Five Essays into Highland Space Murdo Macdonald
1. A Day Going North. From Loch Maddy I travelled north. On the way to the ferry I stopped off to see Takaya Fujii from Kyoto, who was one of a group of artists staying in a large white house at Newton, near the Berneray causeway. I think it was in this house that John MacDonald lived. He farmed half of Berneray while the rest was crofting land and he gave evidence to the Napier Commission in 1883. Takaya’s influence was evident in ikebana throughout the main rooms. In due course emails came from Japan, full of images of Hebridean moor and shoreline. This Japanese link was the stronger for me because the day before at Taigh Chearsabhagh I had talked about Neil Gunn’s essay, Highland Space, in which he explores the work of Sesshu. In the 15th century Sesshu was a pioneer both of a new style in painting and in Zen garden design. There is an image, which I value, of my hand holding a photograph of the standing stones of Calanais in a garden that Sesshu designed. It makes a point about an art of placing stones that has endured over millennia throughout the world.
I had previously visited the south coast of Harris only in dreary weather but this time – as the ferryman who checked my ticket noted – it was a grand day. Strong sunshine and enough breeze for the light to break off the dark blue water. As the ferry followed a curving path to avoid skerries and sandbanks, Rodel Church could be seen bright against the flank of Roinebhal. At Taigh Chearsabhagh I had spoken about how so many of us cross the tideline of islands on the ramp of the ferry. Islanders everywhere understand the lifeline necessity and social intimacy of the ferry: few others have a clue about them. I had gone on to suggest that ferry windows always seem to frame something significant.
I had shown one of those ferry window views, looking south down the sound of Iona on a choppy day, because that image sums up for me the proximity and distance of islands. The sea – there as anywhere – is an element of easy communication and absolute danger. It was important for me to travel from Berneray to Leverburgh because it added a sea link between two places to which I had previously only travelled separately. It brought the islands into their proper psychological relationship. As we approached Harris, gannets distracted me. The Gaelic ‘sulaire’ seems to reflect better the elegance of this bird as a distance flyer and a headlong diver.
My purpose that day was to visit Rodel church. Within it are fine sculptures of the West Highland School. Outside are equally interesting carvings, including a remarkable Sheela na Gig. This sculpted goddess opens her legs in sexual welcome to the sun in the south.The whole effect is emphasised by awall that stretches in towards her from beyond the churchyard. The boulders that comprise this wall have more in common with a line of standing stones than a drystane dike.Inside the church is the tomb of Alasdair Crotach Macleod, who lived from 1455 to 1547. The tomb includes a finely carved relief of a birlinn or Highland galley. It occurred to me later that the Hebridean artist who carved this had lived in the same century as Sesshu, but where Sesshu put Japanese art on a new footing with his expressionist use of ink, the artist at Rodel was part of a long tradition about to be cut short by the Reformation. Along with the Sheela na Gig it was that sculpture that I had come to photograph – but the image that was presented to me in the interior was of sunlight flooding into the south transept. I did not realise its significance until some weeks later. Then, in Edinburgh, I came across James Carmichael Watson’s Gaelic Songs of Mary Macleod / Orain agus Luinneagan Gaidhlig le Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh. Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh lived from about 1615 to about 1707, and on reading Watson’s account of her life I realised that the sun had illuminated her place of burial.
I knew Màiri’s work already but I didn’t know that I knew it. The line I knew was ‘Ri fuaim a taibh’ translated as ‘At the ocean’s sound’ and my first contact with those words had been through contemporary art, for this was Elizabeth Ogilvie’s choice of words for her collaboration with Donald Addison in 2002 to illuminate poetry in Gaelic for An Leabhar Mòr. I had always liked the work they came up with, echoing as it did not only the wave patterns of water but the concentric rings of prehistoric rock carvings. I now found it the more interesting because Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh was sister of the factor of St Kilda in the 17th century and Elizabeth Ogilvie herself descends from the people of that now deserted island group. But I had not then read all the words or heard the song. It is a profound expression not – as one might expect – of the beauty of nature, but of the pain of exile expressed through a longing for the sound of the pipes to replace the sound of the ocean, a longing for the sound of society to replace the sound of isolation. This reflects Màiri’s own experience of exile from the Macleod court at Dunvegan. The reason for her exile is not clear. Perhaps she had praised the wrong people, perhaps she was too Gaelic during a period of Anglicisation. Both theories have been put forward, but either way her exile seems to have been in some sense political, and in that she joins a distinguished group of fellow poets, Ovid and Primo Levi among them, whose work has helped to put cultural flesh on the bones of the historian’s imagination. So between Sheela na Gig and Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, my visit to Rodel was overdetermined by notions that pertained to the ancestral, the bardic and the nature of the goddess. Overall I would describe this experience as being of the earth. Chthonic. The more so when I read that Màiri was buried with her face down at her own request. Why do we insist on turning our backs to the Earth in death?
It was no wonder then that as I walked back to my car a buzzard called out to me. Why should it not draw my attention to the fact that I had, unwittingly, just photographed the burial place of Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh? Màiri was remarkable not only for the quality of her work but for her role as a transitional figure between the old bardic period of the clans and modern Gaelic poetry. Rodel Church can be thought of as an echo in stone of this transition. Alasdair Crotach’s tomb is one of the final statements of the West Highland School of Sculpture.
A century after Alasdair’s death the young Màiri would have been well aware of those great carvings as she embarked on her life as a bard. These would not have seemed ancient to her because they were not. They reflected the clan culture of which she was an integral part. Furthermore this art would have been as contemporary to her as, for example, the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh would be to someone born in Glasgow in the 1970s. But by the time Màiri was buried in the south transept of Rodel Church it was 1707, the year of the Act of Union. Until I reflected on my visit, I had not thought of the West Highland School of Sculpture and the Act of Union in the same breath. Yet, courtesy of Màiri Nighean Alsdair Ruaidh, they became indissolubly linked. In 1609, a few years before Màiri’s birth, the first systematic attempt to undermine Gaelic culture had been made at the behest of King James VI, by then king of Great Britain, through an instrument of cultural destruction with the meek name of the Statutes of Iona.
400 years later the success of such pernicious cultural imperialism is all too evident in the decline of the Gaidhealtachd. By the time of Màiri’s death almost a century after the Statutes of Iona, the anti Gaelic dynamic of the British establishment was in full flow. Màiri would have been well aware of the killing under trust of the Macdonalds at Glencoe in 1692, all the more so because she was herself a Macdonald of Clanranald on her mother’s side. Màiri’s Clanranald connections bring to mind another work of the West Highland School of Sculpture, the Clanranald stone from Tobha Mòr (Howmore) in South Uist. This dates probably from the late 16th century when John of Moidart, the Clanranald chief who died in 1574, left funds to erect the now ruined chapel that it adorned. So here we have a work of West Highland sculpture which is even closer in time to Màiri’s lifetime than the work at Rodel. Although not as delicate in its carving as Alasdair Crotach’s tomb, the Clanranald stone is nevertheless of great interest. Like Alasdair Crotach’s tomb it shows a birlinn, but it also shows a simple wheel cross which echoes the form of the Celtic crosses of Iona and Islay in the 8th Century.
This ringed cross is grasped by a hand. In modern versions of Macdonald armorials the equivalent hand holds a cross crosslet, that is to say a Latin cross with its limbs crossed near to their ends. The Celtic ringed cross on the Clanranald stone suggests that the cross crosslet of today, at least as it applied to Macdonald imagery, may perhaps be a heraldic attempt to emulate an earlier Celtic form. There is another Clanranald stone of closely related design at Kilmory, Arisaig. Nearby, it is said that the greatest of all Gaelic poets, Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, is buried. On that stone also, the hand grasps a ringed cross.
