The Expanded City Network: Precarious Landscape

Stephanie Cottle introduces Precarious Landscape, an excursion with artists Ian Nesbitt and Ruth Levene to the western bounds of Preston on 8th December 2017. Participant and writer Lauren Velvick reflects on the experience .

Continuing their exploration of Preston’s boundaries, Precarious Landscape saw Ian and Ruth invite an audience on an immersive journey, visiting four sites the artists have encountered whilst conducting their walking practice along the outer reaches of the city.

Embarking the coach in the centre of the city before moving out towards its edges, the event provoked discussions regarding changing landscapes and shifting territories.  At each of the four sites Ian and Ruth unearthed historic tales, recanted community memories and indicated views where the landscape itself showed signs of stretching and reforming.

Back on the coach, with the windows framing the view, the artists gave provocations for what might happen to these places in the future. What these made clear is that frequently the driving influence behind the changes in the landscape are external market forces; agriculture, housing development, roadbuilding and the most contested at the moment – hydraulic fracking.

At times the event seemed almost nostalgic, as if mourning for a loss that is on the brink of occurring. We often think back fondly to places we have visited and sculpt the scenes in our minds, we rarely are provided the luxury of stopping to look into the future and envisage what might be lost or gained in the re-imagining of the city, through this experience Ruth and Ian provided the opportunity to both consider and discuss our changing lands.

Stephanie Cottle

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Moving out, out, out

The journey from the centre to the edges is still how it has to start, on a bright freezing day. The coach is too big for the narrow lanes that we’ll be travelling down so we’ll have to be ‘decanted’ into a smaller one at some later point. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a trip where the correct coach arrived, perhaps there’s an unsolvable bureaucratic issue at the very heart of private coach hire.

The way that the architecture changes the further you travel out of city centre reflects the changing ideologies and fortunes that fed into its construction; with the cheaper, short-term buildings being thrown up amongst the old sandstone parkside churches, (once black with soot, now blasted back to sandy yellow) then the suburban semis and carefully designed ex-libraries as we reach the outskirts.

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Ladyewell Shrine

Holy wells – the places where deep water surfaces – are an abiding interest for Ruth and Ian, and seem to constitute a nexus where the ideas that the artists’ are aiming to explore with this ‘Precarious Landscape’ event converge. The spiritual and ritual are obviously present here, but so too the bureaucratic and metric, in the ways that holy wells are cared for and managed in order for them to remain within the Catholic tradition, and to remain a part of active and current knowledge within the local and wider community.

The simultaneous ways that sites like this beckon and amass tradition, whether it be spiritual, bureaucratic or both, is exemplified in a story my mother tells. I’ve mentioned before in these posts that Preston is my home town, so that family and old friends occasionally coincide with the project, and this is something I’ve decided to emphasise rather than overlook. With that in mind, when everyone else might be considering the spiritual and ritual more generally, I get stories of ancestors, like my great aunt Agnes who taught at the Ladyewell school, and was apparently an ‘independent working woman’. I suppose that since I’m not a practicing Catholic, Agnes can be my lady of the well.

HMS Nightjar, Inskip

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On the way to our next stop we pass the HMS Nightjar, otherwise known as RNAS Inskip, a naval base on the outskirts of Preston, nowhere near the sea. I know of this place already from being ferried past by an old friend who delighted in sharing tidbits of local esoterica, and it’s a little amusing to hear a couple of people on the trip discussing it, each coming up with different theories as to what it is, both wrong.

Once we alight it’s difficult to intellectualise anything in the freezing wind and piercing sunlight, but we are invited to consider how this land was overlooked until it could be harnessed into the service of industry and capitalism. Described as a marshy wasteland where the locals hunted up to their necks in cold water, now farmland that is in turn contested by those that have come to see this configuration as the way the land should be, and those that would develop it further. Maybe it’s better to remain unrecorded and unproductive – safe.

Ruth and Ian’s ongoing interest in, and knowledge of water processing is relevant here as we consider the recent protests against fracking that have taken place in the area. These may not be explicitly or deliberately spiritual, but they do bring to mind the protests around the Dakota Access Pipeline led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the designation of ‘water protectors’. Whilst it is easy to think of clean water as a right, and even a common, our access to it is already privatised.

