About New Connections Across The Northern Isles

The co-curators at Shetland Museum and Archives, Lerwick
From the project archive, taken by Catherine McCullagh

This museum has been assembled by people living in islands throughout each Northern Isles archipelago: Orkney to the south, set across the Pentland Firth from the northernmost tip of the Scottish Mainland, and Shetland northwards toward Norway. Meeting together face-to-face, online in virtual workspaces, and in video conferencing, we have selected, researched, explored, responded to and interpreted aspects of the maritime pasts and present of our isles. In hands-on workshops and through digital networking, based in museums; archives; heritage and history centres; in boat sheds; at sites and locations; on ferries and in video-conference calls, we have come together to discuss and share, preparing new interpretations and making new connections across these heritages for the future.

The co-curators meet around Pearl, a North Ronaldsay Praam, preserved and cared for by the Orkney Historic Boat Society
The New Connections Across the Northern Isles Photographic Archive

Maritime activity in these isles dates back to the earliest settlers. The remains of their living and working with, from and in the sea include the shell debris, cast off by fishers over five and half thousand years ago, and then found by archaeologists in middens such as those at West Voe, South Mainland Shetland. Evidence for people going out onto the sea in hand-built boats, over many hundreds of years, is recalled in our northern nousts – also known as noosts and nausts – those scooped out trenches on our shores into which boats have been hauled for centuries.

A co-curator researching the whalebone plaque from the Scar Boat Burial
Orkney Museum 1992.22.139

Archaeology throughout our isles also offers the evidence for people making heritage out of maritime culture. Early examples include the deliberate burials of community members and their artefacts in boats, under beach sand. These maritime graves can be found at locations throughout Shetland and Orkney. They were made and buried during the first millennium AD. One of the best known of these boat burials was found at Scar, on the island of Sanday, in Orkney. Here, surviving rivets revealed the outline of a wooden, Norse boat; a grave for its occupants and the objects of their everday lives.

Later evidence for maritime ways of living and for recording these lifeways as a heritage for the future can be found in the photographs of migrating fish processors, mainly women, who came to work at the many fishing stations that were scattered throughout the Northern Isles, including those photographed in Stromness, Orkney at the beginning of the twentieth century.

This social activity of ‘making heritage’, consciously selecting cultural expressions of living with and from the sea so that they might be remembered forward, is the foundation of our virtual museum.

New Connections across the Northern Isles: Linking people and heritage through the maritime cultures of Orkney and Shetland is a project developed in partnership between Shetland Museum and Archives, part of the Shetland Amenity Trust, The Orkney Museum, the Intercultural Research Centre at Heriot-Watt University, the Institute for Northern Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands and Learning for Sustainability Scotland. The project has supported heritage organisations, and people in their communities, across our islands to discover fresh ways of exploring the dispersed artefacts, archives, sites, recollections, and knowledges that hold the cultural expressions of how people across these archipelagos have lived with and from the sea, throughout time. People taking part in New Connections have been exploring sustainable ways to share and benefit from each other’s knowledge and experience as they connect around the cultural resource of their maritime pasts, present and futures.

Sailing the Vaila Mae, Bressay Sound, Shetland
The New Connections Across the Northern Isles Photographic Archive

The project was funded by Museums Galleries Scotland’s Museum Development Fund, the Hugh Fraser Foundation, and these resources were match-resourced by the Intercultural Research Centre, Heriot-Watt University and the Institute for Northern Studies UHI, through a Scottish Graduate School for Arts Applied Research Collaboration Studentship.  All of the collaborating organisations – The Old Haa, Westray Heritage Centre, Cunningsburgh History Group, Orkney Historic Boat Society, and active supporters Orkney Library and Archive – have invested considerable in-kind resources to make this museum possible.

Why are New Connections needed?

Climate and geography make travel time and finance costly, yet cultural heritage organisations in both archipelagos continue to need and aspire to relationships that enable them to develop and make best use of other forms of connectivity, including digital networking. We want to improve access to the collections and knowledge of the maritime heritages that we care for and about for all who are interested, at home and abroad.

