Memorial: remembrancing

In autumn 2013 I was asked to create Scotland’s National Memorial for Organ and Tissue Donors, commissioned by the Scottish Government, for a site in the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.

I have given my project the title, Tigh, House: a memorial home for a wilding garden. Being a garden, work was begun long ago and is the labour of many hands. The new composition will be planned over the winter months; construction will begin in Spring, continuing over the summer, and an opening celebration will be held in August 2014.



My first task was to find a suitable site. I explored every nook and cranny of the Botanics, searching for an area where the flora is predominantly native, and the mood is intimate; a space that is reflective and – there being no better word – safe.

What I was looking for came to be defined in a phrase that arose in conversation with Colin Will, who accompanied me on a walk.



It was with Colin that I first stood in the secluded clearing that has recently been confirmed as the memorial's site. I was worried it might be too small, but he saw that a rogue shrub could be transplanted and, with that, a grove began to take shape, between pine, birch, and gean. I will describe the location in more detail in a future post; for now, I want to share some thoughts on what a contemporary memorial might be.

I have visited the wild glade in which we will build many times now, sitting on blankets in sunshine and rain with a variety of people, each of who has responded to the spirit of calm, the fitting presence of the lofty pine, and the weighty defining qualities of the stones. Together we have felt the comfort of birds singing, and the glimmers of light that reflect off the surface of the little pool.

As one of the gardeners remarked, this is the only place in the Botanics that is entirely screened from houses and roads. This patch of prepared nature will be the greater part of the artwork and, as an artist, having found it, my role is now to preserve it for others.

let us prepare   a space
in which truth
can be known

a space   which remains open

a space   in which
                no word
                no object

will close down   meaning
or hinder feeling

My reading, and my conversations with people, kept returning to the question: how do people memorialize?

Ranging through cultures and traditions, I have been drawn, in particular, to the arts of memory as they were practiced by the Ancient Greeks, and described by the great French scholars, Vernant, Detienne, and Vidal Nacquet. By comparison, the ancient traditions of the peoples of Scotland remain obscure, but, if the rites of the past can only be glimpsed, there are still places – sites of alignment and particular atmospheres – and remains – ruined places, structures, and sacred plantings – from which we can imagine. And so I have come back again to the burial chamber at Bharpa Langais, North Uist; the sacred tree plantings on Isle Maree; the druidic oak wood of Sron Daraich, Isle of Skye; and The Female Warrior’s House, St Kilda (illustrated above, in a photograph by Hanna Tuulikki).


a home in which
the gift is
safe & seen

The most important of these structures and, not surprisingly, the one that we know the least about, is Tigh nam Calliach, The House of the Old Woman, a ritual miniature stone hut with a turf roof, in a remote glen, north-west of Loch Lyon. By good fortune I recently met Norman Haddow, who led a party to repair the Tigh in 2012, and he will be working with me on the memorial.

This modest, almost playful, shrine to summer, has its own 'family' of river stones, set out before it every Beltane, and sealed inside every Samhain. 

The Tigh is a chamber, for interment, but its turf roof is alive; it flowers for the living and for the dead.

Many years ago I first heard of the votive river stones, from Margaret Bennet, and, more recently, Ken Cockburn introduced me to the healing stones associated with St Fillin, which are kept on a bed of wrack and spated grasses, in the watermill at Killin.

An image came and it stayed with me, of the stone as a natural counterpart to the human organ.



First came the only 'wild' clearing in the Botanics, and now I had found the kind of structure that belonged there. In later posts I will discuss the influence that Tigh nam Calliach and some of the other sites that I have mentioned have played in shaping my concept for the memorial; for now, though, memory itself is my concern.

Along with research and field trips, I have listened to people’s stories about remembrancing – a gean planted for its blossom, for a child who loved pink; an acorn lodged in the crevice of a dyke. 

I love to walk in the Botanics but, as touching as the desire to remember those who are gone is, the sheer quantity of trees that bear dedicatory plaques seems at odds with the communal nature of the gardens. 

The gift of memory allows us all to choose any place – hilltop cairn, rock, river, island – and declare it as a site of remembrance, without our carving the letters of any one person's name. I always think of Ewan MacColl's elegiac 'Joy of Living', with this request that his loved ones scatter his ashes, 'in some high place of heather, rock and ling', that he may be part of the air they breathe, part of all they see. An unmarked tree can be a memorial for a thousand people.

The memorial, Tigh, House, is a public site, but its purpose insists that it must, primarily, be a space for private emotions.

If it were a door, then the lock must be made in such a way that it will fit two keys.

It does not seem to me appropriate to impose one of those dominating symbols that are the signature of contemporary public art – gigantic horse, alloy DNA spiral, classical temple, or bronze notables. Rather than instructing people what to think, or feel, the garden, and the few accentuating features I will add, is a setting. A quiet glade tells no-one what to think and, set apart, it is a place in which people can perform their own remembrance, as they feel appropriate, whether in deed, or thought.



What makes the subject of this memorial remarkable is that it must reflect upon death and life, for it is dedicated – the word is apt – to those living, thanks to organ donation, and those who have lost a loved one; someone who, in dying, willed a gift that others may live.

It is true of any culture that its rites of death and remembrance touch on the most archaic observances and beliefs. Immersing myself in traditional practices, I have also to bear in mind that I am representing a medical event – one that is only a generation old, and which originated within the span of my own lifetime, like the internet, and the age of space exploration. 

