Making space for water: a poetry of place

This proposal has grown out of an earlier collaborative project. Making Space for Water, People and Biodiversity in Scottish Cities which was funded by Scottish Crucible as a transdisciplinary activity in which a physical geographer (Rebecca Wade) and an anthropologist (Jo Vergunst) shared research methods and fieldwork, and thereby successfully developed insights and methodologies that were new to both. Their topic was public access, nature conservation and management of drainage along three small Scottish rivers: the Denburn, Aberdeen; the Water of Leith, Edinburgh and the Dighty Water, Dundee.

The project produced an archive which is rich in both language and symbolism, and in which several themes began to emerge :

borderlines and no-man’s-land  The worlds, often self-contained, through which the river runs, as defined by use, naming, memory and topography; and the undefined spaces between

imposed boundaries  Man-made structures, interruptions and imposed thought-patterns, and the river’s resilience to these; the presence of ‘blue-green spaces’, both planned and accidental

parallels and coincidences  For example, in the “flow” of traffic, footpaths etc alongside / through / around the course and current of the river

lines of desire   Evidence of collective thinking which recognises the presence of the river, either consciously or implicitly

time and time zones  Ideas of historical, narrative, biological time involving the river; historicity and the process of mythologizing

Making space for water : a poetry of place will interpret this archive along these themes. Collaboration with an artist will enable Wade and Vergunst to look at their findings in a different light. Poetry, as an artform that lives within language at both a conscious and subliminal level, and in which conventions of communication and understanding are deliberately manipulated, is particularly appropriate.

It will enable Lesley Harrison to develop a theme that has defined her poetry; that of how we live in a landscape and how it shapes our interior world. Ecstatics : a Language of Birds (Brae Editions, 2011) aimed to reproduce through descriptive and concrete poetry how birds inhabit the Orkney island of Eday, and was a collaboration with Orkney artist Laura Drever who explored the same theme through gestural line drawings. Beyond the Map (Mariscat Press, 2012) drew on urban myth, folk song, physical landscape and archive material to recreate the world of the Arctic whalers who sailed from Dundee up to the Northern Isles and the polar seas. Beyond the Map dwelt particularly the aftermath of the whaling industry in collective memory.

Making space for water : a poetry of place will allow her to examine the scientific and colloquial language of the archive data, and to reconstruct fragments of the interior worlds it captures

The overall aim of this project is to share a deeper understanding of the life of familiar Scottish rivers, in particular the Dighty Water in Dundee. It uses partnerships and contacts already established with local authorities, community groups and key individuals, and builds on an agreed possible future agenda for a wider cross-sectoral collaboration. Its outcomes will demonstrate a closer understanding of and empathy with the river environments, and will create greater awareness of these in new audiences.

By choosing to concentrate on small urban waterways rather than on more famous or iconic river landscapes, this project will encourage new thinking about the place and value these modern, multi-functional waterways have in our communities. There will thereby be a positive impact on the profile and public image of these rivers.


Rebecca Wade ~ Lecturer in Environmental Science, University of Abertay

Jo Vergunst ~ Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Aberdeen

Lesley Harrison ~ poet

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