Notations of Islandness: Scottish Cultural Work, Enterprise, and “Remote Place” Narratives
Lynda Harling Stalker, PhD (St. Francis Xavier University) and Kathryn A. Burnett, PhD (University of the West of Scotland)
Over the last decade, our research collaboration has involved looking more closely at island art and craft economies, but especially the sociological category of identity and the practice of cultural working. We explore the tensions of living and doing cultural work on islands, particularly Scottish ones. In this blog we reflect on the signifiers and the complicities of islandness as “specialness” and “creativity.” We do this by examining narratives—texts and accounts—both internal and external to island creative and cultural work experience. What interests us most especially is where these textual codes and narratives overlap, and the “in-betweenness” of accounts that help frame small rural islands in special creativity terms.
Islands are places and people but are also things and experiences. Our work over the past decade has focused on creative-making as good work in island, on islands, of islands, and for islands. We have examined more closely how creative products of islands—including crucially the artists/creatives themselves—are imbued to varying degrees with allure; and a specialness that signifies as “enchantment”. Narratives of island enterprise and economies from various domains (media, policy, and positionality) all privilege variously this allure, this mystical quality, as vibrancy, often as specificity and in the capacity to surprise. Our research on cultural work with island artists and crafters enhanced our own understanding of how enchantment narratives come into being but also how they are circulated and complexly purposed.
Our wider rural island cultural work research focus currently is threefold:
1. Island cultural work, including in Scotland, is increasingly commonplace often perceived as a growth sector. The creative/cultural economy field and its growth is underpinned by narratives of ambition, confidence, and success. We have spent some time most especially looking at most especially the interface in such narratives of both (a) “making in place” and (b) “place-making” and these continue to offer exciting fields of research focus for us.
2. Small island, remote-rural, cultural working success is understood and gauged variously and therefore models of creative enterprise “success” are not simply transferable. This is especially the case where cultural working is informed by and informing of precarity, marginality, and validation. The lived experience of cultural-worker inequities remains a very real concern.
3. Cultural workers on Scotland’s islands experience a further nuancing of their cultural- worker identity in regard of their experiencing of place, particularly in their articulating and projecting aspects of rural and indeed ‘remote’ islandness. Cultural work is always undertaken in places and in islands this placeness of creative and cultural island activity is especially significant. Certain tropes / signifiers dominate narratives and notations of island creativity and its success, not least of which is enchantment.
Islands are often articulated as positively transformative. They are also widely understood as challenging and limiting; conditioned (not least here in Scotland) both by the physicality and the socioeconomics of rural, island places. The materiality of both islandness and cultural work is situated within the broader dominating celebratory narratives of small islands as creative and cultural making places, yet this risks a masking of other experience and account. This is building on over 30 years of working in and with island communities in regard to rural identity, community, and policy.
We should take care to step away from tendencies that essentialise islanders or indeed islandness, however (Burnett and Harling Stalker, 2021). Not all people resident on islands claim islander identity nor is it conferred upon them. The fixedness, or otherwise, of islandness as an idea, a sensation, or indeed a condition has been critiqued across island studies and within other arenas. As our own and others research has shown, the sense of island specialness remains deeply anchored to images, accounts, narratives, texts, and cultural expression of island creative economies. Narratives of experiencing islandness as a cultural worker (i.e., an island resident making/doing arts, culture and creativity as work) circulate freely, and persist as that of an alluring, embodied lived experience of “good work in a good place.” These narratives occur as both personal/private commentaries as well as more formalised public and promotional statements.
As we have argued elsewhere, this anchoring is informed by experiencing islandness as both distance and proximity whereby the spaces and practices of islandness offer a heightened “metaphysical sensation” (Conklin 2007) and this for us was highly suggestive of what Smith (1999) has termed an “enchanted orbit.” Bennett (2001: 37) suggests that such enchantment “requires a cultivated form of perception, a discerning and meticulous attentiveness to the singular specificity of things” but furthermore enchantment is most likely to occur through tangible items, things, or what she would later call vibrant matter (Bennett 2010). One can never be sure when this object will appear and strike us; we are “provoked by a surprise” (Bennett 2001: 104).
Not unsurprisingly, arts and crafts work are claimed therefore as a realm of work that is beyond the mundane where, as Luckman (2015) argues, the “aura” lies not so much in the artefact itself but “more in the process of making.” For Luckman, making reminds us of our agency within the physical world and while our re-enchantment “may be most obviously manifest in the object, it is for these reasons that I argue that the deeper, more powerful sense of enchantment here lies in the making process itself” (Luckman 2015: 83).
As we have already noted, the interplay of the specialness aspects of distance and proximity that island places often seem to signify most especially is well recognised and we certainly experienced much of this within our own research interviews and fieldwork. In our research examining island cultural workers’ accounts of their art and craft-making and their island identity-making, we examined most notably cultural-worker narratives of islands as being special and good places to make good work. We have explored this elsewhere (Harling Stalker and Burnett 2016; Burnett and Harling Stalker 2018, 2021) but for now enchantment offers us a useful terminology by which we can further interrogate the situated experience and identities of island cultural work, i.e., art, craft, and other creative expression in regard to what Massey has termed the “specificity of place” and it is to this we turn to now.
