Stone Lives




The above images are available as a postcard © Tabula Rasa 2014

Stone Lives is an artwork that developed from an investigation of riverbank ecology at the meeting point of the Ettrick and Yarrow, at Philliphaugh near Selkirk.


Our arrival at the riverbank in an afternoon in late May coincided with a hatch of Stone Flies – aquatic insects emerging from the water to find a stone to air themselves, and shed their final larval form.


Drawing © Kate Foster 2014

We were there to explore the river junction through movement improvisation, to understand it better as a complex place and to pay attention to more-than-human aspects. We were three dancers  – Merav Israel, Claire Pençak, and Tim Rubidge – and myself as recorder.  The river was low and we could walk on the smoothed rock, ancient mudstones shaped and sifted by ice and water.


Image © Tabula Rasa 2014

We had in mind the idea of a ‘passing-through-place’, a concept developed by an Australian cultural geographer, Leah Gibbs:

“So what I’m trying to get at with the idea of a ‘passing-through place’ is that some places may not be permanently dwelt in, but are extremely significant, vital places none-the-less. Permanent dwelling, fixity, longevity, are not the only ways of forming meaningful relationships with places.” (Leah Gibbs, reference 1,  see previous post)

As a newcomer to dance improvisation, I was entranced by the dancers’ swift and playful development of ideas. We all followed suit, when Tim placed a stone on his head.


Drawing © Kate Foster 2014

As Merav said, placing a stone on your head is a way to know the shape of your skull. What shape of stone fits you best – flat, hollowed, rounded, long?


Drawing © Kate Foster 2014


And how do you walk? My sense was of becoming a taut and aware line, a line moving between the shapes under my feet and the touch of the stone on my head. Attention is drawn to what is above and below. Tim described needing to adopt ‘a lightness of touch – otherwise the rocks got too rocky!’  With great balance, the dancers developed the possibilities of a stone minuet by circling in the forms of an early and stately dance.

Meanwhile Stone Flies were passing through their own sequences, taking flight after many larval forms. They left husks of themselves on the stones, an abandonment to life. Females were flying upriver, dipping into the water to lay eggs.


Photo © Tabula Rasa 2014


Merav was the first to see them, and puzzle over their presence. She described this later:

I was going in a direction no-one else was, I was skipping over stones for a long time … trying to see how far into the river I could go and still be on land. One of my jumps, was so! that I had to bend over because I lost my balance, then I realised there was lots of stuff clinging to the stone I was standing on. Something I have never seen before, so I had to squat down to have a good look at them. They blended into the stone quite well so I had to try to figure out: what is it I am seeing? There was an interesting shape, I couldn’t figure out what was the head and what was the tail so I had to investigate the structure. I imagined there was a bit of a split somewhere, that could be the tail – though the head did not really look like a head, on the other side. The colours – there was a nice pattern of lines, greys, lighter greys, and blacks, almost like a tiger. It really was the colours of the stone itself, and it did not seem like they were moving at all.  So I wondered if they were alive.  And I saw they were everywhere, everywhere on the stones around me.


Photograph © Tabula Rasa 2014

This set me on a trail, I collected husks for some days after – keen to find them before river levels rose. I searched online too, learning that of all the insects that live in water, Stone Flies need the cleanest water. They are ecological indicators of healthy streams, flattened and adapted to be able to cling to stones in rapid currents.  Apart from Trout who devour them, they are best known to fishermen, river ecologists and entomologists.  As one source remarks: “they are rather endearing little creatures once you get to know them”.

The fossil record of Stone Flies stretches far back to the Permian, but their adult life is brief.  A juxtaposition of Stone and Fly offers simultaneity at different timescales – a ‘so-far story’ (see earlier post here).

Stone Lives became an artwork inviting anthropologists at an international conference to share a sense of stone, and life supported.


Stone Lives Installation at Speculative Ground, 2014 (detail, tactile element). Tabula Rasa, 2014


Stone Lives Installation at Speculative Ground, 2014 (detail, audio and drawing elements). Tabula Rasa, 2014



Stone Lives Installation at Speculative Ground, 2014 (detail, drawing). Tabula Rasa, 2014


This work will be documented further. Support from the University of Aberdeen (Knowing From Inside project) allowed presentation at the Anthropological Association Decennial Conference, in Edinburgh June 2014, as part of a collaborative Speculative Ground Project with anthropologists Jen Clarke and Rachel Harkness.  The conference theme was Enlightenment. Stone Lives assisted an artistic exploration of Land Use. Our contribution  re-works anthropocentirc perspectives with an exploration of multiple aspects of place, articulated through Claire Pençak’s new text on Approaching Choreography.

Reference: Gibbs L 2014,  Arts-science collaboration, embodied research methods, and the politics of belonging: ‘SiteWorks’ and the Shoalhaven River, Australia. cultural geographies 21(2) 206-226

 Grateful thanks to support from the funders and conference organisers:






Little Green Book

We are delighted to be able to share this Little Green Book with you which has been imaginatively designed by Felicity Bristow of But ‘n’ Ben Bindery & Press, Maxton.  Click here to open the Little Green Book

The Little Green Book is based on our environmental policy and reflects our activities as a small rural based organisation that runs arts projects and tours performances and exhibitions both near and far. It is a simple achievable policy to help us to start to actively reduce our carbon footprint.

