Meeting a Legend

This week I had the privilege of meeting an artist I came into contact with via the medium of this blog. The opportunity for making new creative connections has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my residency here at the mill, and I’m looking forward to the possibility of future collaborations with artists, poets, writers and musicians.

Sheila Macfarlane  (click here to view her website ) works from her boathouse studio in the windswept and beautiful village of  Tangleha, just north of St Cyrus. Inspiration is abundant; from the secret landscapes beneath the sea to the rugged hills and ancient woodlands that surround her home. I came here to talk to Sheila about local lore, and more specifically about the legend of Finella, a narrative which inspires us both.

Followers of this blog, and indeed anyone who ventured along to my Barry Mill ‘Weir’d Walk’ at the start of this year, may recall this story. Finella was an east coast noblewoman, a huntress, and what Sheila terms a ‘late Pict’: a strong and daring woman who killed a Scottish king in revenge for the murder of her son. This is a legend firmly rooted in fact, and the landscape is dotted with the hard evidence of her residency: place names, ruined towers and tree-studded mounds.

What fascinates me is the ending to her story. Having killed Kenneth II with a crossbow at Fettercairn, Finella leapt from the waterfall at what is now called the Den of Finella, near St Cyrus, to evade his troops. Did she drown or did she survive to fight another day? We’ll never know.

I visited the Den recently and the steepness of the gorge is breathtaking. The waterfall drops for a distance of some 65 feet into the thundering river. The steep rocky
slopes are covered in thick woodland and it is a haven for den-of-finella-2orchids and other rare plants. To be pursued through such a landscape must have been terrifying. In some versions of the tale, Finella swings through the tops of the trees, earning her a reputation as a sorceress. My own opinion is that desperate times call for desperate measures!

Sheila has captured the strength, earthiness and dignity of this woman in two large   wood/linocuts stand almost 2590cm  high and 760cm  wide. During my visit I was lucky enough to view the life-size prints, one  of Finella  standing on a tree stump, and the other of her diving headfirst into the water. She is accompanied in the first image by a black feral cat. The detail is exquisite, portraying not just the female form but the power of bone, sinew and muscle beneath the skin. (A passion of mine, if you’ve read my book!)

The designs were made by first printing the texture of huge slices of tree onto thick  Japanese paper. Linoleum was cut to match the wooden shapes and the carving was completed on the lino before being printed on to thin tissue. Something of Sheila’s passion for fusing artistic media (and her joie de vivre ) comes through in her description of how the printing was effected.

“No printing press was used. I printed them by donning a pair of clean white socks and dancing !”

I think Finella would have approved!


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