Caught by the River

To an island in a loch on an island in a loch

27th January 2024

Mark Hooper takes in the quiet magic of Kirsty Badenoch and Tom Jeffreys’ ‘To an island in a loch on an island in a loch’ (Mouldy Books) — inspired by a trip to the Northwest Highlands.

Kirsty Badenoch and Tom Jeffreys, To an island in a loch on an island in a loch (Mouldy Books, 2023)

This collaboration between the artist Kirsty Badenoch and the writer Tom Jeffreys (author of The White Birch) was created in response to a trip the duo made to Beinn Eighe in the Northwest Highlands, which became the UK’s first ever official national nature reserve in 1951.

Released in conjunction with an accompanying exhibition – falling / fallen / felled, which showed recently at London’s Staffordshire St gallery – Jeffreys describes the project as ‘an exploration of old-growth forests in Scotland through experimental approaches to writing, drawing and walking’. Part essay, part artwork, part expedition diary, part freeform poem, To an island… details their own expedition, weaving mythological fable with the practical, the prosaic and the political.

Their work exposes the true nature of nature on these isles – managed, owned, dwindling. While the Scottish approach to access has been held up as an example to the Right to Roam protestors in England, Jeffreys highlights that things aren’t much rosier north of the border. (‘83.1% of Scotland’s rural land is privately owned. For all the disinformation they peddle, these private landowners have served neither land nor people well.’) While accepting that the idea of ‘untouched’ nature is a fallacy – even here – they got as close as they could to it, passing forests that now exist only as names on a map, until they reach Eilean Sùbhainn, an island on Loch Maree. This itself has its own tiny loch, containing an even smaller island (hence ‘…an island in a loch on an island in a loch’).

Kirsty Badenoch and Tom Jeffreys, To an island in a loch on an island in a loch (Mouldy Books, 2023)

Most of their works were produced on site here. Working from an improvised studio, Badenoch created a range of works on paper, placed directly on the forest floor, using natural materials including branches and moss alongside inks and artificial fertilizer. These were then left hanging overnight in the landscape, draped over the trunks and limbs of trees, to be weathered by the forces of nature (including ‘the occasional hungry slug’). The results were then photographed by Badenoch, and are used to bookend their publication.

Between these lies Jeffreys’ poem ‘The Ballad of Gidea and Lutea’, in which their trip is recast as an allegorical forest tale, skipping across the page to its own beat, following the flow of Badenoch’s blue ink strokes. Echoing Jeffreys’ first words: ‘A forest is not a place, it’s a rhythm’, the style is reminiscent of Max Porter’s lyrical, experimental writings. The pattern drawn on the page creates its own enigmatic pace, something Jeffreys acknowledges and references within the poem itself (‘the lines I write in the forest unspool into long looping threads with no punctuation and endless conjunctions… the lines I write in the city are spiny and short’).

But this is just part of the tale. To an island… is more than a brochure, but it hints at a wider project that, in its entirety, encompasses large-scale drawing, paper-based sculptural installation, photography, text and sound. That said, it is a beautiful thing in its own right: both playful and serious, delightful and deep, like the light playing across the forests it depicts. 

Kirsty Badenoch and Tom Jeffreys, To an island in a loch on an island in a loch (Mouldy Books, 2023)

‘We drew and wrote and drew and wrote. Together and apart,’ Jeffreys concludes in his introduction. ‘And now we bring it all back to the city and wonder what they have done.’

What they have done is created something quietly magical.


‘To an island in a loch on an island in a loch’ is out now and available here, in a limited first edition of 150 (£20.00).

Find out more about the accompanying exhibition ‘falling / fallen / felled’ here. A second chapter of the exhibition is planned for Edinburgh in February.