Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Gunnie Moberg

From Stone
Many years ago, when the Kirkwall Library was still in Laing Street, I sat in the Orkney Room carefully turning the deckle-edged pages of a book.  

It was called Stone and was a collaboration between photographer Gunnie Moberg and writer George Mackay Brown and it contains photographs and poems about stone. 

I must have sat there over an hour looking at that one slender book. The poems were beautiful - a retelling of many of GMB's themes and tropes - and I have read them many times over the years. 

The photographs were astounding! I had never seen any like it. From inauspicious cracks and crevices in rock, from marks made by water, from pebbles trapped in narrow fissures, Gunnie Moberg had created stunning images, flowing, curvaceous, sensuous, some almost erotic. 

The book was a limited edition and is one that I have coveted for many years. But I am lucky! There is a copy still in the Orkney Room at Orkney Library & Archives and I have my hands on it again today.

Page 20 of the book, Stone

For today came the official announcement that all of Gunnie Moberg's work as a photographer - and much more - will be held in the Archives here and will be properly catalogued and stored and shown eventually to the wider public.

The work to gain funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund was started over two years ago by Gary Amos, Library & Archive Manager, and David Mackie, Senior Archivist, and at last money was granted to engage someone for two years to perform the painstaking work of going through all the boxes to see what's there.

Year one will see the cataloguing done. There will be no access to the collection during that time. But there will be an online presence - a website or a blog - set up once the project worker is in post. And the second year will see the new worker look at ways to exhibit the work.  

The Knap o Howar, Papa Westray, photographed from the air by Gunnie Moberg

What a treat that person will have once they have been recruited! There are 1255 items, a tantalising number of boxes with unknown contents: rolls of film, thousands of negatives, diaries and notebooks, birthday cards and letters all waiting for careful hands and eyes to create a definitive and detailed catalogue. Item 663 is a box labelled Manuscripts & Books of Old Orkney, a glimpse of how many treasures must be contained in 1255 items! 

I spoke to David Mackie this morning and his brief description of a tiny selection of the contents made me long to have a look myself.

The Archive contains everything to do with Gunnie's life as a photographer and as a public person.

There are cards from Peter Maxwell Davis and George Mackay Brown: one from PMD contains musical notes - a tune for Gunnie for her birthday! And from her long-time friend George Mackay Brown there is a handwritten acrostic poem using her name, something he did for many of his friends.

One letter from George in hospital apologises to her for being in a dark mood when she visited.

But Gunnie Moberg did much more than take photographs: she created a beautiful garden out of uncultivated ground around the house in Stromness where she lived with her husband Tam MacPhail, who runs Stromness Books & Prints along with Sheena Winter. 

Gunnie Moberg in her Garden - Copyright Alistair Peebles
And she took part with other activists in the protest in the 1970s against a planned seal cull, summoning Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior, and camping out on the uninhabited island of North Rona, a hundred miles or so west of Orkney, to stop the men commissioned to club the baby seals to death. The campaign was recorded in the book, Let the Seals Live by Sue Flint, 1979.    

One of her notebooks has diary entries detailing her interest in wildlife. In my notebook I discovered I'd recorded: 

Gunnie fed ravens below the Black Craig ...

It is like the first line of a poem!

I didn't ever meet Gunnie Moberg except through her photographs, but I have a - possibly romantic - sense that her life and her work were in harmony, almost as if her life itself was her greatest work of art. Her beauty and her personality certainly drew many to her. As GMB said in Shetland Diary (published in Northern Lights 1999):

'That's the way it is with Gunnie; people tend towards the brightness of her nature.'

A view shared by all it seems, as can be seen from this lovely film about Gunnie. (You can see it by clicking the link above.) The film was made by Mark Jenkins, a film maker based in Orkney, and was commissioned by the Pier Arts Centre.

Gunnie took warmly engaging photos of GMB and of many of the writers and artists who visited Orkney.

Seamus Heaney photographed by Gunnie Moberg

How lucky are we to have this body of Gunnie Moberg's work permanently here in Orkney Library & Archive.
Photo of Gunnie by Janke De Vries

Gunnie Moberg's and GMB's signatures at the end of Stone



  1. A wonderful post -- thank you. I love Gunnie's work and especially her collaborations with GMB. 'Orkney Pictures and Poems' has had a permanent place on my coffee table for many years. It enaptures for me the very essence of Orkney.

    1. Thank you, Carola. I love her work too. And I too love my copy of Orkney Pictures and Poems - still available I believe from Tam's bookshop in Stromness - and to borrow from Orkney Library & Archive!

  2. (I hope that my blog won't be removed!) I knew Gunnie very well (and Tam, and her sons especially Llew) - my ex-husband Simon and I had the great privilege of publishing many of her photographs in our publications "The Loom Of Light", "A Celebration for Magnus" "A Bit of Crack and Car Culture" to name but three, in collaboration in at least two instances with George Mackay Brown. (I was founding director and Editor of Balnain Books.)Gunnie Moberg's memory is very dear to me as is any retrospective of her life, and I would be very happy to contribute references and recollections in any form that may be useful. I would like to support any commemoration of her great contribution to us all, and our lives, culture and to the Orkney heritage, not least, her contribution to all our lives. Hers was a rare spirit. Sarah Fraser (formerly of Balbain Books, Nairn, now in southern France. email sarah.fraser@dwf.org


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