Please do share this Little Green Book with others and use it as a basis for writing your own.

Alongside the Little Green Book we are compiling an online directory of suppliers that we have found and used that have sustainable credentials and clear environmental policies. Please do tell us of suppliers you would like to recommend both locally within the Scottish Borders and beyond the Borders.

Report on Biodiversity and Leader conference, Vienna April 2014

As already reported  three of the Working the Tweed team were able to attend the Biodiversity and Leader conference earlier this month. This report was compiled by Kate Foster, Claire Pençak and Jules Horne.

Leader is an EU fund designed to help rural actors consider the long-term potential of their local region (more about Leader here).

Leader funds are administered by Local Action Groups (LAGs), who choose priorities and select projects proposed by community groups.

The reason behind this conference was that Biodiversity is a relatively low priority, and at risk of being overlooked when the targets are set in the 2014-2020 round.


The conference arose from real commitment to working together across the EU, supporting local initiatives, facilitating exchange and drawing inspiration for existing projects. The conference was the culmination of ‘Biodiversity and LEADER’ – a project led by Austrian organisation Umweltdachverband in cooperation with OAR Regionalberatung GmbH.

Several approaches to the implementation of biodiversity projects into LEADER were presented and discussed. Experts provided insights into the current status of the LEADER approach with respect to the new financing period 2014 – 2020 and informed the audience about important biodiversity topics of relevance to LAGs and local development strategies.

110 delegates attended the conference to listen to talks and to gather ideas for their own projects in three parallel poster sessions where 13 projects from 9 different countries were presented. Working the Tweed was the only UK representative and the only artist led project.

The conference was specifically directed at Austrian context where most delegates came from, but hearing about other projects gave points of comparison.

Power point presentations from the morning sessions , posters from the afternoon sessions and photographs of the event are available online – CLICK HERE.

The proceedings of the conference will be posted shortly on the same site.
All the projects presented at the conference will be featured in an illustrated printed publication which will be available by the end of May 2014.

Some specific points

A small portion of Leader funding goes to environment projects – and only a portion of this supports biodiversity. The reality of the competition between intensive agriculture and biodiversity was recognised. Relentless pressure from developments was understood to be usually given priority over conservation, with too little regard for environmental costs and limits.

It was clear that overall we should expect less EU money for rural funding – but surprising to know that significant amount of budgets never leave Brussels, in part because of the difficulty of obtaining match funding. It was universally agreed that funds are difficult to access and to administer, but hopefully improvements will be made in the new round. Changes were recommended to make it easier for smaller projects to access funds, and also to make LAGs representative of wider population. The way LAGs operate varies in each region.

The presentation by Magnus Wessel from Bund (Friends of the Earth) Germany was particularly  helpful. He reminded us the role biodiversity plays in our lives, and that matters are urgent. He cautioned us to concentrate on what was possible and to expect to deal with conflict (appropriate for the conference location – the Diplomatic Academy). Magnus pointed out the uneasy fit between LEADER competition and sustainability, and between conservation projects and the need to illustrate innovation. He drew out the need to make an emotional connection, suggesting the need for strategies for connecting with a wide public and not just specialists (particularly with young people who may go on to sustain projects).

Vienna slide 3

Image: slide from Magnus Wessel presentation “Local benefits of nature conservation“ vs. “Biodiversity is not for sale“ ?

Vienna slide 4

Image: slide from Magnus Wessel presentation “Local benefits of nature conservation“ vs. “Biodiversity is not for sale“ ?


 Presentation of individual projects

Parallel poster sessions allowed discussion of details that make a project distinctive, albeit within a short ten minute slot.

Highlights brought out included bringing people together, and an emphasis on ‘biocultural’ landscapes. This word represents a shift towards celebrating landscapes that are culturally valued- such as cherry trees, apple orchards, meadows, and of course river-ways.

Challenges identified revolved around maintaining the project over long term, and dependence on voluntary input. It was a shared experience that Leader applications and accounting were laborious – but this was a chance to congratulate those who had persisted in order to make an impact, and had found an activity that was achievable  within the programme.

The posters give overviews and online are a useful resource.

Two projects used ‘Animal Ambassadors’. “WOLF” brings together farmers and ecologists in north-west Spain where wolves are reintroducing themselves. It seems wolves are becoming ‘fashionable’ through their efforts, and a motor for tourism and the economy. Another project from Flanders named high quality beer after Little Owls, giving them a cultural presence in an area where they are in decline. A Slovenian project raised the profile and enjoyment of traditional fruit orchards. We realised the extent of ingenuity and commitment, in finding ways for people to experience and engage with biodiversity. Harnessing local pride and connection makes things feel more relevant.

