The Conch: a voyage through Scottish community life

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In the centre of Inverness, there is a piece of public art called ‘The Three Virtues’. The piece is a rock extrusion crashing up from the pavement. Each extrusion represents one of the Virtues of Perseverance, Open-Heartedness and Insight. The Virtues were identified following detailed engagement with the communities of the city by artist Matt Baker during his time as lead artist with the Inverness Old Town Arts Association [IOTA]. What’s interesting about the Virtues is that they are the product of conversations, and they are now the source of conversations. The people virtues of the place created the physical work. They mean something. This seems to be a key element of the idea of a sense of place; meaning. It is also central to community. In a world that is changing, where contexts are shifting globally and locally, what it means to be in a place for a people is an important question. It is a question that can only be answered by engaging with people in place.

The Conch is a small timber shell conceived by artists Walker and Bromwich in the Highlands of Scotland. It travels from place to place collecting stories about how people see the world. In size terms, it is about one person high by about a person and a half in length. It fits about four people. When people step inside this intimate space, they share the most unbelievably personal of stories.

The Conch was conceived as a response to the Scotland Housing Expo. If the Expo was about the future of building places, the Conch was about the future of people, community.

According to the craftsman that made The Conch, the essential problem was how to bend a straight length of timber round a curve without steaming it. Fiddling around, and trying things out, the first board was put in place. Then the second, and the next, and the next. Each board carefully positioned to create a beautiful final form. A piece of craft, an ingenious fusion of determination, patience and skill.

The Conch was positioned in different locations through its touring life, from the community in Merkinch in Inverness, to the surfer festival in Thurso to the harbour in Scrabster. The story goes that as it was being drawn from one location to another one day, a car behind flashed lights, and hammered horns signalling some kind of anxiety. The car towing The Conch pulled over. An old man got out of the chasing car. He wanted his picture taken with this beautiful object, this crafted piece from this place. It engaged him. He was proud to be beside it.

Day 1 of the journey

There are three interesting lessons for place from The Conch story [i] Serendipity. It was conceived for a particular purpose but its purpose changed over time. It adapted. It engaged. Serendiptity is as much about people backing ideas, and backing each other as it is about chance. The Conch pulled both together [ii] Ingenuity. The construction is an outstanding example of determination, quiet contemplative work to figure out problems. It is the product of minds at work. It celebrates people skill. It is a collaborative project, from its conception, through to construction, positioning, recording and stewarding. [iii] Emotion. The Conch evokes emotion, be it contemplation on the story of Culloden, or reflection on health in a hospital ground or musing on the future. It touches hearts and minds.

How would we design a place which capitalises on serendipity, encourages ingenuity and evokes feelings? What would the virtues of this place be?

The Conch was created by artists Walker and Bromwich for Inverness Old Town Arts [IOTA]with Highland Council, funded through the Rural Innovation Fund [RIF] by Highland Arts and Creative Scotland.


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