Sweeney, aviform, arboriform

Cove Park, Rosneath, photograph courtesy of Cove Park

A few years ago I spent a week at Cove Park, on the west of the Rosneath Peninsula, where a flow of visitors comes and goes, each of them working in their chosen art form. A sense of community settles around Cove, even if the artists themselves are passers-by.

The character of a residency there is coloured by the simplicity of the dwellings, homes shorn of clutter, for thinking and what comes before thought. Cove is no Castle Duino, or Yaddo: the cluster of innovative buildings and the mix of people staying there defines the experience. Residents are either cube-dwellers, staying in a compact turf-rooved converted shipping container; or they are pod-dwellers, domiciled in one of the wooden structures that Blast architects designed for Castaway, on Taransay, which have put down permanent roots here.

Along the shore, there is another community, constant and yet also transient. This gathering is defined by the single task that everyone who stays there is committed to. As at Cove, the people come from around Scotland, and across the globe. This lochside community has, over the years, gathered a sense of permanence; what sets those who spend time here apart, though, is that they would be delighted if circumstances allowed them to abandon the site in the full knowledge that their task was complete.

Their dwelling is a vigil. It will end this June, after thirty-one years.

From the cubes and pods of Cove, the view over Loch Long takes in the arcuate ridge that stretches north from Strone Point to Beinn Bheula. Now and then a sleek dark form glides across the surface of the loch: a nuclear submarine, making for RNAD Coulport, still the main arsenal of weaponry for the UK’s nuclear forces.

Peaton Peace Wood, photograph Ele Carpenter, 2012

The Peace Camp outside Coulport, the colourful caravans stationed at the gates of Faslane, and the make-shift huts in Peaton Peace Wood, are dwellings that flowered from these fortified ports. They are the tinkerbird on the rhinoceros back.


Astute class submarine, Loch Long, photograph Ele Carpenter, 2013

This locus of intensive nuclear activity, and the to-and-fro of SSNBN hunter-killers, set a historic dynamic, a skew symmetry. Militarism and pacifist protest define a cycle, familiar to those of us who grew up in what is referred to as the Cold War, before the globe was said, instead, to be warming. The world mind is required to think what hot and cold mean, in terms of wars and climates, the sun and the atom.

Force begets its opposite, in counter-reaction; it is only in the complexity of human discourse that these dualities can be dismantled.

All the artists who stay at Cove Park, whether they come to write, compose, paint, or dance, further their art while they witness a daily exposure to massive military force and the prospect of annihilation. Of course, this is the everyday condition of all our lives, and it has been so for a lifetime.

While I was enjoying my stay, the daily machinations between the historical forces of protest and weaponry found their way into a wry love poem, one that records the daily inevitable bond played out between these opposed and opposite forces.

Cove (Kilcreggan)

Known cures for melancholy
a purple thistle without prickles
cloud shadows stroking the hills
the rain finding a new angle
leaving drops like tiny teeth
set beneath the rail

a faint path winding
through each sea meadow

the police launch observing
the peace camp
all day and all night long

l’amour en Ecosse en plein air
love on a blanket under a jacket
avec moon, stars, kisses & midges

protesters occupy a trident submarine

During her recent residency at Cove Park, Ele Carpenter made some observations in her blog to a similar effect, noting how the everyday world of the loch and lochside road cannot help but weave together what seem irreconcilable differences. The same incongruity can be witnessed at all weaponised sites:

"The activists build asymmetrical networks which blockade the weapons and spill over the fence to make tangible the provisional nature of the base. Their actions make visible the arbitrary nature of the divisions between things, especially where civilian and military networks overlap: warhead convoys drive along civilian roads, protesters reclaim the fence, tip computers into the sea, submariners wait for the local bus outside the peace camp. And we all watch the submarines (artists, locals, poets, the mechanics, peaceniks, naval officers, sheep), everybody watches the submarines."

And, given everyone who comes here watches, where is that watching best done from, where does one see ‘over the fence’? A tree top look-out – a shelter which is itself now a kind of historical monument to the decades in which the watcher was watched.

Combe Haven, photograph Adrian Arbib

It was the poet, hutter, and gardener Gerry Loose who first helped me to make the connection between Suibhne, these communities, and tree-shelters. The protestors don’t claim alliance to the historical figure of Sweeney, but in their tree-dwelling they enter his spirit. An irruption against the controlling forces of state and law, what they share with Suibhne is an outsider's urge toward flight, an action that seems a compound of delinquency, discipline, and courage.

Ele Carpenter tells me Kate Evans’s history of tree protests, Copse, records that the first trees to be occupied were in Jesmond Dene, Newcastle, in 1998, in an attempt to prevent the Cradlewell Bypass.
Gerry has read and kept vigil at Faslane, and is shortly to publish fault line, a poetic mapping of the territories around Faslane, Coulport, Gare Loch, and Loch Long, a follow-up to his Holy Loch Soap, extracts from which were published in Justified Sinners. These mapping projects are part of an ongoing nuclear walking project, one of the most thoughtful responses to the nuclear warfare nexus around globe, some of which is published in that person himself (Shearsman).

from fault line


when his teacher’s
was a flower
between thumb
& forefinger
Kasyapa smiled
I’m collecting
dead bees
from the meadows

 * *

notice there
a hole
of quietness
by birdsong
by plants’ dormancy
by submarines’ winches
15 of them
lifting galaxies


hunting mushrooms again
in woods by the sea
only black ships slipping
silent through unspeaking water

* *

today now we vote
war lords or
lines to cross

Hill of Dun
tracked with
who we are
flowering gorse

Glen Fruin, Morven Gregor, 2010, from The Road North: Glen Fruin


            clambering the

            of the tree

In terms of built structures, the closest equivalent to the warrior-king's bed aloft in the glorious disarray of the thorn tree, is the look-out tree-house, and all of the tree shelters that have been constructed at protest camps around the world.

