Searching Erskine is an album, a book, a film and an exhibition: another elaborate release from the always-reliable Blackford Hill. The project is a tribute to the history of Vallay, an island situated two miles off the Northwest coast of Uist, accessible only by foot for two hours at low tide. In 1905, Erskine Beveridge built a mansion there so that he could write and excavate, virtually undisturbed. His family occupied Vallay for decades, until Beveridge’s son died in 1944 during an attempted crossing. The mansion was left to ruin, the island slowly reclaiming its original topography.
Arun Sood, the grandson of one of the island’s last inhabitants, steps into this historical chain with new writing and excavation of his own. The multi-media project is diary and love letter, history and speculation, the author and his collaborators filling in the blanks with music and other musings. Sood’s family connections to Vallay go back to 1750; the book includes old maps and photographs, while the album includes field recordings and “acoustic ruins.” Everything has been reexamined, retouched and reclaimed ~ photos, memories, sound. Poetry serves as a land bridge: ancestors be ghosts. Blue monoprints stamp the island with the morphing shades of the sea.
“I thought I heard someone whistling,” the album begins. “Was it you, or the birds, or the water?” The island is the backdrop to a soft siren’s song. Sood seeks connection with his grandmother and the spirit of the island herself. While loneliness seeps through these loops, so does the comfort of continuity. Even the newest voices enter the flow of time, the new generation preserved like those on “The Old Dictaphone.” An old Gaelic song calls down through the ages, borne on new tongues; the writing of a deceased ancestor, spoken on new lips.
How exactly did George Erskine drown? The loss haunts the island, abrades the mansion of Taigh Mòr. The last inhabitant sings a final song. Alice Allen’s cello keens a eulogy; Alastair smith’s organ sounds a requiem. The album becomes a sonic cairn. And yet, it is also an invitation to build new memories on the stones of the old. As Rachel Sermanni sings a translation of “Cailin Mo Ruinsa,” whose original tones were heard in “He Was Drowned,” the heart of Sood’s daughter beats in the background. Like all descendants, she may one day search through diaries, recordings and ruins, seeking to recapture all that has made her who she is, generations of ghosts living in the land, the buildings, the body. Sood may be Searching Erskine, but he finds even more. (Richard Allen)