Not Just Concrete:Elegance, Beauty and the Unexpected in Orkney’s Wartime Remains

Review By Bernie Bell

That is a perfect description of this exhibition of photographs by Ian Collins.


Mike and I first came across Ian Collins’ work when he had an exhibition in Northlight, in Stromness, Orkney. Mike went to the exhibition, in fact, went back three times!  I didn’t manage to get into Stromness while it was on, but Mike brought home some cards of Ian’s images.  Long story short – I thought Ian would probably like/appreciate Rerwick and the buildings there, so I sent him my piece from TON about it, and suggested he went there, next time he was on Orkney.

He did so, took photos. Sent me some – very, very good.  I saw those buildings as grey, concrete, grim things – I was just fascinated by the one with the steps and the door to the underwaterworld, but Ian’s images gave me a whole new perspective on them. My encounter with Ian’s work, transformed the war buildings of Rerwick, from interesting, but grim, reminders of a hard time, into things of even more interest, and also …beauty, it has to be said, beauty – the shapes and the shadows.  I very much like the lines, the lines of light and shade, the boxes of light (windows).

Just concrete B Bell 1

Daylight and Concrete’.  Rerwick Head, Tankerness, East Mainland

I very much like them, and appreciate what it takes to see, and capture those images.

And – the possible stories of the lives lived there, the tense times, watching – maybe in a cold Orkney winter.

Ian then sent me some more images from other places, and they all have a wonderful way of catching light, lines and blocks of light – and – the ‘feel’ of a place. He really has a good ‘eye’ , and a good camera, and he knows how to use both!

So, I was very pleased to see that he is having an exhibition in the Tankerness House Museum, Kirkwall, including material which  usually resides in the Orkney Archive, and was determined to get to see it. And, I’m glad that I did, as it’s a stunner.  A bit of life, at a certain time, in images. Some very strong, emotive images. Some words, which are as strong as the images, but, mainly images, which are placed in such a way, around the room,  that they balance, as their subject matter,  is…balanced.

When you enter the exhibition room, the image entitled ‘Stairwell’,‘ taken at the Post War Signal Station, Stanger Head, Flotta, has immediate impact. I particularly like this image – though I can never decide if I’m looking down, or up.

Not Just Concrete B Bell 2

And I like to connect this, with the stairwell of the museum,  just because  it’s so groovy, and I can’t resist including it

Orkney Museum staircase B Bell

Ian’s images from the Former Naval HQ & Communications Centre, Lyness, Hoy,  have even more tales to tell, and there are more sights, shapes, forms, lines, light and darkness, to view and get caught up in – could be said to illustrate the saying that a picture can tell as much as a thousand words!

His use of soft lighting, is a strong addition.  It was hard for me to catch this image, with my little camera, but, as it turned out, I like how the two things merge – the room in the Museum, and the corridor from HMS Proserpine, with its glowing red light –

Not Just Concrete B Bell 3


The pictures of the lassies working there – you can see who was the lively one, and the pretty one, and the shy one.

Not Just Concrete B Bell 4

The more I look at these pictures, the more they open that world to me. I can see that room, with the girls working there – chatting, laughing, teasing each other, and teasing any hapless male who had the courage to put his head round the door!  If Ian was in HMS Proserpine, on his own, that must have been an eerie and interesting experience. It must  have been extra-ordinary, to be there, stand in the doorway as he left the room, hearing the echoes of the past/present – depends on how you see time – I don’t see it as linear, so, to me, the sounds and the life are still there. His images, bring them out of the walls. The image of the little girl – it’s a sweet picture,  but, as she’s kind-of coming out of the wall at you, for me,  she becomes slightly eerie.

Not Just Concrete B Bell 5

‘Faces by Candlelight’

Great images, great understanding, great humanity.  On the one hand, I’m not too keen on humans in some ways, but, on the other hand, aren’t we something?

One picture, is simply entitled ‘Handprint’. You can’t get more human, than that.

Not Just Concrete B Bell 6

People – we leave something of ourselves, everywhere.

And now, I’ll roam away from the images taken in the war buildings, to the one entitled ‘Symbol’

Not Just Concrete B Bell 7

This brought back a memory for me.  By the Burnt Mound at The Tomb of the Eagles    there used to  be an old German ambulance from the Second World War. I have no idea how it came to be there, but it was there for years, and I often wondered about it when I visited the Burnt Mound.  It was good to see the picture of it, and its symbol, in Ian’s exhibition.

Another digression, begins with the image of the ‘Remains of a Kettle’, found on the moor at Wee Fea, Hoy, below the buildings which housed the Former Naval HQ & Communications Centre. We live above the Bay of Hinderayre in Gorseness, and, at low tide, it’s possible to walk along the coastline, to some WW2 buildings. We’ve found all sorts of bits and pieces on the beach there, including a kettle spout which has become a saxophone for Bruin the Groovy Bear.

I’ll mention here, a walk which connects with Ian’s images………..

The exhibition runs from the 9th February 2019 to the 2nd March 2019 at the Orkney Museum, Tankerness House, Kirkwall. Open from 10.30 am to 12.30 pm, then from 1.30 pm to 5 pm each day. Admission FREE.

Not Just Concrete B Bell 10

not just concrete poster


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

3 replies »

Leave a Reply