Caught by the River

Lost Landscapes

Kirsteen McNish | 4th July 2020

Kirsteen McNish shares the process behind a new project, in which she conjures landscapes from thread.

In March, I tried my hand at freestyle stitching a cliffside after finding old photographs down the back of my overstuffed, decrepit filing cabinet. Rua Reidh lighthouse sat some 12 miles from Gairloch in the Scottish Highlands and was a place I decided to run to on long solo journeys from London. This included a long process of taking trains, buses, and hitching lifts from folk to reach the lighthouse along the winding coastline so I could make failed attempts to write, be alone, and to walk; unfettered by anything other than my thoughts, and views that made me feel strangely like I had come home. Growing up in an inland new town, I knew this was wildly wistful, but I allowed myself the indulgence nevertheless, and as I journeyed I learnt — listening to snatched conversations and many different dialects as the views whizzed past on trains; reading dog-eared books; listening to music I had specially chosen for the journey; smiling at strangers. Once in Gairloch, I would excitedly chat to the man who gave me a lift and he’d tell me about books on poetry as he drove me down the vertiginous route alongside the cliffs, the stars shining blind with force over the dark sea. When he picked me up days later to leave, the wind slapped the wet clothes line outside the lighthouse, like a fishmonger placing his catch on the block.  It was an adventure, and always on the tightest of budgets — and a wing and a prayer that my travel connections wouldn’t be missed. 

Eventually, years later, I got hand-fasted and hitched in that same place, bringing a small party of friends for a raucous long weekend. It started with balmy dancing sun as we greeted each other, but within less than 24 hours lightning storms battered against the lighthouse and churned up the sea, fast-shifting clouds and downpours drenching Autumnal golds and russets into monochrome as we laughed and drank the night away. The fast pace at which the weather changed always surprised and delighted me. Any attempt I have made to try to recreate this dramatic movement in painting has failed miserably — so here I tried to stitch it into the swaying grasses, tumbling waves and wind-chased clouds, remembering being alone on the cliffside with a younger and clearer view. 

After this first landscape was finished, I started to ask friends who love landscapes to send me an image of a place that was dear to them, and I had a few surprise requests and a birthday surprise. I realised these places were, in a sense, lost to people for the time being, due to lockdown. Then I started a kind of journey to those places in my mind’s eye, stitch by stitch. I was happy to devote hours on end, at night in the half-light, stitching the details and getting deeply lost in these places. I wanted the views to be wholly without people; I hoped when finished it would create a kind of portal of escape to the recipient and a kind of salve; that it would prompt memories. I also think it has afforded me a way of connecting with friends who have shown me kindness, and whom I might not be able to see or sit across a table from for some time. 

Very slowly but surely, this little collection is coming together. It might map into something else over time, in collaboration with other people, but at the moment I don’t really know where it’s going — I guess that’s kind of the point. It’s helping me travel places — and whilst these landscapes are out of reach for the moment, much like the people I am sending them to, I’m glad that they are all still out there somewhere, getting on with getting on.