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Water then cows then concrete

How can and do we understand land as sacred? – is it a conscious designation or is it in the actions of the land users, and does a collective protective act towards the land make it necessarily sacred? In the discussion that follows we are encouraged to consider the history of protest against land development, and the motivations that it has been driven by. The slogan ‘Cows not Concrete’ * strikes me as particularly ill-conceived and shortsighted, but comprehensible in the context of these rural boundaries.

Irregardless of everything else we have considered and discussed, people are still fascinated by the shimmering of the grass in low sunlight, describing cobwebs and condensation as though they’re the first to have noticed it.

* ‘Cows not Concrete’ was a slogan used in protest to urban expansion in Preston in the seventies, introduced to Ian and Ruth in a conversational anecdote.

Lauren Velvick

Watch the film of the event

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The Expanded City Network: Routes In, Routes Out

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Writer and artist Lauren Velvick reflects on the second Expanded City Network event, Routes In, Routes Out, held at Avenham Park Pavilion in Preston on 27 July 2017.

Gavin Renshaw’s Expanded City research and output continues to oscillate between instrumentalised cycling advocacy and an artistic investigation of landscape that takes into account socio-political and cultural influences. In line with this, for his ‘in-conversation’ event, Renshaw was joined by Jack Thurston, presenter of The Bike Show on Resonance FM. In order that Thurston would be able to speak on the cycling infrastructure of Preston in particular, the day of the event was spent on a ride with Renshaw that was referred to throughout. The cultural history of cycling has been instrumental to Renshaw’s project from the earliest stages, and this was reiterated in order to set the scene for the discussion that followed. In ‘36 Views’, Renshaw’s series of photographs of Preston taken from the vantage point of cycling routes around the periphery of the city (see below), it is easy to discern the links between grand ideas about landscape and the activity of cycling, which offers the ability to move swiftly across the land whilst simultaneously in physical contact with it. This emphasis on the physicality of travelling by bike is reiterated in Renshaw’s consideration of what can be seen from this specific vantage point, and the idea of travelling as far as the eye can see, or perhaps seeing the potential for travel in the landscape.

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As a continuation of, and tangent to, Renshaw’s ongoing interests, Thurston emphasised the material links between art and cycling, particularly the nature of cycling as a cheap form of transport and artists as often lacking in disposable income. For his radio show, Thurston developed a method of interviewing by bike, which brings to mind the evident difficulties in cycling two-abreast on the majority of Britain’s roads, and how this is in contrast with the Clarion motto: Fellowship is Life. This point was raised by Renshaw and Thurston during their discussion, whereby if fellowship is life, presumably lack of fellowship must be death, which raises the grim spectre of road deaths and the very real danger inherent in cycling on roads that are not fit for shared use and a motoring culture of resentment towards cyclists. Renshaw drew attention to the sinking feeling provoked by collections of flowers at the sides of roads commemorating those killed, comparing these to plaques installed by cycling clubs that commemorate hill climbs. This tension around cycling as promoted on the one hand and resented on the other was cited by Thurston, who went on to discuss how the very idea of a ‘cycling culture’ indicates a ‘sub culture’. This is a problem, because in order for cycling to be reasonably safe it has to be accepted as a form of transport integral to urban infrastructure, rather than a specialist hobby.

It is clear that both Renshaw and Thurston are deeply invested in cycling both as a form of transport and as a culture of fellowship, however they were also careful to acknowledge that this can engender a kind of elitism. Renshaw raised the issue of how cycling infrastructure is so confusing and disjointed that, even with the best of intentions, it is difficult to navigate for beginners. I’m sure that every city has instances of cycle paths that run directly into walls and the like. There are also the practical issues of protecting a bike from bad weather or arriving at work sweaty and dishevelled after a cycling commute; concerns that can only be addressed by a paradigm shift in how we consider cycling within everyday life. This was acknowledged and expanded on by Thurston, who cautioned against the temptation to replace infrastructure with training, emphasising that coping mechanisms developed by cyclists in order to survive on overcrowded, hostile roads do not constitute solutions. It is valuable to articulate these points in the context of The Expanded City because we are in the rare position of having the opportunity to question the ways that, as Thurston outlined, motoring is essentially subsidised by the rest of society in the form of parking that uses up valuable public space.

