A sea misted view of the Hoy hills, a low light picks up the rock shelf on the shore under a slate sky coloured with blue, the dark waves are capped with white, a storm brews.

High and low, mild and furious

The title for this post comes from the caption below Gunnie Moberg’s photograph of the Hoy hills from Warbeth (above), the full caption reads:

The Orkney coastline is high and low, mild and furious, seductive and anguish-causing. The experience changes with the light and the wind – and one’s own mood.

This is taken from an article about Gunnie in Göteborgs-Posten‘s magazine Två dagar published Saturday 7 March 1998.

The article is written by the Swedish newspaper’s UK correspondent at the time, Per Nordangård.

We have kindly been given permission by Göteborgs-Posten to reproduce the article. We have not managed to contact  Per Nordangård and would very much like to do so. English translation Eivor Cormack.

 Orkney through a filter of poetry

The wind drives the sea across the island. One’s skin tastes of salt and I can see that Gunnie, crouching down beside me, thinks this is the most beautiful place on earth. Gunnie from Gothenburg has lived here for 22 years, she is a photographer and her pictures of the Orkney Islands are pure poetry.

“Drive westwards to the end of the road”, said Gunnie Moberg. “That’s where I live”. I leave the picturesque town of Stromness behind and follow the thousand-year-old Viking tracks out to Breck Ness. There she stands on the slope leading down to the foaming sea, blond as a rye field, outside her small stone built house. The smoke from the chimney is enticing, and Gunnie waves frenetically as if trying to make herself heard above the sea.

Inside in the warmth and silence, Gunnie puts the kettle on, lights a cigarette and gently tells the story of her unusual life. She leafs through photo albums and scrapbooks and laughs at the most peculiar of the situations, as when she first came to Orkney in 1976 by ferry to Stromness.

“We had a small Morris Minor, one of those vans with wood panels on the sides. Into that was stuffed my entire life: my husband Tam, our four sons, two cats and our most essential possessions. I was the only one of us who had been to Orkney before and I thanked God for making the sun come out just as we sailed into Stromness. “Look”, I said to my family, “it is beautiful, isn’t it.”

I find the picture moving and I wonder how many would dare, even in their imagination, to live the way Gunnie has done. As a teenager in the late 1950s she knew that for her it would have to be art in some form or another. She attended Hovedskou art school. Learnt photography from Zell in Södra vägen, and her mother, herself a painter, was there providing encouragement in the wings.

Love brought her to Scotland

She might well have stayed in Gothenburg had it not been for that trip to Edinburgh where she worked as an au pair and also found time to fall in love with Tam, an American with a deep commitment to sculpture. So, Gunnie returned to Edinburgh as early as 1960, got married and six years later had given birth to four boys. Meanwhile she worked as an art therapist at a mental hospital and it was that task that later brought the family across to the west coast of Scotland. For ten strenuous years with severely ill patients at work and a large family at home, Gunnie still managed to develop her batik. Artistically, she was influenced by the ancient Highland culture, the Celtic design language and the naked, barren surroundings.

After exhibitions in Scotland, she was offered the chance to show her work in the main town of Orkney, Kirkwall, over two windy wet weeks in spring. The visit was a success and Gunnie saw new possibilities. The following year she returned with pets, belongings and an astounded family, stowed in a Morris Minor.

Poetic photos from the air

During the more than two decades spent in Orkney, Gunnie has mainly earned her living as a photographer, primarily for the press but more and more directed towards travel books and picture works. One of the recent books that has attracted a great deal of attention is Orkney, Pictures and Poems.

“I’m interested in patterns of every kind and on a flight I had seen how interesting graphically Orkney is from the air. I decided to make a book of poetic pictures and asked the great Orkney scald George Mackay Brown to write a few lines by way of introduction. I was much surprised and very happy when he came back a while later with a poem for just about every picture. Unfortunately, George died just before the book was published.”

The co-operation between Gunnie Moberg and George Mackay Brown had been going on for years and been very fruitful. The poet was internationally renowned, a true autodidact, a poet in the Nordic saga tradition. He was also known to have translated Kafka into English [sic]*. Mackay Brown’s funeral, a catholic requiem mass, took place in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, on St Magnus day itself – something no Orcadian had had the honour to experience – and above all, no catholic feast day had been celebrated in the great dome since the reformation.

Gunnie Moberg is today one of the most important members of the Orkney arts community. She has exhibited in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, the Faeroes and Shetland, in Switzerland and the Nordic countries. She has also been represented at the Royal Festival Hall and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. An exhibition in her home city of Gothenburgh is high on Gunnie’s wish list for the future.

Just now, though, she has so many other things to do. Gunnie is keen to show her most recent work. We drive into Stromness, look into the bookshop, these days run by her husband Tam, take a walk through the town which resembles a cross between Smögen and Lysekil, and toil up to the sewing factory on the hill above the harbour. There among all the knitted articles lies one of Orkney’s latest export successes – Gunnie’s crocheted hats in bold colours.

“It all started when I gave a hat to a friend who was on her way to a fashion fair. One of the models used the hat and my friend got masses of orders. Now I’m crocheting for all I can to cope with the demand, from rock musicians and others.”

Dusk begins to set in over Orkney and Gunnie wants us to do a tour of the surrounding area before it gets too late. She regrets that we have been unlucky with the weather and in truly patriotic fashion states that the islands do in fact have an agreeable climate.

“We have mild winters and cool summers. The difference in temperature is only five degrees. Sometimes I might miss the Swedish changing seasons. The mere thought of putting on a summer frock can make me nostalgic.”

*Translator’s note: Kafka was actually translated by Edwin Muir, also an Orkney poet.

Many traces of the Norsemen

We drive up to one of the highest points, a sacrificial place where people had raised a perfect circle of tall stone blocks 5000 years ago, long before the wheel was invented. There was evidently a highly developed culture already in existence when the Vikings settled on the islands north of Scotland. But it is the 700-year-old Norse epoch which has left the deepest impressions in the society we see today. Many words and names have a Norse ring to them and the Norwegian connection is celebrated with festivals and high days.

Many Orcadians keep good track of their history. One especially knowledgeable is the former British ambassador to Sweden Robert Cormack who recently moved back to the region of his childhood. He now lives with his Swedish wife Eivor on the remote island of Rousay. Close to a settlement from Viking times, stands their beautiful house with stables and a chapel by the sea. Swedes may find a natural excuse for visiting: the former British ambassador to Sweden is nowadays Sweden’s consul in Orkney.

 Just before darkness totally obliterates the Atlantic, Gunnie and I go out to one of her favourite view points where the military used to keep watch over the sea. The only secretiveness going on there now is between romantic couples on an outing. We withdraw as soon as Gunnie has inspected her mushroom haunts. “It’s a bit blowy out there”, she says about the stormy breeze and I can feel she smells of sea. Or maybe it is heaven.

Per Nordangård

seven white chrysanthymum type flower heads sit on frozen water, the water has thawed a long shape in the middle and two petals float with the flower heads on the free water, the remaining ice creates lines like frozen ripples

image: Gunnie Moberg Flowers on Ice

Both these images are in the 1996 book Orkney: Pictures & Poems co-authored with George Mackay-Brown

One thought on “High and low, mild and furious

  1. The rock musicians Gunnie mentions as wearing her hats were Texas boogie-bluesters ZZ Top. Tait & Style got a fax from their manager one day ordering a dozen of Gunnies hats to be sent to them part way through their European tour (I seem to remember they were in Barcelona at the time.) Later on someone sent us a photo of the band wearing the crocheted hats on stage – they looked great! Wish we knew where that photo was.

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