Norman Shaw’s Nemeton lives up to Alastair McIntosh’s stated approach to writing, “In the absence of 300 micrograms of LSD, how can I trip them out?”
This is gonzo academic writing at its best: faeries, faerie hills (a nemeton is a sacred space in the ancient Celtic religion), second sight, Ossian, standing stones (Calanais in particular), Masons, shit socks, Psilocybin (magic) mushrooms, hazel nuts, the nuts of knowledge, salmon, poaching, patrols for poachers, Christianity, damnation, the second coming, the Jacobites, superquarries, peat, and of course Beuys.
Shaw documents visually and in text a series of journeys to explore specific nemetons, sites in the West Highlands where our world and the dream- or otherworld are connected. These journeys are deeper explorations of previous experiences: Shaw, a son of the Manse, grew up in Lewis and Dingwall amongst other Highland communities. Revisiting sites with the specific objective of researching their existence as meeting points brings him into contact with everyday Highland life as well as with the other world. Cycling, driving and walking through the Highlands in the heat and the rain, in fog and on clear days, sometimes in company and sometimes alone, the journeys are psychological as well as physical explorations.
Nemeton is a rumination on the nature of reality, West Highland reality, which is distinct from other realities, just as Hunter S Thompson’s West Coast reality is an alternate reality. Just imagine three cycles dumped outside a café in a community hall on Harris.
“My bike has a crucifix for handlebars, with a wooden Christ having from it. His legs form the two forks holding the front wheel. Thus Jesus forms a kind of figurehead for the trip. Roineval will be our Holy Mountain, our Calvary. The bike becomes our cross to bear, dragging it round the roads of Harris, whilst simultaneously being steered by Christ, whose humiliation haunts the moors and glens of the Hebrides – a voice crying in the wilderness. A fine twelve-pointed pair of red deer stag’s antlers form Eddie’s handlebars. The deer is a symbol of time and a symbol of love. Time the deer is in the wood… It also symbolises the surplus of deer that roam the sporting estates of the post-clearance highlands; or the horned god Cerrunos, hermes trismegistus – often depicted as Moses with horns (as in Roslin chapel, for instance). Lee’s bicycle is steered by the skull and jawbones of a basking shark. His bike is an appeal to the maritime history of this place, of fish-based economies and a hearkening back to old Atlantis or even Tir Nan Og.” (p.100).
Shaw makes a compelling argument that our post-modern imaginary, breaking down assumptions about cause and effect, disrupting the linear narrative, exploring the circular, is fundamentally more suited to developing an understanding of dimensions beyond those accessible to the sciences of physics and imperial(ist) histories.
There are contributions from others including Murdo Macdonald, the Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee as well as the artists Eddie Summerton, Lee O’Connor and Tommy Crooks.
At the heart of this book is a rumination on nature and the spiritual. Shaw belongs in the long lineage of researchers into the otherworld or dreamworld of the Scottish Highlands. What is distinctive about this research, done in the context of contemporary visual arts (as broad as that method can be), is the acceptance of the participation of the researcher in the world. Other texts describe things learnt or things found. This text shares experiences of the research. Ironically in this text the spiritual is not other, studied objectively, but rather immanent, studied subjectively. The altered states of this text confront head on the haptic, the liminal, and the full complexity of the Highlands: damnation at the second coming, the schadenfreude of village life where failure takes eviscerates incomers. Fear is visceral.
Why this book is self-published I cannot for the life of me understand, but you can get a copy direct from the author email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to 2 Inzievar Couirtyard, Inzievar Woods, Dunfermline, Fife, KY12 8HB.
Dr Norman Shaw
Born in 1970, grew up in the Highlands.
MA (hons) in Fine Art, University of Edinburgh (1993)
MPhil in Art History, Edinburgh College of Art (1994)
MFA in painting, Edinburgh College of Art (1996).
PhD in Fine Art, University of Dundee (2004)
Taught Art History and Fine Art at Edinburgh College of Art and the University of Edinburgh, before lecturing at the University of Dundee.
Exhibits widely in group and solo exhibitions, nationally and internationally. Outputs include drawing and painting, printmaking, writing, sound, video.
Exhibitions include ‘Window to the West’ (City Art Centre, 2010), ‘Prints of Darkness’ (Edinburgh Printmakers, 2010 (touring)), ‘Highland’ (RSA, 2007), ‘The Great Book of Gaelic’ (An Lanntair, Stornoway, 2002 (touring)), ‘Calanais’ (An Lanntair,1996 (touring)).
Research and practice is multi-disciplinary and polymorphic. Major source is the Scottish Highland landscape; its natural and unnatural histories, mythologies, mysticisms and psychogeologies; tempered by a unique visionary iconography which draws on an expansive range of influences.
Visual research ranges from drawing and painting to printmaking and installation. Influences and obsessions range from prehistoric megalithic culture and Pictish art to early medieval British insular art; and from the early northern renaissance to the northern romantic tradition; William Blake, the Celtic revival, surrealism, neo-romanticism, psychedelia, and occult, subversive and ‘outsider’ art, marginal, alternative and hidden histories. Draws heavily on music-related artforms such as record covers and paraphernalia.