Watch a film of the event.

Gavin Renshaw

Expanded City Perspectives:Artist Olivia Keith

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There are elements of Olivia Keith‘s work for The Expanded City that are familiar within socially engaged practices, such as using the unwritten knowledge and experience of local inhabitants to informally map an area. Keith has developed a way of recording this information, and her process is complex and considered, moving beyond the collecting of memories for its own sake. In order to facilitate her conversations with passers-by, Keith has developed a framework, whereby each of her days spent on site results in a large-scale multimedia landscape drawing, which in turn acts as a point of conversation, making Keith conspicuous within her chosen environment. She has described how it is important to communicate openness, but not to actually initiate conversation within the framework, and this self-imposed constraint is one of the ways in which Keith’s ongoing project differs from familiar forms of socially engaged memory collecting. Any knowledge that is gained during these days spent drawing outdoors is therefore offered consciously and deliberately, and as such also offers an overview of the information that people choose to go out of their way to share with strangers, which by implication is the knowledge that is useful, or too precious to keep to oneself.

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The sites that Keith has selected for this initial stage of her work were chosen for their symbolic properties, as well as whether they are in the areas of Preston corresponding to the ‘expanding city’. The motif of the bridge is an important point of reference; of obvious significance in various contexts, here bridges are appropriated due to their proximity to the waterways and thoroughfares of a place, and as such often pointing to earlier configurations of inhabitance and movement. The site chosen for her symposium presentation was exemplary of this focus on bridges as markers of movement and change, forming a meeting point between suburb, countryside, motorway and waterway. There are also a number of variables that feed into how Keith’s framework plays out in each instance, such as the weather of course, but also the density of the current local population, and whether the site is one of leisure, or is used purely as a thoroughfare, with this affecting whether passers-by are likely to stop, ask questions, and offer new knowledge. The journey that Keith must take in order to locate her chosen spot further contributes towards the finished work, intuitively affecting the overall experience before she had even begun to draw.

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Having selected a place from which to work, the next step is to deduce the orientation of the historical maps that Keith uses as grounds for her drawings. This will dictate the direction that she will face, and in turn the interactions that she will have whilst on site, which is why in some of her drawings the backdrop map will be rotated or upside down. The scale of the drawing is then chosen intuitively, with the intention for the underlying map to be treated as tabula rasa giving way to the inevitability of pareidolia, whereby Keith’s drawings seem to unintentionally correspond in meaningful ways with the maps on which they are delineated. Given the way in which Keith’s practice depends on an interchange between the land and the vernacular knowledge of its inhabitants, this project can be conceptually likened to plate tectonics in order to understand its mechanisms. The act of overwriting whilst simultaneously choosing to preserve, and the seemingly random focus on certain details, mimics the much slower changes that take place in the natural world. As with the geological movement of the earth’s crust, some material that was once on the surface is subducted below to be melted down and recycled, whereas other material is pushed to the surface either so slowly as to be unnoticeable, or with a violent and disruptive force.

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Lauren Velvick

www.oliviakeith.co.uk
@Tracesofplace

The Expanded City Symposium, June 2016

As a public introduction to The Expanded City project, a symposium held on June 16 2016 reflected the research concerns of In Certain Places and the commissioned artists through the structure of the event, as well as the content. As we have found through conducting site visits to the areas earmarked for the City Deal housing developments on Preston’s outskirts, a practicality that must be taken into account is the difficulty in reaching these areas using only public transport. One of the commissioned artists, Gavin Renshaw‘s work is partly based around the cultural history of cycling, and he has often made reference to the difficulty in safely reaching the recently opened Guild Loop cycling and walking path, which circles Preston for twenty one miles. Travelling from the centre to the periphery becomes an important issue as we consider how these new developments will relate to the existing citizens and infrastructure of Preston.

