Ghosting the Castle


Ghosting the Castle focused on the layered histories and issues related to Helmsdale’s medieval castle and the A9 bridge which replaced it. These have been investigated through the archives of Timespan, National Records of Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland, alongside collected memories and knowledge of the site.

Commissioned by and produced in collaboration with Timespan in Sutherland, the project developed throughout 2017 culminating in a two-day public event in September 2017. A programme of activities included site-specific viewfinders situated within the location, and the launch of Ghosting the Castle – A Map between Archive and Memory, a new limited print edition published by Wild Pansy Press. These brought together art and archive, memory and history, to build a multi-layered and multi-voiced understanding of a dramatic change to part of Helmsdale’s landscape, which many people now simply drive through.

The project drew on photographs and other material held in Timespan’s Archive and further material found in both personal and national archives. Photographs from the late 1800s to the present day document the changing image of the site – from the ruined castle in postcards, as a backdrop to family photographs to its subsequent demolition captured in snapshots, to aerial views showing major landscaping work undertaken as part of the bridge construction, and architectural images of the completed bridge. Other material included two cine films showing the demolition of the castle, letters and newspaper articles detailing the precarious position of the castle on the edge of a rapidly eroding cliff, and plans showing the different options considered for the placement of a new bridge to cross the river Helmsdale.

Ghosting the Castle was inspired by conversations with Helmsdale’s people, from Timespan’s Heritage Group, its archive volunteers and walks with local people. The subject of Helmsdale Castle and its demolition to make way for the new bridge raised striking questions that continue to connect with on-going concerns about conservation, coastal erosion, community sustainability and what heritage can – or cannot – be preserved.

Taking place over the weekend of the 15 and 16 September 2017, Ghosting the Castle was programmed in parallel to Flow Photofest, an international photography festival taking place across the northern Highlands and Islands.

Ghosting the Castle, 2017

4 Kodak Retina Viewfinders with archival photographs printed onto Perma Jet film
1 Postcard detail on A4 Perma Jet film
3 outdoor photo-vinyl banners
An edition of nine fold-out maps, OS Landranger size 1000 x 753 mm
Design and layout by Chris Taylor, Wild Pansy Press
Printed by Dennis Maps Ltd

Related Posts & Resources

Bird, Nicky. ‘Ghosting the Castle: the case of (re)landscaping in a Northern place,’ in D. White and C. Goldie (eds.), Proximity and Distance in Northern Landscape Photography. Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2020. ISBN: 978-3-8376-4950-5

Bird, Nicky. On the cusp: artist, community and intangible heritage. In: Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience, Newcastle University, 29-30 July 2019 [conference presentation]

Bird, Nicky, Molloy, Caroline, Shepherdson, Karen and Schultz, Deborah. The Representation of Memory: Activating Archives.  Regent’s University, London, 14 June 2019 [Family Ties Network Seminar Event, including Artist’s talk Ghosting the Castle: Between Archive and Memory]

Bird, Nicky. A Map between Archive and Memory, 1st Edition, 2017; 2nd Edition, 2018

Bird, Nicky. Northern Light: Critical Approaches to Proximity and Distance in Northern Landscape Photography, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, 2-3 July 2018 [conference presentation]

TOP IMAGE: Ghosting the Castle, Nicky Bird, 2017. With photograph by John Ross Polson, late 1960s. Courtesy of Margaret Polson and Timespan