It is curious to note the persistence of the circular in the early art and architecture of Scotland. Stone circles, cup marks and ring marks, cairns, wheel houses, brochs, and ringed crosses – both Ninianic and Columban. The Howmore Clanranald stone is now displayed at the museum at Kildonan. Some 10 miles south of that museum, at the southern tip of South Uist, is the island of Eriskay and in the burial ground there is a small grave-marker made of reinforced concrete that in its form closely resembles the cross on that Clanranald stone. So from 8th century Iona to South Uist and Arisaig in the 16th century to 20th century Eriskay, the form has endured. Perhaps its most moving manifestation is also the most recent. Concrete was no doubt the material of necessity rather than that of choice yet the result is worthy of any place of burial. Close by is a more elaborate ringed cross of granite based on the design of St Martin’s Cross in Iona. This marks the grave of Father Allan McDonald, the Eriskay priest whose efforts – before his untimely death in 1905 – did so much to preserve the riches of the Gaelic oral culture of the Western Isles. It is hard to overestimate the importance of such scholars. Not only has Gaelic culture never lost the vibrancy of its oral tradition, but because its literate classes had been directly attacked via, for example, the provisions of the Statutes of Iona, from the 17th century it became even more of an oral culture than it was already. For example, Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh could not write her songs; for them we depend on oral transmission eventually transcribed by scholars like Father Allan. It is hard for me to think of this aspect of Màiri without thinking of another of the great unlettered song makers of the time. In 1724, less than 20 years after Màiri’s death, Duncan Bàn McIntyre was born at Druim Liaghart above Allt Tolaghan, about a mile west of Loch Tulla on the lowest level of Rannoch Moor. He is often described as the Bard of Glen Orchy and he is routinely described as having been born in Glen Orchy. But the former description does not do justice to his range of influences in and around the Rannoch Moor area and the latter description is wrong. The remains of the house of his birth, childhood and youth – now marked by a simple memorial cairn with an inscription in Gaelic – can still be seen at Druim Liaghart. The house is close to the route which links across to Loch Etive via Glen Kinglass. It is also within half a mile or so of the then new military road to Glencoe, which now forms part of the West Highland Way. People sometimes wonder about Duncan Bàn’s love for Ben Dorain, the subject of his most famous song. By the standards of the Highlands it is not, to the driver on the A82, the most beautiful of mountains. What is forgotten is that when he refers to Ben Dorain, Duncan Bàn is referring to the mountain above which the sun rose to illuminate the place of his youth. To a poet what could be more magical than that ridge? Although it may have been denuded of much of the vegetation with which it was covered in Duncan’s Bàn’s time we can still begin to see Ben Dorain with Duncan Bàn’s eyes if we just remember where he spent his childhood.
When driving west from Edinburgh or Perth or Dundee to Skye, travelling across Rannoch Moor introduces you not just to the cultural presence of Duncan Bàn McIntyre but to the geographical presence of the great watershed at the heart of Scotland. The moor can be thought of as three major terraces of peat giving rise to three iconic rivers. First you find yourself looking across Loch Tulla to Druim Liaghart. This lowest terrace is the source of the river Orchy, which flows from Loch Tulla, via Loch Awe and the Pass of Brander, into Loch Etive near Taynuilt. For me this is Duncan Bàn’s terrace. As you go north and west you rise to the next terrace, which takes the waters of the river Bà from the heights of Black Mount. These flow into Loch Bà, and from there flow via Loch Laidon, Loch Rannoch and Loch Tummel to become the Tay. I think of this as the Joseph Beuys terrace of the moor, because of his performances there in the 1970s. With the guidance of Richard Demarco, Beuys helped to redefine the possibilities of contemporary art in Scotland.
The highest terrace of the moor declares itself as the source of the river Etive for at its heart is the aptly named Lochan Mathair Etive. Just east of there you can stand on a bank of peat and not be sure whether the pool of rainwater – or the spilt cup of tea – at you feet will end up flowing past Perth and Dundee into the North Sea or will flow past Lismore, Iona and Barra into the Atlantic. For me this is the terrace of Deirdre, for while the road heads on west to Lochaber and the isles via the now curiously Brigadooned bridges of Glencoe, the Etive flows southwest to the sea. Following the main road you become entwined with Jacobite history, but following the Etive you become entwined with the ancient legend of Deirdre and the sons of Uisneach. The presence of Deirdre in Glen Etive is a strange affair because it is so geographically specific. Normally legendary personages have a far more flexible mapping of their exploits onto the landscape. For example Ossian is buried in many places in Scotland and Ireland and no one mistakes him for a historical figure. Deirdre, by contrast, exists almost as a historical presence in Glen Etive. The tale of Deirdre came again to prominence at the end of the 19th century in both Scotland and Ireland. In Ireland through Lady Gregory, Yeats and Synge, in Scotland through Alexander Carmichael who collected both prose and ballad versions in the late 1860s. But Carmichael didn’t collect them in Glen Etive, he collected them in Barra. So while on the one hand Rannoch Moor has an inland centrality as a watershed it is nevertheless only a step away from the sea culture of the Hebrides. Were the songs of Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh among the songs of Duncan Bàn’s youth? Probably. He certainly knew the work of his very literate older contemporary Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, who complements Duncan Bàn’s Highland nature poetry with his descriptions of the sea, in particular in his epic of nature and culture, Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill. There is a connection of place between these two poets of very different background. The place is Dalness in the heart of Glen Etive, the site of ‘Grianan Dearshula’, ‘the sunny bower of Deirdre’ where Deirdre was said to have lived with Naois. For Alasdair’s wife was a Macdonald of Dalness and Duncan Bàn lived in Dalness for several years. As I left Màiri’s grave and drove north from Rodel I gave two young German women a lift to the nearest beach. They were, I think, about to engage in the traditional Hebridean activity of sunbathing in warm clothing. Off to the left, Taransay reminded me of stories of the conceptual art festival inspired by the island in the mid-1990s. As I continued, in front of me a standing stone stood out against the North Harris hills as a reminder of the continuity of habitation here since prehistory.
Later, having crossed into Lewis, I stopped to photograph an open concrete bus shelter constructed in quarters so that regardless of the direction or strength of wind and rain, shelter is possible. Such shelters are designs appropriate to place. Along with diamond format passing place signs on single track roads, they exemplify good road furnishing. They will not last forever, so photographing them has become a duty as well as a pleasure. As the diamond passing place signs are slowly replaced by square-set ones that are less fit for purpose, I photograph them more often, aware of their potential disappearance. A notable concentration of such signs remains in southern Skye. Beinn na Cailleach and Blaven will lack something when they are gone. Between Tarbert and Stornoway the road is no longer single track. Traces of the old road can, however, still be seen along the route. Just south of Balallan the old road forms a convenient parking place for visitors to one of the great Highland monuments, Will Maclean’s memorial to the Pairc deer raiders, constructed by the stonemason Jim Crawford. This monument marks an assertion of the rights of local people over absentee landlords. As I drove towards it, its circular form brought to mind another Highland monument: that in honour of Duncan Bàn McIntyre above Dalmally, overlooking the north end of Loch Awe, some 10 miles from his birthplace.
