Barnacle, Fish or Fowl? Project

Based on the perceptions of a scientist studying goose behaviour.
Based on the perceptions of a scientist studying goose behaviour.

This project hasn’t been about creating the usual studies of nature or the hunting, shooting type of illustration, but she has been attempting to capture how different people perceive nature personally, both now and in the past, and how this can be recorded through art. I found a book in a second-hand bookshop that described a curious myth about a bird that grew on trees, and I was fascinated. The myth appears to have its origins in the inexplicable disappearance of winter visiting migrating barnacle geese. P1100849Illuminated manuscripts from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries describe eye-witness statements and show artists’ impressions of various elaborate tree forms with pods or holes in branches with geese emerging. In Ireland some twenty years ago my husband, Carl Mitchell, met some old boys in a bar who claimed that they remembered barnacle geese being eaten on fast days and Fridays, as they were not ‘meat’ but shellfish. I was interested in this species because of the myth, but also because my scientist husband studies them and they are a species that court controversy.

Barnies in the pen small
Barnies in the Keeping Pen

At the time of finding the book, an art and science project was just starting in Scotland for the Year of Natural Scotland 2013. Creative Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage were keen to encourage artists to work with scientists to produce art that explores how people see nature in Scotland. I applied to look at barnacle geese as part of this project and was successful.

Part of Barnacles, Fish or Fowl? project
Part of Barnacles, Fish or Fowl? project


A well-known visitor to the Isle of Islay, these days the barnacle goose is a protected species and numbers have risen over the last thirty years. The species is loved by bird-watchers but also the source of consternation for farmers as it can eat their grass and affect their livelihoods. In November 2013 I visited Islay to see the large flocks of barnacles and to meet residents and talk about how they feel about the geese. I set up a blog to show the progress of the project;

Contributions from scientists, residents and farmers were brought together into one artwork.
Contributions from scientists, residents and farmers were brought together into one artwork.

During that visit I went to Port Ellen Primary to talk to the next generation of islanders about the geese and helped the P6/7 class express their own views through art. Their work became a part of the exhibition.

NFU representatives, conservationists and members of the farming community were consulted for the project. After collecting a wide range of opinions and perceptions about the geese I began to look closely at what had been said and made a series of paintings that try to capture the many viewpoints of the geese. The exhibition; Barnacle, Fish or Fowl?, was first shown on Islay in April 2014, then at Findhorn Bay Arts Festival, The Iona Gallery in Kingussie and at WWT Caelaverock, Dumfries-shire, on the Solway Firth – another popular place for barnacle geese. It was well received and I have collected further comments on the geese that have been added to the exhibition. The last exhibition was at Great Glen House, HQ of Scottish Natural Heritage, in Inverness in spring 2015. A book about the Imagining Natural Scotland project involving 15 artist/scientist partnerships has been published, to which Carl and I contributed a chapter.

Several pieces of artwork have now been sold, but printed copies are available and I still have the core of the exhibition to which I am adding, as my thinking and our relationship with the barnacle geese develops. One way in which I would like to share the project is through a book suitable for all ages. Please get in touch via this blog if you are interested in finding out more.

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