Tales of Tiree

In March I travelled up to the Scottish Island of Tiree with my StoryPlaces partner-in-crime Charlie Hargood in order to take part in the 11th Tiree Tech Wave organised by Alan Dix. The Tech Wave is a creative space where people can come together to talk interesting ideas and make cool things. I’ve known Alan for a number of years, but this was my first chance to attend. Charlie and I wanted to use the event as a bit of a safe space, where we could experiment with creating our own location-based narrative. As computer scientists who have only dabbled in creative writing this was a way to give ourselves permission to try it for ourselves, as we both felt that the experience of creating a location-based narrative would be incredibly useful in our understanding of the form.

Update: Isle of Brine is now available to read via StoryPlaces (remember to enable Advanced->Demo Mode unless you are actually on Tiree). You can also check out the short paper we have written for ICIDS 2016 on our experiences writing in Tiree, or the full paper we wrote for ACM Hypertext 2017 on our reflections as authors on the interaction of sculptural and calligraphic patterns in locative stories.

It was a smaller event than usual, but that just made the reception by the folks in Tiree all the warmer, and it was an amazingly enjoyable couple of days. As well as a chance for us to create our story we also had fun watching Angharad McLaren, a textile designer from Nottingham Trent University, experiment with wearable computing and electronics woven directly into fabrics (celebratory shot below!). While Mark Gaved from The Open University spent some time introducing local people to iSpot, a beautifully constructed citizen science project that allows people to upload photos of wildlife that are then identified and discussed by its community of users.

As well as exploring the island, identifying beasties, and listening to embroidered pop music we also enjoyed the hospitality of the islanders who invited us into their whale-bone decorated homes, fed us stew, and managed to not look too incredulous when we explained what we were all up to.

StoryPlaces is a Leverhulme funded project to explore the poetics of location-based storytelling, and that means really trying to understand what stories authors might want to tell on location, and how they might go about telling them. When we were on Tiree the code was in early alpha, so we had limited software, but the sculptural model underpinning the hypertext engine was already well established, and we had already undertaken an analysis of 40 location-based stories written by creative writing students at Southampton University (since published here) and had some ideas of the sorts of patterns and approaches they had taken. Charlie and I really wanted to push the power of the system and build something that was structurally and hypertextually interesting.

We spent the first day researching the legends and history of the island, visiting An Iodhlann (the historical centre on the island), and developing the high level story concept and structure. The second and third days were spent scouting locations, recording GPS positions, and drafting the first versions of the story nodes. We also made sure that we documented our experience and thoughts in the spirit of a co-operative inquiry.

Our working notes: Tiree Tales, map of the island, and a manifest of required locations.
Our working notes: Tiree Tales, map of the island, and a manifest of required locations.

We wanted our story to reflect our own experience of visiting the island, and so decided on the trope of the ‘professional stranger’, our protagonist would be a professional surveyor visiting a foreign land in the spirit of Lovecraft’s ‘The Mountains of Madness’ – in the end of course it is the expert whose perspectives are changed wildly by the experience!

We decided on a basic structure for the story, based around three acts unfolding across three separate areas of the island. This would enable readers to drive between acts, but then walk the nodes of the story itself. As they progressed through the Acts of the story, the links between the surveyor and the mythos of the island would become clearer. Act 1 would be played straight, with our surveyor exploring the island and using this historical information. Act 2 would begin to hint at some connection to the island, and begin to blur fact and fiction. While Act 3 would reveal the connection between the surveyor and the island and its legends. At the same time a second and parallel set of three Acts would play out, describing the events that led the surveyor to make their trip. This second group would go backwards in time, rather than forwards, and would be entirely independent of the progress through the first set. The juxtaposition of Acts would be the main way in which readings of the story would differ (e.g. some readers would know the surveyor’s history before reading the tale of the island, some would discover it as they read, and others would read it at the end).

We learned a massive amount from the experience of creating the story, especially in being pragmatic, and in making the story work for readers (location-based stories really do put the ergon into ergodic literature, as the reader has to physically walk the story), and on location we found ourselves thinking about start-points, paths through the landscape, bottlenecks and junctions, and how they related to the sculptural story structure.

Our story is called ‘The Isle of Brine’ and looks like it will end up being 50+ nodes, and 8000 words or so. It’s bigger than we intended and it will take a while to finish – but I’ll link to it here when it’s done! In the meantime here is an extract, and a collection of photographs of the beautiful island of Tiree.

Witch of Tiree – A ragged hillock with views of the Machair.

These banks behind the beach are as much sand as grass and I struggle to walk through the rough ground, wondering why the boss needs notes on them. To the northwest the land rises towards Ben Hynish. In front of me is a ragged hillock sheltering a pool of sand, and I stop to watch the clouds over the bay.

The Witch of Tiree lived over there, near the caves. The locals say that Tiree, Coll and Mull were each the lair of a witch, and that the Witch of Tiree called a coven here on the sands of Traigh Bhi. But the witches argued and in fury Tiree called up a great storm and hurled boulders at Coll and Mull as they fled. One crashed down in Balinoe, the second – Clach na Gaoithe, the Stone of the Wind – fell in Caolas, and the third splashed uselessly into the Gunna Sound. Enraged at their escape, the Witch of Tiree leapt into the air, was caught by her own magics, and hurled into the sea where she drowned, taking her storms with her.

The wind picks up and I blink, pull my pen from my pocket, and hurriedly make my observations.