‘Rocabarraigh’, a film by Thomas Abercromby
This film was part of Thomas Abercromby’s first solo exhibition, commission by Market Gallery at French Street Studios in October 2022.
Rocabarraigh, a phantom island in Scottish Gaelic myth, will appear three times, the last being at the end of the world.
On the first of June 1997, Greenpeace climate activists landed on the tiny uninhabitable granite islet of Rockall in the Atlantic Ocean, situated over 200 miles from the nearest permanently inhabited place in North Uist. The landing was part of Greenpeace’s Atlantic Frontier Campaign, which campaigned to protect the surrounding seas from new oil drilling contracts. Six days into the 42-day occupation, a flag was raised on the islet, declaring Rockall the capital of The Global State of Waveland. Members of the public were then invited to request a certificate of citizenship, and in the following six months, more than 15,000 people applied to be citizens of this micronation. In light of this activism, the British Government dropped Rockall’s maritime boundary designation (EEZ), ending the UK’s attempt to issue new oil and gas exploration contracts in the area. The Global State of Waveland emphasised its conviction of protecting the environment even from a nation as powerful as Britain by playing them at their own game. In doing so, it revealed the absurdity of nationhood.
Using archival footage, performance, references to Celtic mythology and interviews between The Global State of Waveland activist Al Baker and Stop Cambo campaigner Lauren MacDonald, the film investigates the overlooked history of the islet’s status as the last territorial expanse of the British Empire and its subsequent occupation by climate activists in 1997. Abercromby’s work explores the relationship between imperialism, sovereignty and ecological collapse by bringing to the fore environmental activists’ efforts from our recent past while drawing links to the current climate emergency.
The exhibition featured a sculptural work by the artist made from jet stone beads derived from wood, transformed under extreme pressure, which are often prevalent in ancient Celtic rituals. These were intertwined with other semi-precious minerals such as Gold Claddaghs from Ireland and scallop shells (originally used as early Scottish quaichs) overflowing with seawater, traditionally a symbol of love, loyalty and friendship. This work asked us to think about how we inhabit the world, our values, our responsibilities and the possibilities of finding kinship amongst humans and non-humans. Displayed alongside the film and sculptural work were a series of never-before-seen archival objects from the occupation of Rockall, including the original Waveland flag, a passport and currency, as well as photographs and secret planning documents. Together, these items offered further glimpses into this little-known and often-overlooked key piece of environmental activism in Scotland.