REVIEW: Kilsture Roaming


Blog post by Mark Vernon Thomas in response to Kilsture Roaming, a work-in-progress exhibition of contemporary art in Kilsture Forest, 19‒20 Aug 2023. 

In collaboration with Kilsture Forest Community Group, & part of Upland’s research project, ROAM (West).

View all of this project's blog posts 

'Leaving My Body', Hope London. Photographed by Colin Tennant.
'Leaving My Body', Hope London. Photographed by Colin Tennant.

The Machars is a beautiful, sparsely populated part of rural Galloway, all bays and beaches, fields and forest. Too often areas like this are seen artistically as a literal celebration of this beauty, but it doesn't follow that picture postcard art is all that can be tolerated here.

Image: Visitors to Kilsture Roaming by Colin Tennant

I believe there's an appetite here for more challenging, art/music/poetry etc. The arts aren't meant solely to comfort us with what we already know. Contemporary expression of ideas grows as readily in rural soil as in urban soil, but needs nurturing and careful cultivation - or put less poetically, money and venues willing to show edgy new work. Hence my interest in this work-in-progress contemporary art exhibition.

Image: 'Vend: The Forest', Anne Waggot Knott. Photographed by Colin Tennant. 

Kilsture forest was both a perfect venue and volatile collaborator. The exhibition was postponed until Sunday due to high winds and rain; I visited on Saturday anyway and the work that had survived the storm didn't impress, tattered installations just looked sad, a comment on human hubris in the face of natural forces more than anything.

Image: 'Vend: The Forest', Anne Waggot Knott. Photographed by Colin Tennant.

By Sunday, the forest exuded calm, trees glowed in patches of sunlight, and my feelings about what I was seeing changed in literally new light.

If the moods of Kilsture changed the feel of the exhibition, the exhibition changed the feel of the forest. In addition to the usual solitary dog walkers or couples, there were small groups of people stopping, standing, thinking about the works, discussing what they were seeing. There was a good vibe about the place.

Image: 'a square; a stitch; a row; a grid; a pattern; a feeling; a meaning', Sarah Stewart

The artists came together and supported each other to create something rare in this area. Some were perhaps working well out of their comfort zones, others finding new comfort zones. There was a wide range of work on display, from hand crafted pieces to more conceptual installations. All work was in scale with the environment - no great monuments on display. I enjoyed the pop-up ephemeral nature of the exhibition, leaving no trace the next day.

Image: 'Home', Savannah Crosby. Photographed by Colin Tennant. 

I was touched by Hope's personal piece, which had grief and loss literally glittering among branches, and by Savannah's rootsy piece, Home, sited amidst roots of a fallen tree.

Del's installation made me laugh with recognition: most artists know about time spent on fruitless applications, time spent behind the scenes preparing work, the need to do jobbing work just to survive, the pain of many rejection notices. For the general public, this was probably a revelation.

Image: 'Career Path: an alternative artists C.V.', Del Whitticase. Photographed by Colin Tennant.

Frances's ceramics shone at ground level in the sunlight, like a colony of yellow mushrooms, enhanced, I think, by a nearby sympathetic fungal bloom. Sarah's quilt of leaves was exquisite, Jack's commentaries thought-provoking, Anne's hammocks were a simple and rather lovely invitation to take a moment, be a part of nature.

Image: 'Disposing Forests (audio)', Jack Ky Tan. Photographed by Colin Tennant. 

I would have liked to have a little more info about some of the artists, to help appreciate more fully their intentions, and I didn't love everything. But that's never the point, in any show.

On entering Kilsture forest I picked up a handout. It asked whether there is enough support, infrastructure and resourcing for contemporary art in the region. Well – no. Nothing like enough support, infrastructure, resource. Should there be? Well, yes, of course. Fantastic that this exhibition happened at all. It would be wonderful if another such show could be held in this rare and wonderful place.

Image: 'connector node field', Frances Ross. Photographed by Colin Tennant.


Mark Vernon Thomas is a New Zealander living deep in the Machars, SW Scotland. He has been a Classical /improv musician, a singer of Georgian polyphony, a Gestalt psychotherapist and now a poet.

He has been published in Takahe magazine (NZ), Northwords Now, Poet’s Republic, online with the Scottish Poetry Library, was a prize winner in the Federation of Writers (Scotland) 2020 Equinox competition and in the inaugural Badenoch Poetry Prize 2023.  His first collection Dances with Shadows and Stones is published by Drunk Muse Press, his second, Tales of Fenris Wolf, by Paekakariki Press.