As such, the logistical difficulties inherent in the choice of venues and sites for the symposium was a framework around which the day was structured, and was a decidedly positive element, allowing attendees and speakers alike to experience the sites in question first hand, in turn facilitating a deeper appreciation of the topics discussed by the speakers. The day was divided into two halves, with an initial pick-up at Preston train station in a double decker bus, which then went on to transport attendees to the first venue; Woodplumpton and District Club, which sits approximately five miles outside of the city centre. As part of the new housing schemes in question, it has been deemed necessary to provide resources for leisure and culture within the new communities that will be formed. As such, the choice of the Woodplumpton and District Club as the venue for the first, more formal stage of the day is appropriate and poignant. The Woodplumpton and District Club is an old fashioned community club, with facilities for Bowls and Tennis alongside regular activities such as art classes, whist & dominoes and the Women’s Institute. Discussing demographics and regeneration within this context begs the question; what can serve the purpose of spaces like this within new developments?

The two invited speakers that presented during the morning session gave differing but complimentary views on what constitutes a community, of why and how change occurs, and to what extent this can be controlled or directed. First came a presentation from Carolina Caicedo of The Decorators, a multidisciplinary design practice who work with local authorities and public institutions to design and deliver interventions in regeneration areas. These interventions are sensitively tailored to the surrounding community, and often offer a critique of the regeneration in question. Caicedo gave the example of Ridley’s Temporary Restaurant, a project that sought to enliven a struggling market and to facilitate communication between vendors and users. Embedded within the project were certain safeguards, designed to ensure that the restaurant would constitute more than a fashionable eatery that had been parachuted in to a struggling neighbourhood. These included instituting a ‘no bookings’ rule which meant that the limited number of seats would always be open to whoever turned up on the night. Caicedo also emphasized the problems of ill-thought out design in new public spaces, citing a project based around a new public square that had been built in the centre of a development of high-rise apartment buildings, but was underused and desolate.

The pertinent question here seems to be; how can we, in advance, design communal spaces and structures that will actually be used and useful – that will represent something attractive to the local residents. This is where the data and analysis presented by the second speaker, economist Paul Swinney, becomes particularly pertinent. Swinney showed and explained a series of data visualisations that demonstrated, demographically, how differently sized cities are structured, and offered some possible explanations as to why. In considering the areas on the outskirts of cities that are the focus of the Expanded City project, Swinney explained that there is a trade-off between the excitement, resources and employment opportunities of inner city living, compared to the space, peace and safety of the outskirts. He went on to illustrate this point with the example of a young couple who may transfer from choosing a city centre apartment to a suburban house when they decide to start a family. Considering my earlier research into the newly designated employment area to the North East of Preston, where on a sunny weekend I was surprised to find a number of adolescents having chosen this area of relative isolation for their Saturday activities, it is relevant to consider the potential second generation of inhabitants of these new estates, and how they might make use of the outdoor spaces and leisure facilities in unexpected ways.

During this first part of the day Ian Nesbitt and Ruth Levene also presented an extract from their active research project, which has been informed by an earlier practice of collaborative walking and parallel documentation. Nesbitt and Levene deal directly with the question of whether land is public or private, and the points where this differentiation becomes uncertain. Their presentation consisted of a series of photographs taken during their walks, and the reading of extracts from their parallel diaries, written strictly without input from each other. One anecdote neatly illustrated the slightly ludicrous nature of public footpaths, some of which are purposefully blocked, or may not have been used for decades; in trekking along one of these little-used paths Nesbitt and Levene passed a house whose occupant rushed out to greet them, excited that somebody was finally making use of the track.

After the morning session sustenance was provided in the form of a personable pub lunch, and the second half of the day consisted of presentations from each of the remaining artists. The attending Counsellors, local residents and cultural producers once more boarded the double decker bus and were transported to the site of Olivia Keith‘s presentation. Keith’s site specific demonstration outlined her research methods, which involve an openness to chance and serendipity. Keith has been producing large scale, outdoor drawings at sites where older designations meet newer developments, and these are then overlaid with existing and obsolete maps. Keith pointed out the ways in which her observed drawings would match up with the maps underneath in interesting and unexpected ways. This practice also constitutes a way to facilitate conversations with passers-by who live in or make use of these areas, describing how at the meeting of a motorway bridge, country lane and suburb where Keith had chosen for her presentation, she had met a number of multi-generational walkers making a pilgrimage to Bluebell Wood.

