A Dance Called America, by James Hunter

An awful lot of my thinking has been dominated by a book I was given before Christmas: ‘A Dance Called America’ by James Hunter.  It is not a fast read, but it is a very gripping read.  It describes the pattern of emigration from the Highlands of Scotland to America and Canada from the early 18th Century to the late 19th Century.  It describes how earlier emigrants were of the tacksman class, ie they tended to have some status within the clan system; they were leaders and organisers within their communities and had sufficient means to pay for their passage and become established in the new colonies.  

Later waves of emigrants were in a much worse situation, having been forcibly cleared from land where their forbears had lived for hundreds of years as a consequence of the movement of larger estates to sheepfarming which was more profitable.  By the time these people had suffered the consequencies of several years of potato crop failure, and extreme poverty and then eviction many arrived in the new colonies destitute, starving and in very poor health. 

Hunter’s book details the experiences of people prior to emigrating, the journeys, and their subsequent experiences setting up home in the new continent.   The book contains masses of  first hand material; he has visited all the sites mentioned on both sides of the Atlantic, and there are copious quantities of extracts from correspondence of the period.  Totally fascinating, stories of triumph and success for some, but also for others horrifying and terribly sad.  Descriptions of some of the worst experiences of the clearences have clear resonances of current day atrocities of ethnic cleansing we read about on the news: descriptions of people starving, living off shellfish on the beach after being cleared off land they tenanted and then subsequent potato crop failures.  The description of the poor highlanders by some of the men sent to remove them are awful, referring to them as brutish savages, not much better than animals.  Hunter’s descriptions also make the point that many of the Highlanders who had been driven off their own land did not hold back from owning and using slaves in the new territiories, nor from driving Native American Indians off from their land, despite their own experiences of dispossession in Scotland.

In the West Highland Museum there is a folder of information and notes about this period, with a copy of the passenger list from one of the vessels transporting the emigrants.  The reasons for travel and number of children on board are strikingly poignant.


Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre – Glasgow

Sharmanka (Russian for hurdy gurdy) is a theatre of kinetic sculptures made by Eduard Bersudsky.  It was founded in St. Petersburg (Russia) in 1989 but has been based in Glasgow since 1996 and is now at Trongate 103.  Every week there are performances when these amazing things come to life, complete with lights and sound.  They hugely full of unexpected twists and turns, surreal and frequently very dark in humour and content.  I loved them, and worried for the sanity of their creator!  As I am thinking about ‘going kinetic’ for my next work I went with a research hat on, but this guy is a genious.  A member of staff kindly showed me the circuit boards which are the brains  for these works…I have never seen anything like them: circular boards with various raised or flattened ridges on them which could be read a bit like anold vinyl LP.  These ridges determined the sequence in which various motors and lights became operational..effectively the choreograph of  each work. 

Museum visit..part 2

The other major theme I came away thinking about from this visit was the large number of headless mannequins there are in the museum and the huge number of enormously hairy sporrans.  I don’t really know about sporran etiquette..but it does seem to me that the more extensive the decoration of a sporran in the museum the higher the social status..although this could just be a figment of my imagination. 

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I found myself thinking how cosy it would be for a family of mice in any of these very hairy offerings.  Perhaps one could insert a coin, and then a wee mouse head would pop out of the sporran, or some other mice would appear in and out the hair below.  All tastefully done of course.

Museum visit

I went around the Museum again today, looking for ideas.  The museum was closed to the public and very peaceful.  Unsurprisingly, there are an awful lot of glass cabinets..and as I am half way through a refurbsihment project I have a large number of wooden sash windows which would make a very excellent glass cabinet..with a little work.


There are also lots of weapons, from a loose assortment of cannon balls, to Lochaber Axes, and various swords and pistols.

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Interestingly the sword that is in the slideshow was discovered with a skeletal arm still attached!

Gifting machine ideas

First draft of a gifting machine that I showed met with enthusiasm, some scepticism that anything would materialise, and query as to how to make this as relevant as possible to the WHM. 

My own thoughts were that something like this would definitely generate amusement and money.  But it wouldn’t set me on fire in terms of having something to say, it has a purely light entertainment and financial purpose.  I still think it would be possible to make a machine like this, but after my trials with switches it would need to be operated by formal switches and timing mechanisms, rather than using the transit of a metal coin to complete circuits.


I have surveyed 110 people, getting as even a spread as possible from different social groups: work, art college (staff and students), church, friends, visitors to a tourist attraction.

The first question was “How likely are you to leave a donation after visiting a free museum?  People answered as follows:

Always 18

Most Times 28

Occasionally 30

Rarely 24

Never 10.

So for more than half the respondents they are less than likely to leave a donation.  Another interesting point was that for 56 respondents a a major determinant was whether they had the money readily to hand.  For those more likely to give the main consideration was gratitude for a good experience.  The most likely size of donation across the survey was £2, and the same was true of what people would expect to pay for a cup of tea.

I am interested in the people who only occasionally or rarely give money, and how to make it more fun and easier for them to do so.  I have an idea that if you pop a coin through a slot and then here may be one or other of the sounds below as you walk away, curiosity might also infect other people within earshot!

breaking glass edited

my scream for

or something less horrible…

How fun can change people’s behaviour..

Just beginning to research how I might be able to intervene, and a friend posted the link to this video on her facebook page.

It reminds me a lot of Martin Creed’s staircase installation at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh last summer, only this is better.  It is better sounding, the piano keys look brilliant, but mostly it is better for being out there, in the public arena, not tucked away in a gallery, brightening up the days of public transport users through surprise, humour, and personal interaction with it.

This was one of several ideas on the FunTheory.com website where ideas testing the notion that fun can be used to change peoples behaviour are explored.  This whole website and competition is sponsored by Volkswagen; their motivation is to explore the idea that if driving more environmentally friendly cars could be made more fun, then more people would do so.

I like the Worlds Deepest Bin design.. located in a park this bin makes the sound of something plunging downwards for  miles before crashing in the very far distance.