Place specificity is important to identity formation as Massey elaborates:
Places are collections of those stories, articulations within the wider power-geometries of space. Their character will be a product of those intersections within that wider setting, and of what is made of them. And, too, of the non-meetings-up, the disconnections and relations not established, the exclusions. All this contributes to the specificity of place. (Massey 2005: 125)
Massey demonstrates how place becomes not only about the stories that are told, but also about this boundary-building that both confers and confirms identity. Massey’s work also offers a sense of appreciating what is not there and the “in-between”. Whose stories can be told and whose are left silent? Who is part of the place and who is not? This boundary-building through narrative is especially salient when examining islandness.
Cultural work is typified by a capacity to create and circulate symbolic, aesthetic, or creative goods and services (Banks 2007; Banks et al. 2013). We recognise that attempting to explain cultural work experience is a shifting and contingent process, not least in reference to Scotland’s various and layered island localisms. As others have shown, creative and cultural industries are championed across rural Scotland and share much with experiences elsewhere, and indeed “remote/rural” enterprise, not least on islands where community and social enterprise are crucial to the locational confidences and the sustaining of such economies, as Burnett and Danson (2017; 2022) have explored in some depth, again for Scotland.
To take one example we direct you to the view of Hebridean social enterprise entrepreneur Dana McPhee (as interviewed for Social Investment Scotland, 2021). As co-founder of Uist Wool on the tiny island of Grimsay Dana attributes the wool mill’s success and endeavor as an exercise around making good choices not least in regard of scale for the local island place conditions: “We’re being selective … We’re slightly different in the way we do it from others but that’s good … because then we are able to shape quite a unique market for our yarn […] it’s very small scale … it’s a handmade product.” Understanding success comes from several measures in small island settings. The integrity of what is done locally deserves acknowledgement but also, as Burnett and Danson (2022) have shown, it offers insight to claims of what constitutes a sense of island assets as the ‘commons’ of creative economies. What is understood as success involves both the individual people involved and their expertise. There is tacit knowledge, and embedded energies that contribute to a confidence articulated from within island communities and their economies to both embrace and resist what is known to work locally, i.e., “here”.
Smith’s enchanted orbit, as a concept, can indeed be applied to island and remote, rural, creative economy and cultural-work experience. Our interest is to look forward and critique further the precarity of cultural-economic logic within islands that can see as Smith suggests, “… special places spiral down from their enchanted orbits unless their extraordinary nature is continually reproduced” (Smith 1999: 22). One clear example is how over-tourism as experienced by places such as the isle of Skye is compounded by “over-mediatization”. Simply, and we all recognise this in our shared work, there needs to be a concerted effort to ensure that places maintain and indeed fulfil “enchantment” expectations. How this is done, by whom, and to what ends, of course, is where the complex complicities and negotiated realities are lived and experienced.
In conclusion, we recognise remote, rural, and island cultural work is variously co-operative, educational, critical, and transformative. It is also recognised to be highly contingent on social and cultural capital, frequently precarious and sometimes debilitating for oneself. Demands are made of its specialness and for cultural work to be understood as good work. There are intense expectations of cultural work’s flexibility, creative freedom, and inherent expressiveness, not least as being particularly identity-affirming for the worker, for the work, and for the site of cultural labour production and its consumption of place. Much of this expectation maps onto our understanding and expectation of small and rural Scottish islands too—energising, adaptive, expressive, and identity-affirming.
Cultural work and its mediatisation have powerfully underpinned global discourse and visual narratives of small islands as spaces and sites of enchantment and of enhancement: islands persist as interesting, alluring, celebratory, productive, and other spaces to be in and to consume. This sighting (representing), citing (referencing), and site-ing (locating) is undertaken (consciously, or not) by an expanding body of island cultural workers themselves as locational geographies show artists, designers, media professionals, marketing, and others working successfully in island communities. This is a success story—it is also competitive and brings its own sustainability agenda for the islands, the culture, and the creative people involved.
Finally, cultural workers across a range of small, island, remote-rural sectors and enterprise inform, stimulate, entertain, engage, and facilitate a wider consumption of island culture and environments that is rewarding, celebratory, and validating. This includes our own championing and complicities as researchers and educators and our interface here within and in partnership with island communities. Our own checks must lie within continuity and collaborative research within island communities but also not least in the privilege to share our research explorations with our peer community, and with small island knowledge and experience more broadly.
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Banks, M., Gill, R., & Taylor, S. (2013). Theorizing Cultural Work: Labour, Continuity and Change in the Cultural and Creative Industries. London.
Bennett, J. (2001). The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton University Press.
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Social Investment Scotland (2021). "Creative Finance Options for the Creative Industry, with guest Dana McPhee, co-founder of Uist Wool, Grimsay, Scotland" 18th June 2021, Online. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v3nqHjkzolw