This process did provide ideas and encouragement. As an artist led project, Working the Tweed was seen to offer a different strategy by forming collaborative partnerships between artists and those concerned with sustainable rural development. We reminded people that we were not involved as artists to make individual artworks, but to facilitate a broader understanding of specialist knowledge that can now be integrated into creative approaches. There was interest in the idea of adopting a catchment approach, and also in the idea of a River Festival to celebrate the return of migrating salmon.

vienna slide 6

Claire Pençak presenting Working the Tweed © Working the Tweed 2014

Catchment Conversations

Catchment Conversations Photo Kate Foster

Catchment Conversations Photo Kate Foster

In early February 2014, Catchment Conversations took place – the concluding event of the Working the Tweed programme. It was a gathering of people with different interests and connections to the Tweed Catchment. We shared views about the Tweed Rivers and discussed how we would like to imagine the future of the Catchment. The event took place in the inspiring studio at Hundalee Mill, the workplace for furniture maker Thomas Hawson on the Jed Water and we were well nourished during the day with  homemade soup , bread and cakes by Jenny Ozwell. Discussion revolved around what was working well on the river and what needed to be improved. We asked people to bring a photograph or image to illustrate both pf these and also an object that represented something about their particular connection to the Tweed rivers by way of an introduction. From the morning discussions, three topics were explored further in the afternoon : • Action towards creating a healthier ecosystem • Actions towards improving renewables in the Catchment • Action towards a better human appreciation of the river Catchment Conversations were framed at the start and end of the day by short presentations by the Working the Tweed artists. We explored what role art projects might play in catchment management and what the lead artists had experienced, working in different artforms. A full summary is available as a pdf by clicking HERE

Presentation at International Biodiversity and LEADER Conference in Vienna, April 3rd.

Two of the four artists from Working the Tweed – Claire Pençak and Kate Foster – are attending the International Biodiversity and LEADER Conference. We will present the project to delegates from across the EU at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna on April 3rd.

This is a great opportunity to raise awareness of the innovative and diverse work that takes place on the rivers of the Tweed Catchment within an international context and to hear about and learn from other European projects exploring issues around biodiversity. We are delighted to have been selected and to be able to showcase the project activities more widely.

Our project is one of several approaches to the implementation of biodiversity projects into LEADER that will be presented and discussed, alongside other projects from Slovenia, Spain Germany France, Belgium, Poland, Austria and Ireland. The conference aims to provide expert insight into the current status of the LEADER approach at different levels with respect to the new financing period 2014-2020, and also information about important biodiversity topics of relevance to Local Action Groups and local development strategies. The organisers state that this will be an opportunity for an international exchange of ideas and experiences as well as for the promotion of best-practice examples from all over Europe. The aim of this conference is to encourage networking and the implementation of biodiversity-related LEADER projects.

Further information (in German) can be seen here and you can download this conference programme (in English) as a pdf:


Conference proceedings will be collated shortly after the meeting (we will post that link in due course).  We will be summarising the project activities and some of the activities on the Tweed, using the poster below.


Summary collated by Kate Foster with images courtesy of Working the Tweed artists, SBEC, Scottish Borders Council and David Kilpatrick.

Involvement in the conference has been made possible by support from Scottish Borders LEADER and Creative Scotland. So thank you to both organisations.


Working the Tweed is delivered by arts organisation Tabula Rasa in partnership with environmental organisations Tweed Forum and Southern Uplands Partnership. The project to date has directly engaged with 1,350 people.
The lead artists are exploring the contemporary river culture of the Tweed Catchment through human and other influences, bringing to the surface some of the less-known worlds, maps, voices and languages of the Tweed. The project creates awareness of the river ways and helps us re-imagine our relationship to the rivers, considering our environmental responsibility as one of the species inhabiting it.

The themes of the Tweed Catchment Management Plan – e.g. Habitats and Species, River Works and Tourism – provided foci for a series of Riverside Meetings and public events, concluding with Catchment Conversations. We held Knowing Your River events at agricultural shows, had a project exhibition, celebrated the tunes of the river through Tweed Sessions and listening projects, inspired reflections on the ecological indicator species via drawing and performance, and documented our partners’ work through interviews and sound mapping.

Social media and a website create a wider community for the project nationally and internationally. The project has been summarised as a DVD, with reflection about collaborative practice and how arts practitioners can contribute to shaping the future of the catchment. We are seeking to continue the work through individual creative projects and community involvement.

Mapping the Sounds of the Tweed Rivers

Listeners all over the world can now tune in to the sound of a Border burn, music and voices, through a new Tweed Rivers soundmap created by the Working the Tweed artists.

Location recordings that can be heard on the sound map include electrofishing on the Teviot, interviews with anglers David Mitchell and Ronnie Glass and river experts including Paxton Netting, Tweed Forum and the Tweed Foundation. The soundmap also includes  Borders music from Kirsty Law, Rachael Hales and the Small Hall Band, and environmental recordings made on burns and rivers, including some from World Listening Day 2013.