Where Will Maclean, working in the 1990s, found his formal precedent in the structure of the broch, the strongpoint of Iron Age Scotland, J. T. Rochead, the designer of Duncan Bàn’s monument in the 1858, also drew on prehistory but united it with classicism. Rochead’s design brings to mind both Stonehenge and Thomas Hamilton’s Greek Revival monuments to Robert Burns in Alloway and Edinburgh. Rochead would have been aware that Burns and Duncan Bàn were contemporaries so the allusion is no doubt deliberate. Other influences for Edinburgh-born Rochead would have included St Bernard’s Well, designed by Robert Burns’ close friend Alexander Nasmyth, and Robert Adam’s geometrically radical but rustically-finished monument to David Hume. Will Maclean’s design sits well in this tradition of monuments of circular plan. But rather than standing in for a person, Maclean’s monument is symbolic of a struggle caused by the grand disjunction between those who hunted deer but did not need to, and those who would have liked to hunt deer to sustain themselves and their families but were prevented from doing so. In 1887 this tension was sharply expressed when the men of Pairc put their own human rights before the legal rights of the estate owners and hunted the deer. It is that deer raid of November 1887 that is commemorated at Balallan.A few miles further on, at Leurbost, I was tempted to turn left and take the road which would lead me to Croir in Bernera so I could look across to where my forebear Iain Dòmhnullach a’ Chaolais is buried.
But there was no time on this occasion. What there was time for was raggedly humming to myself his boat song, Màiri Dhonn, which thanks to some study of Gaelic I was in a position to at least pronounce approximately, if not to sing properly. I was hoping, in Stornoway, to meet up with my friend the artist/poet/storyteller Ian Stephen. Ian is a skipper of An Sulaire, a Sgoth Niseach, or Ness Sgoth, and with him I was planning a project relating to that song. At Taigh Chearsabhagh I had been intrigued by Ian’s song-based installation, made with the Japanese artist Saki Satom, as part of the fabric of the new building.
Clinker built boats such as An Sulaire are a reminder that boats of similar construction have been the subject of island artists for well over five hundred years, as is very clear from the numerous Highland galleys shown in the carvings of the West Highland School of Sculpture, not least on the Clanranald stones and at Rodel. Thoughts of An Sulaire took me back not only to the gannets punctuating the crossing to Leverburgh but also to the remarkable film of the building of that boat – from selection of wood to sailing – by John Murdo Macleod and his apprentice Angus Smith. Another Stornoway registered boat was also in my mind as I drove north: Mùirneag, SY486, built at Buckie on the Moray Firth in 1903. Mùirneag was a ‘Zulu’, a design of sailing fishing boat well matched to the seas around Scotland. Primarily herring drifters, these boats combined the almost straight stem of the earlier east coast designed ‘Fifie’ with the cut away stern designed to cope with following seas, typical of the east coast Scaffie and west coast designs such as the Loch Fyne skiff and the Sgoth Niseach. This gave the Zulu remarkable handling properties. Mùirneag’s master, Sandy MacLeod, never converted her to steam and she was the last working sailing Zulu. As Derick Thomson implies in his poem Everlasting Sailing, she was a boat held in great affection.  But Thomson’s writes ‘and Mùirneag/the loved one awaiting’. As Thomson feels he needs to make clear in his translation ‘Mùirneag’ means ‘loved one’, but this doesn’t just refer to a boat, it refers to the hill in northern Lewis from which the fishing boat Mùirneag took her name. That is important to realise for in Duncan MacDonald’s Gaelic Idioms and Expressions one finds ‘Bha Mùirneag again air a cur fodha anns a’ chuan-mhór’ freely translated by MacDonald as ‘Mùirneag was lost to view behind the intervening deep sea horizon’ or ‘We were so far away from land that Mùirneag was lost to view.’ The translations are made for English speakers of circa 1932, but the sense is clear. When Mùirneag is lost to view you are on your own. Mùirneag is the home hill, out of sight perhaps but always in mind. Among other things I had mentioned at Taigh Chearsabhagh were the writings and drawings of George Macleod of Bernera (Seòras Chaluim Sheòras).
When Mùirneag was broken up at Balallan in 1947, Macleod had made detailed measurements that enabled him to make plans and a model of her. Several of his models, including his Mùirneag, are in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich in London. He also wrote a remarkable book, Muir is Tìr, a set of insights into the navigational techniques and Gaelic language of early 20th century Lewis fishermen.  When I first read it, it broadened my perception by drawing my memory to a related culture of mariners, that of Shetland, which I know through the work of the poet Robert Alan Jamieson. One of the Shetlandic sea-words to which Jamieson has drawn attention is shoormal, an evocation of ebb and flow both actual and linguistic. The word resonates with any threatened indigenous culture, Shetlandic, Gaelic, or otherwise, for it describes the area between high and low tide, but its alternative meaning is ‘a dilemma’. Jamieson’s poetry is thus something of a complement to the precise descriptions of Muir is Tìr, for both authors recognise that what has been important should not be forgotten and what is not forgotten can again be important. ‘Meid’ is another Shetlandic word used by Alan Jamieson. It means a landmark used by sailors to specify their position at sea. A meid is something you line up with another meid, and when the parallax closes them together you know where you are, as long as you are triangulated on another couple of such landmarks. This way you could, for example, locate the position of a fish-rich reef or a safe channel. Thus Mùirneag the hill would itself be used as a meid. As if to insist on the identity of maritime thinking between Gael and Shetlander there is a remarkable scroll of drawings by Seòras Chaluim Sheòras which illustrates just such techniques. It can be found in the archive of the community museum in Bernera.
I have, on occasion, lost myself in that small museum amongst the old compasses. There is a lot to be said for such small museums. They are often looked down upon from the perspective of the spectacular piles of imperial loot that constitute the collections of ‘great’ museums. But to my mind these small ones are often more interesting. Perhaps there is a case for even smaller ones. Imagine a beautifully designed building and imagine within it a single thing. I call this new kind of museum ‘the museum of the single thing’. Imagine one of these beautifully designed building at, for example, Ardroil in Lewis, and imagine within it a single thing: a chess piece that unites in its decoration Norse and Celtic design. Imagine such a building at Papil in Shetland, and within it a single thing: the Papil Stone carved by the Picts in a way that inspired Gaelic artists. Because each museum would be a small building, and because each would be well designed, there would be no major visual impact on the landscape unless that was part of the museum’s purpose. Each could be designed by an outstanding architect; for what good architect would not be interested in designing such a building? Such buildings would act as cultural magnets for locals and visitors alike. Each – wherever it was – would contain work able to retrieve or enhance something of immediate cultural importance to that place. Each would, through the quality of the work exhibited and its architecture, make a local, national and international statement. Seòras Chaluim Sheòras’s scroll could be a focus for just such a museum. Another, ‘single thing’ from the Bernera museum that has the power to give identity to such a building is a carved stone ball made about 5000 years ago. The geometrical precision of this object – about the size of a tennis ball but with hexahedral symmetry – is remarkable, seeming to echo the precision with which the stone circles were constructed.
Anywhere in the world you are close to prehistory, but often it has been pulverised into the concrete on which you are standing, so it is less than obvious. In the Western Isles it has a habit of presenting itself to you. Shifting sand reveals chess sets and coastal settlements. Peat is a source not only of fuel but of concealed standing stones and bronze age swords. Until the 1850s the standing stones of Calanais were half hidden by peat, and even today university archaeologists are still ‘discovering’ stone circles well known to locals. One of the great expressions of the emergence of prehistory from peat is George Harvey’s frontispiece for the second edition of Daniel Wilson’s Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland. It shows the stones at Calanais soon after the removal of the peat and is the first image of those stones that sees them as an artwork in the landscape rather than as artefacts of only antiquarian interest.
