Between Two Lines at Dalmally Railway Station, Scotland, August 2014. A collaborative residency with Liz Gaffney.
The “Between Two Lines” project began when a lady from Dublin contacted Liz Gaffney in 2013 following an internet search for Dalmally station. She had found a bundle of letters in an old chest of drawers addressed from Dalmally station dated 1877 and wanted them to find a good home.
Liz contacted me to invite me to work on a collaborative project based on the letters – having worked together on a similar project in 2009. After some research it was determined that the letters had been written by Margaret McPhail to her sister Ettie Ryan in Dublin, however no further details of her life in Dalmally were discovered bar the contents of the letters. Therefore the artists decided to respond to various episodes and stories related within the letters.
The first story that interested us was the wonderful story of an estate owner over towards Glenorchy who in an attempt to get an edge over other hunting estates in the area imported a herd of zebra;
“The story goes that eager to take advantage of the upturn in rail passengers and to increase the popularity of his own estate, the gentleman in question managed to acquire a rather impressive herd of zebras. […] but according to Mr. McCallum’s telling, the gentleman at the estate underestimated the Scottish winters, especially here in the highlands and he lost almost the entire herd that first winter.
Despairing at the number of bookings for the upcoming season and facing potential ruin, the imaginative gentleman […] managed to collect a large number of donkeys and set about painting them in the customary zebra markings in an attempt to recreate his well known herd. I suppose it must have been of some benefit that the gentlemen of the second season were generally first-timers and the estate owner managed to keep up the pretence.”
Letter dated 3rd September 1877
We began by attempting to document any remaining zebras from the herd but despite many days in the hills following trails and hearing calls in the distance we were unable to gather sufficient documentary evidence to make a pronouncement either way.
By her own accounts Margaret seemed to particularly enjoy travelling by train and trying out her new stories on the captive listeners.
“I had a great adventure yesterday when I was dispatched by train to pick up some messages for himself at Strathyre, which of course meant a day out and a captive audience on whom I could try my latest tales.”
Letter dated 13th September 1877
In responding to this we prepared versions of Margaret’s stories as found in the letters and I created a series of complimentary drawings. Like Margaret we travelled up and down the old Callander-Oban line telling stories to a captive audience.
One of the tales that we told on the train was that of “The Corryvreckan Lobster” an old fisherman’s tale from around Lunga which was a little way south. Based on a survey of locals we discovered that very few people recalled this once popular tale and we took it upon ourselves to re-enter it into the local storytelling repertoire. Dressed in our Sunday best, Liz and I went from pier to pier trying to find some lobster fishermen to tell the story to. Perhaps as a result of the impending hurricane we failed to find any fishermen and instead told the story to a couple out walking their dog in the pouring rain.
The project culminated in an exhibition at The Posting Room at Dalmally station (the first of its kind at the station). As part of the opening of the show I gave an explanatory talk, which was followed by an evening of Victorian ghost stories which included a reading of ‘The Signal Man’ by Charles Dickens.
With special thanks to Graham Whaite and ScotRail.