The project is part of Working the Tweed, and features recordings made by some of the project artists, including Jules Horne, James Wyness and Claire Pencak. The Tweed Sound Map has come from an international collaboration with Berlin-based Udo Noll from global soundmap radio aporee. Tweed Sound Map

Jules said: ‘radio aporee has field recordings from every corner of the world. You can zoom in on a Google map and hear sounds from that place – it’s very atmospheric and interesting. We wanted to give a flavour of the distinctive sounds and voices of the Tweed catchment, to highlight a sense of connection through the river.’Tweed Sound Map

Udo Noll said: ‘The Tweed soundmap is a great example of international exchange and collaboration, and I especially like how sound and recording is used here. Listening to the Tweed map gives you a strong idea of the relation between landscapes, nature and the people living there.’

The idea for project and theme-based maps on radio aporee came from sound artist John Grznich at the MoKS Centre for Art as Social Practice in Estonia, who linked up with Borders artists when taking part in the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival in Hawick.

The hope is that the Tweed sound map will continue to be added to over time so that it can build up into an archive of voices and river sounds.

To access the sound map, go to

Riverside Meeting 6: Water Resources / Land Use

The theme for our sixth and final Riverside Meeting was Water Resources / Land Use. It took place at at Lees Fishing Shiel, Coldstream on January 21st 2014, and the speakers were Dr David Welsh (Historian); Derek Robeson (Senior Project Officer, Tweed Forum); Mary Morrison (Creative Leader, CABN).
The Lees Fishing Shiel provided welcome warmth and shelter, and our project tables were unfolded for books, papers and refreshments.  The view over the river towards England gave plenty to think about, from riparian boundaries to debatable territory. A goosander, a cormorant, and a flock of guinea fowl were feeding along the river, where a salmon leapt, with intermittent shots from a goose scarer. This final Riverside Meeting focussed on strategies currently being developed in the Scottish Borders for both land use and culture. The session as a whole provided a challenge to how artists can work with complex histories and geographies, and engage with uncertain futures.

Dr David Welsh opened with a review of how the Tweed has been represented historically. Accounts such as Herbert Maxwell’s ( The Story of the Tweed), or WS Crocket, (In Praise of the Tweed); in poetry, by Scott and Will Ogilvie, and in painting, eg by Scott, Kerr and the Glasgow Boys. But what of contemporary representations? These do include of course taxidermy, as illustrated by the walls of the bothy displaying a trophy. Teasingly, David suggested that the fishing pool map could benefit from artistic accuracy. It takes a specialist eye to know what needs to be corrected.

Dr David Welsh, Lees Fishing Shiel, photo Kate Foster

Dr David Welsh, Lees Fishing Shiel (photo Kate Foster)

The border between Scotland and England was often portrayed as being created as a result of wars between these two entities, but David pointed out that the current border had much earlier roots, largely having been established by the 12th century as a result of disputes between much earlier kingdoms and power blocks, including the monastic communities at Lindisfarne, the kingdom of Strathclyde and even Welsh kingdoms.  So, a bit like the landscape itself, the way history is presented is itself subject to cultural vagaries.

David posed a question: where are there contemporary artistic renderings of the border between Scotland and England?

His wealth of detailed local knowledge of river and field told of flux and flow, for example the field name of Dry Tweed (East, Mid and West) marks a changing river course, and helps explain anomalies, such  as why plots of land to the south of the river are Scottish. Possession of the river banks can be traced in records, and far from smoothing out anomalies, the border has the capacity to become more complex, and remain debatable. He pointed out how difficult it had been to resolve land ownership disputes, with England and Scotland having different legal systems.  Thus, if a case were to be heard in the Court of Session in Edinburgh the automatic presumption would be that, since the court there could only rule on matters pertaining to Scotland, that the ownership was Scottish, and if the case were to be heard in an English court the ownership would be presumed to be English. There was a great history of debatable lands.

Developing a Land Use Strategy is a daunting task, given the scale of the problems. Derek Robeson of Tweed Forum is Project leader, piloting this for the Scottish Government in partnership with Scottish Borders Council. Convincing people of the need to change habits of land management is the main tool, and Derek’s experience of working with farmers on integrated land management for over 20 years gives him great authority. A sustainable Land Use Strategy means dealing with wider issues (including climate change – more extreme weather events; food scarcity; biodiversity loss) within the very varied localities of the Scottish Borders. The Land Use Strategy is one of only two pilots in Scotland, and Scotland is almost unique in the world in developing a Land Use Strategy, with only two other countries in the world having done this. The strategy is largely map-based, and Derek presented a number of maps, such as maps of biodiversity hotspots and current farming use of the land.



Derek Robeson at Lees Fishing Shiel (photo by Kate Foster)

The strategy needs to be supported by those who manage large parcels of land, but Derek pointed out how everyone is implicated, as decisions made affect all in the area. Subsequent discussion included how the idea of ecosystem services underpins the process, which means that (for example) a deciduous woodland might become more ‘economic’ if the full value of its ecological contribution is recognised.

