Tobar an Dualchais 2023

Gaelic artist Iseabal Hendry was recently selected for the annual Tobar an Dualchais (TAD)/ATLAS Arts residency to explore and create work relating to the oral heritage recordings available on its website.

Born and raised in the Highlands, Iseabal is a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art. She lives in Lochcarron and is inspired by traditional craft skills which she grew up with, from basket-weaving to boatbuilding and roof-thatching. Her creative practice is materially-led, inspired by sustainability, zero-waste and her family heritage in leatherwork. Iseabal’s work weaves together environmental values and a modern aesthetic based on time-honoured techniques and materials, within the context of a landscape which continually inspires her work.

Working by hand also gives Iseabal a deep understanding of her materials. The organic process of vegetable-tanning leather results in a unique patina which changes over time, dependent on how it’s handled. This ever-changing quality mirrors the Highland landscape which continually transforms with the shifting light.

Iseabal's residency progress

My local landscape is my greatest love, and my rural upbringing in the north west coast of Scotland has in many senses characterised who I have come to be. As such it also drives and impacts my practice in ways that I'm only just starting to uncover and understand.

Through my residency with Atlas Arts and Tobar an Dualchais (TAD), I've been thinking a lot about my local Gaelic culture on the west coast. History shows that what we understand as Highland culture today, is a fraction of what once was. Yet these remaining leftovers are precious: they are the ‘seeds’ (see Remembering The Tuath) or the starting blocks from which we can build upon.

My creative work is inspired by many of these remaining threads: traditional basketry, roof-thatching and clinker boat-building, which as of 2023 is now on the Heritage Crafts 'red list of endangered crafts', with particular concern for Scotland. Through my work I hope to celebrate our rich past through a contemporary lens, and in doing so help to secure its place in our future.

My works are not recreations of traditional techniques, which many makers do so brilliantly and beautifully. I seek instead to reference local histories and culture within my own personal aesthetic, which I hope honours the past whilst looking ahead.

Our unique, myriad of traditional cultural practices can be lost in the simplification and commodification of our culture that visitors today might more readily meet. Our Highland culture is living, real and beautiful, and this residency is a way for me to celebrate, understand and connect even more deeply with my home.

During the first few weeks of my residency, I was struck by how much more of our local histories could have been lost without the great efforts of the fieldworkers whose work populate the TAD archive. This period coincided with my dad recovering from a stroke, and I realised too how much could be lost even within my own family.

My Dad has a PHD in botany, and my Mum in bio-chemistry. Somehow none of their children seemed to inherit those particular interests! Yet I’ve always collected flowers and grasses. Loved the forms, the colours and the way they changed the landscape with passing seasons. My sister, a writer and a poet, loves them too. We inherited a love for nature, if not the encyclopaedic knowledge that my Dad has.

Without meaning to, I found myself drawn to the botanical recordings on TAD of plant-lore, Gaelic names, botanical cures, local plants, resourceful uses of grasses and heather, and plants as forms of protection. They summarised so much: local traditions, culture, beliefs and the connection our forefathers had to the land, how to work with it, and their respect of it. They feel personal to me because of my parents, and fill me with images of form, colour, and craft traditions. I had originally thought I’d focus my residency on basketry, but the magic of the archives had a different idea.

Through this residency I hope to connect even more deeply with my roots and local landscape, to understand how nature protects its seeds – and how I might figuratively and literally do the same to the seeds of local culture that remain today.