Confusing shadow with substance is a collaborative project between artists Jo Millett and Janette Kerr, exploring a historic form of fishing in Shetland.

The project evolved into a video and sound installation, exhibited at Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick in 2017. There are more details about the project as well as details of the exhibition and plans for exhibitions to come. For more on the background see the research and development of the project.


Shetland haaf fishing took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. There were once over one hundred haaf fishing station sites around the coast of Shetland and its islands. Confusing shadow with substance developed with a focus on one fishing station, at Stenness in Northmavine.

Stenness beach, Northmavine, Shetland. Site of former haaf fishing station

Investigating the traces of a once thriving industry, the artists became interested in the journey from the fishing station beach to the far haaf, re-imagining events and activities on shore and sea, using film video and sound.  For more on the production of the work see here. For some historical research, see here.

Stenness fishing station. Image courtesy of Shetland Museum and Archives

Various people and sources were involved, in particular Shetland Museum and Archives and Tangwick Haa Museum. The involvement of local people included a crew of volunteers who rowed and sailed the museum’s replica sixareen boat, Vaila May, for filming and creel fisherman Tom Williamson took the artists on his boat from Stenness beach. Readers came to the beach for audio recordings of the archive texts.

The resulting work is a three screen video and sound installation, exhibited in Da Gadderie at Shetland Museum and Archives, July and August 2017. To read more on the exhibition see here.

Confusing shadow with substance refers to the old practice of direction finding and navigation using meids, which was often uncertain. It is a quote from fisherman Davie Smith who said:

“Mindin meids was wan thing, but usin dem wis anidder, for da wadder had a big effect. Da further from land, da more distorted da meids become, and it was easy to make mistakes. Snow on da ground changed da appearance of everything; bright sunshine made maitters worse, confusing shadow with substance”. Charles H Simpson Water in Burgidale: Shetland Fisheries in a pre-electronic age (Shetland Amenity Trust, 2010) p.xvii

The project was supported with a grant from Creative Scotland and by the Shetland Museum and Archives, with in-kind support from Shetland Arts.  Thanks to all who volunteered to help and especially to artist Rob Gawthrop who recorded and edited the audio.


Janette Kerr is a painter who has sought to imbed herself in land/seascapes, focusing on the heritage of an historical relationship with land and sea. For more about her work see her website.

Holding my breath II © Janette Kerr

Jo Millett is an artist whose interest lies in exploring temporal experience and land/seascapes, using moving image and sound, investigating the relationship between memory and location/situation. Her work often takes the form of installations using film, video and sound. For more about her work see her website.

Sea breaking installation © Jo Millett


video documentation 5:24

Confusing shadow with substance was first shown at Da Gadderie in Shetland Museum and Archives, Lerwick in 2017. A tour of the exhibition to six venues in Scotland and Shetland was due to take place this year, but due to the pandemic and the temporary closures of venues, this has been postponed.

The installation consists of three video screens and four audio channels which loop continuously. Each of the video screen loops independently of the other and because each are different lengths, juxtapositions of images alter. The sound consists of 4 separate channels, with four speakers, voices come from different corners of the room – sometimes behind, sometimes from all 4 speakers at once. Moving around the space gives the listener a changing experience. Sounds of the sea, oars pulling the sixareen through the water, the strains of a fiddle playing somewhere, together with sea birds and Shetland voices reading archive texts fill the room at times.

A variety of cameras was used to produce the work, transferred to HD video. There is a range of moving image material, which together with the archive photos and documents within the work purposefully gives a multiplicity of material images to read. The 16mm film, the video and black and white images of the 19th century and so on, all have their own material qualities, which in juxtaposition can contest each other as to the authority of each image.

Sound was recorded separately, and mainly on the Stenness site by artist Rob Gawthrop. People were asked to read archive texts on the beach as a way of returning to and connecting with the past activities in that place. In one book a description was found of a bell, rung to mark commencement and cessation of work on the beach, so one was borrowed from the museum and used to make recordings on the beach, and similarly the ludder horn – used to warn boats in fog. Recordings were also made of and from the sixareen boat taken out in the harbour in Lerwick.

Documentation in cases showed copies of 19thC photographs and facsimile documents from the Shetland Museum & Archives. The original Day Book was borrowed from Tangwick Haa Museum Collection.

For more about the production of the installation see here.


Dates for Irvine postponed

Our exhibition of Confusing Shadow with Substance has been postponed once more due to the pandemic restrictions. We have a new date, but it is a long wait – January 2022! We are hopeful that the rest of the tour will continue as planned from next June. More updates will follow.