Just before reaching Stornoway, opposite the Halfway Garage, I stopped to explore the ruined stone circle of Druim Dhub, which is to be found on a small boggy rise just to the left of the road. It interested me because it seemed to relate to other circles such as Achmore that link across to Calanais on the west side of Lewis, but it had a different mountain reference. Because of its easterly position, and the good visibility I had that day, it seemed likely that the stones were intended to relate to Torridon on the mainland, as, perhaps, do those at Benside further north, linking the Western Isles into the great work of prehistoric land art that covers Scotland and beyond. It was evening when I arrived at Stornoway.
2. Glencoe An image can lead you to a place. That is not so surprising. An example is Keith Henderson’s image of a single standing stone of expressive shape with mountains behind it. For a long time this image had impressed me as an interpretation of the careful placing of a standing stone within the landscape. And yet, no doubt distracted by sites in Lewis and Orkney, it was many years before I even worked out where that standing stone was. Eventually I realised that I had passed it on many occasions and had I just looked in the right direction I would have seen it. From that time on I took the trouble to make sure I noticed it. So, on a February day in 2009 I found myself at the stone, looking back towards the bridge at Ballachulish and realising that the mountains in the background of Henderson’s image were those of Glencoe. That should not have surprised me but it did, perhaps because Glencoe has such a presence in images – geological on the one hand and Jacobite on the other – that I had not attended to its cultural significance in prehistory. Henderson had seen clearly that the stone relates to these hills, and standing there I saw also that it commands the junction of Loch Leven to the east and Loch Linnhie as it opens to the southwest. Such careful placing is characteristic of prehistoric work. The stone itself is unusual in that it is pierced by two small holes, which perhaps tell of observation of the skies in relation to hill profiles. Such pierced stones are rare. There would, of course, be fewer suitable stones of this type to erect in the first place, but in addition a pierced stone is inherently structurally weaker than a solid one, so it is likely that many pierced stones have been lost over the millennia. Glencoe is thus part of a work of prehistoric land art. That draws attention to the west end of the glen, the sea loch end, rather than to the east end, the Rannoch Moor end, which has been the subject of many images of the glen such as those of Horatio McCulloch or Thomas Moran. The west end of the glen does, however, also have a considerable presence in the history of art. For example Colin Hunter’s 1892 Burial of the Macdonalds, painted to mark the 300th anniversary of the massacre of Glen Coe. This shows Eilean Munde, the ancient burial place of Macdonalds, Stewarts and Camerons. This island is in Loch Leven opposite the western end of the glen.
It was there that in 1865 James Drummond began the research that led to his journeys in the western Highlands and the Inner Hebrides to record the 14th, 15th, and 16th century work of the West Highland School of Sculpture. His drawings were eventually published in lithographic form in 1881 as Sculptured Monuments in Iona and the West Highlands. This book did more than anything else to establish the significance for Scottish art of the West Highland School. In the same period that Drummond was carrying out his work, John Blake McDonald painted his Glencoe, 1692, an image of a woman lamenting over the body of her husband after the massacre. Like Keith Henderson a century later, James Drummond also drew Clach-a-charra at Onich. A remarkable image of it by Drummond can be found in the collection of the Royal Commission for Historical and Ancient Monuments in Scotland. So I now see Glencoe more clearly. When a place or thing has become a tourist icon it is hard to see it. This applies to Glencoe, the Mona Lisa, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, etc. The task – not least for the tourist – is to find some kind of reality under the barrage of postcards and preconceptions. When I next drove through Glencoe I was intending to ignore the glen itself and to focus on Eilean Munde, at least from the bank of Loch Leven, as a way of rethinking the glen from the perspectives of Colin Hunter and James Drummond. But on that February day the glen itself became the centre of my attention, and from its most stereotypical perspective. It was still February and the weather was overcast so I had the glen more or less to myself. I stopped twice, not far from where in the 1860s Horatio McCulloch had composed the great painting that is one of the highlights of Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow. Patches of mist flowing around the buttresses of Bidean nam Bian made every perspective Ossianic.
But what I found was not a bold romantic landscape but a little path of the dead. For my perspective on the glen was given sense by the cairn that marks the old coffin road across to Dalness in Glen Etive by way if Lairig Eilde. This cairn is now a carefully rebuilt and rounded structure, but no less interesting for the modern care shown in it. I think it must have been to this track that the widow of McIan of Glencoe fled, for she eventually came to Dalness. Her hands were wounded by the rings ripped from her fingers during that ethnic cleansing on a February day in 1692. The season is important to one’s understanding of place and I was there in the right month. A rivulet flowing down from the pass to Dalness gave me a rounded pebble of red granite that sits by me as I write. The lesson of the land to me that day was that I should pause on my way to the isle of the dead to understand the path of the dead; and in a small way, I began to. Later I found that an alternative term for these paths was not ‘rathad nam mairbh’ that is to say a ‘road of the dead’, but ‘slighe na firinn’, a path of truth, a way of truth. In Glencoe I had understood that I was on some such path, as are we all, for the path of death is indeed the path of truth.
3. Peat: Dwelly / Lewis / Rannoch Moor / Skye The spatial heart of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped is the great peat-bog of Rannoch Moor. It is here that Alan Breck and David Balfour fight out their own mini Culloden and collapse exhausted. Can one call peat the substance of the Scottish Gaidhealtachd? Dwelly notes, among much else: ‘Mòine, gen mòna [& mòine] s. f. ind. Moss, mossy place, morass, bog. 2. Peat, turf. Cruach mòna, a peat-stack; poll mòna, a peat moss; fòid mòna; a peat; ris a’ mhòine, making peats.’ And then he notes names of parts of a peat bank (bac-mòine, poll-mòna, poll-mòineach or poll-monach); ‘bàrr-fhad, top tier of sedgy marsh when cutting peat (barrfhad); broinn a’ phuill, front of peat-bank (iochdar a’ phuill); caoran (an), lowest tier in peat-bank; carcair, portion of peat-bank stripped of the top turf from end to end; ceann a’ phuill, upper end of bank; druim a’ phuill, back of peat bank; earball a’ phuill, lower end of bank; fàd a’ ghàraidh, second tier, if it is three deep. – prov. for fòd a’ ghàraidh; fàd a’ chaorain, or an caoran, lowest tier in a peat-bank; resg, riasg, or rùsg, top turf above moss, the sedgy marsh or moss, of which the peats are composed; rudhan (an), the small heap in which peats are built to dry, after being cut for a month, consisting of three peats and one on top; sgeir, a peat-bank with an adjoining piece of heath-land on which the cast peats are spread to dry;’ Dwelly continues: ‘When 12 peats are placed in a circle to dry, they are called teinnteanan; 12 placed crosswise are bocsaichean; peats placed diagonally (generally in long lines) are air a chois bhig ; set two and two diagonally in rows they are said to be dà fhòid air aon.’ Variants and words from other dictionaries include: tairsgeir, peat iron; fàd, single peat; poll-mònadh, peat bank; poll mònach, peat bog; cruach-mònadh, peat stack; mònadh, moor; mòinteach, moor, moorland; buain na mòna, cutting peat; blàr, moor.
I remember being given peat for heating. It was a gift, not just a supply a fuel, for by then peat cutting was much less common than it once had been. It was a gift not just of a source of warmth, but of a flame. There is something about the quality of the peat fire flame – at once singular and complex – that those who have not seen it think must be a romantic exaggeration. But it is no exageration, it is just the final aspect of the beauty of peat. The first aspect of that beauty is the moor itself. The second aspect is the tint of the water flowing from the moor, for the water that is filtered through peat is coloured by that peat. It maintains its clarity but that clarity is now the clarity of a tinted quartz like cairngorm or citrine. But when a lochan is formed and the sky reflects in it, the effect is often of an expanse of blue-black ink, a dubh loch, perhaps offset by the green of lily pads and the formal white of the water lilies themselves. And when such water flows into the sea at a fast enough rate, it transforms the shallows into every shade from reddish brown to the darkest indigo, shading up into aquamarine and turquoise.
