Image: Gunnie Moberg portrait of Duncan McLean and Irvine Welsh 1993
Note: This photograph is now part of the National Galleries of Scotland collection
Duncan’s obituary was written for the Radio 4 Obituaries programme ‘Last Word’, the piece was read by Duncan and broadcast on the 30th of November 2007.
In Orkney the winter nights are long and dark, and we love anything that brings warmth and light into our lives. It could be the flicker of the peat fire, or the warm glow of a local dram. Best of all though is when it’s a friend or neighbour, one of those rare buddies whose conversation and demeanour reveal an inner radiance, and who spread this warmth and illumination all around them.
So it was with Gunnie Moberg: a major photographic artist, yes, but also a shining light of generosity and humanity in these dark latitudes.
She was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1941 and briefly studied photography there before moving to Edinburgh in 1960 to learn English and attend ArtSchool. The city was still emerging from a period of post-war dourness, and Gunnie found herself part of an avant garde scene involving people such as Jim Haynes, Richard Demarco and the cast of Beyond the Fringe, and exciting new venues such as The Traverse Theatre and The Paperback Bookshop. It was in the latter that she met American sculptor, Tam Macphail, who would become her husband in January 1961, in a freezing Edinburgh kirk. The two young artists had limited funds left after paying the minister’s fee, with the choice being: have the heating switched on, or an organist playing. Not for the last time, they chose art over comfort.
Gunnie and Tam moved to a remote farmhouse in Argyll, where Gunnie made batiks based on ancient Celtic carvings, and Tam created enigmatic metal sculptures. And together they produced four sons. Financially, these were hard years. Gunnie told how at one point she and Tam trekked down the Mull of Kintyre to knock on the door of its most famous resident, Paul McCartney. Paul declined their request for support, explaining that he was not nearly as well off as everyone thought, and in fact was really just another starving artist like themselves.
In 1976 Gunnie packed up the family and, based on little more than a whim – inspired by her Viking ancestry, she sometimes joked – moved them to Orkney, a wind-scoured archipelago of some seventy islands and twenty thousand souls. Soon a strange quirk of casual employment opened a new chapter in Gunnie’s life, one that would establish her as an artist of substantial importance.
Working behind the desk at the tiny local airport, she got the opportunity to fly now and then in the eight-seater Islander aircraft that ferry folk in from the remoter islands. The flights were a revelation, opening her eyes to the extraordinary beauty of Orkney – both its natural and man-made patterns. Sandstone cliffs, and standing stones, rows of stooks and whirling ravens.
Inspired to return to her early love of the camera, she quickly developed both her own skills and her reputation, and collaborated on a series of indispensable books about Orkney and our northern neighbours Shetland and Faeroe. Gunnie also became firm friends with poet and novelist George Mackay Brown, and composer and founder of the St Magnus arts festival Peter Maxwell Davis. Over the years she assembled an astonishing portfolio of visiting stars such as Isaac Stern and Seamus Heaney, while at the same time establishing her own major reputation. Her photos – many of them stunning aerial shots, but also semi-abstract close-ups of plants in the clifftop garden she created – are now held in collections such as the Scottish National Galleries, and the new Scottish Parliament. But also in many homes across these islands.
Which is only right, for Gunnie played a full part in the community here – despite being a thoroughly non-conformist individual. She was unstintingly generous with her time, her salt-sprayed gardening skills, her pancake and anchovy cookery, her archive of photos. Strikingly beautiful, with very Swedish blonde hair, electric-blue eyes, and a dazzling smile, it was really her character that warmed and illuminated us. Cancer, undiagnosed till treatment was impossible, has snuffed out that light too soon.
She is survived by Tam, their four children, and ten grandchildren.