'Although the story of St Brendan's transatlantic voyage was written in the 8th century it's curiously abstracted prose style has direct parallels with 20th century travel writing, especially mountaineering literature, which describes visionary experiences in a similar manner. I was struck by the complete lack of descriptive passages alluding to a sense of travelling the unknown ocean in an open leather boat.'
The Scottish Fisheries Museum, Anstruther
5 March to 23 April 2017
'The Island of Smiths' Charcoal on Paper 1996
Copyright Alan Watson b.1957 All Rights Reserved.
'The Navigatio' exhibition of drawing, conte or charcoal on coloured paper, was inspired by a medieval best seller and was accompanied by exhibits from the Scottish Fisheries Museum collection including their coracle.
The series of drawings titled 'The Navigatio' depicts scenes from 'Brendan the Navigators' epic sea voyage in a curragh around the North Atlantic in the early medieval period. Although the story of St Brendan's transatlantic voyage was written in the 8th century it's curiously abstracted prose style has direct parallels with 20th century travel writing, especially mountaineering literature, which describes visionary experiences in a similar manner. I was struck by the complete lack of descriptive passages alluding to a sense of travelling the unknown ocean in an open leather boat. The text concerns itself with the crew's awe at mysterious obstacles that impede their voyage and St Brendan's patient approach to overcoming then. My suite of drawings takes the Brendan story as its starting point, namely a sea journey as an act of faith. I first came across this story reading Tim Severin's Brendan Voyage in 1978. I came across John O'Meara's translation in 1992 and it inspired me to create this series of large scale drawings.
The Role of the Isle of May in my Navigatio Drawing
I have always admired the gentle profile of the Isle of May as seen from Cellardyke. To my mind the sun always seems to shine there making it all the more alluring, unlike the Bass Rock on the southern approach to the Firth of Forth which seems to be perpetually shrouded in grey gloom.
In the early 1990's I became aware of the exciting discoveries being made on the May by a team of archaeologists led by Peter Yeoman*. Among the discoveries which sparked my artistic thinking were the discovery of a huge burial cairn made up of 1.5 million small round grey stones which had been carried up from Pilgrim's Haven on the west side of the island, and the discovery of a young man who had a scallop shell inserted in his mouth. This signified that he had completed the pilgrimage route called The Way of St James which stretches through France and along the North coast of Spain to Santiago de Compostela. This young man had clearly then come to the Isle of May to be buried with other pilgrims.
If you look closely at the hand of the young man in the foreground of 'The Promised Land of the Saints' you will see he has a GPS navigation device in his right hand and a tattoo of a scallop shell on his left hand, a visual reference to the pilgrims who journeyed to the Isle of May.
In both versions of 'The Uninhabited House', a drawing and a lithograph the North and South Horns of the Isle of May have a prominent place in the composition. Many people view fog horns as sinister architectural forms which utter a gloomy sound. I see them as a source of comfort and security on foggy nights. Their inclusion in these pictures is intended not only to be ambiguous but to enhance the mood of both images.
The original suite of 'The Navigatio' drawings opened at Kirkcaldy Art Gallery and Museum in 2001 before continuing to Ann Lantair, Stornoway and Gallery Q2, Dundee. The exhibition built on the original series with new work and objects from the museum’s collections. It was also the inspiration for 2017's Scottish Fisheries Museum Schools Art Competition and their programme of educational events for adults and children. This included a talk on saints’ stories by Dr James Palmer from the University of St Andrews, a gallery talk by Alan Watson, and a lino printing workshop.
*Thank you for your comments on 'The Navigatio' exhibition 2017 which include:
- "It is wonderful and rare to find good drawings. These are inspiring"
- "Outstanding drawing skills."
- "Brilliant Exhibition."
- "Blown away."
- "Fantastic collection."
*Comments from visitors to 'The Navigatio' exhibition at Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery in 2001 included:
- "Wonderful imaginative artistry - beautiful exhibition."
- "Wonderful style and technique. Drawings that can be studies for hours. Great imagery!"
- "Very impressed. there wasn't a picture I didn't like. Great atmosphere."
- "Really interesting interpretation of Brendan's voyage. Great drawing too."
SEVERIN, Tim, 'The Brendan Voyage - The greatest adventures of the sea since Kon-Tiki', 1978, Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) Ltd 1978, Arrow edition 1979. ISBN 10: 0099194600 ISBN 13: 9780099194606
O'MEARA, John J., Translated from the Latin, 'The Voyage of St Brendan - Journey to the promised land', 1st published 1976, Dolmen Press; Colin Smythe Limited, Gerrard Cross, Buckinghamshire, 1991. ISBN 10: 0851055044 ISBN 13: 9780851055046
MARSDEN, John, 'Sea Road of the Saints', Floris Books, 1995. ISBN 10: 0863152104 ISBN 13: 9780863152108
* Peter Yeoman (author), Hall Derek (editor and translator), Dave Swan (illustrator), Arthur John (illustrator), Jill Sievewright (illustrator), Lisbeth Thoms (editor and translator), Heather F. James (author), 'Excavations at St. Ethernan's Monastery, Isle of May, Fife 1992-7' (Paperback)Publisher: Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee (TAFAC), ISBN: 9780956178329