WHEN artist Claudia Zeiske was commissioned to lead the Aberdeenshire Covid memorial project, she had no idea she would end up crying with so many people.

From a widow who wasn’t allowed to hold her husband’s hand as he was dying, to grieving relatives who had to listen to the funeral services of their loved ones from their cars outside the crematoriums, the stories were “harrowing”.

“Another woman told me that her mother was so popular in the community that the hearse drove down every single street of their town so people could stand on their doorsteps and pay their respects,” Zeiske told the Sunday National.

There were also fishermen from other countries like the Philippines who were not allowed out of their small cabins during the lockdowns because they did not have visas, according to Zeiske.

“There were six in a cabin and if one got Covid, they all got Covid and as they did not have an NHS number they could not get treated – the Fishermen’s Mission eventually managed to get them a temporary number so they could get vaccinated,” she said. “It was terrible altogether.”

Now all those who died, are grieving or suffering in other ways as a result of the pandemic will be remembered in a radically different style of memorial which will see interactive benches erected at scenic spots in Aberdeenshire.

Walking was one of the few leisure activities allowed during the lockdowns and, fittingly, Zeiske decided to make walking the focus of the memorial. She began walking herself, starting at Aberdeenshire’s highest point on Ben Macdui and finishing at the coast – a distance of 250km.

Along the way, she met with people in different communities to hear their stories and encouraged those interested to walk with her. As she walked, she carried a bespoke pink tablecloth which she asked people to sign, later embroidering their names on it.

The National: Artist utilises ‘harrowing’ Covid tales to produce memorial

There are now more than 200 signatures on the cloth which will tour community spaces in the coming months.

In addition, some of the most scenic spots on the route will be the site of beautiful memorial benches crafted by artisan Chris Nangle from sustainable materials. These will have QR codes fitted that, when activated, play original music composed by renowned fiddler Paul Anderson to capture the stories and emotions gathered by Zeiske.

After the fitting of the benches, members of the public will be invited to join in re-creating her journey. Participants can walk all or parts of the route as Zeiske used existing paths for her trek across the region.

“Walking for me is very contemplative and it can give you hope and healing,” she said. “Not everybody can walk but they will have the opportunity to sit on the benches which are very beautiful and will be very carefully placed.”

There will also be a series of “proxi walks” hosted by Zeiske, offering guided embroidery sessions that form a similar means of contemplation.

While she admits she found some of the stories harrowing, she is also grateful to those who shared them.

The National: Artist utilises ‘harrowing’ Covid tales to produce memorial

“The generosity of people to give their stories, these very sad stories, was kind of amazing and very important for such a project,” Zeiske said.

“Further west, the stories were much happier as people had more space but in the towns, lots of people went straight to zero hours and onto foodbanks.”

Those she talked to and walked with included hillwalkers, care home residents, a knitting club and inmates at the prison in Peterhead.

The walk has now created interest as far afield as France as Zeiske’s route was inspired by the philosophy of Aberdeenshire native, Patrick Geddes, a pioneering town planner.

His most famous slogan is probably “think global, act local” but he also introduced the Valley Section concept to make clear the relationship between humans and their environment and to encourage regional planning models that would be responsive to this.

He died in France in 1932 where there is still a Patrick Geddes Association which has been publicising the Aberdeenshire memorial.

“A Valley Section goes from the mountain to the sea and looks at the interaction between people’s work and their environment so I wanted to reflect this by starting at Ben Macdui and walking to the coast,” said Zeiske.

“It has been an incredibly rewarding experience to meet so many people from mountain to sea in Aberdeenshire who shared with me so generously their many different experiences last year.”

The project is part of the Scottish Government-funded Remembering Together initiative which has commissioned artists in all 32 local authority areas to create a Covid memorial for each region.

Avril Nicol, head of Live Life Aberdeenshire, said: “Remembering Together is more than just a project; it is a collective expression of resilience and hope. This project marks the impact of the pandemic, through stories and the crafting of a cultural legacy that reflects the strength and spirit of our communities.”