Looking Back To Look Forward - Kirsten Norrie Profiled

Often trying to sum up the work of multi-disciplinarian artists can be a fool’s errand. In the case of this Scottish folklorist, visionary, experimental poet, singer, performance artist and actor, focussing in tightly on just one aspect of her practice is initially the only way to present a clear picture of what she does, writes John Doran.


In A Nutshell

Kirsten Norrie is an artist and writer who trained at the Ruskin School of Fine Art, Oxford. She is a performer, filmmaker and object maker who also publishes poetry and records spoken word under her matrilineal clan name MacGillivray. As well as working on her own, she is part of several groups such as The Wolf In Winter and Parlour Collective and has also collaborated with cinematographer Anonymous Bosch and the classical tabla player Hardeep Deerhe.


Our Take

It would be a fool’s errand to try and delimit the work of writer, musician and Scottish folklorist Kirsten Norrie. As a poet alone her focus, technique, subject matter and style shifts from project to project, making any pat summation redundant from the outset. For her, numerous unique modes of expression and a delight in intense periods of research are two of the most fearsome weapons in her armoury and these feed a body of work-  which includes not only surrealist poetry but Gaelic overtone improvised singing, historical non-fiction essay writing, recording music, collaborative filmmaking, performance art and spoken word - that have variously included the working practices of interviewing the great grandson of Sitting Bull to planning a collaboration with Stafford Glover, the former guitar player with cult grindcore band Extreme Noise Terror via reciting verse on film while being blasted by a waterfall on the Isle Of Skye; all of which mixes with the idea of a succinct precis in the same way oil tends to mix with water.  


One aspect of this varied practice (though it is by no means a universal or overarching theme) could be summed up in brute terms as the idea of looking back to look forward. Norrie has dedicated a big portion of her adult life to the exploration of Scots Gaelic culture - research which has fed back into her work in many different ways. Her obsession with this history and her (seemingly) unique interaction with it and perspective on it can perhaps be explained somewhat by her relative position which is simultaneously one of long-standing family heritage and notable outsiderism.


She describes her background as “mongrel” as she explains the peripatetic upbringing that led to her obsession. Her father and mother are Scottish as Scottish can be (“there was a Glaswegian architect in the family who worked with Charles Rennie MacKintosh and designed the Salvation Army Women's Building in the Grassmarket, Edinburgh”) especially on her Mother’s side, as it is her matrilineal heritage that has provided her with the stage and literary persona of MacGillivray (her mother’s clan name) under which she publishes and performs.


And yet despite this heritage she is, thanks to her Dad’s army career, in some respects, English: “I was born in Winchester, have an English accent and was brought up in English boarding schools (and Irish fishing school and Convent School) and have lived in Hong Kong and Germany. I am deeply admiring of and belong to English culture, having been born here, so my ‘Scottishness' is at large as an imaginative force and perhaps my 'peripatetic' childhood enabled the distance necessary to fully subscribe to an instinct of reinvention.”


Her ‘Englishness’ is at best a moot point being little other than a quirk of geography. She is a walking compendium of Scottish folklore history, among many other things, and perhaps resembles one of the amateur obsessives of Scottish historiography she so admires, such as the reverend-scholar Robert Kirk who was said to have been finally absorbed into a fairy mound after a lifetime chasing and writing about the Sìdhichean. This, to me, is as as useful a metaphor as you could wish for to illuminate what has happened to Norrie over the years in her pursuit of this subject.


She is quick to dissuade anyone seeking easy answers to her practice when pointing out that any number of other ulterior factors may have fed into her vision as regards her relationship to Scottish folklore history… not the least of which was the state of her own vision itself. She explains: “The experience of being short-sighted and not knowing it led to me reading atmospheres and presences first and foremost.


“My next book A History Of Optics: The History Of Ghost deals with this - so perhaps I can align my own sightings of the phantasmagoric with the poor visual awareness I had as a child.” When looking at her biography one can find oneself reaching out to grab hold of what initially looks like a piece of concrete evidence just to find one has grasped firmly onto a spunkie instead.


It is not unheard of for British contemporary and progressive artists in 2018 to have a deep investment in the types of traditional cultures, practices and languages once marginalised after the industrial revolution but it is still uncommon enough for this practice to then be re-presented in a 21st century context outside of the static enclosure of pure heritage and preservation.


In the field of pop music, the polyglot psychedelic musician Gwenno (formerly of conceptual ‘girl group’ The Pipettes) followed up her 2014 Welsh language album Y Dydd Olaf with a record earlier this year sang entirely in Cornish, called Le Kov. And in the field of folk music, Laura Cannell - who specialises in playing ‘double-headed recorders’ and the under-bowed violin - combines ‘early music’ with improvisation to produce ancient sounding but utterly modern instant compositions. (Kirsten has performed with Laura twice to date.)