The effect is magical and yet everyday. But that is what peat is: magical but everyday. The third aspect is the cutting of the peat in harmony with the landscape, in the sense of what is cut and how it is cut and the tools with which it is cut and the marks that are left. The midges, or mitches, as the companions of Prince Charlie called them, deserve a mention also. Edwin Morgan, noting the gender of the biting variety, calls them ‘the sisterhood’. The fourth aspect of the beauty of peat is the stacking of the drying peat and the multiplicity of styles of the peat stacks which result.
And then there is the fifth aspect, the peat fire flame. Peat can bring out the best in artists. Consider, for example, a series of works made in 1998 by Donald Urquhart in which he used peat as the starting point for a minimalism which interrogates the interface of realism and abstraction. Also of note is A-mach an gleann / A known wilderness, a booklet meditating on then threatened Lewis moorland by Jon Macleod and Anne Campbell. It records a project which dates from 2006. What is made clear is that this moorland is a place of cultural not just natural significance – a very obvious comment to the islander, but easily missed by the urban dweller. The peatland of Lewis is also the site of Kate Whiteford’s remarkable aerial film, made in 2007, A’ Mointeach / The Moor. In 2003 Matthew Dalziel and Louise Scullion made a series of images relating to the ecology of Rannoch Moor, and that place has had something of a defining quality for peatland artists since Joseph Beuys’ performances there in the 1970s in the company of Richard Demarco. Following on from Beuys, George Wyllie made cultural/ecological spires for moorland throughout Scotland and Ireland. I remember Norman Shaw telling me of how he found the remains of one of these spires in about 1990, on the north shore of Loch Sgaire, near the Bernera turnoff on the Uig road in Lewis. Shaw’s own work has explored peat. In 1995 he took part in the Calanais exhibition. His work evoked the peat as much as the stones. He writes of ‘deposition and denudation’ reminding us of peat as a material which has a history measurable within the timescale of our own monuments. Peat acts almost as an indicator for the greater extent of geological time. The stones of Calanais have become a focus for that understanding. They are themselves composed of one of this planet’s older rocks, Lewisian Gneiss.
They were erected about 5000 years ago, and they thus predate the peat of the moor around them. It was only possible to fully appreciate what remains of them when the peat around the stones, already partially cut for fuel, was fully cleared away in 1857 and 1858 to satisfy the antiquarian curiosity of the man who held title to the land, Sir James Matheson. That enabled the appreciation of this prehistoric stone sculpture for its aesthetic as well its antiquarian interest. The first work to take this aesthetic approach was George Harvey’s The Great Circle at Callernish, published in 1863. The level of the previous covering of peat can be seen clearly as a transition from lighter stone to darker. But this is an image of the consequences of a peat moor, not of a moor itself. For that one can turn to the great landscape painter of 19th century Europe, J. M. W. Turner. I do not know the exact location of the scene he portrays in his image entitled simply Peat Bog, Scotland. It dates from about 1808 but it brings Rannoch Moor and Joseph Beuys to mind. It can be found in the very personal set of prints which Turner entitled Liber Studiorum. An artist who admired Turner’s work, and had himself a keen eye for peat, was Horatio McCulloch. McCulloch painted during the period when the study of rocks in the Highlands was driving the development of geology as a discipline. It is, therefore, productive to consider him as one of the great painters of exposed rock surfaces. The fact that he shares his last name with a pioneer of Scottish geology (John Macculloch), who was also an accomplished artist, is a somewhat confusing bonus. In the Highlands such exposed rock usually rises from peaty moorland, and McCulloch gives this aspect its due in many of his paintings. A good example of this is The Cuillin from Ord, in which the Cuillin ridge is shown rising behind the intervening peat of the Strathaird peninsular. McCulloch’s wife, Marcella Maclennan, came from the area of Ord, and in the 1850s McCulloch painted a number of pictures looking from Sleat towards the Cuillin. Viewing The Cuillin from Ord today it is easy to think of it as illustrative of the Cuillin ridge as a mountaineering destination. It is therefore remarkable to reflect that at the time McCulloch was painting, most of it had not been climbed, or at least not recorded as climbed, and much of it hadn’t been named.
McCulloch’s view is of an intriguing place of rock and water and peat equally open both to the science of geology and the vision of the landscape artist. But what of the people of that place, the users of the peat? By the time McCulloch painted this evocative work, the peninsular in the foreground of his work, Suishnish, had just suffered major clearance of its people. Is McCulloch’s image then a just romantic landscape for a painter, but a cleared landscape for a people? I am not sure. There seems a lot more to it than that and it raises interesting questions. What did McCulloch know of these clearances through his wife? What did he think? Did it drive his later imaginary work, The Emigrants’ Dream of his Highland Home?
It is interesting to note how obviously populated that imaginary scene is. Certainly the ridge in that painting owes much to the Cuillin. The Cuillin that can then be seen, in Sorley Maclean’s phrase to rise ‘on the other side of sorrow’. Geology plays a direct part here also, for a well known account of this Suishnish clearance is to be found in Archibald Geikie’s Scottish Reminiscences. Geikie was the first holder of the Murchison chair of Geology at Edinburgh University. He spent considerable periods analysing and recording the geology of Skye, and it was during one of these field trips – probably in 1852 or 1853 – that he encountered a community being cleared from their land. It is a harrowing account which begins with Geikie recording how he could hear the wailing of the people before he could see them, and then: ‘On gaining the top of one of the hills on the south side of the valley, I could see a long and motley procession winding along the road that led north from Suishnish.’ He concludes with the words: ‘I have often wandered since then over the solitary ground of Suishnish. Not a soul is to be seen there now, but the greener patches of field and the crumbling walls mark where an active and happy community once lived.’
In 1860 Geikie found himself again in Skye engaged in supporting the influential but erroneous theory of his mentor Sir Roderick Murchison against the correct but then less influential theory of James Nicol. Nicol regarded the disjunction in rock that can be seen from Loch Eriboll on the north coast of the Scottish mainland to southern Skye, to be the result of tectonic shift, while Murchison, with the young Geikie in support, held that the different strata were the result of chronological deposition. In due course, thanks to the work of Peach and Horne eventually published in 1907, Nicol’s views were vindicated. Appropriately enough this discontinuity in the earth’s crust takes as its name the Gaelic word for peat: mòine, for this is the famous Moine Thrust ‘… one of the most remarkable tectonic features of the Caledonian mountain-chain.’ The name is taken from Moine House, a staging post in the moorland peninsular between Loch Eriboll and the Kyle of Tongue known as A’ Mhoine. The Moine Thrust stretches from Loch Eriboll on the north coast to the Sleat peninsular in Skye and beyond. At Ord in the 1854, as he worked on images of the Cuillin, Horatio McCulloch was standing on it, but it wouldn’t be named for another half century, indeed as McCulloch painted, the idea of this geological feature was still forming in James Nicol’s imagination. It is fitting to recognise in McCulloch, as in his close contemporary William Dyce, an artist whose work is resonant with the science of his day. Ellen Dissanayake has noted the role of the artist in making the important special. McCulloch certainly does this. Often what we glibly refer to as the romanticising of landscape, in fact refers to the artist making clear that landscape is special to us as human beings. But perhaps ‘romanticising’ is not such a bad description after all, for that means making special by indicating the possibilities of narrative. This is, of course, equally true of more recent work. For example Kate Whiteford’s moorland work finds its starting point in Murdo Macfarlane’s poem Chunnaic Mi Uam a’ Bheinn / I Saw at a Distance the Hill. In Whiteford’s film the peat landscape becomes a palimpsest of the continuities and changes of a culture, long abandoned peat cuttings and runrigs evident through shadows and tonal differences. The substance of the Gaidhealtachd? Perhaps. Substance: that which stands beneath. Understanding, so to speak.
