FEÀRNA  Photo Credit Sarah Darling

Feàrna with Alice Stillman and Rhona Dougall

Who are you and what do you do? 

Rhona: I’m Rhona Dougall – I’m from Oban, and have a background in community development and community arts work. In my work I often focus on local, community projects with an arts slant. 

Until the end of 2023 I job-shared the role of visual arts curator at An Tobar in Tobermory on Mull, which is how I came to be part of the islands residency project. I’m a Gaelic speaker, and I also work for Theatre Gu Leòr, a Gaelic theatre company. 

Alice: I’m Alice Stillman – I also have a background in community arts and development. I was born and grew up in Norfolk but have lived in South India and southern Europe and have been based in Mull for four years. I moved here just before the pandemic, when I’d just had my first baby. 

So I’m a mum and I’m also doing UHI’s MA in Art and Social Practice part-time. As a response to the pandemic and the isolation it caused, I started a project with others and the community tree nursery on Mull called the Tree Archive and ‘tree + cake’. 


Tell us about Feàrna, your project for Coastal Cultures

Alice: The Tree Archive and tree + cake had generated quite a lot of material around people's personal connections to trees on Mull, and I was looking for a very physical manifestation and gateway into the Tree Archive for people that was strongly rooted here. 

I was offered a site for a planting that was very close to a cleared township, so that threw up a lot of questions around how I would approach it, especially as most of the people who had participated in tree + cake were newcomers to Mull rather than people of Gaelic heritage. 

It felt very uncomfortable being so close to a sensitive site just with these newer stories. So I started talking to Rhona – and I knew that before I could move forward, I had to look at the lack of participation of people of Gaelic heritage. I quickly realised this lack of participation was not just in my project, but in many projects across Mull.

Rhona: It’s been about working out how to practise better and in a more inclusive way in the contemporary Highlands, which is a much more diverse community than it used to be.

As someone of Gaelic heritage working in the arts, I had been very conscious of this for some time and the patterns of (non)participation we were seeing in arts and community projects, where often the ‘local’ people of Gaelic heritage are not present. Quite often I find myself being the only person of Gaelic heritage or even the only Scottish person in a meeting or seminar, particularly in the arts sector.

We acknowledged there was an imbalance, which didn’t feel particularly healthy for the whole community. So we had a lot of conversations, and Alice did a lot of research around decolonising.

We started by looking at ourselves, working out how to navigate having sometimes uncomfortable conversations, and then looking at how to expand that to the wider community. 

We’ve done that by initially working predominantly with people of Gaelic heritage, and recognising that there needs to be time invested in building a foundation of relationships and trust before anything else can happen. We’ve been fortunate to work with a fantastic bunch of Muileachs who’ve been enthusiastic and generous with their time and company.

Alice: The metaphor we’ve been using is the mycorrhizal networks that are under the soil – the idea that forest health, and the health and vigour of what grows from the soil is dependent on the networks that exist underneath.  

That’s what’s been amazing about the residency – it’s given us the time to really slow down and invest in the relationships.  It takes time to make sure that everyone can be in the room – you can’t force that, you just have to wait for it.


Who else did you work with on the project?

Rhona: In the first phase of the project we worked with Alasdair Whyte. He’s a research fellow at Glasgow University, and one of his specialisms is Gaelic place names of Mull. He brought his research about Mull and the neighbouring islands that had tree terms as part of their names. 

Alice: Feàrna (meaning alder) featured in a few. Alasdair hosted a tree + cake event in 2022 in Gleann Forsa / Glen Forsa – we did a walk as part of the event, and were at a slope that was called Leathad Feàrna -  Slope of Alder. There was no alder on the slope, and that gave me a glimpse of an island that I couldn’t see, but I knew was there. It began that process of understanding that I see Mull through my own world view. 

Rhona: We’ve also worked with Dr. Coralie Mills on a final event in Ardura Community Forest on Mull. Coralie is the dendrochronologist who headed up Mull and Iona Community Trust’s commissioned report on the community-owned forest.

That report really paid attention to the social and cultural history of the place and the settlements around it. Coralie is very tuned into the work that we’ve been doing, so it was great to have the opportunity to discuss the report and hear more from her, alongside MICT and local people of Gaelic heritage with links to Ardura.


Tell us about the events you ran as part of the project.

Rhona: In the first phase working with Alasdair, we held five Gatherings around Mull. We used personal invitations, and aimed to invite local people of Gaelic heritage.

We ran counter-mapping sessions – we shared the research Alasdair had done, and had big OS maps of the area, to which people added their personal memories and stories. We sang Mull songs featuring tree imagery, we had tea and cake, and generally tried to make them as warm and informal as possible – our aim is events which feel culturally familiar and appropriate. 

That was our first experiment with getting people together and talking about these subjects.  We then followed those up with some house calls to people who were really interested.

In the second phase of the residency we held a gathering on the Ross at Knockvologan, where we invited a small, mixed group of people and tested out some more of our group working methodologies, such as sharing and facilitating discussion around certain Gaelic terms and concepts which are particularly relevant to this work, such as Gàidhealtachd, dùthchas and brìgh.

As mentioned above, we also began to work with MICT, organising a gathering at their building in Craignure and a presentation by Coralie Mills, followed by a walk at Ardura Community Forest for further discussion. The event was run in partnership with MICT and some staff and board members took part.

Alice: Another word we’ve used as well as Gatherings is ceilidh – we wanted to meet to share food, stories and songs, and our initial Gatherings were based on this form. 

Using house calls was very much a decision to slow down and to call on people at home, rather than arrange another meeting or send an email, so trying to use culturally familiar or appropriate ways of working and have conversations. 


What has the response been to the project and events on Mull?

Alice: There’s been very positive feedback from the Gatherings, and people seemed to really value having that cultural space. People came with no real expectations but there was a sense that people enjoyed the space and being together. 

There was also a feeling that many people had never had these conversations about cultural marginalisation, participation and inclusivity before across the communities. So it was very new, but we tried to make sure that it felt very safe for people to talk.

I’ve also sensed relief from people running projects on Mull that the issue is being talked about. You can’t do this on your own, especially as a newcomer – you need support.

Rhona: From the deeper conversations we’ve had, especially during the house calls and at the event at Knockvologan, people have been saying they feel it’s important, and I think it resonates wider than Mull, and possibly even than the wider Scottish context. 

So for some people I think it ties into a bigger conversation, and for others it might be a bit more Mull-focused, but people said that it’s been valuable – there’s a sense that people have been able to share things that they haven’t been able to before. People of Gaelic heritage have told us how important it has been to them to feel that they, their culture and heritage, is being acknowledged and valued. It’s reassuring that it’s relevant for people from a variety of backgrounds.


What’s next for you? 

Alice: The collaboration with Rhona in this project has been so important. It’s irreversibly changed the way I work in a very positive way, but has also brought up some really big questions that I now have a better understanding of, still don’t have the answers to, but would like to try to work out. For me, that’s where things are going next.

Rhona: I’ve been working with these issues for a while, but not in a collaboration, and crucially not with someone who isn’t from Gaelic heritage. Alice’s willingness to ask the questions and actually hear the answers and change what she’s doing is really rare, and it’s made me feel that it’s worth having these uncomfortable conversations because there is something transformative going on. That ongoing relationship, collaboration and conversation isn’t going to change – it’s been crucial. 


Learn more about Coastal Cultures Islands Residencies and Feàrna here


Coastal Cultures is funded by Creative Scotland and supported by The Scottish Government, Argyll and Bute Council and Bòrd na Gàidhlig