Kiosk – Bùth: An Lanntair Exhibition on the Making of Memories

  • Published on: 17th June 2021
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From the late ‘60s to the early ‘90s, Nicolson’s Kiosk stood on the plot of land now occupied by An Lanntair. A staple of Stornoway life and an early example of the small businesses servicing the tourist trail through the Hebrides, the kiosk sold the “Gifts, Souvenirs & Fancy Goods” which featured in its annual catalogue. Entirely reliant on local suppliers and makers, its range of items was a testament to Hebridean ingenuity and idiosyncrasy.

As visitors return to Scotland’s post-pandemic landscape, shopping for new memories, a collective (group) of artists, designers and makers speculate on what the Kiosk might have in stock today, or in some distant and better possible future: material and immaterial thoughts on the creation and storage of memory; experiments with the possibilities of local manufacturing in the 21st century; objects that ask awkward questions about authenticity and belonging; attempts to recreate some long-lost items from the Kiosk’s glory days.

The 2021 collection, and its accompanying catalogue, is in turn unexpected, funny, surreal and beautiful.

Artists Philippa C Thomas and Hector MacInnes have been relishing the chance to dig down through the layers of local history, stories, myths and memory that surround Nicolson’s Kiosk.

“Souvenirs are such potent, magical objects – we all give them these special powers over our memories and our sense of place, but often the objects themselves seem arbitrary and mass produced. The items that used to be on sale at the Kiosk totally went against the grain in that respect – they had a real locality, and a complete lack of cynicism, which they perhaps carried forward from earlier traditions like Barvasware. But they also had no pretensions to being more than ‘just’ souvenirs.

“Clearly, these qualities emerged from a time when the islands were scrambling to come to terms with an explosion in tourist numbers and a collapse in more traditional ways of earning a living – and this actually played to the strengths of island communities: improvisation, hospitality, multi-tasking and humour. So, with tourists who can’t get abroad flooding to a fragile post-covid Hebrides seems like the perfect time to rekindle the spirit and the attitude of Nicolson’s Kiosk.”

“We’ve been so excited to see how different artists, makers and thinkers have responded to being asked to restock the Kiosk in 2021 – everyone’s taken a different approach, and everyone’s taught us something really important. This is a collection that includes digital playthings, glassware and jewellery, oracular devices, historical artefacts and a very special surfboard… we really think the old bodach Nicolson would be proud.”

Head of Visual Arts at An Lanntair, Roddy Murray, said: “Ah, The Past. How we try to hang on to it. I never went in to Bùth Mhicneacail, probably because I wasn’t a tourist. But when elsewhere you become a tourist it’s the kind of place you do visit. Because we need tangible souvenirs: The takeaways, the aide-mémoires, that will jolt us gently back to that special place and time. Often they outlive us. And those that have the most resonance are not the obvious reminders of tent-pole visitor attractions, but the ones that are about the littleplaces, incidents, customs and foibles, on the edge of our field of vision. Or under the surface. Or about the things that are so common, in plain sight, that they are ignored. Until they’re gone.

“It was great to apply these ideas to this project, to recruit such interesting and engaged artists and to present these results. We’re especially grateful to the project funders Historic Environment Scotland and LEADER Innse Gall who understood and backed the concept, along with our regular funders Creative Scotland, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Point & Sandwick Trust.”

Ruairidh Graham, Gaelic Language and Policy Officer from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) commented: “It’s been a real privilege for HES to help fund the Kiosk Project. The imaginative enterprise of Bùth MhicNeacail captures perfectly the spirit of an island community that are close to their cultural heritage. This is in part, why all these years later the story of the Kiosk provides perfect substance for reimagining the idea of the tourist souvenir as a locally derived creative and unique asset. We look forward to seeing the creative work on display.”

The exhibition might also bring back a few memories for locals. Maryanne Macleod remembered Bùth MhicNeacail very well when An Lanntair’s Roddy Murray spoke to her in May.

“It used to be across from the old Gazette offices. Where An Lanntair is now. You would see the tourists coming and going up and down the wee steps, usually when they were waiting for the ferry to come in. But you saw plenty Leodhasachs popping in and out as well, maybe if there was a birthday they’d forgotten about last time they were over in Inverness!

“The Kiosk had souvenirs and knick-knacks and things made on the island. Things to take away that would remind folk of their holiday or make a good gift. It was a way for local people to make a bit of money on the side too. Some of it was very clever and well-made. They used to send a small catalogue round the island. Nobody does that anymore, it’s all online now. But I worked there for a summer in the early days in 1979 so maybe if I come along to An Lanntair I might get my old job back!”