Bussed onwards from the North West to North East of Preston we alighted next at my chosen ‘nowhere monument’ that even the Counsellors didn’t seem to have an explanation for. The way in which this de-contextualised wall was reminiscent of a folly or stage set inspired me to instruct the attendees to gather on the oval of grass and wild flowers in between the wall and road to hear a reading linking this area to Robert Smithson’s Passaic, New Jersey. This site is oddly atmospheric, with a scale that lurches between human and industrial amongst the jumble of warehouses and chain cafes.

Finally, we headed further East still for a roadside presentation from Gavin Renshaw. This site was decidedly rural, with encroaching hedgerows and a lack of pavements. Following our fluorescent jacketed leader we were led single file to a point where the whole of Preston City Centre is observable in the far distance. This capacity to visually encompass a large and complex site from a distance is an important concern for Renshaw, and is interlinked with his interest in the activity and cultural history of cycling. He spoke of how, from this distance it is possible to take a technically true impression of the City, but one that is also illusory, bringing wooded areas together in distant perspective when in reality they are isolated.

This focus on the nature of representation is a relevant strand that ran through each of the presentations given throughout the day. Nesbitt, Levene and Keith have demonstrated an interest in the disunity between bureaucratic visualisation of a place, and a more intuitive form of mapping based around memory and cultural history. Similarly, the earlier presentations from Carolina Caicedo and Paul Swinney point to the ways in which data and forward planning are useful, but can come unstuck in presenting an overly simplistic and static view of a place and its inhabitants.

Lauren Velvick

Country Living

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Samek Art Museum Director, Richard Rinehart’s paper, presented at the Re-imagining Rural Mythologies panel of the Nordic Geographers Conference in Estonia this summer.

Introduction

When I  arrived   in   Lewisburg,   the   home   of   Bucknell   University,  in  rural  central   Pennsylvania   to   take   up   my   new   position   as   director   of   the   Samek   Art  Museum,  I  spent   time   getting   to   know   my  new  community.  I walked down small  side  streets   in   the   town’s   Victorian   center   and   drove   through   mid-century  housing  developments   at   its   edges.   I   saw   certain   things   that I had   no   reference   for;   for  instance,   in  the  evening,   some   houses   would   light   one   (electric)  candle  in  every  window  of  the  house.   I   wondered   if   these   houses   had   lost   family   members   to   recent military   campaigns,   but   there   were   too   many   such   houses   like   this   and   no   base  nearby.   I   began   to   notice   other   details   like   large   rusted   metal   stars   hung   on Edwardian porches  or  sides  of  double-wide   trailer   homes.   I   wondered   what   I was  seeing  here  and  it  dawned  on  me  that  I  was  looking  at  country.

Barn Star

Barn Star

I’m   familiar   with   a different  regional   variation   of   country,  having   grown   up  in   a  small  farming   town  in  Oregon.  McMinnville   had   no   art   museum  and   I   spent   many   afternoons   in  the   public  library  pouring  over  the   sixties-era   Time-Life   art  books   (from   El   Greco   to   the   Pre-Raphaelites!)  absorbing  the  images   into   my   skin.   It   was   not  lost   on   me  that  those   books   bore  Barn   Star  few   references   to   my   small   town  in   the   American   west   and,  conversely,   that   my   town   did   not   see   the   need   to   reflect   the   world   of   art   contained   in  those   books   (outside   the   books   themselves.)   Long   after   I   had   moved   to   the   city   for  art  school  and   a  career   in   museums,   I   held   on   to   the   idea   that   there   was   still   room   in  the   country;   open  spaces   in   the   discourse   between   the   world   of   contemporary   fine  art   and   rural   America   waiting   to   be   explored   through   new  research  and   cultural  projects.   So,   when   the   opportunity   arose   for   me   to   work   in   Lewisburg,   I   came   to   the  country  and  found  that  my  first  puzzle  was  country  itself.

