A unique exhibition on the Isle of May showcases some of the East Neuk’s talented artists as well as the island’s natural beauty. By Caroline Lindsay
The result of an invitation from Sarah Eaton of Scottish Natural Heritage has led to a unique art exhibition on the Forth estuary. Pittenweem on the May is a free show currently on display in the lighthouse on the Isle of May.
Accessible only by a sea crossing, followed by a steep climb to the island’s summit, plus three flights of spiral stairway inside the Stevenson-designed lighthouse – now a listed building – a trip to the exhibition is an adventure in itself.
A magical mix of seabirds, seals and history, the island is the scene of Viking plundering, mass burial, plague quarantine, the sinking of two First World War submarines and many more turbulent events.
Today, with its gruesome past consigned to history, it’s now an important base for scientific study and a National Nature Reserve, home to a plethora of puffins and a host of other seabirds.
Scottish Natural Heritage, who have responsibility for the May Isle in the Firth of Forth, offered the festival exhibition space in what is one of Robert Stevenson’s grandest designs.
The Northern Lighthouse Board purchased the island in 1814 from the Duke and Duchess of Portland for 60,000 pounds, by which time the beacon was the last remaining private lighthouse in Scotland.
A proper lighthouse was built on the island in 1816 by Robert Stevenson – an ornate gothic tower on a castellated stone building designed to resemble a castle, and with accommodation for three light keepers and their families, along with additional space for visiting officials.
For its inaugural event on the island the show features more than 30 of the area’s local artists – who form the core of the annual Pittenweem Arts Festival in August – will show artwork inspired by the geographic setting of the island. Artists include Dominique Cameron, Tim Cockburn, comedian Phill Jupitus and his wife Shelley.
Jean Duncan, chair of the festival, explains how the inaugural island exhibition came about.
“It had never really occurred to us to stage an exhibition on the Isle of May so we were surprised and thrilled when Sarah approached us at the start of the year with the proposal to host an exhibition in the island’s lighthouse.”
“But organising such an exhibition wasn’t without its challenges.
“The first consideration was who we could exhibit,” says Jean.
“We realised that in the time we had available we couldn’t organise a solo exhibition: no artist could put together a show in just a few months.
“However, the artists we talked to, whose work we thought would be ideal for the May, were very interested and enthusiastic,” she continues.
“The best idea was a group show which we decided to restrict to Pittenweem artists and galleries, with the remit to make their work link in some way to the lighthouse and the May.
“This has proved to be very successful with more than 30 artists responding,” she smiles.
Sarah had organised two adjoining rooms in the lighthouse for the exhibition, and Jean and the team were keen to head to the island to see the space for themselves.
“It sounded like a nice way to break up the exhibition but we had to see for ourselves,” she says.
Previous visits to the Isle of May had been at more clement times of the year when vegetation and puffins abounded – January was quite a different matter.
But nothing daunted and determined to undergo any trials in the name of art, they set off in the Osprey RIB on a mild and gently hazy day.
“The outbound trip was fine though coming back we got comprehensively soaked,” Jean recalls.
“We hadn’t realised the Osprey could go at 60 knots an hour – well, it felt like that and it slammed into the waves!”
Transporting the artists’ work to the island was also fraught with difficulty, especially given this spring’s inclement and capricious weather.
Their work was thoroughly wrapped, loaded on to the May Princess in Anstruther harbour, landed at the island’s tricky-to-reach jetty and hauled up to the top of the island to the lighthouse.Jean and the team are thrilled with the way the rugged and isolated setting for the exhibition complements the art work to such great effect.
“We’re really enthused with everything about this project – Pittenweem on the May is a very exciting concept and we are so grateful to SNH for giving us this opportunity to provide a unique outreach for the Festival.”
Pittenweem on the May is open now until September 30.
The Pittenweem Arts Festival runs from August 3-11. Sailings to the May Isle are from Anstruther and North Berwick.