The singer songwriter Richard Dawson recently recorded the album Peasant which was ostensibly set in Bryneich (the ancient Welsh name for the kingdom that existed in Yr Hen Ogledd - The Old North - in the area that became the kingdom of Northumbria and the Scottish Borders in the seventh century). We say ostensibly because the album was as much a comment on contemporary society (austerity, Brexit etc.) as it was anything else.


Norrie travels much deeper still however and her reasons for doing so are less easy to pin down. It is the extent of her immersion that is really remarkable as it appears - to an outside observer at least - that the distinctions between art and quotidian life have become blurred, that if there once was a boundary separating them, it has become porous if not dissolved altogether. While this immersion is undeniable, she rejects any explicit political commentary and only acknowledges the idea of looking back to look forward cautiously: “When I spoke to him, Ernie LaPointe, the great-grandson of Sitting Bull, had something of deep significance to say on this matter which is that we must be 'humble and pitiful and look to the future, not the past.' I said, 'Ernie, do you really mean pitiful?' He said, 'Yes, I do.' I said 'Why?' and he responded, 'Because to look into the future is to be pitiful.'”


But she is quick to follow this up: “I don't operate from the perspective of a political agenda illustrated by poetry or music, or by an underlying political viewpoint. I simply make work that will only cease when I work out a certain call or obsession to create its existence.”


Intent aside, it is easier to pinpoint the fact that, while writing as MacGillivray, she has created bold and visionary work of formal, stylistic invention. If we were to take her second book of poetry The Nine Of Diamonds: Surroial Mordantless (2016, Bloodaxe), and shudder as if at the first attempt to read TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, perhaps it would not be that inappropriate such is the fiendish complexity of the text.


The playing card of the title is the same number and suit upon which The Butcher (Prince William Augustus, The Duke Of Cumberland) wrote that Highlanders should be “given no quarter” (i.e. only slaughtered) during the attempt to crush the Jacobite uprising which happened at the Battle Of Culloden in 1746, and is known as the curse of Scotland. But this is not the poetic version of battle recreation. MacGillivray creates spatial and temporal fractures in her account slashed through with stylistic breaks from historicity and literary tradition; the shards are rearranged into a dazzling new mosaic. (Her ability to step further back and see larger patterns at play, is no doubt a great benefit: “I often think of Gaelic poetry as a tribal and numinous presence tantamount to Sufi poetry.”)


The Highlands become The Gaelic Garden, the fated and fleeing Highlanders become deer who move through a surreal landscape populated by weird and uncanny figures that range from raging neon unicorns and Second World War Highland fighter pilots to pole-dancing fauns and stained glass knights.


While the second clause of the book’s title has a specific meaning (“surroial” is a purposeful misspelling of “surroyal” - a hunter’s term for the most outward and old points of a stag’s antlers; “mordant” a term for fixing dye in weaving) it contains a play on words in that it should make the reader think of the word “surreal”. She explains: “I wanted to invent a Scottish Surrealist Movement. I'd been to the magnificent collections of the Marmalade Queen, Gabrielle Keiller at the Museum of Modern Art, Edinburgh and turned up some striking images - [the founder of Surrealism] André Breton's reference to ‘coral coloured antlers’; [the visionary poet] Philip Lamantia and the idea of ‘shaping sand from thistle covered fog’. There were surrealistic nods towards the subject of deer, in particular, by the French and American poets.


["Talking about the word “mordantless”] my mother was a weaver and to have a running dye - a reference to all the weeping, the melancholy surrounding this well worn tract of Scottish history; Culloden and the Clearance Of The Highlands - was to be used in its reverse meaning; to be unfixed. So, in a sense it's the running colour, or dye of a surreal antler.”


Her techniques for writing can be dazzling and playful and then, by turns, rigorous and authentic - in this instance she used a kaleidoscope as a substitute hallucinogenic when “the text was getting tough, to break the deadlock” as well as a deck of Tarot and an old copy of The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable as literary tools. When I ask if she herself employed the Scots Gaelic vision-inducing technique mentioned in the text - that of standing behind a waterfall until hallucination occurs - she revealed a game streak:

"I didn’t stand behind a waterfall [that time] but I did get under one with an open mouth for the Gaelic film I directed on Skye with cinematographer Anonymous Bosch…”


But MacGillivray employs a kaleidoscopic and ever shifting pattern of techniques that reassemble phantasmagorically and colourfully, with each project. Her next collection of poetry The Gaelic Garden Of The Dead (which will be published by Bloodaxe, February 2019) features a series of dream diagrams, that found its genesis with a recurring dream about the execution of Mary Queen of Scots; although it initially inspired her to make field recordings rather than compose verse. She says: “I started to record the air in most of the places she had been: at the Fotheringhay site on the anniversary morning of her execution, at Linlithgow and across in a boat to Loch Leven, Westminster Abbey (the air around her tomb) and the tiny birthing room in Edinburgh Castle.


“I was allowed special access to her last letter by the National Library of Scotland, and recorded the air emanating from that. I used an old Scots instrument, a dulcitone, made in Glasgow in the 1800s, to capture a diamantine sound (her poetry is full of imagery relating to diamonds), and wrote the lyrics from her own poetry and purported letters.


