GROTTO: mock rock.
Remoteness, wildness, and the disequilibrium or dispossession of indigenous cultures left the Scottish Highlands vulnerable to periodic crazes. These revolved through the kaleidescope of human passions – witch-hunts, evangelical revivals, Jacobite sentimentalism, hunting and stalking – and, in the modern era, the trend for hiking, climbing and bothyism, now being creatively restyled as The New Walking and Hutopianism.
The craziest of these historical crazes was Ossianomania, inspiring, in turn, the theatrical landscapes of the folly and ‘wild garden’ movement, which swept through Scotland in the late 1760s.
In this introductory post I will introduce our third tour – following on from the road north (2010-11) and Out of Books (2013-16) – which begins this Summer, and which will survey the residuum of Romantic Highland prospects, hermitage viewing houses, and ‘improved’ views.
The purpose of our tours is always to survey the coming and encourage the possible. Working with a collaborative team of artists, poets, and landscape historians, we will translate these charming and eccentric sites and atmospheric effects into place-aware walks and future-looking proposals.
HERMIT: one who acts apart, often dressed in goatskins, beards, etc.
HERMITAGE: a small old-style edifice with which to view the distant future.
The Scottish Antiquarians combined scholarly empiricism and the romanticism of the Scottish Primitivists, whose idealization of the ancients inspired the dukes and lairds to employ pantomime hermits dressed-up in goatskin, hallooing visitors from octagonal caves lined with wooden books, animal skins, and decorated with imitation fruit. The visionary blog-posts, dowsing, and binaural recording equipment of the modern antiquarian have nothing on the 18th century. Nowadays the landscape theatre has been taken over by costumed artists leading parades, improvisatory performances by cup-and-ring marked rocks, non-lexical songs honouring matriarchal Mesolithic cave-shrines, and slow marathons – the work of peers and friends, which we will share along the way.
The constrained sightlines of rustic fog houses and arched bridges designed for viewing waterfalls at Glen Tilt, Acharn, and Bruar, were the precursors of James Turrell’s sky-space at Craiganvenie, Nancy Holt’s ‘Locators’, and the picture windows of Outlandia and Sweeney’s Bothy. It is time to re-assess this tradition. Re-categorizing the sky-space, the greatest privately commissioned – and publically accessible, if you happen to know where it is and happen to slip off the right of way near Fuaran Ghille-Bhride – artwork in the British Isles as a folly is intended as praise. It is a reminder us that these cryptic buildings and structures are being made over again in our time.
Setting aside pastiche and imitation, the majority of Highland follies were historically inflected devices for looking towards and viewing out of, and these techniques have been worked over since Land Art came to the fore. The articulation of the view and the viewer is a relief from the public sculpture, with its marble or bronze parachute and see-me plinth.
VIEW (1): the bounds of sight.
LANDSCAPE: a theatre in which paths are time, objects are narrative, and trees are screens.
A side path will lead us a wee way from the definition of a folly as a building whose use is concealed to an exemplary contemporary project, The Maggie’s Centres, whose combination of patient-centred care and innovative architecture is intended to share well-being, calm, and reflection. Life is not only rational purpose and mercantile will. The imagination plays its part in healing and change. Our journey will begin in Perth, looking in at the picture window that William Soutar’s father made for his bed-bound son to look out of.
ANCESTOR: those dwelling below us who are placed above us (after David Hume).
PICTURESQUE: a way of seeing the face of the landscape projected on to a screen.
The Sublime and The Picturesque are to compare to contemporary eco-poetics. Burke and Blair’s thrilling transgressions of reason can be considered along with today’s scenic webcams and camera obscura. Outdoor architectures and heightened realities can be balanced on the see-saw of place awareness – for instance, through the rigorous study of ‘eroded Gaelic’, Pictish and Scots place-names and their meanings, or considering Gaelic colour perception. There are many ways to see the landscape anew: we are turning towards them again, just as the Dukes of Atholl, Breadalbane, and Airthrey did in their time.
Rushing, roaring, spating, surging cataracts: The Waterfall was the most celebrated representative elements of The Sublime in the Perthshire tour. The ingenious engineering of The Hermitage (Ossian’s Hall), complete with a spring-loaded painting and hydraulically retractable window, fronted a waterfall. These engineered experiences of water are precursors to the tunnels, and turbines of the dam makers. Tom Johnston’s heroic socialist project of the 1950s electrified The Highlands and it produced some of the finest Sublime architecture and Picturesque landscape design of the modern era. We will have the chance to return to the ’water garden of Dalchonzie’s mill-race, our Perthshire Giverny, working with Gill Russell to map the watershed, and to find the energy concealed in local river names.
MARGINAL GARDEN: part of the wilds set aside from the wilderness by being made up and kept up.
MARGINAL GARDENER: person who is better integrated into the wilderness by dint of their gardening.
Along the way we will consider the cherry of marginal gardens, GF Dutton’s masterpiece, near Bridge of Cally. This we hope to document photographically before it is lost. Dutton’s vision lives on in two books on gardening, in which he suggests that people like him – arguably they are in short supply – should take over the smallholdings abandoned in the latest wave of agricultural improvements, and combine the pleasure of marginal gardening with ecological management. More than any other figure, Dutton passes the baton of the ‘wild garden’ from the laird to the middle class. Caring for, and improving, a few acres can, according to his methods, be combined with a fulltime job – he was a professor of biochemistry. In the future he sketches an infinite series of ecologically rich gardens that could be created across the Highlands, each one barely differentiated from the surrounding landscape, except by virtue of its richer biodiversity and variety of trees.
