The Helmsdale Helm 2015

Digitally fabricated objects, costume, performance


Digital prototype for a synthetic archaeological artefact

Residency, performance and costume project at Timespan in the north eastern Scottish village of Helmsdale, using equipment from the 3D design, fabrication and prototyping lab I set up and ran there from early 2015. Since I was working in a museum and archive and I kept hearing the common, literal explanation that Helmsdale is the Dale of the Helm, I thought Helmsdale ought to actually have a helm. I made a prototype that was intended ultimately to be cast in vacuum-form plastic and replicated in large numbers. The prototype form is shown here, finished with gold inlay for the photography session.

After discussing this subject with toponymy Ph.D. researcher Leonie Dunlop from the University of Glasgow at Timespan’s True North conference, I discovered that despite the modern (19th century) village being originally a model one designed to rehouse people evicted from their strath and hillside homes to make way for industrialised sheep farming during the Highland Clearances, the settlement itself is almost certainly Norse in origin and so is its name.

The following information is derived from (not a quote from) Gaelic and Norse in the Landscape by Roddy Maclean:

The Gaelic name for the Helmsdale river, Ilidh, probably predates both the Gaels and the Norse. It’s recorded as Ila by Ptolemy of Alexandria circa 120AD. Sutherland (where Helmsdale is located) would have been Norse Suðrland, i.e. Southerland, later Sutherland; also the name of the feudal earls in the area, ultimately the aristocrats and land owners responsible for the 19th century clearances. The Norse name for nearby Caithness was Katanes, “Promontory of the Cat People”, which is a little bit scary. Helmsdale would derive from it originally being Hjalmund’s Dale, Hjalmund being a man and a dale being a valley.

It’s probably lucky that I didn’t notice the part about Cat People until very late in the project, otherwise it might have turned out even stranger than it did. Maybe I’ll save that nugget for another project in the area…

The “how you interpret the politics of this picture probably says more about you and your politics than it does about the picture” picture.
I’m in UR history, founding UR villij.

The helmet has 3D printed details and eight laser engraved panels showing various events from local history and drawn in the Norse style, mostly as recorded in Timespan’s archives but occasionally as concocted in my odd mind, like the Vikings battling dinosaurs for example. There really are Jurassic fossil beds along the Sutherland and Caithness coasts, though. Images more closely related to real events include the now sadly defunct festival associated with the arrival of the Herring Queens on fishing boats, the death of the last wolf in this part of Scotland, the destruction of Helmsdale castle in favour of the A9 road, and the 2015 solar eclipse which I was lucky enough to see with perfect clarity and something like 93% totality from Helmsdale beach. The helmet’s overall design is (deliberately) a bit of a mashup of different styles and eras. The ear flaps are directly from a 6th century Swedish helmet, for example; the pterodactyl refers to the flying creatures– often ducks, whom the Vikings idolised for being equally at home in the water, in the air, and on land– frequently found on the noses and brows of Norse helmets; the face plate more closely resembles a Saxon one as a nod to my origins in Suffolk, very close to the famous Sutton Hoo burial site. And also, I’m told, a Muppet or a Star Wars stormtrooper. For nocturnal pillage the helmet is also threaded with electroluminescent wire.


(Photos by Frances Davis from Timespan, postproduction by Alistair Gentry.)

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