what would manifest in the print studio.

Erasure. Amnesia. Multiple Colonialisms. Spirited Away. Vanishing Villages. Repetition. Marginalised. Kelping. Fishing. Weaving. Dùthchas.

Dùthchas. That Gaelic word I found so hard to pronounce with my tongue, not unlike those anglicized tongues that ‘improved’ my sixth-great-grandfather’s surname from Mcconnachie to McConney in the mid-18th century in Barbados, I imagine. Maybe it required too much effort to transcribe Gaelic names correctly, thereby rupturing non-English names and making it difficult to trace kin. Like many others who crossed the pond involuntarily, John Mcconnachie was not deemed worthy of keeping that most basic form of identification – the name his mother or father gave him.

Erasure. Amnesia. Marginalised.

I digress; back to dùthchas. My inability to correctly pronounce the word made me feel inadequate while speaking about it with my collaborators or those who visited me in the print studio. I kept tripping up over it and when I asked several Scottish people how to say this word, with nervous laughter, they too confessed their inability to correctly utter this Gaelic sound.

A square of slightly crumpled paper is displayed against a plain grey background. At the centre of the paper is a dark, round charm.
Experimenting with the 2nd-century Chinese takuhon process to make a 3D charm on Japanese paper | Image by Annalee Davis

In the recently published A Commonplace Book of Atlas (Atlas Arts, Skye), James Oliver describes dùthchas as an ‘embodied experience and emplacement (“on the ground”), and complex entanglement (“in the mind”) with relationships of belonging and dwelling, heritage and inheritance, a human ecology with “place” (including, where relevant, land).’

It reminded me of Barbadian 18th-century wills from small landowners, possibly former indentured labourers, who acquired tiny pieces of land in the island’s Scotland District which they referred to as ‘my place’. It made me wonder if dùthchas became ‘my place’, suggesting a deep connection with a part of the island or, eventually, a feeling of belonging.

Erasure. Amnesia. Multiple Colonialisms. Spirited Away. Vanishing Villages. Repetition. Marginalised.

Dùthchas. I required a voice note from James, a descendent of crofters on Skye, to coach me in its beautiful sound. The ‘t’ I was told, is not pronounced in any hard way. So I started repeating the sound and felt a little more confident pronouncing this intonation.

Yet while such a seductive concept, the very meaning of the word, to become embodied and emplaced, to belong somewhere, especially a somewhere that was part of the colonial project – I realised that I and many others have tripped up over that as well.

A fishnet pattern printed onto large pieces of red paper, and laid out in wire trays.
Screenprint of fishnet on Japanese paper | Image by Annalee Davis

As the days went by, I sensed that in the process of co-manifesting soft ground etchings of pressed plants from Scotland and Barbados, co-producing Gocco prints of drift beans that floated in on the world’s ocean currents on both island’s coasts, dùthchas started to make sense. On seeing the large, elegant silkscreen of a hand-made fish net transferred onto a deliciously rich red Japanese paper, I gasped. I was beginning to understand the notion of human ecology with a place and that the process of image-making was my portal to grasping this word.


Dùthchas showed itself in the delicate tray cloth that a textile expert from the nearby V&A Dundee museum told me was reminiscent of Ayrshire handiwork and made its way across the pond to Barbados. The Gocco print process captured its fine details revealing the weave of the fabric. Transformed from crisp white linen to a rich crimson further embellished with an impossible map stitching together/ripping apart the Scottish Highlands and the Scotland District of Barbados infers a complex, layered dùthchas.

Pieces of art laid out to dry on wire trays: a green loch and mountain landscape with pale names embossed over the top.
A Scroll of Banished Women, screenprint and embossment on Japanese paper | Image by Annalee Davis

When the laser engraved names of the 15 banished Scottish women embossed into the sap green lands of a reconstructed landscape linking Scotland and Barbados came off the press, ideas of belonging, dwelling, and heritage resonated. I couldn’t imagine their fear of banishment, the isolation and terror they would have felt – one of a few women on a ship of many men, including prisoners – and the distress of being sentenced to a remote place for the sin of not having a Bible or Book of Psalms in your home, or for delivering a dead baby alone (as if that wasn’t alarming enough!). Housed in the Edinburgh Correction House and sent from Leith to Barbados in 1663 and 1665, I wonder if these banished women ever experienced dùthchas on this remote island? In a discussion with Dr David Dobson, he said that some of these women might have ‘improved’ their station in life in Barbados, as they would have been prized for their ability to reproduce white babies in Britain’s first sugar isle. These womenfolk were on the front line of centuries of social disruption and manipulation in service of the plantation.

The developing limited-edition imagines how Scots, including healers and indentured labourers, and enslaved Africans who, in spite of their trauma and rupture from their homelands, might have found ways to belong to new lands and bond with foreign people from very different geographies. Their respective habits of making gardens in poor soils, the embodied practices of ritual and healing, and the reciting of incantations with charms, must have intertwined somehow.

These meandering thoughts will find their home in a bespoke container lined with fishnet holding two handmade books, an impossible blind embossed map, a scroll of banished women, a choker, wriggling parasites, and three drift bean charms. They will be exhibited at the Steadings Gallery in Balmacara opening on 18 September, followed by a discussion about the work with Dr Iain MacKinnon at Skye Bridge Studios on 20 September.

A big thank you to Plockton High School for creating the opportunity to work with the students, to all of the students, to Izzy for playing the clàrsach so beautifully, to Colin for prepping the beds, to Babbs MacCritchie, Judith Bullivant, and Helena Bolingbroke for gathering plants and working with the students, to Jeanette Taylor for making the teas, to Simon Larson for the cyanotype workshop, to Iain Turnbull for coordinating everything and to Hannah Lee, Jennifer Melville and the National Trust for Scotland for supporting this project! And I have such gratitude to the entire team at DCA Print Studio: Annis Fitzhugh, Sandra Derycker, Scott Hudson, Claire McVinnie, Marriane Livingstone, Katie Omahoney, and Beth Bate for welcoming me so hospitably and for being such an amazing posse of printmakers to work with!


[1] Robert MacFarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey (London: Penguin, 2019), p. 273

[2] Books on my reading list: Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2018); Mary Beith, Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands (Edinburgh: Birlinn Origin, 2018); Sam Bridgewater and William Milliken, Flora Celtica: Plants and People in Scotland (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2013); Finlay McKichan, Lord Seaforth: Highland Landowner, Caribbean Governor (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

[3] Thanks to Jeanette Taylor, medical herbalist, and to Colin, Babbs, Judith, Helena, and Iain for their support with the students, gardening knowledge, and harvesting of plants.

[4] The teas are Wise Woman (bayleaf, chamomile, lady’s mantle, meadowsweet, red clover, and sage); Sprig of Joy (heather, honeysuckle, lemongrass, St John’s Wort, vervain, and wood betony) and finally Forager’s tea, (bog myrtle, elderflower, meadowsweet, ribwort, and yarrow).