On our walk along the river bank, Derek encouraged the idea of 100 year planning (at least!) for woodland is to take shape, but the political reality is that 5 years is as far as policy can often manage. Field and river margins offer a study in how people shape land, and make choices for aesthetic as well as economic reasons that have wider impacts. Copses of trees were originally planted to provide fox coverts for hunting and as shelter belts, but now provide cover for pheasant shooting and,with the recent changes in the weather patterns in the Borders to much wetter winters, help prevent soil erosion – especially helpful on the steepest slopes which are more prone to soil erosion secondary to water run-off.

Working the Tweed Coldstream Lees 4 photos J Horne

Riverbank Walk at Lees Fishing Shiel (photo by Jules Horne)

Mary Morrison of CABN provided an overview and a commentary on the draft Cultural Strategy (link) for the Scottish Borders. This new venture should act as a basis for supporting the cultural sector development. Recognising that creativity is (and should be) unruly, what can be said about the strategy overall? Mary noted that it took place-making as a creative task, and also that there was mention of ecology and land use, though this had been developed in isolation from the land use strategy.

Working the Tweed Coldstream Lees 2 Photo J Horne

Mary Morrison talking at Lees Fishing Shiel (photo by Jules Horne)

Claire Pençak suggested discussion could tease at the idea of cultural landscape, and the idea of a land ethic (as articulated by Aldo Leopold – quote in box) ran through the points we covered.

James Wyness pointed out how the Borders region is not a homogeneous cultural entity, and how folk from the coast identified themselves with other coastal communities rather than with ‘the interior’.

James Wyness spoke about how not all art results in a material product, and how one strand of current arts practice looks at processes between people, so that an outcome might be a meeting or a performance.

Jules Horne reflected on the term ’Land Use’ and its implication of who Land is used by – People. Claire reflected on the possibility of mapping from other perspectives – Otter for example.

Maps as used by the Land Use Strategy attracted interest. Firstly the one about Place seemed to have a very restricted scope. It locates places visited, constructed as tourist sites, protected or designed. Not even wildlife reserves or walks (Abbeys Way for example) were represented. Secondly, Claire said she found them too static. However Derek assured her in combination they can show change.

Mike Scott commented that if one issue stood out to bring people together to consider land use, it would be flooding.

What follows are further points in the discussion Kate picked up on (comments welcome – this is not intended as a complete record).

Land Use and Land Reform are separate in ongoing political processes. But, we realised how large estates do play a large part in shaping land use and can take the long view, but breaking them up might not have positives in terms of sustainable land use, as forcing landowners to sell might result in land being  traded as an international commodity and managed by people with no interest in the life of people in the Borders. I learnt from this line of thinking, and also Derek’s description of the ‘taste’ of the Tweed being sugar, and slavery’s role in developing large country estates, whose design is an aesthetic standard to this day.

Aesthetics play a large part in shaping decisions about Land Use, but neither strategies articulate this very specifically (though Social is included in Land use). Derek’s comment that what looks good is often good is fascinating. How do we learn to see? to see differently than received ideas? What allows people to see process, to understand abstract shaping influences? How can this be reflected in art practice?

Anthropocentrism means, for example, that place can be constructed as entirely for humans, which closes down insight into people within environment, with tangled and complex interactions. Following on from this, what happens in the Borders should be placed within wider social and ecological contexts that take the debate beyond just the Borders region and narrowly human concerns. We need conceptual and poetic tools to allow us to engage with such complexity.

Perhaps artists in rural areas have a tacit knowledge about people within environment, and being assertive about the value of this knowledge is important. This is undermined If values of success are imported from conventional art world that bases it’s notions of worth on an urban sensibility. This leads on to thinking of the arts community in the Borders as having a distinctive competence that is different, but no less valuable, from those who work in a largely urban setting. An example would be the project of ‘Working the Tweed’ that allowed for  productive and sustained conversations between artists and a wide variety of land users.

Ecosystem services contains idea of exchange and value, and this could be a vein for artistic production.

Symbolic action, the notion of process and also exploration of sensory experience through moving, are expected outcomes for performance and dance, but not necessarily part of a visual artist repertoire. Working across art-forms in the project Working the Tweed has allowed public engagement to include visual props with performance, or listening in abstract to exist alongside detailed attention to words used. River culture should inhibit fixed viewpoints, but help make suggestions about aesthetic choices and possibilities of ecological action.

The Tweed Sessions


The Tweed Sessions were conceived as a series of events which would connect musicians with each other, musicians with tunes and songs, and tunes and songs with other songs and tunes. The overarching context was provided by the River Tweed or more specifically, important physical locations and produced spaces with symbolic significance such as the source and mouth of the river and Borders sites with historical or cultural significance.

In addition it was decided to make use of, investigate, and develop if possible the culture and conventions of the traditional music session, its habitus if you like, celebrating in particular the culture of young people in relation to traditional music and how connections are established with more experienced players or players from different musical idioms. These were to be in effect sound gatherings – sharings or ceilidhs in the traditional sense of a participative social meeting where anyone and everyone is invited to do a turn should they wish to. To frame these gatherings within an art context was a less explicit aim given that the cultural weight of the sessions would lie on the side of musical expression and performative group dynamics, but the aim was nonetheless important to a way of thinking about art, art objects, artistic processes and about what might constitute a local and regional definition of socially engaged art.