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Imagining wetlands: geography between wet and dry

Artist and UCLan Fine Art MA student, Tracy Hill reflects on her experience of the Nordic Geographers Conference in Estonia.

Imagining wetlands: geography between wet and dry bought together 11 individuals from 6 countries all presenting personal interpretations of wetland research. The session organiser Franz Krause invited papers discussing how people imagine, represent, use and try to change wetlands. The suggestion was that in order for wetlands to support, defy or comply with rapidly expanding communities it is necessary to examine how particular imaginations of wetlands affect these places.


Having begun the session with my interpretations and re-imagining of Chat Moss, a historic lowland peat bog in the UK, I tentatively entered the world of physical and human geography. My observations as both artist and walker offered reflections of the haptic and aesthetic, which invited questions about relationships between scientific data and an artistic outcome.

Through my art I presented the idea that by offering a visual re-interpretation of such liminal spaces we could reconsider perceptions and views beyond our own capabilities. Listening to other presentations it struck me that although speaking from very different disciplines about extremely specific locations we were all connected by the need to reimagine and protect these transient and delicate spaces. The co-existence of the imagined and the real, and the notion that wetlands are challenging uses of space both socially and ecologically dominated many conversations.

Within all the papers presented during this session there was a strong sense of narrative and history. Connections to place through walking and living on the land seemed of paramount importance in order to fully understand the very complex nature of wetlands. Les Roberts portrayed this beautifully during his presentation exploring the spatial anthropology of wetlands: landscape, liminality and cultural memory.

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Re-imagining Rural Mythologies

Between the 15th and 19th June, I attended the Nordic Geographers conference in Estonia, along with two students from the UCLan Fine Art Masters Site & Archive Interventions pathwayTracy Hill and Abi Townsend, as well as my colleagues Joanne Lee and Rosemary Shirley from Sheffield Hallam and Manchester Metropolitan University respectively. Over the course of the week, we recorded our thoughts and observations about the conference (as well as about food, drink and the weather – particularly as I was shocked to discover that Tallinn was wetter than Wigan whilst we were away!), and I will be adding some of these to this blog over the next month.

The theme of the conference was ‘Geographical Imagination: Interpretations of Nature, Art and Politics’, and on the final day, I co-chaired a day-long session entitled ‘Re-imagining Rural Mythologies’, which explored how rural environments are perceived and represented within different cultures. The session was convened with Rosemary Shirley, Joanne Lee and Rebecca Chesney as a development of conversations, which began with this Practising Place event in 2013, and subsequently informed this short essay by Rosemary, and the ‘Re-thinking the Rural’ seminar which we ran in April 2015. The conference also preceded our contribution to the current show at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery in Preston, ‘A Green and Pleasant Land? Rural Life in Art‘, which is open until the end of September and includes new artworks by Rebecca Chesney and Joanne Lee, as well as Abi Townsend’s video installation, ‘Ruskin’s View’.

The conversations and ideas initiated at the conference will help to inform plans that Professor Charles Quick and I are currently developing for the next few years of In Certain Places. For the last decade we have been working with artists to interrogate and intervene within the physical and social fabric of Preston City Centre, and have brought people together from different disciplines and professions to creatively explore urban issues (you can read about the last 10 years of the project in the illustrated book ‘Subplots to a City‘, which was launched in February 2015, and view videos of our talks here). However, while we feel that there is still much work to be done within the asphalt heart of the city (not least in terms of examining the relationship between the University of Central Lancashire’s campus and the wider civic environment – something which we will explore with the People’s Canopy project next month), we also feel that it’s time to expand our horizons and intrepidly head out to Preston’s rural fringes (which, given its diminutive size and market town heritage are remarkably close to the centre).

As I’m currently reading notes which I made during the plane journey back from Tallinn, it seems fitting to sign off with an aerial view. I’ll post again over the next few weeks with some rural reflections from the conference, and upload some of the contributor’s papers. In the meantime, however, I’m going to revisit Andrzej Zieleniec‘s contribution to our panel, ‘Tartan, shortbread, whiskey and the stag: continuing myths of the Scottish Highlands’ with something peaty and strong that evokes the Scottish Highlands.

Elaine Speight

Photo by Tonis Lepp