4. Seeing Prehistory from Calanais George Harvey’s view of The Great Circle of Callernish is an image pivotal in our perception of these standing stones. It first appears as the frontispiece to volume one of the second edition of Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland. This book, itself a pivotal work, was written by Harvey’s friend, the artist and archaeologist Daniel Wilson; it was published – in its second edition – in 1863. The importance of Harvey’s image is that is it a response to the Calanais stones for their aesthetic properties, not for their antiquarian interest. Prior to this the interest in the Calanais stones had been primarily antiquarian.
For example, an image had accompanied the text of Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, published in 1703, but this, entitled ‘The Form of Ye Heathen Temple’, was both diagrammatic and inaccurate. It is, nevertheless, an interesting image, showing clearly the cross form of the distribution of stones. Martin calls them the stones of ‘Classerniss’ and notes the local tradition – which, as a Gaelic speaker, he was in a position to do – that they were a place of Druid worship. William Stukeley’s drawing, made in the 1720s and later engraved, is based on Martin’s image through an intermediate drawing by Edward Lhwyd. Stukeley uses the almost identical spelling ‘Classerness’.
His image is a more representational version of Martin’s diagram of the placing of the stones, with the title – in its published form – of ‘The Celtic Temple at Classerness in the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’. This differs from the wording in his Commonplace Book, which begins by echoing Martin’s ‘the form of the Heathen Temple …’, but ‘Heathen’ is crossed out and replaced by ‘Druid’. Thus by the time the engraving was published in Stukeley’s Itinerarium Curiosum published in 1776, ‘Druid’ had become ‘Celtic’.
In 1819, the pioneering geologist John Macculloch, accompanying his drawing of the site, reverted to ‘Druidical Temple in Lewis’. The description shifts slightly to ‘Druidical Circle Near Callernish’ in George Clayton Atkinson’s drawing of 1833. This terminology continues in James Kerr’s drawing, ‘Druidical Circle – Callernish – in the Island of Lewis’, which shows the site prior to the full removal of the peat, a process completed in 1858. Just as terminologies ebb and flow so, clearly, do spellings. My own use of the spelling ‘Calanais’ follows the use of that Gaelic spelling for the Calanais exhibition of contemporary art responses to the stones in 1995. This is also the spelling currently used by Historic Scotland, by the Ordnance Survey and on road signs. By the close of the nineteenth century ‘Callernish’ seems to have been the common spelling. In the second half of the twentieth century ‘Callanish’ was the common spelling. The pronunciation remains the same: the Gaelic ‘Calanais’ corresponds closely in sound to the English ‘Callanish’ or ‘Callernish’. The antiquarian tendency was, understandably enough, to make images with the primary purpose of providing information and/or bolstering theories rather than reflecting the stones as works of art. However, artists with antiquarian interests soon took note. Standing stones were used in the background of paintings to make a point about the antiquity of a scene as early as the early 1770s in the work of Alexander Runciman. This shows a scene from James Macpherson’s Ossian, in a mural scheme at Penicuik House. Runciman was himself one of earliest artists formally associated with the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and James Macpherson was an early honorary fellow. A notable later example of the use of standing stones to give context is William Hole’s mural in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, The Mission of St Columba to the Picts, painted in 1898. One can also mention John Duncan’s Anima Celtica from 1895 and his remarkable Head of Ossian, from around 1920.
In the 1940s William Crosbie made an image of a standing stone and the Cuillin ridge, one of his remarkable illustrations to Sorley Maclean’s Dain do Eìmhir, a book which firmly integrated Gaelic poetry into the history of modernism both in poetry and visual art. An interesting precursor of Crosbie’s treatment is R. R. McIan’s Logan, from his Clans of the Scottish Highlands, first published in 1845. Both McIan and Crosbie seem to be using standing stones as symbolic of the endurance of the Gaihealtachd. A later comparison is Will Maclean’s drawing from 1975, Symbol Stone. But George Harvey’s image from the 1860s does something different. His concern is not to imply the antiquity or the historical continuities of a scene but rather to consider standing stones in their own right. Thus Harvey opened the way for the appreciation of Calanais as a great work of art in the landscape, not simply as an intriguing artefact of the past. An important aspect of Harvey’s image is that it was published in a widely available book: another contribution from that point of view – although less responsive to the aesthetic of the stones – was John T. Reid’s image, Callanish Stones, Lewis, published in 1878. With respect to published images of standing stones elsewhere in Scotland in this period, it is worth noting Miss J. Knox Smith’s lithographs of the Benderloch area for the second edition of Loch Etive and the Sons of Uisneach, published in 1885.
At that time photographic images of Calanais were still primarily antiquarian in emphasis, for example those of George Washington Wilson and James Valentine. But the real turning point for the aesthetic consideration of Calanais came a century after Harvey’s image with the development of land art in the 1960s and the recognition that something like such land art had been the province of the prehistoric world. The classic account of this dialogue between contemporary art and prehistory is Lucy Lippard’s Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, published in 1983, which makes substantial reference to Calanais and other sites in Highland Scotland, such as the engraved rocks of Achnabreac. What becomes clear is that these prehistoric works are site specific in the most extensive possible sense and that what we are looking at here is land art just as much as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah and John Latham’s Niddrie Woman in West Lothian are land art. In 1975 Lippard wrote the introduction for Richard Demarco’s To Callanish from Hagar Qim, and Demarco’s ‘Edinburgh Arts’ journeys in the company of contemporary artists through Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe from Malta to Lewis, were early international attempts to recognise the lessons of prehistoric art for the art of the present. In his statement for his contribution to the Calanais exhibition, which documented his 1970s work, Demarco writes: ‘Calanais and Hagar Qim are two prehistoric lunar and solar observatories in the eyes of archaeologists and historians; in the eyes of artists they are large scale sculptural installations possessed of an aesthetic comparable to the work of late 20th Century land art artists, for example Robert Smithson and James Turrell.’
As a further aspect of this rethinking, I note The Unpainted Landscape, an exhibition and book from 1987, which included work by – among others – Ian HamiltonFinlay, Hamish Fulton, Chris Drury, Richard Long, Iain Patterson, Andy Goldsworthy and Herman de Vries. In the 1990s Christopher Tilley complemented such developments from the point of view of anthropology by calling attention to landscape in terms of pathways, places and monuments. In his book, A Phenomenology of Landscape, he provides a theoretical underpinning for such participative landscape art, without, so far as I know, having much awareness of it. This parallelism between art and anthropology is of interest. Just as do these artists, Tilley draws attention to the way the landscape itself, as a space at once inhabited, walked through, and visually appreciated, is important to people and how that importance is marked. Tilley shows us that the landscape view is always a pause on a path, and that path makes the landscape experienced as well as seen. A conventional pictorial approach can be seen as one of those pauses. Tilley thus provides an anthropological starting point for the consideration of the narratives of landscape painting as well as prehistoric landscape.
