I am alone on the campus in the dark, testing the surfaces slippery with rain with care beneath my feet. The relentless Christmas rain.
Surrounded by formless buildings, contained by road and railway lines, deflated and lonely. Sheltering beneath the awning of a bus-stop even although at this time of evening no bus will pass.
On this Ballardian edgeland campus within which I am interned, I’m avoiding going back to my prison cell room, killing time, getting wet.
Working off school dinner turkey dinner, a damp squib cracker, the limp party hat, a lukewarm beer from the car boot of a well-known archaeologist.
Then I see the crannog.
It is a geometrical wonder. A square island – a platform – set within an asymmetrical pentagonal loch. A black pool of water, illuminated by a white streak, seasonal lights, street lamps, the mysterious tower glowing red nearby.
On this island grows a tree, in defiance of the urban coldness of its surroundings, the sterility of this ground, slick with University money.
Illuminated by uplights, dampened by downlights, cathode uppers and downers. I approach and then cross the bridge – the causeway – to the crannog. An t-Eilean – The Island.
The route across the eldritch dark water, the only way onto this island, is lit up blue, like a runway begging me to land. Except it is not land. The surface is lubricious with precipitation.
The square arena of the interior of the crannog is floored with fake wooden tumble, branches that never lived. Gaps in this crazed paving have filled with organic detritus, washed there by the wind and rain. Leaves, twigs, brush, pile. These cracks are fecund with the mechanism of pollination in an otherwise infertile place.
Amidst this inorganic floor, a sort of prehistoric linoleum, are set dazzling white lights that point to the sky, and neon strips.
For a while I am disorientated. Blinded by the light.
The tree was no illusion even although I fancied it was before I crossed the water. How could a living tree exist on this concrete island? Yet it lives although I could not determine how its roots were arranged or what this tree was growing from aside from a brown puddle of soil. It jutted through the floor of this crannog, a living tree that connected water with sky, only stopped from soaring away by its shackles and chains.
The walls of the crannog mixed materials and levels of porosity – cold concrete, dark metal, hard wood. Windows in the walls afforded views of the surrounding campus world, framing the blank canvas in this blank campus. The west side of the compound was a palisade of squared concrete posts, a defensive line.
Wet through with rain, salt-less tears on my face, I squatted over a hot white light and
An t-Eilean – The Island is an award winning installation within the UHI Inverness College campus by architect Lisa MacKenzie. She notes that the work offers a space for reflection in a public civic space. Key questions in the genesis of the work: How do we challenge the management of public spaces at an Institutional level to make landscapes that are real and enlivening? What are the principles that lie behind our encounters with public space and public art?
It was constructed by Applied Engineering Design (AED) at a cost of £325,000 in 2013. Their website notes that, it is an unique object in many ways: a gallery; an island and a bespoke structure/art object in its own right. They do not call it a crannog, but rather suggest it is an iconic structure….a surprise and a delight.
Ruaraidh MacNeil, HIE Inverness Campus project director, told the Press and Journal newspaper in January 2015: Our plan for Inverness Campus is to create a world-class setting for business, research and education. HIE has created a high quality built environment with interesting landscape, public realm and water features in order to help create global interest in Inverness and Highlands as a business location.
This interesting landscape, this University building site, this sterile edgeland…..
Lots of money, shiny buildings, iconic structures. The University of the future, wanting to appear embedded in the past in its architecture and the names it gives its buildings. But will its values, its principals, the ways staff and students are treated: will these also be in the spirit of the past, the traditions of Scotland’s Universities? Or will they succumb to a neoliberal fantasy that is so very un-crannog?
This installation is located a few hundred metres from, and on the other side of the A9 to, the Raigmore Neolithic monument reconstruction, the subject of a blog post of mine from 2014. Prehistory cannot be suppressed but it can be appropriated.
Acknowledgements: I was in Inverness to speak at a conference on the theme of Ruination and Decay, and would like to thank the organisers for inviting me, and accommodating me in this soulless campus. And now Rebecca and Antonia know why I disappeared and did not go to the pub with them that night!