North Lands

September 2002

Publication: The Sunday Herald

The remote former fishing village of Lybster on the east coast of Caithness may seem like an unlikely location for an international centre of excellence but this is exactly what North Lands Creative Glass has become in the few years since it was established in 1995. Initially the brainchild of international glass expert and Phillips Executive Director, Dan Klein, the then MP for Caithness and Sutherland Robert Maclellan and lawyer Iain Gunn, under the steady guidance of the three (who have been friends since university days) North Lands has gone from strength to strength. 


In July HRH Prince of Wales opened the newly refurbished Alastair Pilkington Studio which has a wide range of facilities for hot and cold glass working.  The £200,000 was completed with the help of the Scottish Arts Council National Lottery Fund and the local enterprise company.


North Lands is housed in the former school building at Lybster and now contains state of the art facilities which rival those to be found  any where in Britain.  Original funding for the project came from the sale of late Sir Alastair Pilkington’s contemporary glass collection, donated by his widow Lady Pilkington.  Pilkington revolutionised the world of industrial glass with his invention of the Float Glass process.


North Lands is now run by internationally recognized board of directors under the directorship of Iain Gunn and includes Klein, Lord Maclellan of Rogart (as he is now known) and Lord Palumbo.  The centre’s advisory council  boasts such art world luminaries as Tessa Clegg (winner of the 1998 Jerwood Prize) and Jennifer Opie, Senior Curator at the V & A, while North Lands’ programme of research, collaboration, residencies masterclasses and conferences is co-ordinated by Artistic Director, Elizabeth Swinburne, currently Head of Glass at the Rietveld Akademie in Amsterdam.


Visiting North Lands is a revelation to anyone not acquainted with the international but relatively small world of the glass artist.  With evident pride Gunn and Klein show visitors around the various studio spaces, kiln rooms and blasting facilities.  “Glass is a magical material, says Klein, “and it allows endless creative possibilities”.  Gunn is equally enthusiastic:  “I used to run a small gallery here he explains” but through my friendship with Dan and Bob Maclellan” I have realised an ambition in further preserving and extending both the architecture and creative life of the community”


Although relatively compact Northlands exudes a busy creative working atmosphere.  Currently four artists – Marianne Buus, Maria Barnes, Gareth Noel Williams and Laura Heyworth – form the first residency programme, part of a ongoing, round-the-year commitment on behalf of North Lands to extend the creative potential of artists and to provide educational spin-offs for local community.  Buus explains “Here we can work in relative isolation but in a supportive atmosphere, exchanging ideas and learning from each others’ techniques”  Looking at her delicate glassware bowls and vessels it is clear that the Dane has been influenced by the subtle colours, bold landforms and unpredictable climate of Caithness. 


In line with previous years North Lands is running a its ambitious annual programme of masterclasses, as well as an two day conference.   The invited artists include the internationally acclaimed Swedish artist, Bertil Vallien, the Canadian Irene Frolic, US based Richard Meitner and the German Gerhard Ribka who will collaborate with the Scottish fine artist, Adrian Wiszniewski.  Vallien’s masterclasses will be based on his long established practice of sandcasting, where negative shapes are cut into sand and filled with hot, molten glass.  Vallien will pass on his techniques, skills and artistic thinking accumulated over a period of forty years, most of which has been spent working with the Swedish glass company, Kosta Boda.  Vallien specialises in making objects such as boat shapes or standing stones and interpretations of the human head and because his glass objects are opaque due t the casting technique, polished areas allow the ingress and egress of light resulting in Vallien’s well known dictum “glass eats light”.  Because of his Viking ancestry, the boat as vessel of discovery is used repeatedly by Vallien as a metaphor for life’s journey and numerous other symbolic meanings


Frolic, whose mother was a Polish Jew and a holocaust survivor, came to glass making relatively late in her career but is now recognised as one of Canada’s leading experts in the field.  Like Vallien, the human form and particularly the face is central to her concerns and she has stated that her sculpture is “concerned with the crust of things: with the link between the psychology of the human face and the geology of the enduring rock of our land.  Glass….is made by fire: the fire that animates our soul and that forms the centre of our earth”.


Although Ribka and Wiszniewski come from separate disciplines they are united in the way in which they use glass as a medium of expression.  Both artists paint figuratively on the surface of glass but up until now Wiszniewski has worked only on a large architectural scale so this collaboration should result in giving him the opportunity to work in a more intimate way on a much smaller scale.


An important aspect of the Northlands programme is a two day conference (held to coincide with the fortnight of masterclasses) which will reflect on themes drawn form its title ‘Figuratively Speaking’ here a number of speakers including Vallien, Wiszniewski and Ribka will give illustrated lectures on their own particular approaches to working in glass.  The conference has attracted a widespread audience from all areas of the arts and beyond and will undoubtedly serve to place the North Lands agenda evenly more firmly on the international map.



  • Dan Klein’s ‘Artists in Glass’ is published by Michael Beazley, price £35.00