This is a useful challenge to the notion of landscape art as merely a reflection of the control afforded by methods of perspective on the one hand and capitalist land ownership on the other. Tilley notes that: ‘In movement on a path through the landscape something is continuously slipping away and something is constantly gained in a relational tactile world of impressions, signs, sights, smells and physical sensations. To understand a landscape truly it must be felt, but to convey some of this feeling to others it has to be talked about, recounted, or written and depicted. In the process of movement a landscape unfolds or unravels before an observer. Beyond one chain of hills another is revealed; the view from a locale makes sense of its positioning.’ So, for Tilley, specific views from specific places are important but equally an understanding of the landscape depends on movement through it. On reading the above passage what came to mind first was Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden, Little Sparta, on the edge of the Pentland Hills, south-west of Edinburgh. It is just such a structure of paths and places. But it is also a microcosm within which reference is made to the traditions of European landscape painting. What then came to my mind was another garden of paths and perspectives: that designed by the fifteenth century painter Sesshu, just outside Yamaguchi in Japan. When I first visited this garden in 1995 I felt its resonance with the careful selection and positioning of prehistoric standing stones.
On my next visit in 2004 I brought a photograph of Calanais with me to make a kind of visual resonance with Sesshu. This act was underpinned by my awareness that Sesshu’s paintings had been the subject of the essay ‘Highland Space’ by the writer Neil Gunn, and that one of Gunn’s favourite Scottish images was of a stone circle.  This was a drawing by his friend Keith Henderson and it is reproduced in Gunn’s essay collection, Highland Pack. Henderson’s stone circle image also appears in Scotland Before History in which he collaborated with the archaeologist Stuart Piggott. That book contains several other depictions of standing stones including those at Calanais. Henderson’s frontispiece for the book shows the pierced stone known as Clach-a-charra, at Onich near North Ballachulish. Much of the power of that image lies in the way it reflects the landscape presence of that stone. Neil Gunn never visited Japan, but he would have understood Sesshu’s garden. It is a structured landscape characterised by the careful placing of stones, just as is the case at Calanais or at Little Sparta. Each of these spaces is characterised by paths, perspectives and placed stones.
One is from our own time, one is over five hundred years old, and one is about five thousand years old. Yet each taps in to a human need for landscape as a space of narratives. The use of standing stones by Gaelic story tellers is indicative of this. Although their making predates the Gaidhealtachd by millennia, Ronald Black (Raghnall MacilleDhuibh) has noted that standing stones are frequently associated with Fionn’s warriors who ‘are always described as giants, and the existence of standing stones in the area was always a good excuse for telling stories about them.’ They thus exist at the heart of the Gaelic oral tradition as cues for stories; as Black points out, in Coll two standing stones are called Sgialaichean, that is to say ‘Tale-Tellers’. Paths and narratives are intimately related. Indeed, it is easy to envisage a prehistoric network, a pathwork, a landscape narrative of prehistoric sites. It is notable that prehistoric sites, not just standing stones but also carved rock surfaces and cairns, relate to one another through prominent landscape features. Rather than thinking of individual stone circles or cup and ring marked rocks, we have the opportunity to think about a prehistoric interlinking of phenomenological landscapes covering the Highlands. Perhaps Calanais has been thought about most from this point of view. The ‘sleeping beauty’ hill range (which links to the path of the moon) is obvious from a number of circles in the immediate Calanais complex and other related circles such as Achmore. Indeed from Achmore the sleeping beauty appears pregnant. Other related sites in Lewis include Drium Dubh, a circle on the east side of the island south of Stornoway. It has been suggested that these stones relate visually to the hills of Wester Ross on the Scottish mainland. The same can be said of the stones at Newmarket just north of Stornoway. As one would expect, there are standing stones in the immediate area of those mainland hills, for example at Beinn Ghobhlach near Little Loch Broom and at Clachtoll near Lochinver. The same is true of rock surfaces.
At Achnabreac above Lochgilphead the view is to the south. At both rock surfaces in this location, the summit ridge of Arran seems to be a key visual reference. By sloping markedly down from one’s feet the second surface in particular opens up the landscape for viewing. Not all rock surfaces have such southerly exposure, but an interesting further example is a few miles north of Achnabreac at Baluachraig. Again the rock projects from a southerly slope and here the visual reference is found in the serrated ridges of Knapdale. The diversity of the prehistoric traces in this area has often been remarked upon. It is worth pointing out that this diversity echoes the complexity of the landscape, in particular the perceived form of the ridges. This notion of prehistoric art as an echo or a homage to the landscape is, I think, a useful one. For example Orkney, with a landscape tending to minimalism, has a minimalist prehistoric art to match. Such landscape reference, which one might call equally landscape reverence, is cosmic reference too. The exact nature of such reference is a matter of debate, the fact that such reference is present, is not.
It is hard not to think about phases, or indeed eclipses, of the moon when one sees the crescent shadows in the cup marks on the major stone at Ballymeanoch near Kilmartin on the morning of a sunny day. While one cannot conclude that the moon was the reference, what one can be sure of is that the analogy was just as available to a prehistoric observer as it is to an observer today. One can illustrate extensive landscape involvement elsewhere in the Highlands also. For example, Clach-a-charra at Onich stands in relation to the hills of Glencoe, and it is this relationship that Keith Henderson shows in his image. Furthermore that stone is positioned at the angle where Loch Leven joins Loch Linnhie. It is thus at a key point for the perception of the landscape in particular with reference to the east-south-east (Glencoe) and the south west (Loch Linnhie). Further east, on the other side of Rannoch Moor, the Loch Tay area has an evident prehistoric landscape. Research reported in 2003 has revealed some 121 rocks carved with cup marks and cup and ring marks. This is a staggering increase of about 500 % on the previously recognised figure of 21. This vindicates W. A. Gillies’ comment in his classic 1938 book, In Famed Breadalbane, that ‘so numerous and wide-spread … are these cup-markings that one is almost certain to find some in every part of the district.’ The recent research suggests that there may be ‘over 200 stones yet to be found in this area.’ And that ‘to this perhaps should be added yet another 300, given the absence of any recorded stones in upper Glen Lyon and only the handful along the south side of Loch Tay.’ These figures give some idea of the wealth of prehistoric land art remaining to be discovered. Standing stones are another aspect of this extensive complex of land art. Close to the village of Lawers, mid way along the north bank of Loch Tay, is a stone circle. It is a typically modest mid-Perthshire product which links in style to two other circles, Croftmoraig and Kinnell, which mark the eastern and western approaches to the loch, respectively. The Lawers circle is placed with respect to Ben Lawers itself and echoes that mountain’s foothills in the form of its stones. Across the loch is Ardtalnaig, the end of the old route which links up with the river Almond and descends to Strathearn via the Sma’ Glen. This route has three other stone circles in it, the third, in the Sma’ Glen itself, with the stone known as Clach Ossian at its centre. On a ridge above Ardtalnaig, as seen from Lawers, is a large cairn. This is one of a number of such ridge cairns. Another dominates the south west end of the Sma’ Glen above Strathearn.
