Island Life

Drawing on field recordings, natural history books, family tales and more, Arun Sood finds a new language to explore his past in ‘Searching Erskine’

“Around 2011, my family stayed in a cottage overlooking the Vallay Strand,” remembers Arun Sood. “My uncle and I played a lot of folk songs together, and we swapped stories about my grandmother’s life on the tidal island. There was lots of whisky. Melancholy hangovers, sublime sunsets, silhouettes of ruins. It was all very romantic, but also foreboding. There was constant sound – lapping tides, rattling wind, birdsong, our song. Thinking back, it was probably the early days of me trying to capture 

sounds in place, and place in sounds.”

Sood, a Scottish-Indian writer and musician, is recounting the family holiday which gave him the idea to make an album about Vallay – a 2km² tidal island in the Outer Hebrides. Over a decade later, that album is now being issued on Edinburgh’s evergreen Blackford Hill label, with a 64-page book accompanying the digital release. Titled ‘Searching Erskine’, together they form a startlingly intimate record of his ancestral past on Vallay.

His family’s connections with Vallay go back to the 1750s, though the majority of ‘Searching Erskine’ focuses on events that took place after 1902, when an eccentric textile manufacturer turned archaeologist called Erskine Beveridge moved there. Beveridge’s ambition was to make Vallay his base for the archaeological expeditions he conducted throughout the Outer Hebrides – something that was easier said than done. Since Vallay is a tidal island, it’s only accessible by foot for two hours a day at low tide, forcing Beveridge to transport everything – the beams and bricks for his new mansion, even the soil for his garden – by steamboat, which then had to be transferred to a horse and cart at shore for the final slog. All in all, the relocation would take three years to complete.

Sood’s great-great-grandfather, John MacDonald, was among those who helped Beveridge move. It’s his grainy black-and-white portrait which adorns the first page of ‘Searching Erskine’. In the introduction, Sood comments on his own physical resemblance to the man – “his burrowed dark brow and angular bone structure” – but a nagging dissatisfaction lingered whenever Sood looked at the photo. Something seemed to be missing.

“The extent to which he inhabits my breath, sound, being and way of seeing,” he writes, “is met with a silence, which I have always been curious and intrigued by.”

Sood is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Plymouth. But he found that in order to cure the silence, sound would need to be his primary method of approaching his past, so began drawing up plans to create a new artefact about life on Vallay using original music, poetry, field recordings and “spectral yawps”.

In making ‘Searching Erskine’, Sood camped for days on the now-uninhabited Vallay, pitching his tent among the fossils of family myths he had listened to so many times while growing up – the dilapidated Taigh Mor mansion where Beveridge lived, the adjacent farmhouse which his family members called home. He even discovered black smudges where firepits had been lit decades earlier. It was all there to see, though fading. Yet Sood mused on how “the geese, the gull shrieks, the grassy whispers” were the same noises his grandmother – Beveridge’s housekeeper – would have heard when lighting the mansion’s stove each morning.

“Over time, it became more about me trying to process the allure in the right way,” explains Sood, “conscious as I was of over-romanticising the Outer Hebrides, which can be problematic in so many ways. The music, writing and art became a way for me to situate myself in a place that I was simultaneously connected to and also far removed from. There is an aspect of liminality to it all.”

At times, ‘Searching Erskine’ can sound so personal it feels like an invasion of privacy. Across its 12 tracks, you hear recordings of Sood’s own family having dinner, clinking cutlery sounding like porcelain-delicate melodies, while family myths are retold and woven into the music. On ‘The Cairn’, someone who once lived on the island describes the morning they found the body of Beveridge’s son floating in the sea water, having been caught out while crossing the sand flats to the mainland.

Sood says he borrowed ideas from German literary scholar Helmut Kaffenberger, who analysed the role of sound in Walter Benjamin’s writing, where banal, quotidian noises such as clinking, buzzing or droning act as “acoustics of profane illumination”.

Though Sood was instead attending to the squelch of sand or flapping of birds, the driving idea is much the same – that sound can “inaugurate dream-like experiences which impart previously unforeseen knowledge or traces of the past”. And through the process of making ‘Searching Erskine’, it’s these traces of the past that Sood hopes to have scattered himself.

“I’ve often thought of Vallay as a place of many layers – culturally, geologically, temporally,” he says. “I think I may have sprinkled a layer on top of the island’s palimpsest. In this way, I hope to have found something, or left something for others to find.”

The ‘Searching Erskine’ digital album and accompanying book are out now on Blackford Hill. The vinyl album follows shortly

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