Early expectations were reasonable and none too ambitious: to ensure that the locations would serve as suitable venues, comfortable and amenable to good music- making; to attempt to celebrate the Borders repertoire in particular and within that project to explore what a Borders repertoire might consist of in terms of both musical material and styles of playing. The core of the sessions was to be young people from The Small Hall Band, a regional group of young people led by adults and experienced players which over the course of its performances and outreach activities has entertained all sections of the Borders community, on both sides the Tweed, and which has regularly produced professional musicians, many of which are currently making an impact internationally with their work. For a sparsely populated region with travel and communication difficulties we are well served in this respect.

The Innerleithen session was played out at the Union Club within the context of the Innerleithen Music Festival. The Paxton event took place outdoors in the sunny courtyard of Paxton House. Another session at Berwick was held in a Bohemian-style café above a music shop, at Tweedsmuir in a remote village hall and at Fairnilee in an old mill next to the river, used nowadays as a fishing bothy. All were close enough to the river to be conceptually meaningful and each had its own specific importance within the working life of the Borders. For example Paxton House is a building of architectural and historical interest open to the public, Tweedsmuir a fine representative example of the Borders village hall, an essential cornerstone of many rural communities. Fairnilee is a historically significant working mill and a place of rest and repose for Tweed anglers. The Gordon Arms keeps alive regular music sessions in a relatively remote but historically significant corner of the Borders. Each venue affords the players its own unique acoustic properties and spatial architecture. As an educational or formative exercise, this is invaluable for young players as they learn to negotiate the idiosyncracies of given spaces, making best use of physical features to produce a successful listening environment. The ability to make a place sing is eventually a hallmark of good professionals.

What emerged in terms of the social connections will ultimately be determined over time and is probably unmeasurable. People met, played music and enjoyed the experience. Now more people know each other than before and more musicians are aware of fellow musicians, again on both sides the Tweed. Without going into the small details of every session, in terms of repertoire the picture is more difficult to frame, though more interesting as a result. In researching the notion or fact of a Borders repertoire and gathering representative tunes I assumed initially that Borders musicians would meet and easily play Borders tunes all day long. But outside of the celebrated Border Ballad repertoire the notion of a specifically Scottish or Northumbrian Borders repertoire of tunes is arguably a thin one. There are of course several well known tunes associated with people and places, a common situation with respect to giving titles to older pieces.

There are if you like two levels of autonomy here: one where a session is capable of playing (all night long) only tunes from the locale or wider region. This might be seen as a hypothetical construct, but I’ve attended sessions in Aberdeenshire, Shetland, Donegal, County Clare and Brittany where players have successfully challenged themselves to play only local tunes over long periods. The second level of autonomy is where the players (obviously) have a common bundle of tunes, but it’s their own bundle, specific to the Borders for example, and a different bundle from the tunes played at a regular Inverness or Fife session. So what we can conclude for certain is that there does exist, in common with every region I’ve ever visited in Scotland and Ireland, a repertoire of favoured tunes. Many of these are of Borders origin, others are contemporary tunes brought in from the cities and from overseas, having found their way into the sessions because a handful of young people devoted time to learning them. There are also a growing number of new tunes and occasionally songs of recent origin, written by very young players and by seasoned non-professional players, or ‘enlightened amateurs’ if you prefer. Without this group of devotees, sessions would run the risk of dying out completely as more and more professional musicans shun sessions in favour of paid performances.

Although many tunes have passed through and circulated around the region, leaving their mark on local players, only a few are of local or regional provenance. The majority originate from the core session repertoires of Ireland and other Scottish regions, notably Shetland and the West Coast. Speaking of Shetland, there exists, on the face of it somewhat unusually, a strong link between Scotland’s Deep South and Far North, a relationship which has been strengthened in recent times by the Small Hall Band’s 2013 summer tour to Shetland and by regular ‘Shetland tune’ sessions in Yetholm. Although I’m not an expert in this field, I can see the similarities between Shetland and the Borders in terms of their relative isolation within a strong historical and cultural identity, though the similarities end there because of the fact of the Shetland’s island geography has enabled it to generate a distinctive home-grown repertoire throughout the mid- to late-20th century, strengthened considerably as notable players have emerged and become ambassadors for the islands’ music. Finally, though this would need further research and field recording analysis, elements of the clarity, accuracy and metrical rigour of Shetland fiddling have found their way into  the playing of several young Borders fiddlers. This is very much as it should be.

Having said all that, certain Borders tunes and songs did emerge as popular across many of the sessions: The Fair Flower of Northumberland (at Innerleithen in particular) and the tunes Teviot Bridge, Roxburgh Castle, Lindisfarne, Kale Water and The New Road to Bowden.

