Ever been to An t-Ob? I thought not. For those of us who live in Edinburgh or Glasgow, northwest Scotland can seem remote and mysterious – after all, it’s nearly nine hours away by car and ferry. However, if time is short, The Dwelling Place in a Summerhall basement gets you to the Outer Hebrides PDQ, and it’s more than worth the trip downstairs. You’ll hear the waves breaking, see the rocks and white sands, and hear the log fire crackling away – but this is not a commercial from VisitScotland.com, it’s the story of an island community, and of a house that was once a home.
An t-Ob became Leverburgh in 1921, and it’s on the southern side of the Isle of Harris. You’ll learn these facts within minutes of meeting real-life brothers Jamie and Lewis Wardrop (and also discover, if you didn’t know already, that Harris is not actually an island). The two men were on Harris three years ago and found a house in Leverburgh whose occupants had simply got up and left, leaving furniture and fittings and belongings behind. There’s even a rust-pitted lid of Crawfords biscuits, but the house in question isn’t going to feature on any picture-perfect shortbread tins; it is solid, unremarkable, probably built in the late 1930s, and now it has nettles growing out of the kitchen sink.
Three years on, in Summerhall, waves of visuals and sound play on white walls: scrolling maps, rolling charts, written texts, and of course film. The films of the house and its decaying interior are comprehensive and detailed, but we also see the land, fishing, and the sea. Smaller monitor screens display identical or complementary imagery, and household furnishings and objects – presumably from the house – are around and about: some pictures, a livestock manual, a tube case of Laphroaig whisky, a tape cassette. Of all things, clean white shirts (from a bedroom cupboard) are spread on their hangers above these objects, faintly reminiscent of a sail.
You can walk freely around two large rooms, or use one of the few chairs if you prefer to just sit and listen. But if you want to, you are invited to follow Jamie and Lewis as they interpret their installation. “To enter [this] island home is soothing yet strangely agitated,” they say, and as they present it – or curate it? – the history of the Western Isles is never far away. We gather around Lewis as he plays his fiddle, and Jamie tells of Clans MacLeod and Ranald, in the days when a ceilidh was a chronicle of the community and not just a party of whoops and whirls. No more; this place, a recorded source tells us, is where ‘our children are bred for emigration’.
It grows discordant and distorted as images multiply, and the refrain of “In this dwelling I do dwell” sounds increasingly forlorn. You experience an anonymous history that seems as bereft as the many abandoned homes on Harris would suggest. I do think the closing notes could be lifted, to match the inventive and optimistic spirit in which the whole piece has been conceived, and more attention could be focused on some important literary texts that I had difficulty latching onto. That said, The Dwelling Place is a bold and original work that I was sorry to leave.