Whether in wild gardens or poetry we can consider – in the Scottish manner of puzzling and worrying, – the pathways that meander between ornament and utility. Dutton’s achievement recalls the vision of the 18th century garden theorist Sir John Dalrymple: both propose Scottish solutions for Scottish problems; Highland designs for Highland situations. And, although neither gardener’s dream has been replicated in the way they hoped, they can still claim the virtue Ezra Pound awarded to Gawain Douglas – a poet we will visit at Dunkeld – whose translation of The Aeneid ‘is better than the original.’ That summarizes the argument for the wild garden as an improvement on nature, but we have to decide, if we mean that it is better aesthetically, or ecologically. Are we of the party of The John Muir Trust or do we hold to the art of gardening? Can they be blended, or each matched to their fitting situation? The question we ask today is whether they can they be combined; whether our parks can become more than boxes of flower sweeties and lawns; whether our community woodlands can replace industrial forestry.
FOG HOUSE: an octagonal hut with heather-thatch that gathers moss (Sc. fog), designed for thinking into and looking out of.
FOLKLORE: a supernatural glow that diminishes from generation to generation.
Poking our noses into hermitages and fog houses, we will also take time away from the grand estates and climb up to hillside shieling. It is time to reintegrate the tradition of transhumance and the folklore of The Summertowns into the account of wild landscapes, bringing together the different layers of Highland society, which JF Campbell thought as complex and barometrically distinct as any weather system. These separate and distinct ways of perceiving the world need no longer be held apart, any more than regimented forestry plantations and the saplings of community woodland need to divide the glens. All the social orders have some mental image of the landscape that speaks to the latent possibilities of the Highland situation.
ECOSYSTEM: a collection of names, insects, and worms.
FAIRY: not the were but the what? ('That fairies were, was not disputed, / But what they were was greatly doubted', James Hogg).
A wider subject to untangle is the upsurge in Neo-Primitivism, dùn surveying, New Walking, wild swimming, innovative mapping, foraging, and hutting in contemporary Scottish culture. Why have the Highlands become the site of choice, and the field trip the favoured practice, for so many artists and poets. The parallels with the 18th century are self-evident, but there are few discussions of the ways that this passion for the ruins of the past has become ‘The Womb of Futurity’? What was John Latham if not a modern antiquarian when he declared an array of shale bings, a goddess. This he did by naming alone.
IMAGINATION: the power of forming ideal landscapes (after Dr Johnson).
TOUR: a journey accompanied by a surfeit of books.
On our tour up and down the Tay, Earn, and Tummel we will also visit some of the many supposed sites for The Battle of Mons Graupius, which recalls a time when the ‘Grampians’ stretched down as far as the Appin of Dull and River Tay. Narratives of power will take us to the landscape garden of the despot Dundas, and a Nazi POW camp that has been converted into allotments. We will also consider narratives of mythography: in Sma’ Glen we will search for the ‘true’ grave of ‘Ossian’ following the theories of our friend Professor Murdo Macdonald. In Glenshee and Hermitage Wood we will survey pre- and post-Macpherson Fianscapes, guided by the expert on Perthshire landscape gardens, Christopher Dingwall. And we will mount a contouring walk, with Alison Lloyd, on the peak where the contour was devised.
Sma’ Glen: drawing by Skene, 1834
OSSIAN: sublime or awful poet who never relaxes.
OSSIANIC: fix of astonishment and surfeit of exclamation marks.
The Perthshire Tour will include a series of guided walks, talks, shared writings and performances between September 2016 and April 2017 – details to follow. If all goes well it culminate in a series of proposals for possible – and impossible – structures, plantings, and events which will be made for and with some of the communities and organizations that are renewing the Highlands today, from community woodlands to humans performing as wolves. These would happen in Summer 2017 and onwards.
MacDiarmid quotes Voltaire, wonderfully, in his essay on Ossian, saying that if Macpherson’s ‘translations’ had not existed then they would have had to be invented – and invented they were. Christopher Dingwall asks of numinous sites – ‘‘Clach Ossian’ (‘Ossian’s Grave’) in the Sma Glen, ‘Vanora’s (Guinevere’s) Stone’ in Meigle, ‘Macbeth’s Stone’ at Belmont nearby, the Birnam Oak, remnant of Shakespeare’s Birnam Wood, or of the so-called ‘Druid’s Temple’ – a genuine prehistoric stone circle – at Croftmoraig, where Robert Burns halted for a time during his Highland Tour in 1787 and ‘said prayers’ – to what extent can real places or objects which become invested with mistaken or erroneous interpretations of their significance or meaning still be considered ‘follies’?’ The answer is, when we allow them to.
Alec Finlay, June 2016
the old tour
‘A poet can create ideal scenery with a few essential details. He seldom cares to do more.’
– Gilbert Highet, Poets in a Landscape
Our tour picks up some of the paths the road north introduced, and we thought to publish this offcut from the original book, where we reflected on a patchwork tradition of vision.
every era of eyes
granting the volcanic
tumult of mountains
the richly accented
outline of tradition
flows like a river –
its carrying stream
shaping the stone form
in the covered well
in the hushing burn
the vision flows on
through Druidic groves
and the tenebrous
lantern of the church
to the beal of today’s
mountainside frottage cottage
lay temples that raise
our eyes to Gaia’s skies
beal (Scots), estuary; temenos, James Turrell’s sky-space, Craiganvenie; frottage cottage, Outlandia; platform, The Woodland Platform, the hidden gardens; roofless shelter, An Turas, Tiree
Details of the program of events will be realised later this Summer.
Alec Finlay, lead artist
Professor Nigel Leask
Professor Murdo Macdonald
Commissioned by Perth & Kinross Council, with additional support from National Trust Scotland.
banner image: The Hermitage, Dunkeld (chromolithograph), published by T. Nelson & Sons in ‘Souvenir of Scotland’, 1889