This place is a well

It’s a long way off but inside it

There are quite different things going on

Festivals at which the poor man

Is king and the consumptive is

Healed; mirrors in which the blind look

At themselves and love looks at them

Back; and industry is for mending

The bent bones and the minds fractured by life.

THE words of a poem by RS Thomas won’t let me go as I try and make sense of the encounters at the Scottish Crannog Centre and with its staff.

For Tawona Sithole it is, according to the distance measurements given on the phone, 8000.1 miles from his original home to the Crannog. I wonder how much the .1 matters.

First visits anywhere are special and defining of much that comes after.

There are hugs with strangers – the first since the pandemic – and the kinds of joshing humour that means all will be well. We walk through the doors into a world that for me is other, and yet beautiful, and which, for Tawona, speaks of the homestead, the village, familiar shapes and things, and home.

We meet people who smile, who seem to love their work and what they are making.

There have been tears, and still are plenty to come as we move through the space, on a tide of wonder. Fire has taken the Crannog, the homestead, this painstaking work of human hands, made not by contractors but by improvisers, working out how their forebears might have made shelters, might have lived, from tiny fragments of the past.

The National:

The labour here – of the lyre-player, the paddler in the dug-out canoe; the story-teller and singer; the weaver and bread-baker, the puppeteer and the curator; the women at the forest gate – is engaged in the opposite of alienating work. Everywhere are makers, soft-eyed and sparkly. And then visitors, fee-paying strangers, yes, indeed, but drawn in as community, and as made into makers themselves.

Conversation takes us in ever deepening spirals, touching into the ways that everyone here – like ourselves – has their own struggles with grief, loss, depression, rejection, with those who simply do not understand the logics of gift over the logics of capital.

We spend a day hearing words like “love” and everywhere there is care – for old dogs, old shards of poetry, for the child whose fingers left their prints on clay 2500 years ago; for the mischief in the stories that are growing and changing, for what the burnt-out Crannog was, for what the future might be, for the warp, the weft, the loom and its raising.

“Industry” here is, it seems “for mending the bent bones and the minds fractured by life”.

THE reconstructed, re-imagined loom is a centre piece and sign now that the Crannog itself has burnt down. It is like an ancient ancestor is being raised and upon this frame a piece of two by one twill will be woven again from Soay sheep wool. It stands under a make-shift shelter, by a fire.

Slowly but surely a weaving artist is pulling the threads, the warp and the weft, to allow many hands – thousands indeed – to touch and make, and many voices – thousands indeed, too – to story and sing their own threads into a common pattern. It will be an adventure in community, in human inhabitation of a cloth as yet to be, made of what has once been lost and is now, here, raised, drop-spun into threads and holding the beginning of many a story.

And this too is the vision of the new Crannog. A thousand touches and a thousand voices.

Our work here is just beginning, we hope.

A traveller from the south, a minstrel with an mbira, which is made of the southern tree that bleeds, finding a connection with the alder, the tree that bleeds here in the north, strong and resilient, surviving in water forever and a day, surviving fire on water. Music meets and greets. A lyre sounds by the lochside, made again from the imagined re-fashioning of a lyre bridge found in the anaerobic environment of the Crannog excavations. It finds an echo in mbira, a music of the south.

A bard takes us into the grove, to a fireside of moss and ash and hazel as the old thatch from the Crannog laps up against the shore. Stories are told. They are the same. They are different. They are of water and women, of men and folly, of pride and humility, and children and clay. They are how we learn and how we find each other. There are songs sung and returned. And bread is broken and shared. Loved.

This place is a well.

The National:

Sithole (above) picks up the story ...

I, like many thousands of Africans, have built this image of Britain as a place of riches and abundance forged from carbon in the industrial revolution, but here is the heritage and history that is present on these lands which is sustainable and sustaining of life.

When you meet people after you have arrived and meet more than facades of glass and steel you realise that the people of these lands are also indigenous, with similar struggles to our own. It’s important that young Africans hear this different story. In our work we are trying to enable young Africans to understand that they can see new and exciting mind-expanding things that create a deeper connection. I can’t even tell you how powerful this is.

THERE is something so beautiful and true about weaving as a community task, undertaken through the hospitality and invitation to visitors.

A lot of us in Africa live a lifestyle to sell to tourists and we never envisage it as something we can just live.”

We make our way around the grounds, stepping into stories half told, half begun, looking across the charred timbers to the other side of Loch Tay, and the new homestead with its miraculous stories being born in committed and luminary imaginations, to the alders and rowan and oak and dying ash.

Our work is the work of creating refuge and sanctuary with others in Scotland and across the world. It’s work that Unesco endorses through the Unesco Chair at the University of Glasgow. It has been work that has operated in well over 25 countries world-wide, and continues to do so even in these times of closed borders and restriction. It’s also work which has to tend to the margins, and in unfamiliar ways, seeking what is often called intercultural dialogue, as a way of making peaceful homes with unfamiliar people or in unfamiliar places. So often it’s the objects of everyday life, the earthenware, the songs shared, the process of making things in community that can speak of the possibility of home after people have arrived, have fled fire and flood, and bombs, guns and persecution.

So often we see the encounters with others in places of making become the start of a gentling of much pain that is untold and untellable. In work with the Open Museums in Glasgow we’ve seen again and again the uncrumpling of worlds and stories when people are able to handle objects from their own backgrounds or from those of others that they do not rightly understand. Doing this for cultures of the present day is one way of enabling these encounters; doing this with those of prehistory is another.

In such activities language is not a requirement or a passport into understanding. Understanding is somatic, sensation and sensational. The connections to the old and new stories of the Scottish Crannog Centre, the new peoples of Scotland who have made their home here, and come bearing threads for weaving the story now beginning on the loom, are humming with the start of songs and stories.

The physical aspects of the place are what they are but it’s the spirit of the place that is extraordinary. Everything we were seeing in the Crannog took us into worlds of relationship across the many lands of the world. And into potent ways of healing.

And to mark the journey of 8000.1 miles from Waterfalls, Harare, to the waters of the Tay, a journey of many years, and made of many labours, there is a horn of plenty.

Abundance, indeed.

Tawona Sithole is artist in residence and lecturer with the Unesco Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts, University of Glasgow

Alison Phipps is Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies, and Unesco Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts, University of Glasgow