When Linkshouse opens this summer as a new artists’ residency centre in Orkney, it will mark the culmination of several different lives the grand looking house has lived over the last century. Situated in Birsay village, on the north west of Orkney’s main island, The Mainland, Linkshouse’s most recent incarnation was as the base of the Erlend Williamson Fellowship, a charity set up in honour of the artist who tragically died in 1996 in a climbing accident on Glencoe.
Williamson had been a contemporary of artists including Ross Sinclair, Simon Starling and Mike Nelson. When Williamson’s parents, Barbara and Edgar, discovered the importance of Orkney in their son’s life and work, they set up the Fellowship at Linkshouse in his honour with some of his peers and friends.
One of the clauses in the Williamson’s wills was that if the charity should close, then the property be passed into the care of the Pier Arts Centre, based thirteen miles away from Birsay, in Stromness. For more than forty years, the Centre has run a year round exhibition and events programme. The Centre also holds a significant art collection donated by author, peace activist and philanthropist, Margaret Gardiner.
Under the directorship of Neil Firth, the Pier Arts Centre duly picked up the mantle of Linkshouse in 2018. With investment from both public bodies and a Crowdfunding campaign, the house has been transformed into what is about to open as Linkshouse – Orkney Arts Residency.
“It’s a big thing,” says Firth of Linkshouse’s renovation, developed with Edinburgh based architects, Studio Niro. “Philanthropy has always played a huge part in the Pier Arts Centre, and now to see this happen several generations on allows us to develop a new base with a focus on practitioners. We’re still learning about how the building might work, but we hope it becomes a landing strip for practitioners from elsewhere who are attracted here, as well as a bit of a launch pad for artists based on Orkney to connect up with networks out the way.”
Linkshouse already has quite a history for this. The house was built in 1913 by local couple, Robert and Jane Comloquoy, who ran it as a guesthouse, naming it after the sandy links that stretched out to the sea. In 1974, under owners, Mr and Mrs Selwyn Hughes, Linkshouse was opened as The Orkney Field and Arts Centre, which hosted tours for groups interested in Orkney’s flora and fauna, as well as artists’ residencies from the likes of John Busby, Frances Walker and Allen Lawson. In 1976, Richard Demarco’s Edinburgh Arts programme brought students from Durham University to the Centre, where they received a lecture by Orcadian historian Ernest W. Marwick.
Linkshouse continued as The Orkney Field and Arts Centre when the house was bought in 1980 by naturist and author Robin Noble and his wife Iona, with residencies continuing for several years before it was purchased by the Williamsons in 1999. Over almost two decades of EWAF, artists including Laura Mansfield and Mike Nelson spent time at Linkshouse.
With future partnerships between organisations including the Royal Scottish Academy, Firth sees the redeveloped Linkshouse as a vital part of Orkney’s artistic life.
“Orkney’s an interesting place,” he says. “It’s got lots of artistic activity going on, and that enables us to think about things, not just as a visual arts organisation, but to be able to utilise culture in a much broader sense. I see Linkshouse playing a big part of that, and a big part of the future of the Pier Arts Centre.”
Details about Linkshouse - Orkney Arts Residency can be found at www.pierartscentre.com
Scottish Art News, June 2022