Robbie Synge’s vision: Art, community, and landscape restoration in the Cairngorms

Posted: 28th March 2024

Image: Robbie Synge

Artist and choreographer Robbie Synge is based in Nethy Bridge, a village situated in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland. Working as part of a collective with visual artists/writers Amanda Thomson and Elizabeth Reeder for the ELSP artist residency with Cairngorms Connect, they have developed a range of activities, events and exhibitions to inspire and encourage new ways of connecting communities with nature, in parallel with landscape wellbeing.

“If you were me (a deer), which species would you prefer ate you: wolf, lynx or human?” – Mara (10), Abernethy Primary School workshop. Credit: Robbie Synge.

Whilst being independent makers with three distinct practices, their interests and artforms overlap in their responses to Cairngorms Connect’s 200-year vision which aims to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park. The ambitious scope of the plan includes restoring native woodlands to their natural limits whilst also restoring the peatlands, wetlands and rivers of the Partnership Area as well as building support locally, nationally and internationally.

The residency has involved working with local communities and conservationists to explore people’s relationship with landscape in the Cairngorms, Scotland. The focus has been engaging people in the process, on exploring different methods of engagement, of gathering, learning about place, and asking questions around sharing landscape.


Abernathy Primary School. Credit: Robbie Synge.

For Synge, this residency has brought his attention to socio-ecological concerns, investigating the boundaries of human and other bodies and the potential of interactions through creative processes and performance. As well as providing an opportunity to work with Cairngorms Connect partner staff of different specialisms through field-work and conversation, and points of engagement with local individuals and groups of different ages, sometimes with quite non-normative embodied relationship with landscapes, the residency has also been really important to help sustain his artistic practice in this rural area.

Synge originally studied physiology before pursuing dance training. His creative practice is rooted in somatic interests, natural systems and wellbeing. This sometimes involves creating dances and performances but tends to prioritise processes that involve tactile interactions with people, other bodies and materials, its participatory nature often playfully asking who is or can be involved and how.

Broadly, Synge’s work in the Cairngorms Connect context considers what the underpinning rationale of land restoration might be: that lasting historic harm has been done to complex ecological systems and that thoughtful interventions are required to ensure a more positive future for us all. Similarly, we can view human health and wellbeing – as individuals, groups, communities, etc – as being a complex state that we can give attention to and which is in fact deeply intertwined with natural environments historically and currently.

Entwining these parallels, Synge believes the broad and often-uttered principle of ‘connecting with nature’ is perhaps an attempt to create deeper human-land relationships and to bring humans and other species into a shared place of care and wellbeing. Synge attempts to interrogate the creative possibilities and forms of what this connection involves, how close it is and what it looks or feels like. His discoveries seem to open exciting pathways for artistic practice and collaboration and public engagement in land restoration contexts.

During the project, various outcomes across artforms of image-making, film, writing and performance have arisen out of different points of engagement with people, place and the ‘more than human’.


Moth Overnight. Credit: Robbie Synge.

Early in the residency, the artist joined an overnight camping trip to shadow a moth survey with Cairngorms Connect Monitoring Officer Ellie Dimambro-Denson. This fieldwork offered learning and insight into specific fieldwork practice around moths and their importance as indicator species in broader habitat monitoring. It was an immensely memorable event:

“My feeling is that there are potential for arts and artists to frame much of what is already going on and the wonder of the different species and activities that happen here. It was an incredible experience camping out overnight with Ellie on a moth survey. I was left with a sense of a ceilidh. These beautifully diverse and fascinating species, gathering around this immense theatrical space, the spectacle and atmosphere of it was very magical. I wonder what a quiet ceilidh around such an event could be, could it happen, should it happen? Are there different ways of hosting live experiences and participation with communities, local people, visitors? It just seems there are so many possibilities that have emerged from the residency, and that’s exciting.”– Robbie Synge

Ellie talked about her previous dance practice and began to move herself, content for these movements also to be captured.

“It was wonderfully freeing and was a joy to connect the more formulaic methods and rhythms of scientific study with something so free, feeling the movements and these species through a different lens, open to possibility.” Ellie Dimambro-Denson

With a fundamental interest in movement, observing the motion within landscape whether explicit or more discrete is an immediate point of interest. The conservation worker’s infrared motion-activated camera trap became a tool to work with to reveal the movements of the place. In Still, Standing, a vision of the forest’s complexity is brought about almost accidentally following the pursuit of badger footprints in the snow hoping to discover the range and physical habits of one elusive species and to feel proximity and a sense of its rhythms. A camera trap was adopted to verify these rhythms, the camera’s orientation to a tree becomes an important landmark, a shared waypoint. Its fixedness within the rhythms of others’ movements suggests it offers comfort in some sense. It is paused by, circled around, passed through, hidden behind, rubbed across, bumped into, held onto.