“'The third section of The Gaelic Garden Of The Dead, is titled In My End Is My Beginning, and much of it was written in situ at the sites she lived in. There are thirty-five sonnets, one for each of the steps she was said to have descended (the staircase is at the Talbot Inn, Oundle). Then there is 'the blade' and then a masticated, chewed up, muttered over manuscript of ground up sonnets that last - in reading - for about fifteen minutes, the length of time her lips were said to move after decapitation.”


The book also comprises a Gaelic alphabet of trees that were witness to a Highland execution, written after Norrie paid a visit to a real life Hanging Tree in Braemar and then used the old Celtic compositional method of writing verse for a day in the dark while lying down and then mnemonically recording the compositions by night.


It feels as if there are more historical subjects and more potential techniques for vividly capturing their essence than there are Munros for the bagging in the Highlands; and that Kirsten herself is only just warming up to the task in hand.  


Five Easy Pieces - Where To Start With Kirsten Norrie/MacGillivray


ONE: The Last Wolf of Scotland (2013, Pighog/Red Hen)

Kirsten’s first poetry collection follows the true life story of Robert McGee, who was 14-years- old when he was scalped in 1864. He blamed it on 'Sioux Chief Little Turtle'.  Incredibly, McGee survived the ordeal, despite allegedly being shot and stabbed 14 times by his assailant, but having researched the case, Kirsten discovered there was no Sioux Chief Little Turtle; no 'fourteen wounds' as claimed and the person McGee most likely met was Buffalo Bill, (making the photograph which features as the front cover of this book of verse nothing short of Wild West propaganda).


Following a successful kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to travel to South Dakota, Kirsten recorded Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of Sitting Bull reading from The Last Wolf of Scotland. Her verse was then written after a time spent researching the story with Navajo and Hopi people in Arizona and during her tenure as a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress, Washington DC.


TWO: Horse Sweat Chandelier (2013, self-released)

Numinous, atemporal and evocative of the very landscape that inspired it, Horse Sweat Chandelier is one of Kirsten’s many albums and is described by her as a “soundscape for Scotland”. This is no workmanlike recreation of musical styles gone by drummed up by a worthy hobbyist though. Any sense of Scottishness evoked is one that stands on a continuum; the electronic production on some of the tracks and lyrics written with the knowledge of 20th century art put the listener in mind of powerful contemporary artists such as Jenny Hval and PJ Harvey (respectively).


James Young, an established musician who works predominantly with piano and who worked with John Cale and Nico (writing cult classic ‘Songs They Never Play On the Radio' about the experience) produced this record. He and Kirsten worked together for nearly a decade.


THREE: By Our Selves (2014, film directed by Andrew Kötting)

By Our Selves is Andrew Kötting’s film about the English poet John Clare who burned to death in a house fire. Kirsten contributed to the soundtrack of By Our Selves, having previously worked with Jem Finer (The Pogues) on Visionary Seascapes, a release that accompanied Köttting's previous film Swandown. She also plays the wife, Mary Joyce, to Toby Jones’ John Clare, alongside the writer Iain Sinclair who also features as an actor. The project has swollen organically to become a stage play and a publication, which features an essay by Kirsten.



FOUR: The Nine of Diamonds: Surroial Mordantless (2016, Bloodaxe)

Written while Kirsten was living on the Isle Of Skye, this poetry collection concerns Prince William Augustus - The Butcher Cumberland - and his bloody suppression of the Jacobite Uprising at the notorious Battle of Culloden in 1746, and the merciless treatment of Highlanders directly afterwards. Not by any stretch of the imagination a standard book of verse, the author utilised a kaleidoscope, Tarot cards and the 1895 Dictionary Of Phrase And Fable in order to write it.


FIVE: Scottish Lost Boys: Seven Renegade Essays (2018, Strange Attractor)

In Kirsten’s first work of non-fiction prose - a collection of essays coming later this year on Strange Attractor Press - the title refers to JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, the original lost boy. The work is an extension of her Oxford doctoral thesis and focuses in on the stories of such real life, key but disparate Scottish figures as Scottish director Bill Douglas (My Childhood: The Trilogy) and Alexander McQueen.


The Quotable Kirsten Norrie

“There's a lot [about ancient Scottish culture] that lurks just beneath the surface. All cultures sigh, turn over and reinvent themselves. I like to dig around in the way that some aspects of Scottish culture did so. So there's an emphasis on conjuration - how to summon a 'country' as an act of wilderness. I like the shifting idea around a temperament of place. It's a deeply unstable rhetoric.” [speaking in 2018]

“There's much in Gaelic culture that is bizarre, fascinating and hallucinogenic.” [speaking in 2018]


Upcoming Kirsten Norrie

Watermarked in Flame, is Kirsten’s latest album; it was released in March 2018; her  Murdered Mermaid Song was included on the Wire Tapper CD, released in November 2017.

The experience of being short-sighted and not knowing it led to me reading atmospheres and presences first and foremost - Kirsten Norrie

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