Feàrna, 2023 24, Credit Conor Ryan

FEÀRNA | Alice Stillman and Rhona Dougall


On Mull, Alice Stillman and Rhona Dougall have been developing Feàrna (Gaelic for Alder), working with Alasdair Whyte on the first phase of the project. Feàrna takes trees as a starting point, exploring human connections with them through counter-mapping and conversation. Importantly symbolic in Gaelic culture, trees also, with their long life span, remind us of the past and link us with the future.   

‘We will collectively explore questions important to us. In communities where Gaelic language has suffered rapid decline but where Gaelic culture remains all around us, how can we work meaningfully with and within Gaelic culture? … This project is a serious attempt by us to grapple creatively with some uncomfortable issues and to find pathways towards more inclusive and representative cultural practices. As artists and long-term residents of the region, we are committed to taking this work forward beyond the life of the project.’ - Feàrna

The emphasis of this project was on process, and one which was person-led, focusing on slow growth and relationship building to foster trust and enable a safe space for dialogue. 

After an initial period of developing the project through research, gathering resources and creating a framework for engagement, Feàrna hosted five gatherings in different locations around Mull.  Each gathering was an invited group of people with local roots in each area of Mull and/or Gaelic speakers. Using the traditional ‘house cèilidh’ as a template for the format of these events, tea, coffee, home baking, place names, stories and songs were shared with maps of specific areas and place names as a focus.

In the second stage, the Feàrna collective developed further gatherings, events and activities around the island, shaped by collaborators who joined the project as it moved forward. In the final months of the project, they documented and evaluated the project work to this point and created materials to disseminate project outputs online for sharing. They also created resources on the processes they have undertaken during the project around issues of decolonising and re-indigenising art practices in the Gàidhealtachd from the point of view of both Gaelic and non-Gaelic artists.  This included sharing certain elements of practising well via questions, Gaelic terms/concepts and facilitated discussion. Feàrna tested this at an event at Knockvologan in the Ross of Mull in December to positive responses, and hope to do more of this in-person sharing going forward.

Mull based web designer Lenny Stillman has created a project website to hold and share project work and resources. These include an extensive list of articles, podcasts, books etc., exploring the Feàrna themes, compiled collectively with those involved with the project.

Alongside the project website, Feàrna commissioned Mull-based filmmaker Nina Pope to make a film based around a conversation between Rhona and Alice on the collaboration and their practice.

‘The principal aim of the film was to capture and share some of the feelings, thinking and processes that came up whilst working on Feàrna. We also felt it would be a valuable resource for us going forward, particularly as a way of 'bringing the other person/perspective into the room' in workshops where we have chosen to work specifically with people of Gaelic heritage OR people of non-Gaelic heritage and one or other of us has, for reasons pertaining to openness and potential discomfort, decided not to be present in person.’- Feàrna


Feàrna from Rhona NicDhùghaill on Vimeo.

(running time 57 mins)

Feàrna (Short) from Rhona NicDhùghaill on Vimeo.

(running time 10.5 mins)


The film evidences the collaborative working relationship and trust established between Rhona and Alice during the project, which clearly had a profound impact on their own practices.

‘Prior to the project I had almost zero experience of working with people of Gaelic heritage so I didn’t have a reference point on which to pin my hopes. I trusted Rhona’s experience and judgement here.  I could however see this (re)connection happening at the gatherings we held - in the being together and conversing / sharing of knowledge - and in the feedback we received. From what I have seen and understand it was a quiet (re)connection but a powerful one.’ - Alice Stillman

‘I think we struck a balance between sharing things with people (Gaelic place names, Gaelic terms) and holding space for people to share aspects of their own Gaelic cultural heritage. I think the combination of me, from inside Gaelic culture, and Alice from outside of it, was a really good combination. People were comfortable in expressing things around their culture and heritage with me because they knew I shared it and valued it, and understood the stresses it has been under, and didn’t see them as inadequate for not speaking Gaelic or not having as strong a connection to Gaelic culture as they maybe felt they should have. People also felt respected by Alice, someone from outwith the culture, but who was firstly acknowledging their culture exists, and secondly genuinely wanting to listen to and learn from them.’ - Rhona Dougall

44 people living on Mull engaged with Feàrna over the course of the project. Many participants were involved in several gatherings and events and were from a range of backgrounds. 32 people were of Gaelic heritage (some of whom took on co-hosting roles in the second phase of the project), 12 people were of other heritages: English, Lowland Scottish, Dutch, Indian, and Australian. In addition, there was collaborative work with 2 organisations: Knockvologan, Mull and Iona Community Trust (MICT).

A list of terms relating to the diversity of roles people have played within Feàrna gatherings and discussions was developed through the project and will be shared in the online resources collated for the Feàrna website.

Feàrna completed an in-depth evaluation with 15 people involved in the project, reflecting on some of the original project aims.  The evaluation was pitched between gauging how successful the work has been to this point and seeking input as to how it might proceed to give the most value to the community. Some of these questions are below.

On greater confidence and wellbeing in participants:

All of those asked agreed that events such as those held as part of Feàrna could improve confidence and wellbeing. 

‘Just meeting people and connecting at that level allows you to connect, strengthen community. Your understanding of the place you are in. To get out of one's comfort zone - the spaces, people you are normally in and with. To be gently taken out of that can be great for confidence. Wellbeing - taking pleasure and pride in the place you’re in and maybe greater responsibility for it, a greater consciousness… maybe develop a sense of stewardship… or rather taking care of it.’

The people of Mull feel (re)-connected with the indigenous culture of the island:

‘Meeting people is the most important part of this. Having this gentle but potentially challenging conversation about belonging, place, language, culture…’

‘I have to say, you are doing this in a very gentle, lovely way - doing what you are doing, the value you are placing in this…treasuring it, protecting it. With sensitivity ... My culture, I’d kept it hidden in me… You’re tapping into that treasure. It’s something I have been given; I’ve not asked for. I’ve looked after it, but not done a lot with it. I so appreciate it has been recognised and valued in a way it hadn’t.’

On strengthening connection between new residents and the indigenous community:

‘For me there has been huge value in the conversations I’ve taken part in so far, as I’ve been aware both on a personal and professional level of there often being a feeling of a ‘gap’ or ‘divide’.  Giving time and resources to start, continue and explore these feelings through conversations has never really been undertaken before now as far as I’m aware (I’ve lived and worked on Mull for almost 20 years).  I see this as such an important part of strengthening our community to be best placed to meet the current and future challenges we collectively face as a community (e.g. cost of living crisis, tackling loneliness/isolation, particularly amongst older people and/or those without local family networks, public sector/services budget cuts, climate crisis).’

‘Both/all communities could benefit. Fostering knowledge and respect for the history and culture of the place by more recent residents would help inter community cohesion!’

‘Respect for each other is based on mutual understanding. Without mutual understanding there is a risk of a growing indifference and potential irritation. Ideally it should be reciprocal.’

Both Alice and Rhona feel that although there are tangible outputs from this project, many of which will be shared as resources, the focus was on relationship building and laying the foundations for further work and development.  There are ongoing dialogues and relationships nurtured through the project which will continue, including with the Mull and Iona Community Trust.



Artists Interview 

Feàrna Project Website 

Feàrna film  

Feàrna film (Short)


Coastal Cultures - Islands is funded by Creative Scotland and supported by The Scottish GovernmentArgyll and Bute Council and Bòrd na Gàidhlig. Coastal Cultures, Islands, supports the aims of the Argyll and Bute Economic Strategy, the National Plan for Scotland’s Islands and the Scottish Government's Gaelic Language Plan.