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  • Writer's pictureSarah McCartney

Autumn days on Bryher and preparing to finish my MA ...

This post is about my stay on Bryher this September but it is also the start of me trying to gather in and understand my working process because I've become very scattered over the last year or so. I write for myself but I share because having an audience, no matter how small, makes me speak more clearly. Also it's a story and stories are for sharing.

Every year at the end of the summer I go to Bryher, the smallest inhabited island of the Isles of Scilly. Beautiful Bryher, a place of rest, healing and inspiration. When I'm there life is simple. I don't listen to the news, my phone gets forgotten and the world becomes small as days are spent wandering, swimming, kayaking, beach combing and drawing. Last year I was so thankful for the break it was enough just to be there. I didn't draw. But this year my intention was to reconnect with my practice and restart my studies. When I booked back in November I knew I had to get myself there and I needed time but what would I do? No idea.

Simply trust something would happen if I let go of everything else and payed attention.

With this aim I slowly drifted back into my practice over the months, drawing a bit, reading and writing a bit and I made six concertina sketchbooks.

On 1st September I made the journey to Bryher taking, along with a few other comforts, my kayak, swimming bag, canvas tent and the six sketchbooks. Three weeks should have been enough time to get some work done. But the first two weeks were taken up with the Scilly Swim Challenge, which I kayak for, and catching up with the many lovely friends who were out there at the same time as me. In the end I was only alone for the last five days of my stay. But each of those five days I walked down to Popplestones and I drew.

Popplestones is a boulder strewn beach and magical pool of water cradled by rocks on the west side of the island, ten minutes walk from the campsite. The headland of Crow Island is the south west side and Shipman Head Down is to the north and there is a narrow gap facing west that opens up to the Atlantic. Because of the narrow neck and the thick forests of thong weed and kelp that grow there the roaring power of the Atlantic is calmed to a quiet ripple that spreads out across the pool to gently lap on the shore.


Atlantic insistent and relentless coming in, coming in, coming in. But the arms of Popplestones calm Atlantic to gentle ripples. They reach out slowly across the pool landing, small laps on the shore. Silky slap on wrack. A creeping tide. From the rocks looking into the water waving meadows. Clear and deep. Remembering this mornings swim.

For many years it's been my favourite place to swim. The water is so clear I get vertigo and feel slight fear at the deepness but I love swimming out towards the neck feeling the power of the open sea so close. I've always been fascinated by the seaweeds that grow there. The thick blankets of rich umber and ochre weeds seem to be so much more intense than those that grow on the mainland. Its a special place and I decided Popplestones was where I wanted to focus my study. I thought maybe I would be filling my sketchbooks with seaweed studies.

But on the day my last friend left I went exploring and as I walked across Popplestones I found a dead gannet. I sat for a while with this magnificent bird. Saddened by its death wondering why she died. I didn't want to leave her alone on the shore but I walked on. All around the island stopping to swim, collect shells and watch seals.

I am here.

Rushy Bay. Swim and swim again. Lie in and under the water looking up at the sky. Green, blue, gold, silver. Glide, sweep, blow bubbles, caress, stroke, let the water adore and love me. Between swims wander along sugar sand and scattered shell lines. Slowing down to island pace, desperate for it but it takes time to take time. Shell hunting and swimming are the way in. Sun shines through small gaps in the cloud occasionally throwing warmth over sea chilled skin. Walk on to Dropy Nose past the hammocks. A ramshackle arrangement of ghost nets, rope and driftwood lashed together over the years by the older ones and maybe some creative parents. Full of children. I remember our children years ago doing the same. I watch seals lying in the quiet waters of Inner Neck of Gerwick. I watch as the seals twist and roll together. Backs arching and sleek. Noses up. Touching. Nose to nose. A seal kiss. I can hear them snorting. Realise they are the best swimming teachers I ever need. Walk on. Samphire, sea beat, orache, granite, lichen, tide receding revealing seaweeds. The colour of the weed is different. The colours are brighter.

I am here.

I didn't think of drawing when I first found her but later that evening I knew I would go back the next day and I knew this was my study. For the next five days I sat with her drawing and keeping vigil.

Protecting her body from curious people and scavengers I stayed with her as she was lifted further up the beach on each high tide. I drew her even when my body ached from crouching for hours. Every morning I wondered if she would still be there. On the third day the springs reached their peak and she was laid to rest. The elements slowly buried her and she became rock and sand wrapped in a delicate shroud of weed. As I drew her over the days the shock of finding death in this beautiful place became love and acceptance.

When a friends cat killed a male blackbird a year or so back she asked 'did i want it to draw?' The bird was broken and bloody. I almost said no. Unlike the birds I'd drawn before he was not a perfect specimen. Feathers were ripped out and ragged, skin was broken and bruised. I didn't want to look but I stayed with it and I drew what I saw and over time I saw beauty.

Drawing takes time. Giving time and attention to anything leads to love.

I stayed with the gannet and as I drew I loved. The living being she was, gliding effortless over waves. All the gannets I've ever seen falling from the sky, spear thrust into water, hunting fish, frenzied diving, again, again, again. White bird. Whiter than wave, whiter than bone lone white speck against grey slab sky. Three tied with ghost fishing line, dirty, drowned together, Off the Scillonian eye to eye, Blue stone beak, bleached skull. This broken bag of feathers and flesh wrapped in weed.

Moved by the sea and scavengers I never touched her.

Of the many birds I've collected and drawn over the years this was the first one I've drawn where it fell without interfering in the natural process of decay.

And as I was drawing on Popplestones the only bits of news from the outside world that filtered through to me were the reports that thousands of seabirds were dying on the east coast. Over fishing and pollution meant no fish. Starving birds were washing up on our eastern shores. Did this gannet starve to death? I felt complicit.

I grieve for everything. Every day I am grieving. For every rooted, feathered, furred and scaled living thing that is lost and being lost. The death of this one beautiful bird holds these losses for a moment and I am witness.

Last year I wrote about not having enough time and needing to stay longer.

But a need is growing within me to go out there for longer. I want to study the colour of seaweed, feel the seasons change, be there as the swallows leave and still be there as the storms arrive

Its not wild on Bryher. I stay on a campsite with hot showers and flushing loos. I have my phone and the internet (if I stand in the right place) The shop is well stocked and there's a great pub. I do go a little feral and slow down. Shoes get put away and showers are weekly rather than daily. Why shower when most of the day is spent in the sea? But it takes time to go feral and slow down and it takes a lot of wandering to find the right place to stop for some real noticing to happen.

I didn't stay long enough this year either but I came back with drawings, photographs and boxes full of shells and treasure from the sea. I came back with a feeling that I am beginning to reconnect with my practice at last, and that was the plan. The next post will be thoughts on my art practice, drawing dead birds, swimming and how everything is connected. Oh and the other things I found on Bryher.

The drawings from my time on Bryher are on my Face book page There are five folders. I only filled up 3 and a bit out there but I've been drawing the treasures I bought home with me. An oystercatcher skull being the most beautiful.

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