Scottish Borders Council has been prescient in funding traditional music officers and teachers in both song and instrumental tuition. These tutors are of the very highest calibre and have been responsible for keeping the tradition alive. The funding of peripatetic tutors became the catalyst which set Shetland up as a major location for their own and visiting young people to learn traditional music. The Borders is very much a place of flow and passage, more so than Shetland, and as such it has different mechanisms for absorbing outside influences as far as the instrumental repertoire goes. The quality of cultural flow has been influenced, positively in my opinion, by the proximity of Universities, in particular that of Newcastle, which teaches traditional music to degree level. Young people are studying, learning, then returning to the Borders to teach and regenerate the culture of traditional musical as new generations of yonger players emerge. This is a living tradition, visible at many of the Tweed sessions as tunes were passed around, learned, relearned, combined, modified, confused and rearranged, again as one would expect from any healthy traditional musical culture.

Finally, some reflections on knowing and moving along the river, thoughts which would sit comfortably in a more poetic discourse about the river. I’ve found myself regularly moving from an attitude of detachment to one of engagement with the river. I’ve spoken with others, river professionals and artists, about this very ordinary but nonetheless delicious dialectic and have discovered that such an oscillation of attitudes towards the river is common to all who fish around under the surface, both literally and figuratively. From analysing and rationalising we find it refreshingly simple to wander off into less rational thinking about how the river functions as an imaginary as opposed to a materially produced space or process. I’ve heard talk of the river as a vehicle or organic entity which carries the sounds of the tunes from source to mouth and I’ve overheard notions of fish and other animals carrying vital and creative energy from mouth to source and back upriver. As we sat in Fairnilee bothy, warm and glowing from the music, all the time listening beyond to the river raging a few feet from where we sat, some of these ideas were elegantly expressed by one of the company whose ‘turn’ was a short spoken contribution about how workers at the mill might well have sat and played fiddle for relaxation during their break, no doubt ‘playing off’ against the sound of the river and the ambient environmental soundscape. This thought turned to how the sessions have taken the music upstream and and down again, how the river has been the means of musical transportation, how the sessions and the river have merged in encouraging us to listen to the river in new ways, that same river, always visible as we walk or drive around the Borders. Reflections like these encapsulate the ethos and perhaps even the aesthetic of the sessions, above and beyond considering music as simply tunes and songs, ultimately empowering and lending added value to the whole exercise.

Music is the art of sound and traditional music in particular, recursively re-embedded into the environment from which it arose, in this case the land and its rivers, offers us not only a material content – the tunes and their instrumentation – but also a profound semiotic content in offering to player and listener alike what it is that these tunes and songs represent in relation to the land and the rivers, and in what the land and its rivers mean to the people.


The Berwick Session – photo by David Kilpatrick

audio examples of the Innerleithen session can be had here

– of Kirsty law lilting a Border Ballad by the riverside 1 2 3

– of Rachel Hales playing Border tunes on fiddle and viola by the riverside 1 2 3 4

Rethinking the border

Cinema Sark
Cinema Sark, John Wallace
photo, James Wyness

Borderlands: The Historical and Cultural Significance of the Anglo-Scottish Border

13 December 2013, Gallery North, Northumbria University.
Convened by Dr Ysanne Holt (Northumbria University) and Dr Angela McClanahan (Edinburgh College of Art)

On 13 December Claire, Jules and I attended ‘Close Friends’, the first in an ESRC seminar series hosted by Northumbria University on the theme of assessing the impact of greater Scottish autonomy on the North of England. The programme can be consulted here and an account by our close friends in Dumfries and Galloway, who spoke at the seminar, can be read here

My impression of the event was that it offered a forum for meaningful and incisive discussion on a range of topics that are not easily covered by those representations of debates (dressed up as real debates) which take place in television studios. Nor are such meaningful discussions likely to happen in the village and town halls of the Borders. This was yet another excellent opportunity, following the series of discussion events hosted by the Environmental Arts Festival Scotland in the autumn of 2013, to listen to a range of speakers covering topics of critical importance to the margins, edges, centres and borderlines in, around and between the counties of Southern Scotland and the shires of Northern England.  The complexity of cultural, social and economic relationships between the regions was aptly described as a set of superimposed Venn diagrams, not dissimilar to a living ecosystem.

Without echoing too much what has been said in The Commonty (above), we learned that the whole notion of ‘North’ is up for fresh discussion in the light of moves towards Scottish independence. Regardless of the referendum result, preparations, both practical and intellectual, will have to be made by those regions adjoining Scotland. Both Northumberland and Cumbria might very soon, in the face of possible Scottish independence or at least a process of moving towards greater autonomy, find itself on the extreme Northern fringes of a different England, itself independent of Scotland. And paradoxically or if you prefer, reasonably, professionals are looking with great interest at topics of mutual interest to regions on either side of the borderline: land use and (crucially) food production, tourism, transport, cultural strategies, not to mention differing policies, attitudes and initiatives relating to health and education. In addition Northumberland and Cumbria might themselves be forced into a new East/West dialogue, again looking at areas of mutual interest in the wake of their (possible) increasing isolation from London following the production of new abstract spaces along the border.