That cairn relates in a very precise way to a stone circle above Fowlis Wester, for it is occluded by the intervening ridge at the moment one arrives at the largest stone in that circle. Bearing in mind the density of such prehistoric land art in both Perthshire and Argyll, it is intriguing to speculate about what still lies beneath the peat of the great connecting terraces of Rannoch Moor. But standing stones also relate to mountains as focal points. To take a case study: those above Fowlis Wester relate strongly to the peak of Ben Vorlich, which is visually cradled by two other hills when seen from this perspective. Looking from the other side of Ben Vorlich, one finds it cresting a ridge from Balquhidder, another standing stone site, over twenty miles from Fowlis Wester. Another stone that relates to Vorlich can be found at the foot of Gleneagles, close to the A9. There are (or were), no doubt others. Smaller hills also act as focal points. Torlum near Crieff is notable from this point of view. This hill has the appearance from much of Strathearn of a mound a bit like a flatter version of Maes Howe or Silbury Hill, although, as one would expect of a natural feature, it is much larger. It can be seen clearly from the Fowlis Wester stones, but its more immediate links are to individual standing stones and stone circles that surround it. This includes the standing stones on Crieff golf course; the individual stone on the right hand of the road as one approaches Crieff on the main road from the south; those at Muirton near Tullibardine; a large complex of stones extending for over a mile, on the road from Braco to Comrie, visible on the skyline to the right as one approaches the crossing with the Glen Artney road; a single stone at Auchingarrich; and groups at Dalginross and at Tullybannocher, one either side of Comrie. Another prominent single stone is near Lawers (Strathearn, not Loch Tay) on the right hand side of the road as one drives towards Crieff. This list is not intended to be comprehensive but it gives an idea of the extent of this prehistoric composition. It draws attention to the role of landscape features not just as sighting points for celestial events but as integral parts of prehistoric land art. Furthermore the Torlum complex is part of a network of such compositions, which, as I have noted, involves Ben Vorlich on the one hand and stretches across to Ben Lawers on the other. From there one can feel it tugged like a mantle in all directions not just within Scotland, east to Aberdeenshire, Caithness and Orkney and west to Lewis, Mull and Arran, but to Cumbria, Wiltshire and Cornwall, and, of course, to Wales, Brittany and Ireland.
5. Finland / Mull / Lochaber I bumped my head on the lintel of Pekka Halonen’s sauna. Had Sibelius dented his head on that very lintel? Probably. I felt the connection. I think of Halonen even though he died long before I was born. I don’t think of myself as interested in his painting – but that’s the thing about art when it works: it completes the circle of being in the world. His studio is an intimate atrium, a room for those who draw away and within. His palette, his piano, his kantele, his easel. Ceramics on the ledge of the stove, a wooden bowl on his workbench.
Later I was in Tobermory, with, as Schinkel wrote in 1826, ‘Ossian’s Morvern in the distance’. Just four years after Schinkel’s visit to Scotland, in Finland Elias Lönnrot published Kalevala, the epic to which Halonen responded through painting his national landscape. The Mull weather was standard Hebridean with perhaps an extra layer of global warming. It was flipping from rain to sun with regular irregularity, but when it rained it was more torrential than I remembered it. I went to explore a path heading north along the coast. On the way down to it I passed an unusual and beautiful memorial to those who had died in the First World War. It has something in common in its design with the Celtic modernism of Alexander Carmichael’s gravestone in the graveyard on Lismore. The names were familiar enough. Macarthur, Macfarlane, Macintyre, Macdonald, Maclean. As I walked north the Clansman passed me, out of Oban and bound for – I think – Coll, Tiree and Barra. The ship with Loch Sunart in the background looked like an advert for Calmac. My path ended at a lighthouse. I stopped to look at it from a small memorial in the form of a tapered cube of granite topped by a geographical indicator. A monument without bombast serving a purpose for the passer-by. I sat for a while and then went on to the lighthouse, a neat little Stevenson tower built in 1857, now automatic and powered by solar panels.
Veils of rain began to obscure Morvern. As the first drops splashed into the sea beside me I scrambled to take shelter under the solar array, waiting out the downpour in relative comfort. The shower moved on towards Ardnamurchan and the Kilchoan-Tobermory ferry emerged from it as the only solid thing in a pale unity of flat calm and receding cloud. I began to walk back to Tobermory congratulating myself on having remained so dry. I was soon soaked by drenched foliage that bent across my path. In the evening I attended an opening of work by an artist – Mhairi Killin – sensitive to language as the warp and weft of place. It brought to mind other artists currently attempting to reclaim their Gaelic linguistic heritage. The next day I travelled across to Ossian’s Morvern, taking the short ferry trip from Fishnish. The old stronghold of the Lords of the Isles and then of the Macleans, Ardtornish Castle, showed to the right as the ferry came in to Lochaline, as beautiful a loch as its name suggests. I knew that close by there were West Highland sculptures dating from the 14th or 15th centuries, so on disembarking I turned left at a sign indicating the presence of a church dedicated to Colmcille and sure enough found the stones preserved in an outbuilding.
The cross outside I recognized from Andrew Gibb’s lithograph in the second volume of John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland; I had seen several of the grave slabs in James Drummond’s Sculptured Monuments of Iona and the West Highlands. Inside the church were two Celtic Revival plaques dating from the 1890s, dedicated to Macleod ministers of Morvern. The earliest, born in 1745, was the Norman Macleod who settled at Fiunary. That is to say Fionn-Airidh, ‘Fion’s shieling’, a name that reminds one of the Ossianic nature of the place. Driving across Morvern on a single track road, with the diamonds of the passing place signs drawing me on, Alexander Runciman’s image of Ossian superimposed itself on my vision, particularly as Ben Resipol came into view. It was a double exposure worthy of Powell and Pressburger. Later I was exploring my preferred map of the area, which comes from the remains of an old pocket atlas by Bartholomew dating from the 1940s. I like this set of maps, not only for its convenient size but for its fine engraving and its well-judged colour.
Each map both analyses the landscape and resonates with it. I also like these maps for their previous owner, who in the case of ‘Strontian’ – the place beneath Ben Resipol for which my road was headed – had corrected the spelling of the place name from the anglicized ‘str’ to the original Gaelic ‘sr’. The Gaelic sron, not the mapmaker’s stron. My finger traced my route, stopping on the old pencil marks with which that former user of the map had shifted the spelling back to Gaelic again. The landscape of our eyes is the landscape of a voice. I look forward to changing the name of the 38th element of the periodic table to ‘Srontium’: its abbreviation was clearly assigned by a scholar of Gaelic, for it is already ‘Sr’. I dreamt that night that I was a Gaelic bard and that all my works had been translated into Italian. Much to my surprise they matched – word for word – the poetry of Primo Levi. Surely that must constitute a proof of the Highland origin of all poetry? Later, I was passing through the garrison town of Fort William, and I stopped off at the West Highland Museum to explore the weaving and musical instruments that gave identity to the Highlands in the 18th century and before.
It is ironic that this culture is now defined as some sort of false consciousness invented by a man from the Borders, Sir Walter Scott, in the early 19th century. That curious view does no favour either to the Highlands or to Scott. It leaves Highland artefacts like tartan and the pipes to be considered as the stuff of stereotype rather than the stuff of culture. The effect on Scott is equally negative: it leaves him seen as no more than a maker of stereotypes rather than as a pioneer of the European historical novel. On that occasion I was in search of a road, although I didn’t know it at the time. That particular road led to Smirisary. I parked above the hall at Glenuig intending to have a cup of tea. But instead I took to the road. Along the way I indulged my passion for photographing passing-place signs, occasionally distracted by the view across the bright choppy sound to the free island of Eigg with the peaks of Rum behind it. Then, after a mile or two, the tarmac road ended, the tourist cars turned round, and I found myself on the old, stone-laid, way to the township.
There are some tracks that tell you where you are through your feet. This is one of them. Every stone told in its wear and its solidity of people who had passed this way. Not in a sacred sort of way, but just in a real way. Which is not to say that the wood of birch, oak, hazel and hawthorn through which the path dropped towards the crofting land did not abound in music, and the music came through myself.
These essays were first published in Nemeton, edited by Norman Shaw, in 2010.
For more on the project that gave rise to these essays see: