Fellowship Artist Natalie Taylor Blog

October 2021:

Pilgrimage Launch event: 17th October 2021 Natalie Taylor

Dunbar Harbour Battery 4.45-5.30 – The Keeper of the Soils ceremony in which four soils from the region were selected from the People’s Collection of Soil- For the Love of Soil. A large audience from Dunbar and the surrounding area assembled on the stone seating and around the periphery.

Chris Yule, local storyteller and outdoor educator read out the stories sent in by locals who had donated soil and the significance of this to them and the wider community. He then handed them to his six year old daughter Cathleen, six who slowly walked them over to The Keeper for the day, Roxy Ambrozevich. who stowed them away into the interior pockets.  A drum beat out the human heartbeat as she crossed the stage towards Roxy, underlining our connection to the vitality of the soil.


Here are the four soils’ stories:

Soil No 1: Lammermuir Hills. Gathered by Ettie Spencer

Ettie: This soil comes from mine and my family’s five acres in the Lammermuir Hills behind my house in Longformacus in the Scottish Borders.

It is an upland pasture at a height of 686 ft and is surrounded by shooting estate moorland.

I am embarking on creating an oasis in these grouse moors by planting a mixed upland woodland of about 3000 trees. The project is receiving advice from the Borders Forest Trust and will contribute in a small way to building woodland corridors across Scotland, rewilding plant and supporting biodiversity. 

So far I have established about 85 trees at the beginning of a two year phased planting. This seasons phase one should get at least 1000 trees planted and a small wetland established by blocking field drains that should encourage ground nesting birds such as lapwings and curlews amongst other things.

This soil is in good condition as it has been little disturbed for many years and will through this initiative remain undisturbed in future- a precious resource which I feel privileged to be able to use to make this contribution. 

Soil No 2; Dunbar. Gathered by Lizzie Swarbrick

Lizzie: This soil is from the last remnant of John Muir’s childhood market garden, behind 130-134 High Street Dunbar.

The soil was from the surface of a flower bed of the neglected garden and is unlikely to have ever been worked or handled by John Muir. However, we know from his diaries that Muir spent much of his early childhood observing nature in his garden, this garden. So, it does still have a link to him.

I think it was last actively cultivated in the 1960s-70s. Unfortunately, the orchard and about 60% of the garden has already been destroyed by the developers Caledonian Heritable to make way for an ultra-luxury bungalow. The rest (which includes a mature sweet chestnut, an apple and a plum, some other neglected parts of a garden, and an 18th century building) are due to be replaced by two small houses if planning permission goes through. I feel sad that a little piece of green ground – and one so full of historic meaning – is all but lost. I want to give you the soil and for it to be included so that it would continue to have a life of some sort.

Soil no 3: Binning Woods. Gathered by Judy Riley.

My research suggests that the soils here have lain under woodlands for 300 years.  Huge beeches, oaks and Scots Pine were almost entirely clear felled in 1941 for the war effort and the high quality beech was used to make Mosquito bombers.  Part of the woods are now designated as burial grounds.

Judy says: I deliberately did not dig up earth from this part. Instead I chose soil from one of the three roundels from which the straight rides or avenues radiate.  It was the centre chosen by Lady Helen, wife of the 6th Earl of Haddington who decided to plant a wood here in 1707. Everyone thought it was a harebrained scheme as this land was fairly poor and rented out as the Muir of Tyninghame. It was her insistence that trees would grow here and later on the sandy soil by the beach, that got her husband planting so many trees around Tyninghame. 

Soil no 4: Wittingehame Estate:  Gathered by Bea Taylor

My research suggests that this soil originated from a restored farm worker’s house formerly part of Whittingehame Estate, home to the Balfour family who have managed the land here for generations. The soil here was farmed and managed temporarily by Eve Balfour, the niece of Lord Balfour who owned the estate. As a child Eve Balfour came here to spend her summers and learn about farming. Unusually she decided to become a farmer at the age of 12 and later went on to buy a farm in Suffolk with her sister. In 1946 Eve Balfour co founded and became the first President of the Soil Association. This charity has had worldwide influence on what is now known as organic farming, the production of crops without fertilisers or pesticides which otherwise came into widespread use in the 1950’s.

As Eve Balfour explained “Society, like a house does not start at ground level but begins quite literally beneath the surface of our planet, within the soil itself. “

She also realised that ” If a nation’s health depends on the way its food is grown, then agriculture must be looked upon as one of the health services. “

The ceremony closed with a moving rendition of “Enough is Enough”, sung by local school children and then taught to the audience who sang along.


PILGRIMAGE TO COP26:  Dunbar to Glasgow via the John Muir Way and St Ninians’s Way

18th Oct Day One:  Leaving Dunbar along the coastal path towards Belhaven everyone was in high spirits as we took in vast views of the sea and Fife. The John Muir Way took us over the Bridge to Nowhere at Belhaven, through the sandy soiled forest of East Links towards the River Tyne Estuary and along paths flanked by rich agricultural farmland. East Lothian mainly produces barley for animal feed and whisky but we passed the occasional field bursting with ripe brussel sprouts whose smell preceded its sight.

As we crossed the River Tyne bridge on the outskirts of East Linton, Finn Curry, the son of Phantassie Farm owners Patricia and Ralph Curry met us with the first soil sample along our way. This soil comes from a vegetable growing tradition dating back at least 150 years in the Phantassie Farm Walled Garden, so it is likely that the soil has been organic for all of that time, unlike the majority of East Lothian’s soils. Finn told us that his mother started growing vegetables 20 odd years ago in the walled garden in order to feed her son with organic vegetables.  It is now a flourishing business, providing fruit and veg for farmer’s markets and veg boxes for the local community.

Our journey continued along towards North Berwick reaching the Law mid afternoon, arriving at St Baldred’s Church for the most excellent food and hospitality that evening. The Keeper on this first day was myself and my husband, Kevin Dagg.

19th Oct: Day Two: North Berwick to Aberlady: Soil collected from Gullane Golf Course

Fine drizzle accompanied us as we made our way along the silver shoreline of the coast in the early morning silver light. The large group stopped occasionally for Cameron Newall as he played us beautiful laments and jigs on the fiddle as we watched the sea rise and fall, geese occasionally flapping overhead. The coastline unfolded before us with its expansive views over to Fidra Island and Fife beyond. The walk today led us toward two starkly contrasting soils: that of Gullane Golf Course adjacent to the Aberlady bird reserve, an area of special scientific interest for the migratory birds.  Gullane Golf Course has been heavily managed and sprayed with chemicals, in order to keep back the indigenous plants and grasses from the clipped grassy playing areas which thrive on the indigenous sandy soils of the nearby coast. The Keeper this day was Olga Bloemen who carefully collected a teaspoon of soil from a bunker in the centre of the golf course.

20th Oct: Day Three  Aberlady- Musselburgh

Early morning start to catch the light at dawn over the Aberlady estuary mudflats. We had passed through this SSSI in the dark the night before and had heard the haunting shrieks of curlews and geese as we walked and I was keen to see them in daylight. As we approached, we could see flocks of pink footed geese in graceful formation above, flapping slowly as the dawn stretched pink over the lightening sky. I felt the dense stickiness as I pushed in the trowel to retrieve a small lump of mud and added it into the Collection. According to the British Geological Survey this invertebrate-rich intertidal mudflat
provides feeding grounds for nationally and internationally important numbers of
wintering and migratory birds.

The site management statement from Scottish Natural Heritage states that the salt marshes at Aberlady Bay within the Firth “provides a perfect habitat for wading birds. Aberlady Bay is among the best locations in Scotland for waders and duck, and in winter, thousands of pink-footed geese use the reserve to roost….. (however) Habitats may be lost through “coastal squeeze”. This is where the sea level rises but sea walls or other developments or land use prevents habitat formation inward, thereby restricting the transition of intertidal habitats. With climate change, this could be an increasing problem. ….. The greatest threat to most intertidal areas is through pollution, either from land or from the sea, largely from industrial and farming effluents.


The making of the Keeper of the Soil with help from the community

We’ve had two community workshops in Lauderdale Park, Dunbar to make the special soil pockets that will be attached to Keeper of the Soils cape – the first was cyanotype fabric printing of soil creatures.

The follow on workshop was stitching and embroidering detail onto the prints and onto the newly dyed and sewn cape.

Dyeing of the wool to be used for the Keeper of the Soils cape is well underway, working with Kirsty Sutherland –  this beautiful deep red colour is being created using madder.

The first blog: work has started on the Keeper of the Soils cape with pieces being cut out in advance of dyeing with traditional plant dyes on Monday with artist Kirsty Sutherland.


Natalie Taylor: Soil – Is Soil Alive?

Natalie with the Madder plant. This plant will be used to create a deep red dye for the Keeper of the Soils cape – reflecting the colour of East Lothian soils.

We are thrilled that artist Natalie Taylor is our John Muir Fellow. She will work with the community and produce new work over the next year exploring the question: Earth –  is soil alive?   Natalie will offer workshops and events in and around Dunbar and create artworks around this theme.

The first project is The Keeper of the Soils cape, a performance costume that is a celebration of Scotland’s precious soils, to be worn at a special celebratory event on the eve of the COP26 Pilgrimage (17th October in Dunbar)

This hand dyed woollen cape will be made and decorated by many hands and the Keeper will walk living soils from East Lothian and other areas of Scotland from Dunbar to the climate conference taking place in Glasgow, November 2021. More information about the Pilgrimage can be found here: https://artandecology.earth/pilgrimage-for-cop26/


Updates about how to get involved, the cape progress and other fellowship news can be found on our blog page:

Updates,Workshops and Events can also be found on our facebook page:


and our instagram: https://www.instagram.com/northlightarts/


Natalie explains here about the project – “Earth – Is soil alive?”

I’ve been fascinated by plants and seeds for years now and have made loads of work (sculptures, paintings, animations) about seeds since leaving art college. The subject of soil was only indirectly interesting to me at first, as a medium in which most plants are grown, but then when I was invited by North Light Arts in 2015 to do a micro residency about soil I became really interested in how important and yet sadly overlooked soil actually is. It dawned on me how much we all depend on soil for our survival and yet we take it almost completely for granted. When NLA invited me for this fellowship on the subject of soil I jumped at the chance. Here was an opportunity to find out how East Lothian’s community relates to the soils around us, what food it supplies, and what sort of soil husbandry is going on here and even better, a chance to make art with people about and with soil. 

During the UN International Year of Soils back in 2015 I learned that around 30% of the world’s arable soils are now damaged in some way, reducing our ability to grow food and I made the Alchemy of Soil painting in response. It is created using soil as a painting medium and it’s a sort of Soil/ Food web; showing the relationship between soil and our food system. The framework is based on a famous icon from Tibetan Buddhism, the Kalachakra mandala and all the images within it are about soil creatures, the food we eat, the weather which produces our food and our food distribution system. It’s an attempt at putting this very complex relationship into visual form.

For the opening project of my fellowship I am creating a wearable version of this soil/food web in the form of a hand dyed cape for the Keeper of the Soils. The Keeper will also gather precious soils from around the Central Belt and keep them safe for performances and events. The first place where you can see the Keeper of the Soils  is at the opening event for Pilgrimage for COP26, in Dunbar on the afternoon of the 17th October.  More information about that event coming soon…..

I am really looking forward to meeting more people from Dunbar and the surrounding area and making art about soil with you!

North Light Arts are thrilled to invite our first John Muir Fellow is to be the environmental artists Natalie Taylor, who will work with our community for one year.

The focus of her investigation and community collaborations will be Soil – Is Soil Alive? After all it is the very ground we walk on and rely on for our daily bread. Here she will enter a dialogue with the community with a regular update on the progress of her project.