The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

Gunnie Moberg (1941-2007)

Gunnie MobergGunnie Moberg was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, on 8 May 1941 and briefly studied photography there before moving to Edinburgh in 1960 to learn English and attend art college.

The city was still emerging from a period of post-war dourness, and Gunnie found herself part of an avant garde scene involving people such as Jim Haynes, Richard Demarco and the cast of Beyond the Fringe, and exciting new venues such as The Traverse Theatre and The Paperback Bookshop.

It was in the latter that she met American sculptor, Tam Macphail, who became her husband in January 1961, in a freezing Edinburgh kirk.

The two young artists had limited funds remaining after paying the minister’s fee, with the choice being: have the heating switched on, or an organist playing. Not for the last time, they chose art over comfort.

Gunnie and Tam moved to a remote farmhouse in Argyll, where Gunnie made batiks based on ancient Celtic carvings, and Tam created enigmatic metal sculptures. And together they produced four sons.

Financially, these were hard years. Gunnie told how at one point she and Tam trekked down the Mull of Kintyre to knock on the door of its most famous resident, Paul McCartney. Paul declined their request for support, explaining that he was not nearly as well off as everyone thought and, in fact, was really just another starving artist like themselves.

In 1976 Gunnie packed up the family and, based on little more than a whim – inspired by her Viking ancestry, she sometimes joked – moved them to Orkney.

Soon a strange quirk of casual employment opened a new chapter in Gunnie’s life, one that would establish her as an artist of substantial importance. 

Working behind the desk at Kirkwall Airport, she got the opportunity to fly now and then in the Islander aircraft as they flew back and forth to the outlying islands.

The flights were a revelation, opening her eyes to the extraordinary beauty Orkney, both its natural and man-made patterns: sandstone cliffs, and standing stones, rows of stooks and whirling ravens.

Inspired to return to her early interest in photography, she quickly developed both her own skills and her reputation, and collaborated on a series of indispensable books about Orkney and its northern neighbours Shetland and Faeroe.

Gunnie also became firm friends with poet and novelist George Mackay Brown and with the composer, and founder of the St Magnus Festival, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.

Over the years she assembled an astonishing portfolio of visiting stars such as Isaac Stern and Seamus Heaney, while at the same time establishing her own major reputation.

Her photos – many of them stunning aerial shots, but also semi-abstract close-ups of plants in the clifftop garden she created – are now held in collections such as the Scottish National Galleries, and the Scottish Parliament. But many are also in homes across Orkney.

Which is only right, for Gunnie played a full part in the community – despite being a thoroughly non-conformist individual.

She was unstintingly generous with her time, her salt-sprayed gardening skills, her pancake and anchovy cookery, her archive of photos.

Strikingly beautiful, with very Swedish blonde hair, electric-blue eyes, and a dazzling smile, her presence warmed and illuminated as much as her art. 

Gunnie Moberg died in Stromness on 31 October 2007.

© Duncan MacLean