The project is creating real connections through shared experience between people working vocationally and avocationally in museums; heritage organisations; history societies; with maritime heritage experts and enthusiasts; artists; musicians; filmmakers; historians; ethnologists, and others throughout the isles.  It is helping us to share learning and knowledge, and to increase our understanding and interpretations of the maritime cultures/natures represented across collections of artefacts, oral history accounts, archives and historical photographs, and in sites and locations, and held by and enacted by people throughout our archipelagos.

New Connections artist John Cumming creating a response to aspects of Orkney’s maritime heritages and the co-curation process
The New Connections Across the Northern Isles Photographic Archive

What difference is New Connections making?

New Connections has been providing the opportunities for community-based cultural heritage organisations to develop sustainable access to dispersed and complex assemblages of heritages throughout our island groupings. It is piloting the framework for the first ever Northern Isles Museums and Heritage Forum.  Heritage workers, in paid and voluntary positions; artists; crafters; musicians; filmmakers; ethnologists and experts and participants in maritime related histories; occupations, and activities have become part of this shared learning network. Together we have been asking questions about who is making heritage in our isles and how heritage-making can be a resource for sustaining people and place?

The co-curators explore objects of the sea from the collections at The Orkney Museum, Kirkwall
The New Connections Across the Northern Isles Photographic Archive

The assembly of this virtual museum has been informed by a research project undertaken by PhD researcher Catherine McCullagh – Curating Heritage for Sustainable Communities in Highly Vulnerable Environments: The Case of Scotland’s Northern Isles.  The aim of this research is to open up maritime heritage-making in each archipelago of the Northern Isles, to explore these actions as cultural resources toward sustainable community development. A key objective of Catherine’s research is to explore whether and how people connecting around heritages might support Scotland’s adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including learning for sustainability.

Our virtual museum includes new 3D models; new artworks, responses to the heritages we have been exploring and to our co-curation process; and six new films in which people, places and ways of maritime living and working have become new exhibits. These fresh maritime heritages assemble the island futures we are imagining; futures that continue to make a place for us and our Northern Isles in this world.

Sarah Jane Gibbon, archaeologist and musician, photographed at the Fishermen’s Huts, Marwick Bay, Orkney, during filming for New Connections.
The New Connections Across the Northern Isles Photographic Archive

The New Connections Across The Northern Isles Co-curators 2018 – 2019 are: Hugh Adamson, Patricia Christie, Malcolm Cinnamond, Jimmy Clouston, John Cumming, Rod Daniel, Gail Drinkall, Christie Hartley, Trevor Jamieson, Angus Johnson, Alasdair MacVicar, Jeff Mackie, Tom Muir, Jenny Murray, Rena Nisbet, Patricia Odie, Ruth Peace, Charlotte Slater, and Alison Turner-Rugg.

The New Connections photographer and filmmaker is Fionn McArthur of Startpoint Media.

We would like to thank Sue Dyke, Lucy Gibbon, Sarah Jane Gibbon, Maurice Henderson, Catriona Macdonald, Ailish Parham, Ian Richardson, the Collections team at Stromness Museum, Hugo Anderson-Whymark, Brian Wishart and Robert Wishart for their notable contributions.

All of the images on this site; the sound recordings and films that you can access via this site, and the 3 dimensional models displayed on Hugo Anderson-Whymark’s Sketchfab site are exhibits in the New Connections Across the Northern Isles virtual museum. Unless otherwise stated photographs, films, sound recordings and models are copyright of the New Connections Across the Northern Isles project. Where copyright rests with the originators, license to reproduce has been given to Shetland Museum and Archives on behalf of the project partners and collaborators. These materials can only be reproduced with permission from the license administrator. Visit Shetland Museum and Archives’ website at www.shetlandmuseumandarchives.org.uk/ for contact information.

Find out more

To see, read and hear about the aspects of Northern Isles martime included in this virtual museum click on any of the menu links on the top right of this page, and follow the links included.

To find out more about Curating Heritage for Sustainable Communities in Highly Vulnerable Environments: The Case of Scotland’s Northern Isles click here.

To find out more about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals click here.

To visit the virtual museum home portal click here.