A Crofters' Memorial For Staffin

"Since 2014, ATLAS Arts has been working with the Staffin Community Trust (Urras An Taobh Sear) to produce a series of pilot commissions with a view to creating a contemporary memorial to acknowledge the nineteenth-century crofters’ land struggle in the Staffin area.

A central aim of these commissions is for the artists to contribute to the awareness and understanding within the local community of the potentially positive impacts and benefits of a commissioned public artwork/contemporary memorial. This week-long display will offer those interested in the project an opportunity to see what Henry and Tom have been working on and to talk to them about their work."  

"Castle and Tom Smith (of Lateral North) spent the past year exploring the history and significance of the crofters’ uprisings which took place across twenty-three townships in the area. From conversations with local crofters, academics, studying archival documents, and visiting sites of significance, both have built on their initial ideas and the display was viewed as an opportunity to invite discussion from members of the community.

 

In particular, Henry’s research became focused on the history of Loch Leum nam Bradh (Loch of the Leaping Quern Stones) and the significance of quern stones to the crofters in the area at the time of the uprisings; whilst Tom has utilised mapping and digital technologies to investigate how augmented reality and audio/visual experiences could be used to bring a memorial to life.

 

Atlas arts

Loch Leum nam Bradh (Loch of the Leaping Quern Stones)

Photograph by Tom Smith ( Lateral North)

Research and Development 

I visited many sites with James Macdonald, (Tatties), all of interest, but the most thought provoking thing that he mentioned to me was the destruction of the rotary hand querns from the Kilmuir Estate. He suggested that I go and speak with Lachie Gillies of Stenscholl (Steinnseall) I visited Lachie twice and was fortunate to be able to record him telling me what he knew. I’ve also spoken with Professor Hugh Cheape, Dugald Ross and Hector MacDonald on the subject.

 

The quern (Bra) ban is something that may have been started by Lord MacDonald (Captain Fraser’s predecessor), and was basically a means of exploiting the crofters. By taking away the querns the crofters would be forced to use the mills set up by the landlords, and it was said that for every six sacks of grain taken to the mills, Fraser would keep two.

“The enforcing of the prohibition on querns readily symbolised the tension and oppression of these communities. And the destruction of the stones symbolised the fundamental means of getting nutrition – the final blow.”
Hugh Cheape

Tatties mentioned a loch just north of Digg, with the name ‘Loch Leum nam Bradh’, Loch of the Leaping Querns. This loch had been used by Fraser’s stewards in the destruction of querns, as the road rises high above the loch with a steep bank. It is said that under the threat of eviction, the crofters were forced to give up their querns, and throughout the townships of Staffin the crofters were told to leave their querns, which would be collected by horse and cart and taken to the top of the bank and then rolled down into the depths of the loch, the stones are there to this day. As well as their function, the querns also had great cultural importance with working quern songs being common place; these songs are still sung today. I have become interested in the history of querns and how these simple utilitarian objects can act as a passage back through time (from the Neolithic?) through to their relatively recent use within the community. Lachie Gillies spoke to me of querns being broken during the uprisings, an act which can be seen as symbolic of the suppression of the time.

“There are many stories in the Islands of landlords enforcing the use of the mill by sending their factors or stewards to break and destroy the querns, thereby depriving the people of a means of grinding grain at home or as needs arose. A loch in the north of the Island of Skye is called Loch Leum nam Brà (the ‘Loch of the Dashing of the Querns’), where Lord Macdonald’s steward broke up and threw the querns into the loch.”

Prof Hugh Cheape

It is thought that Captain Fraser continued with this practice in the 1800s.

Dugald Ross showed me deliberately broken fragments found at Ealaiseadar (Ellishadder) and Flòdaigearraidh (Flodigarry), and the quern fragment found at the house once owned by the author William Mackenzie, discovered by a later owner, Paul Booth whilst digging his garden in Bhaltos (Valtos) This is quite a significant artefact as it appears to be made from a very similar rock to that found at Brothers Point. This fragment also gets a mention in Mackenzie’s book, ‘Old Skye Tales.’

 

“There is a cave by the seashore in Valtos called Uamh nam Brath, where these were concealed. The writer has one which he found as acairs (anchors) on a black house, with upper stone, however, broken in two.”
William Mackenzie

As well as thinking about where querns ended up and in what form they came to be in, I started thinking about the broader historical significance of the quern within Staffin. This led me to think about where the querns may have come from and this line of enquiry took me to Rubha nam Brathairean, the site of an unconfirmed quern quarry by the sea. This is a fascinating and ambiguous site and there is still a lot more to discover as whether this was a quern quarry or not has yet to be 100% confirmed. However after seeing the report written by Oystein Jansen of Bergen University in 2012. I think that this is very likely to be the case;

 

“At Rubha nam Brathairean the position of the quarry below the high tide level, being washed by the waves for centuries, seems to have removed the tool marks (at least, I was not able to find any). Also, most of the quarry faces in the tidal zone are covered by marine organisms. The main outlines of the workings in the quarry are, however, still preserved. Thee circular indents after successfully removed stones, broken blanks left after failed loosening attempts, carved channels and some initial circular grooves...they are all there (gs.1-4 ppt) – telling us about extraction methods similar to Hyllestad. The diameter of the stones quarried is about 35 – 40 cm, which fits with the standard size of hand querns.”

Oystein James Jansen

The Quern, a seemingly simple object that holds immense symbolic and emotional weight has become the main focus of my exploration into the physical form of what a crofter’s memorial might take. Through conversations with members of the Staffin community, academics and researching historical texts I have begun to develop ideas around the form of the quern whether that be in its entirety, in fragments or by its absence and the marks it leaves behind.

Women using a quern, South Uist 1953.

Top stone from a quern found during dive on a shipwreck off the Ascrib islands.

Quern stone in use at Talisker Bay, Skye.

Quern fragment, found in Valtos, Staffin. Deliberately broken and laterally used as roof anchor on a black house.

The visual connection between how we see the moon and the casting of the quern from the quarry covered in marine organisms is immediate. The moon controls, through the tides, when the quarry site (querns) can be seen and the moon by the ebb and flow of the tides has created the erosion that shapes the quarry site, again a cycle that has no end. The drone image of the silicone casting at the quarry are reminiscent of looking up to the sky at the moon, and prehistoric connections are sensed and questions asked about the distance from the moon to the querns. 

Casting at Rubha nam Brathairean using rtv silicone

Drone photograph showing the casting and rings cut into the stone. photo by Tom Smith (lateral North)

Drone photo taken to at 100m showing the casting as a white dot in the centre. Photo by Tom Smith (Lateral North)

Lunar Querns

Lunar landscape litho, photograph of extracted quern from Rubha nam Brathairean and cast replica in black crystalcal-R.

 

 Crofters Memorial Display 2018 

Positive and negative castings from Rubha nam Brathairean. The negative casting is filled with water from Loch leum nam Bradh.