Reflections on curating a Seaweed Festival

Reflection sequence of a line painting of my favourite seaweed Ascophyllum nodosum (knotted wrack) one of the most common seaweeds found on Isle Martin’s shoreline.

Seawall painting announcing the Seaweed Festival : Aug 2021

This temporary painting was made on the islands seawall to announce the Isle Martin Seaweed Festival, Scotland’s first seaweed festival, an event that I had the pleasure and challenge of curating. As with so many creative ideas the simplicity often belies the complexity of the process of making.

As challenging as it was painting between high tides and working from ladders positioned between rocks covered in Knotted wrack, it was one of the least stressful jobs of my role as Festival curator. While I have previously curated my own art installations and group exhibitions, curating a multidisciplined seaweed festival on a small island presented me with massive challenges. 

One of the legacies of the Festival has been the training of local volunteers to identify common seaweeds. Eight trained local volunteers helped festival goers identify seaweeds on five local beaches, the majority of whom said they could now confidently identify at least four seaweeds correctly.  

My idea to stage a festival focusing on seaweed began years ago while learning to identify seaweeds growing in the clear inshore waters of NW Scotland. My dream seemed straight forward enough, to share my passion for this remarkable ‘flora’ that seaweed represents. Like so many simple ideas it quietly grew as I collected marine litter and made artworks about marine plastic pollution. The idea then gained momentum when Visit Scotland announced funding for projects that would highlight Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters originally planned for 2020 but then rescheduled for 2021 with the #YCW2021

Isle Martin, a community-run island within the Summer Isles archipelago, was the obvious location to stage the festival, with its clear waters, rocky shorelines and ethos of environmental sustainability. Photo: Caroline Williams

A small number of dedicated Isle Martin Trust members banded together with me, to form a dedicated Festival Working Party (FWP), and together we found most of the funding needed to stage our Festival, celebrating Isle Martin’s rich seaweed life with the aim of promoting awareness and knowledge of the richness and diversity of seaweed in our coastal waters.

The Isle Martin Seaweed Festival plan quickly grew and like the fronds of ‘knotted wrack’ branched out in many creative directions eventually intertwining scientists, artists, writers, archaeologists, historians, chefs, kayakers and sailors. Finding presenters, discussing their expertise and working out how their specialised seaweed knowledge might contribute and fit into our Festival, was definitely one of the most enjoyable tasks of curating. Having been immersed in a fascination with seaweed for years, I had collected many names of artists and writers also passionate about seaweed and had already established contacts with the Marine Conservation Society and the Natural History Museum.  We quickly had an impressive list of guest presenters including Juliet Brodie, Miek Zwamborn, Jason Hall-Spencer and David Gange.

Equally impressive was our ability to showcase the work of local experts such as marine scientist Ailsa McLellan and ecologist John McIntyre both of whom are passionate about  protecting the marine environment and seaweed, plus archaeologist Cathy Dagg and designer Sigi Whittle. Their presentations on the sustainability of seaweed and its global ecological importance set the bar high in the presentation tent, which was full with standing room only for many talks

The talks were programmed loosely into science and arts themed days, in order to appeal to different audiences and to aid discussions. This seemed to work and we had a full take up of 120 tickets each day on the island. Given the nervousness of people meeting in large groups after three lockdowns we see this as a great success! Ensuring visitors’ COVID safety was a high priority and keeping up to date with Scottish Government COVID advice and working out how we could fulfill their regulations took hundreds of hours of planning.

Seeing people come together to listen and engage in learning about seaweed and far-reaching marine environment conversations was heartening. Presentations also took place in the Big Kelp Tent which housed multiple artworks inspired by seaweed, produced in workshops in Ullapool and by Ullapool High School Pupils and visiting artists. Within this creative space we had a pop up ‘Gutweed Lab’ for examining seaweed under magnification and an installation of seaweed observation cylinders, all helping with seaweed identification. This was also happening on shorelines where volunteers helped people to understand the differences between knotted wrack, bladder wrack and twisted wrack.

Seaweed remained centre stage even in the food arena around the fire, with Jason Byles renowned Kiwi forager and chef from Fife, who demonstrated in a showman-like way, cooking with sea lettuce, dulce and peppered dulce, plus tasters and foraging tips. The Dabberlocks Café served up fair trade snacks with seaweed cake and the Paella Place kitchen served seafood and seaweed dishes.

Smiles were the order of the Festival days, so many people commenting on the friendly relaxed atmosphere, which was heartening especially given the changeable weather and the descending of midges at the end of the day.  

The behind the scenes challenges that caused sleepless nights included how to keep the  technical equipment dry in tents, not knowing if the internet connections would hold for scheduled ZOOM presentations, rejigging presentation schedule to avoid the midges in the late afternoon and how to ensure the safety of passengers disembarking onto the slipway at low tide  each day. Overcoming all these things was only possible through the relentless hard work and support of the Festival Working Group consisting of John McIntyre, Lesley Strachan and Steve Twitchett, plus Martin Gilligan in the tech tent, the Lightfoot site crew working together with tens of volunteers and essentially the boat crews ferrying everyone across.

Curating this Festival has been exhausting, but it has also been a hugely rewarding and creatively stimulating experience that I am immensely proud to have initiated. As one Festival participant said talking about seaweed ‘the more you learn the more you realise there is so much more still to find out; this also applies to curating and facilitating a seaweed festival on an island!  

So many people have asked when the next Seaweed Festival will take place and learning from our experience of September the first date to be mooted is May/June 2023 when we would benefit from longer days, it would be prime seaweed growing time and there would be fewer midges!

In the meantime, we have been asked to carry on conversations begun at the Festival, so we plan to set up a follow-on discussion event on ZOOM in the New Year. For updates  please visit www.islemartin.org follow on Instagram @seaweedfestival.islemartin and contact me via seaweedfestival.im@gmail.com

NOTES: The Isle Martin Seaweed Festival took place between 6-12th September 2021 both on Isle Martin, in Ullapool and on several local mainland beaches.

Links to the Festival Programme and presentation recordings on YouTUBE can be found via www.islemartin.org

Many thanks to everyone attending and to those who shared their photographs of the festival, in particular: Neville Rigby/Druimarts and Jo Dorset

Isle Martin Seaweed Festival was a FREE festival and sadly we have a budget shortfall and so we are asking for donations.

You can also donate £20 by Texting ‘KELP 20’ to 70085 or to donate £5 you would text ‘KELP 5’ to 70085. Your Texts will cost your donation plus one standard rate message. Thank you!

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