The Serpent River

The Serpent Flows,

Through Time and Stone,

Journey Onward, Return to Source.

I recently visited the Dunbeath Heritage Centre for the first time and was greatly impressed by the way in which art, archaeology and landscape have been blended.  A high standard of artistic works, which are particularly sensitive to the broader landscape and heritage, was on display.  Two contemporary sculptural stone pieces have been set into the floors and walls, complementing some of the artefacts on display. A contemplative shrine room has been created, with tiles by local potter Jenny Mackensie Ross, for a 7th century carved cross fragment: the Ballachly Stone.  There are two beautiful pieces of contemporary stained glass, and a powerful glass wall installation by Alexander Hamilton.  On the walls are black and white photographs of the wider landscape by Paul Basu.  The glass of the windows is etched with literary quotes, evoking the powerful landscapes of Caithness beyond.

Beyond the WindowsTo my surprise, however, I was most captivated by the floor.

Serpent RiverIt has been painted, by artist Tim Chalk, with the serpent river, as viewed from above by the buzzard,

Buzzards Viewand relates a range of places, which appear in the semi autobiographical novel Highland River by Neil Gunn, encountered by the main character Kenn when the Dunbeath Water is followed to it source.  The serpent head design is derived from an 8th century brooch found at Dunbeath in the 19th century.

So now I feel compelled to return to Dunbeath, explore the places alongside the serpent river, to journey to the source.

Way to the SourceBut I must confess, I am sorry to say, that I have not read Gunn’s works, so my dilemma is:

Do I go to this source of inspiration and read the works of Neill Gunn before I return, should I then carry the stories, characters and places when I eventually explore, do I loose myself in the literary landscapes first?

Or do I return first to Dunbeath, undertake the journey to the source, and then read Gunn’s works?

Perhaps this dilemma stems from a pretense about landscape.  A pretense that there is a possibility of my authentic experience, unmediated by other literary, cultural or historical references, of the landscape out there.  When the very joy of landscape is that our perception through our presence is an act of co-creation, mediated through our knowledge and our imagination, with the rich textures and legacies, people and places which went before us.

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‘Within You Will Find The Spirit Of The River’ (N Gunn)

Neil Gunn spent most of his boyhood at Dunbeath and many of his novels engage with the different pasts of the landscapes and communities of Caithness.  You can get more information about and hear several short readings by Neil Gunn.  Dunbeath Heritage Centre is the old school house where Gunn would have been taught as a boy, where he may have sat during lessons and stared out of the windows at the landscape beyond.

My unexpected visit to Dunbeath Heritage Centre was greatly enhanced by the warm welcome I received from the manager and the time which they took to discuss things with me, many thanks.  I was very pleased to learn the displays were conceived by Paul Basu.  You can take a virtual tour of the Dunbeath Heritage Centre, there is also a wonderful explanation by Paul about the way it has been designed to create a dialogue with the broader landscape and its multiple perceptions.  But I would recommend if at all possible you visit in person and go explore Caithness where land, sky and sea meet so powerfully with the past. 


 

Spirit of Scotland – journey through the south west

Spirit of Scotland was the first stop on a recent journey through south west Scotland on which I explored some of its landscapes, heritage and art.Loudon HillSpirit of Scotland is a sculpture set at the foot of Loudon Hill, a granite volcanic plug, and striking feature in the landscape from some distance away.  Loudon Hill is located at the head of the Irvine Valley, a strategically and historically important location and route way for some millennia as evident by the close proximity of a Neolithic long cairn (c 5500 years ago) and a Roman Fort (c 2000 years ago).

Spirit of ScotlandSpirit of Scotland by artist Richard Price was erected in 2004, by the Irvine Valley Regeneration Partnership, and is located on a pathway which runs through the Irvine Valley.  The piece is of fabricated steel and stands over 5 metres tall.  It is located in close proximity to the Battle of Loudon Hill, involving Robert the Bruce in 1307, and the words and imagery on the sculpture refers to another important historical figure William Wallace who was said to have won another battle here in 1296 : for further details see Historic Scotland’s Inventory of Historic Battlefields.

The cut out human form can be used to frame different views of the hill and the wider landscape beyond but it was the words on the sculpture, comprising three short phrases of archaic tone, to which I was most drawn.

On the front of it, reads:

Thou saw’st the strong arm of a Wallace raised to stem the tide of alien tyranny

on its other side

The Knyght Fenwick that cruel was and keen he had at death of Wallace’s father been

and on its inner arch:

At Wallace nam what Scottish blood but boils up in a spring tide flood

Subsequent investigation suggests that two of the inscriptions appear to have literary origins: evoking a broader body of historical narrative and wider cultural associations.  The words from the side facing Loudon Hill (The Knyght Fenwick that cruel was and keen he had at death of Wallace’s father been) appear to derive from Blind Hary’s 15th century poem The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace (simply referred to as The Wallace) which was the basis for The History of the Life and Adventures, and Heroic Actions of The Renowned Sire William Wallace by William Hamilton in 1799 (see page 51).  While the words on the inner arch ‘ At Wallace nam what Scottish blood but boils up in a spring tide flood‘ come from The Bard in 1785 in an Epistle to William Simpson of Ochiltree: which can be listened to from the link.  I am not sure where the third phrase (Thou saw’st the strong arm of a Wallace raised to stem the tide of alien tyranny) derives from, whether it is a modern evocation by the artist, or whether it has another direct literary reference ?  If you have any ideas please let me know.

The first stop on my journey through south west Scotland, demonstrated the tangled nature of landscapes with events of the past, literary and cultural associations, and dreams and aspirations for the future,

perhaps then it is the Spirit of Scotland…