In Michael Murray’s telling of the Suibhne myth, 'As battle commenced the noise drove Sweeny mad and he leapt from tree to tree away. Eventually he arrived at Glen Arkin, perched in a churchyard tree.' Given that Sweeney's crime was committed against the church, in the figure of Bishop Ronan, who he attempted to kill with a spear, there is an inevitability that his first tree-high bed should be in a yew, beyond the walls of the church, among the graves of suicides.

    Yew is the little churchyard tree
    and where the night of wood congeals
    the unsnarled darkness is named 'ivy'

    Trevor Joyce, Sweeny, Peregrine

The yew motif and the exile that follows can be taken as a summary judgment against a noble who has rejected the conventions of Christian orthodoxy. Was that proud rebellion enough to make Sweeney appear ‘mad’, or was it the reason he was called insane? Murray again: 'Eventually he arrived at Glen Bolcain, a place where mad people hid out. For seven years he wandered like this, he grew feathers, lived as a mad bird-man in the woods.' The glen’s name tells us that it is traditionally associated with madness, but only because it contained an ancient well that was held to heal the afflicted. 

  ‘BIRDSONG IN THE CANOPIES / Suibhne’; poem AF, photograph Hanna Tuulikki, 2013

The view we take is shaped by the look-out tower we choose to view the landscape from. Is the protesting tree-dweller mad, or is it the rating cooped up in a submarine who stays his own insanity, or both? And, if they are mad, what made them so?

    ‘my madness finds its congruity
    on the frozen peak of Boirche’

    Trevor Joyce, Sweeny, Peregrine

Suibhne, Hanna Tuulikki, 2013

Sweeney's feathered appearance may signify a return to shamanic ways, becoming 'aviform', taking on old tongues, bird-like twitterings, visionary chants, assuming a feathered garb, matted hair, and living off wild fruits and intoxicants. The strangeness of this figure, even his very estrangement, may be a projection, inscribed on Shuibhne’s skin*, and written into his story by the monks who took it down from the oral narrative, freighting it with disapproval. (*In Gaelic the 'h' is added when the name is possessive.)
At road protests and eco-political struggles, people have chosen to incarnate a nature-devoted Sweeneyesque shamanic cult, translating dreads into feathers, and worshipping animism. They thrive on the ingenuity, courage, and self-sacrifice that is required to live, for a time, in a hole in the ground, the canopy of a threatened tree, or harnessed to a trunk, suspended above a net.

Huntingdon Lane

To dwell among trees is to choose a higher, more exposed, form of dwelling, enacting ethics in a radical manner – closer to birdsong, chilled, under constant threat of arrest.

The tree-high dwell where the law of property sees a void. Their occupation of the canopy is a living sign that the place is not nothing, not to be cleared, or built on, regardless. Their levitated beds would share the playful sadness of acrobats, if it were not for the forces of the law and the attempts made to pull them down. The tree folk say, after Badiou, ‘Our lives are nothing, the trees are a void, let them, and us, be all.’

The tree-dwellers and the police, or yellow-coats, that drag them from the branches have the same symbiotic relationship as the protestors and police, or army, at Cove; the powerful and the dispossessed, the enraged and the entitled. Among protestors there is a necessary if precarious solidarity, confronted as they are by the forces of the military, or the law, or, increasingly, private security troopers.

That said, for some the identification with the outcast reveals a deeper truth, a dangerous path – the path of Suibhne, who remained trapped in a cycle of thorny solitary exile, unable to ever, finally, repair and belong again among his people. Others became intolerable, for their company made the breach and brang of battle resound in his mind. Sweeney is fated to mistrust the acts of kindness that come his way. He has no tree-high friends, only the birds, who he comes to resemble.

There are other books and blogs where you can read accounts of individual protests, tree squatters, and transient protests that have settled into communities, tented, bender-shelters, caravans, and even huts. Here, in trying to think through the form of Bothan Shuibhne, I wanted to discover what structure most closely resembles his bed among thorns, and I found it was the wild shelter, where conflict is pursued by other means and architecture is a state of mind.

The post concludes with a series of photographs by Adrian Arbib, of the non-violent Solsbury Hill M65 protest, from his recent book: Solsbury Hill: Chronicle of a Road Protest (Bardwell Press).

Solsbury Hill

Solsbury Hill was one part of the protest movement that influenced Government transport policy in the 1990s.

photographs by Adrian Arbib: www.arbib.org 

for more information on Solsbury Hill: www.solsburyhill.org.uk 

Bothan Shuibhne | Sweeney’s Bothy

Alec Finlay & The Bothy Project

commissioned as part of Creative Scotland’s 
‘Year of Natural Scotland 2013’

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