What is most interesting is what is not moving, nor alive. But still and dead. An essential part of the forest ecology, the standing deadwood pine is host and witness to a multiplicity of interactions. All in the same place pursuing their intersecting rhythms. The video reflects quite randomly selected and tiny moments around the final stages of this vertically-oriented life, literally around, within, through, over, under this tree… Its editing choices are being made by deer, badgers, pine marten, hares, moths and others. Perhaps they are co-creators.

Setting this camera by this tree for me has become another personal project, and a ritual that works around family life, wonderfully accessible to me. I feed the camera with batteries and the camera nourishes me with its footage. It offers a different kind of proximity to place and other species, still physical yet also extended digitally. It has helped me reflect on the movements of the place and question whether if this framing or presentation makes it art, and I question the intimacy of it and the consent of these creatures. I realise that the community I’m interested in isn’t always human. I wonder about the narratives that emerge, and are constructed through this kind of digital foraging and manipulation, and centuries past myths and stories of other species would have been spoken between people or perhaps articulated in other art forms. I wonder about the invention of myths and stories now, where the imagination is, and what that has to offer to the science and ecology driven use of land.” – Robbie Synge

Last summer Synge co-delivered Nature Creatives, an intensive three-day creative workshop with local primary school children at Nethy Bridge Community Centre and in nearby community woodland. These sessions supported young people through a fun and playful creative process, encouraging expression and exploration around our relationship with natural spaces. Together they considered how they and other species move and encounter the world, drawing on natural history descriptions and images and engaging the senses to create movement sequences and find different ways to make sounds and play with words.

Nature Creatives. Photo: Tamin Jones.

Following this, Synge created a short film All of Us with the collaboration of five primary school children through their participation in ‘Nature Creatives’. Working from a starting point of the perspectives of the non-human inhabitants of local woodland, they observed and discussed the living creatures of the place in parallel to experiments in dance and embodiment. Identifying several locally observed bird species whose names happened to describe their respective movement habits – woodpecker, dipper, treecreeper – they questioned their experience, sensation and concerns and researched language used and attributes associated with them in literature. Movement workshopping and the groups’ ideas around film techniques and plumage (borrowed costume) were brought together and developed material which was filmed.

This was a creative exploration of multi-species embodiment that sought to playfully gain some understanding of these beautiful species’ relationship to place and to generate work that they could share with each other and others in our communities.

Synges’ work explores the embodied nature of the place and its inhabitants – people and non-humans – and the nature of their entanglement. The work also considers the wellbeing of human inhabitants as integrated with habitat restoration, given historic habitat damage and contemporary socio-ecological intervention potentials. Access to the landscape, and how we move through it was creatively explored with his long-term collaborator Julie Cleves during his residency, raising questions around movement and actions, and the importance of different perspectives.

Robbie Synge & Julie Cleves. Credit: Scott Green.

Sometimes it’s simply about who is able to be in a place. With Julie [Cleves] for example we explore sharing time and space together. Something that’s very important with engaging communities in this sector particularly we need to work harder at different human perspectives, literally and figuratively, in natural environments and in conservation where broad representation is not well reflected in staff and management approaches. Julie can’t use expensive adaptive chairs, so we tend to use simple devices to access places and terrains, sometimes used to cross barriers like these drainage ditches, for example. It’s something we perform for ourselves, and others to witness if they happen to be there. It’s sometimes a gentle indication of infrastructure lacking but also about solutions that might be cooperative and embodied.

We developed and presented a performance work called ‘To Earth’ during this residency period, in gallery spaces at Nottingham Contemporary and BALTIC Gateshead. We hope to present it in a land restoration context in the future.– Robbie Synge

To Earth is a collaboration that invites the audience to join them as they weave together physical actions, film and simply fabricated wooden objects to reveal a personal story and offer a framework for broader conversation. Held as a gathering for a small audience, Cleves and Synge performed a journey at a pace determined by the biomechanics of two very different bodies, embodying cooperation to and from the earth. Credit: David Wilson Clarke.

Through sensory investigations into some of the wonderful and diverse movements, sounds and textures of where they live, Synge encourages participants to take time to wonder about the environment around them. This approach raises awareness of the complexity of current challenges, locally and globally, for landscape restoration, and the need to draw together inter-disciplinary approaches to begin to adequately and build care and attention to place.

His work explores the potential of the imagination – in addition to or in partnership with scientific and conservation knowledge – in helping to engage people more broadly and to help suggest new imaginaries we require for a sustainable future. It shows that through different forms of participation and artistic output, we can create exciting possibilities for new modes of collaborative engagement with place.

ALL OF US Postcard. This project was a collaboration with an Abernethy Primary School class and one outcome from a course of weekly sessions over a three month period. Children worked with Synge to track the movements of roe deer in woodland near the school, using a camera trap to capture still images before considering how they might stage a fictitious meeting or a ‘compression of time’. The image was then used to frame a simple but challenging question. A postcard was printed and used as an experiment in intergenerational consultation at a community event with Cairngorms Connect. Credit: Robbie Synge.

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