Walking the Edge
A trusted mentor once told me, having read my work, “You often write about the meeting places of land and water.” She was right, though I’d never thought about the habit before; my tendency to do so was neither intentional nor premeditated. “There are few things more ancient than humans walking to the edge of water,” she added, which sent me reeling.
Perhaps it’s this predisposition that draws me to Frances Scott’s debut photobook, Undertow, a spare, elegantly delivered homage to her native Orkney Islands.
Born in 1991, Scott grew up on the Orkney Mainland, home to 75% of the archipelago’s modest population. “Over the course of two years,” Scott writes in the book’s introduction, “section by section, I walked the entire coastline of the island […] Once completed, I began walking the coasts of the other [nearly 70] islands which make up the archipelago, something which may take me a lifetime to complete.”
Her goal, Scott adds, is to capture Orkney “piece by piece, turning each section into something which I can keep and hold.” Therein lies the main tension of Undertow: how to capture a place you know and love, how to preserve it, to some degree, against the encroachment of time, a changing climate, and the diminishment of memory.
The lines Scott captures here are ancient ones — lines of erosion, of time and memory…
On her day-hikes, Scott sketched maps and made handwritten notes particular to each journey: walking-time, paired with journal-type notations that capture emotional and physical details alike. “Four hours, thirty-five minutes,” Scott writes of one traverse, “Frozen sunrise, joy. Cliffs slick and land muted with ice.” Scott’s observations are so raw, stripped-down and elemental, that one imagines a strong gust might send her words tumbling into the sea.
But Undertow is not a book of prose; Scott photographed along the way, for which the reader is grateful. The book’s 27 black-and-white photographs are placed either opposite Scott’s route maps and notations, or facing an empty white page; the effect of the latter being a kind of illumination, a play on the work of light and dark in her careful compositions. Roiling sea crashes against sandstone cliffs; a crumbling stone wall descends and blurs with sea-side rocks; a shipwreck fragment rests on a lonely beach; spindrift rises from a wave the shape of a whale’s fluke.
Spend time with Scott’s images and you’ll notice their textural dynamism — geological striations; asymmetry of ocean chop; conical mesh wire resting atop stones. The lines Scott captures here are ancient ones — lines of erosion, of time and memory, lines of human advancement and lines of nature’s push-back; lines that remind us of our own brief travels through landscapes we love but perhaps can’t fully comprehend.
As I slowly paged through this slim collection, wishing it were longer, Scott’s images evoked the late Seamus Heaney’s Postscript, perhaps his most resonant poem. In it, Heaney writes of driving Ireland’s Flaggy Shore in early autumn. While the landscapes share some similarities — the ruggedness of Heaney’s Ireland and Scott’s Orkney coastline — what links the poem to Scott’s compositions is the shared reverence of an acute observer, trying to hold down not just haunting imagery but also deep and fleeting feelings evoked by landscape.
indent indentAnd some time make the time to drive out west
indent indentInto County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
indent indentIn September or October, when the wind
indent indentAnd the light are working off each other
indent indentSo that the ocean on one side is wild
indent indentWith foam and glitter, and inland among stones
indent indentThe surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
indent indentBy the earthed lightning of a flock of swans […]
There are no swans in Scott’s images, no gulls or terns, and certainly no people. When signs of civilization do appear — a barbed-wire fence, for example, or iron rods protruding from smooth rock — they are fragmentary, and rarely a focal point. In the book’s final image, which is Undertow’s most compelling, houses dot the shoreline of a sheltered bay. The houses, though, appear tiny and nearly out of frame, dwarfed by the sweeping shoreline, the rumpled bay and jagged cliffs beyond. This final image captures our fondness for such edges — that sacred ecotone between land and water — juxtaposed against a daunting, impartial sea.
Unlike Heaney’s poem, which he described to the Irish Times as a “sidelong glance at something flying past,” Scott’s images reflect a pedestrian’s careful observation. Which is to say: Scott’s images are aesthetically beautiful, wonderfully framed, but their most impressive quality is their encapsulation of sensory detail.
Can photographs be filled with sound? Scott’s are. It is impossible to settle upon her Orkney images without hearing the sea’s relentless thunder, or wind — always the wind — combing grassy hills. The images’ textural detail evokes a child’s fascination with rocks; the reader wishes she could reach through Scott’s images to feel the rough-carved edges of an islet, or the tidal-smoothed surface of slab rock.
Of the title, Scott writes: “An undertow is a current beneath the surface that sets seaward — something which will take hold of you and pull you along, but only if you make the decision to put your feet in the water.” In her debut collection, Scott walks the island’s edge; her art resists the inevitable pull of time and change, the unseen currents we know await us.
Undertow comes with a 6-page fold-out that maps North Ronaldsay, Rousay, and the Aerial Islands, along with notations from Scott’s Mainland hikes. As companion to her images, the sketches and notations add dimension to Scott’s voice:
indent indentbird’s-foot trefoil
indent indentsea-pink and sunbathing
indent indentyellow sky
indent indentseals howl
indent indentartic terns, lichen and bones
indent indentsalt sun happy
I’ve never visited the Orkneys, but, having finished Undertow, I’d like to. On Google Earth I see that the archipelago lies just to the northeast of Scotland. As I zoom out even more, I notice the Orkneys fall on a similar latitude to Stavanger, Norway.
Once, about fifteen years ago, I visited Stavanger by train while studying abroad. It was late-April, and I was stir-crazy from a long winter. I rented a car in town — paid way more than I’d like to admit — and drove east toward the fjords, hoping to find a walking path to help clear my head.
Thinking back, I wish I’d taken more photographs; I wish I’d scribbled notes.
I drove for an hour or so, stopping at the first trailhead I found. It was late afternoon, with very few people around. I walked through fields still covered with patchwork snow. After what felt like hours, I reached the edge of a fjord. I sat on a large rock above an overlook. Several hundred feet below, snow geese flew in formation over the glassy water. The far hills and mountains were snow-capped and purpled by the oncoming evening light. I sat there for a long time, watching.
I think of that hike often. It wasn’t that long ago, relatively speaking, but already I’m losing fragments of its memory. I’m not sure what I felt, exactly, at the edge of the fjord, but I know I’ve not had the same feeling since. Thinking back, I wish I’d taken more photographs; I wish I’d scribbled notes.
Undertow’s accomplishments, then, are two-fold: First, the reader wishes to visit Orkney, to walk the islands Scott walked, to experience the sensory delights her images capture. Second, and perhaps most importantly, we’re motivated to walk our own favorite places, to file away the granular details and feelings that connect us — even root us — to place.
Frances Scott, Undertow was published in February 2020 by Another Place Press, a small independent publisher showcasing contemporary landscape photography.
This review is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.