The transplantation of organs and tissue depends on the most up-to-date science and surgical expertise. It embodies the limits of what we can do medically, and, in doing so, it asks an ethical question, what should we do? There is no curative treatment that is closer to being a secular miracle.

The memorial is not going to be overwritten with objects, or words; there will be no dominating symbolism. I will consider the medical aspect, but the commission is not a celebration of the physical sciences, or experimental research. The project will give the recognition necessary to the gift – the how and why of organ and tissue donation, and all that entails, of gain and loss – but it will take the form of a wilding garden because this is what those affected by organ donation most need: a refugia for the emotions.

In creating such a space, private feelings must, finally, hold sway: a death is always a death, to be marked, and sorrowed for, by individuals directing their thoughts, their attention, and their emotions, towards another.

is wound
through time

is bound
to memory



At a recent meeting of the advisory panel for the memorial, I listened to a conversation concerning a live donor who had gifted an organ to someone they had no connection with. Acts like this are exemplary gifts and the memorial mist also be a space in which they can be celebrated.

The following poems transcribe phrases from a conversation with a nurse, an expert in donation – due to the sensitive nature of the project I am keeping identities anonymous – reflecting on the gift.

what is it
that justifies this act?

the gift : that death
                means life

every offer
begins with failure

the gain
from the gift

only comes
after grief passes



The act of exchange is, therefore, potentially reciprocal, even if it does pass between the world of the living into the domain of the dead.

Healing can reach into darkness, just as the flowers on the roof of the Tigh depend on roots that reach down into the dark earth and the open stone chamber.

It is a mistake to think in binary terms: the gainer of the gift, bathed in light, and the family who lost a loved one, cast in shadow.

Each individual’s experience of grief is particular – how could it not be?



(after Seamus Heaney) 

There is, or can be, a body of meaning that carries beyond the individual; beyond even the giver, or receiver, of the gift.

The act of donation exemplifies what we can do, as a society.

this gift is truly
a harmony
made of inequalities :

the one who dies
lives on
in many lives

No gift is an end.

Everyone involved in transplantation believes it to be a bastion of moral values. To me, it epitomizes the ideas of commonality that underlay the post-war settlement, and impelled the founding of the NHS. This knitting together of our common social being depended, then as now, in essence, upon acts of memory; that is, upon the shared recognition of suffering, and a determination to ameliorate this, where possible. As riches rise upwards some descend deeper into the mire of forgetfulness.

Sitting on site, drinking tea, thinking of the purpose of the Tigh, House, the home for memories, my friend Ken Cockburn and I poemed its meaning in this way:

by building
the house

we learn how
to dwell

Altruism, the very weave of the social fabric, has been attacked, ruthlessly, in recent years. If we wish to belong in the house of society, it always requires our vigilance and our love. The gift of an organ remains one of the highest examples of this love.

I will close this first blog with some poems that transcribe a conversation with a lung transplant recipient. They suggested, in what they said, that, at the deepest level, we are all inter-connected.

one can grieve
for the loss
of a death

grieve for a life
birthed into
new life

I couldn't look
beyond the door

opening or closing –
would the key turn?

the strangeness of illness
shed   but still held

in the mind     in acts
as a guide   to conduct

saying thank you
becomes a way

to live
this new life

you can climb
your mountains

I can tie
my shoelaces

One final thought: how uncanny the life of an artist is. How could one possibly train oneself for the complexities of such a commission? And yet, remaining open to the intrinsic meaning in any encounter, having faith that poetry can guide an idea towards the right form, and transcribe emotion into common phrases of recognition, I know I can give my best to what will be a collaborative memorial.

After five winters of illness, there is also the sense of an exchange that is personal, particular to me – experiences that will not be articulated in the memorial, but which, nevertheless, define my approach, the conditions of making, and the desire for reciprocation.

There is the hope that, somehow, endurance and empathy will guide the way to create a wilding garden, a place for all those who wish to remember. 

we clear the way
and shape the paths

trusting that meaning
will come to stay

The Taigh is now open to the public. A book documenting the process is available from Studio Alec Finlay, or on Amazon.

For more information on my approach to art and healing: today today today

For information on organ and tissue donation: Organ Donation Scotland

For information on Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh: www.rbge.org.uk

For information on the art programme at Inverleith House: click here 

For the press announcement of the project: The Scotsman

Photography credits for this post: Alec Finlay, Luke Allan, Amy Todman, Hannah Devereux, and Hanna Tuulikki.

Collaborators on the project:

Luke Allan
Ken Cockburn
Caroline Dear
Norman Haddow
Amy Todman
Hanna Tuulikki
Colin Will
Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop

The National Memorial for Organ and Tissue Donors in Scotland is commissioned by The Scottish Government, realised in association with Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop.

organ-stone ('heart'), 2013


  1. I was very touched when I found the Taigh purely by accident, as I donated a kidney in Edinburgh altruistically just over 2 years ago in December 2012. Is it likely that my name is included within...?
    I would love to know, as I visit the gardens frequently..! Chris unit1991@yahoo.com

    1. Chris, I wrote all of the names, yes; first names only. There is more on the project, including some document of the process of writing the names, and of the special book and kist, in the book which is available. I commend you on your altruism.


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