As a discussion around the arts and individual arts projects we were treated to illustrated accounts of projects from Dumfries and Galloway (John Wallace’s Cinema Sark, shown in the image above), North Northumberland (Northumbrian Exchanges) and the ghost town of Riccarton near Hawick. There is a long and deeply embedded tradition of cross-border cultural merging and collaboration, a well-oiled machinery of processes and institutional methodologies that are set to grow and develop over time in spite of national political changes. There is no University of the Borders which represents the needs of the creative and cultural community on the Scottish side – any notion of advocacy or mediation on the part of Edinburgh or Glasgow is fanciful. It would therefore be apposite (and again wonderfully paradoxical) to look to institutions like Northumbria University for such advocacy and mediation, not only because they have already begun the work of cross-border collaboration, but more importantly because doing so subverts the notion of border as a produced space implying exclusion, exclusivity and divisiveness.

Any discussion of Borders and Borderlands is of great interest to projects like Working the Tweed, for obvious reasons relating to the topography and political geography of the river, less obviously perhaps in view of the fact that Scotland’s Land Use Strategy is currently being piloted in the Scottish Borders and Aberdeenshire. The Borders pilot, in adopting an ecosystem approach, will be considering the following:-

•Provisioning services: e.g. food, fibre

•Regulating services: e.g. water quality, soil carbon

•Supporting services: e.g. biodiversity

•Cultural services: e.g. recreation, sense of place pilot looking at cultural strategy as a subset of the main heading.

While all of these areas are of interest to artists like ourselves engaged with a working river, the last field of investigation sits especially well alongside many of the key points discussed at the seminar. This study will undoubtedly be met with great enthusiasm by the ‘cultural sector’, which includes artists and arts administrators working in the region, but the initiative also carries the potential to encourage new perceptions among the wider community of scientists, educators, landowners, food producers and, hopefully, politicians. We look forward with to Northumbria University’s proposed conference in 2014.

James Wyness

Indicator species

Ecologists have taken four species to act as indicators of the ecological health of the Tweed catchment: Salmon, Lamprey, Water Crowfoot and Otter. Conversations with specialists at Riverside Meetings prompted me to make a series of drawings. These were ink on perspex, and were shown in the project space at Harestanes last October.  Combined with field visits, making these drawings let me develop knowledge and become more observant. I now also understand these species better within my own life – as indications of time of year, of place, of change.

Water crowfoot


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

In summer Water Crowfoot (various species of Ranunculus – the buttercup family) can grow into great mats that include other plants. I learnt these are called ranunculion  – assemblages that can alter river flow and sedimentation pattern, sheltering the locality downstream. How had I never noticed them up till now?

I learnt the five species found in the Tweed Catchment have underwater leaves with varied branching patterns, examples below.




Details from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

These species show great plasticity – their form is very variable according to environmental conditions. Water Crowfoot readily hybridises, so its precise identification is complicated. I need to look closer to see patterns in ranunculion.


Photograph by Kate Foster 2013


Three types of Lamprey spawn in the rivers of the Tweed Catchment: Brook, River and Sea. The photo below shows electrofishing at a fish rescue by The Tweed Foundation and Tweed Forum at Eddleston Water in July 2013, where mature lamprey were found.


Photograph by Kate Foster 2013

Primitive jawless fish, that I had never before seen. Through google I learnt they sift microscopic organisms from silt in the riverbed in the larval form.


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

The larger two species (River and Sea Lamprey) mature and migrate to the estuary. They are parasitic and attach to fish to suck their flesh.


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Each of the three species has its own characteristic mouthparts (diatoms slipped into the picture).


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

The drawing became about what lampreys eat, and what eats them.


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Spawning time is when lamprey are most visible – look out for birds gathering to feast at the river’s edge in spring.



Photograph by Kate Foster 2013 with acknowledgements to The Tweed Foundation

Scientists at The Tweed Foundation explained to us what a fish-scale can reveal – you can see more here  about how the scales of Atlantic Salmon show how they move to cold northern waters to feed and grow.


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

 The drawing above is taken from a prediction of expanding scope for navigability, opening the arctic up for human commerce. I have learnt that the Tweed is one of the best salmon rivers anywhere – and also that researchers are speculating about future patterns of Salmon migration in a warming Arctic.


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

As the Arctic opens up to ships, what paths will these cold-water migrants take? Can they adapt?


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Researchers do not leap to conclusions: – they take a long view, and trust to salmon’s resilience.  I am chilled all the same.



Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Otter on the Tweed Catchment are becoming more common, but it takes skill to interpret the signs they leave.


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

What for example is the difference between otter or mink scat? or dog and otter footprints?


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013


Detail from Indicator Species series © Kate Foster 2013

Infra-red videos used in camera traps give more information into how otters behave.

Findlay Ecology have made a long-term study of a natal holt, where otter cubs are nursed. It was found that that the male otter regularly stayed in the same holt as the breeding female and her cubs.


Image © Findlay Ecology Services

Now in my mind, being an otter becomes a sociable kind of thing.  I imagine the parents underground with their cubs, and traversing long sections of river to maintain territory and fishing rights.