Fangan is plural for Fank in Gaelic. I have been photographing Fanks for the last 2 years, using a drone, whenever the weather and opportunity arises. This project has given me the chance to explore the textures, shapes and colours within these walls, and to place them within their differing landscapes. But more than that, it has opened my eyes to the stories these stone walls tell.
Fank: sheepfold; sheep pen; stell; stall; turf stell; bucht; stell enclosure.
Fangan is an ongoing project recording the stone fanks of Mull and surrounding islands (Iona, Ulva, Gometra, Erraid, Inch Kenneth). A fank is a structure of stone walled pens built to hold animals which to enable farmers and crofters to handle their livestock.
The seed of the idea behind Fangan germinated when our neighbour told us he was retiring. I knew the beautiful stone fank on his farm was one of very few still in use on the island. Would it even be used after his retirement? He kindly agreed to let me take photographs when he had his sheep in.
As a farmer I was looking at the possible end of a traditional way of handling sheep, rich with stories, towards a time when a stone fank in use might be a thing of the past. Little did I realise the significance of the Fank in the history of the Highlands and Islands.
In the 1830s Mull had a population of around 10,000. By the 1880’s it was less than 4,000. What happened in between was a horrific period of history with great suffering and adversity. The islands experienced several years of potato famine, the collapse of the kelp industry and the Highland Clearances. The landlords evicted thousands of men, women and children, often forcibly, from their homes. They were transported across the world. Against their will.
Before the Clearances in the 1800s, crofters and cottars would have kept a small number of sheep and cattle. Grazing on the hills was shared. Crops were grown on the runrig. A small stone enclosure was all they needed to handle their livestock.
After the Clearances, Lairds introduced large flocks of sheep and needed far larger structures to hold them in. Thus the stone fanks we see now were built.
It was common to use the stone from nearby empty dwellings to build the stone walls of a fank. At Glencannel, the fank was built on the site of a burial ground where grave stones were built into the fank walls. The fank at Kilbeg is reputed to have been built on the site of a chapel. And at Glac Gugaraidh ruined houses were used as a fank.
There are now only 10 stone Fanks in use on Mull. Most farmers and crofters use a more modern system made from wood or metal. Some are portable. These beautiful stone structures illustrate a particular outcome of the Clearances in the 19th centuries. They tell of the continuing changes in land use, habitation and rural economy of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Currently Fangan consists of ‘bird’s eye views’ of 45 Fanks displayed in one grid of 36 photographs (6 rows, columns) and a second grid of 9 photographs (3 rows, 3 columns). In addition there are aerial photographs which place each fank in its landscape context.