“The houses have all gone under the sea, The dancers have all gone under the hill”. — From East Coker, Four Quartets by T.S.Eliot
Rosey Priestman is an artist who lives and works on Sanday, one of the northern isles of Orkney, in an old stone house overlooking the sea. This is not just her residence and studio, but the home of the Gardemeles Museum, a growing collection of artefacts that began with the house’s former inhabitants, Helen & John Scott. It now includes a wide range of objects that Rosey has collected from the surrounding shores: everything from shark vertebrate to whale bones, from lost toys to curious shells. There’s also a homemade dagger made of driftwood and cow bone, an early 20th-century washboard, and a fox fur collar with glass eyes. If it has been made in neighboring villages or cast into the local waters then there’s a good chance it will end up in Rosey’s collection. A true Atlantic wunderkammer.
I spoke with Rosey about her deep connection to the Scottish coast, the magic of beachcombing, embracing impermanence, and the past lives of her house on the sands.
What draws us to the sea, and where does your connection to the sea begin?
Children love the sea: first glimpse of the blue, leaping in the breaking waves, exploring rock pool life, shells, salty skin, long days. That’s how it was for me but living on an island where the sea is everywhere and everyday means that it is part of a continuous memory now. It was always somewhere in my mind to live in such a place.
You have lived all over the Scottish Isles. What was it that brought you to Stove, the former farmland on Sanday, where you are now based?
I came to Stove on Sanday, one of the northern isles of Orkney at the end of the last century. It’s a dilapidated old house at the head of a huge bay that is covered and uncovered by the tides every day; a dream place full of ancestors. Although they don’t belong to me I am part of a line that will soon be ﬁnished as sea levels rise.
Your home is not just a home but a working studio and a museum, the Gardemeles Museum. The building is obviously integral to the museum and provides the foundation of the collection. What is its history?
It is the former home Helen Scott and her husband John who had lived as crofters at Stove for most of their lives. Helen Scott was born nearby in 1901 at South Myre and came to Stove, aged 14, as a servant. After leaving in a state of malnourishment and working locally as a seamstress of men’s suits at the island clothing shop, she returned after the First World War with her husband John as crofters in one half of Stove House until 1993. Their entrance opened straight onto one of her gardens and upstairs their bedroom overlooked the sea.
Inside were the relics left behind by the couple, primarily made-up of Helen’s abandoned collections: empty biro tubes; rolled-up string; bits of paper; small coils of wire. She saved everything that came her way to put it to further use. There were also the things she had made, including a model of the house and bird coop, which were the objects that started the idea of a museum in my mind. I wanted to share these objects. The life of an island woman who planted trees in a treeless landscape, created gardens, chose to paint the staircase primrose yellow with modernist wallpaper on the walls, saw mermaids in the bay, made beautiful and sometimes useful things from carefully saved materials.
The museum has a collection made up of everyday items that have been lost to and then brought back from the sea. What is it that makes these objects that were once so ordinary become so fascinating?
To begin with, there is the delight of wandering along the shore, picking things up that were brought in as islanders here have always done. Then there is the transformative process of the sea, the way it can physically change objects both natural and unnatural. Even a plastic bottle can be transformed into something lovely by the movement of the ocean.
The collection has continued to grow beyond what you initially found, what has been added, and what is your curatorial vision?
Although Helen Scott was the starting point for Gardemeles Museum, there were other interesting artefacts lurking in the nettles at Stove: pieces of old farm machinery from the Model Farm created there in the 19th century, a failed social experiment which had been burnt out by fire, reputedly arson, and left mainly in ruins; also interesting objects left in John Scott’s workshop in the old stables; tar pots, brushes, harness, boat nails, whale ribs. At the edge of it all, the sea.
Sometimes I am given things by other people who know I would like them but mostly they are found. Visiting the island recycling centre where unwanted objects and books are brought in for others to take away can be an interesting source reﬂecting the changing nature and tastes of the population. Other than the many beaches, good places to explore on Sanday are around disused island dumps which are invariably along the shore or off the edge of a cliff. Things emerge as the coast erodes or winter storms alter the landscape; brass buckles, broken engine parts, rusty tools wedged between the stones in the rock pools. On the eastern headland that encloses Stove Bay is a neolithic settlement where a worked ﬂint tool was found embedded in the crumbling cliff face. This is in the museum collection.
What are some of your favourite objects in the collection?
One of my most precious objects from the sea is a hard hat found on a nearby beach around the Millennium when North Sea oil was being constantly extracted and workers lived out on the rigs for weeks at a time, all year round. There were many hard hats being washed ashore but this one is uniquely engraved with drawings of a merman, fishes, and two crossed-tailed seals on the rim; contemporary scrimshaw. On the whole, my favourite finds always have some specific human touch that sparks an imagined narrative.
How do you go about uncovering the facts and stories behind these many various man-made and organic artefacts?
My research is done in different ways: talking to those on the island who may know the material history, online, from my own reference books, and from papers relating to Stove found in the Orkney Archive, including Helen Scott’s childhood memories, handwritten in an exercise book.
How has COVID impacted museum operations?
As the curator of what is for now a virtual museum, I have found that the objects can reach a wide range of people who would never actually see any of it displayed in an outbuilding in this remote place. The objects that have ended up in my hands flow freely back out again into the world like the outgoing tide. Placed back into such flow their biography can become allegorical.
What are some of the most interesting things that you have learned through these objects and from the museum building itself?
Gardemeles – house on the sands is an old name for Stove, never fully explained but mentioned in records from the 16th century and earlier. The museum itself catalogues my collection which began here in 1999. Work on one of the stable buildings is ongoing but will one day be finished and everything will be displayed in an installation. For now, I am photographing the objects. Sometimes this is straightforward but not always. It can take many attempts before the object speaks for itself. This and conveying a sense of place are my aims.
What does the future of the museum hold?
The museum is one project. My creative practice is grounded in a material dialogue with the history of this speciﬁc place. It has taken the form of painting, collage, found object assemblage, sculpture, film making, an ongoing series of costumes made from clothing and other material brought in by the sea. The influence is mutual.
How has your experience here shaped your thoughts on the future of our oceans?
On Stove Bay, scattered stones are still left lying from a previous farmhouse that stood for centuries on land now reclaimed by the sea. Inevitably this present house and all the trees that Helen and I have planted will also be underwater as ocean levels rise: the impermanence of existence and the need to make what we can of this time we live in. I have become less interested in perfection. As for the ocean itself, it will become central for humanity with all its enormous power.
1. Model of Stove House, made by Helen Scott: cardboard, wallpaper, matchbox chimneys, the details drawn in biro, 9″ across – found at Stove
2. Canvas Stretcher: mid C20th, unused, originally bound with twine; canvas, wood, brass, aluminum, hemp rope. This was intended for rescue by airlift on the Scapa Courier, a metal tug that sank while under tow in Scapa Flow – found in a disused ironmonger and chandler’s warehouse in Kirkwall, Mainland Orkney.
3. Remains of a Weather Balloon: plastic, twine, sliver of bamboo, the circular base from which the balloon once floated 9″ across – found on Stove Bay
4. Bird Coop, made by Helen Scott from saved materials: string, painted wooden box, copper wire, 18″ across – found at Stove. The coop with a front opening flap was probably for newly hatched chicks to keep them safe.