Lewis (contours and bench marks)

In every sense, the next journey is into unknown territory. I feel confident discussing early uses of isobaths, even the life and times of Charles Hutton, but after him, the story of contours emergence onto maps takes place variously in: France, Germany and Switzerland (before finally pitching up in Ireland) and my reading of various OS sources hasn’t caught up. So, in a side step, my eye caught on Lewis – which kept cropping up once the use of contour lines was ‘established’ in Britain. I sold it to my partner as a ‘holiday’, we’re heading to the Outer Hebrides next month. In that far off corner of Britain it appears the OS men went ‘off-piste’ contouring every 25ft instead of only every 50… WITHOUT PERMISSION. Why? They liked being there for sure, and were present long enough for their names to appear in the census. But why go for so much detail? I need the equivalent of a ‘trig point bagger’ (yes, they are a thing): a Bench Mark logger? I want to know why so many ascents on Lewis were marked with a slew of B.M.’s; did they really get the chisel out and mark so many random boulders and stones thus? There are plenty in ‘normal’ places as well: sides of buildings, along roads, but, there’s even one marked on the beach by the ‘Callernish Inn’ (sadly no longer a hostelry) 6.4ft above high tide, they didn’t expect that one to last, surely? So, I’m going in search of Bench Marks (weather and partner permitting), but please! If someone has already done this – and written about it – do let me know, then we can have a holiday instead.Finally, huge apologies to Callum McNeill-Ritchie for forgetting to credit his photos in the last post (and dissing his sausages in an earlier one).

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Slow Mountain

What do you require to be ‘in the mountains’? Fit? have the right kit? A ‘type’ perhaps comes to mind: Gore-Tex clad, wire-sprung legs, map as necklace, nose pointed firmly at a summit. It’s a stereo-type that we saw quite a few of: those racing up and down again. But is there a point where fitness or ‘ability’ becomes a ‘disability’? There’s such a wealth of experience that, in the rush for the top, the (boy) racers miss out. Like ‘slow city’ and ‘slow food’ movements, perhaps we need ‘slow mountain’ too.I’m thinking of Nan Shepherd enjoying a snooze in a lonely patch of heather, or our own slow circumnavigation. Then there were the three who pitched up for a cuppa at the yurt 7.30 one morning; I thought, in a state of sleep-stupor, they had set off at first light for the summit, yet couldn’t understand why they looked so relaxed, refreshed, but, they had been to the Lek: listening, watching birds, being still on the mountain. Each of our participatory sessions had elements of stillness. Installing a yurt was the brilliant idea of Kevin from Artlink Central: a safe space, warm and dry, a place to meet others and get out of wind and rain. It also became art studio and music venue.

                                                                        Artlink brings artists together, it works with people experiencing exclusion, disability or disadvantage. But once the travails of actually getting out of the city and onto the mountain are overcome (and we recognise there is much more work to do to make this possible), ‘disadvantage’ can transpose into advantage: if you move slowly, you see more, it’s also to do with what you see, how you see; when William says: “Bees collect flowers and put them in honey” I see the world momentarily with his eyes, we shared perspectives and surprised ourselves into re-thinking what it is we see or believe, a kind of cross-pollination of perception ensues.Only after breaking an arm – so he couldn’t go down the mines – did Charles Hutton receive the education to enable him to excel at maths. For John Muir, an accident to his right eye followed by weeks of near blindness provided the impetus to change direction and ‘follow his dreams’. Enabled, disabled; any sudden change to one’s senses (through accident, contemplation or simply being in a new environment: mountainside rather than city) can feed the imagination and create the conditions for new insights.

One participant arrived from the city in pumps and thin cardigan. Undaunted, she borrowed boots, jumper and jacket and threw herself into being, moving, creating on the mountain. It was a timely reminder; some kit is GOOD! Her comment on leaving: “I could do anything in these boots”.

I’ll leave John Muir to sum up:

“Another glorious day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.” 

This is the ‘last post’ regarding the Lines of Attraction festival. If you have been missing out on contour lines fear not, in September I begin PhD research on the subject, and have already compiled a few more leads on the subject.

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Time (and a ‘second fiddle’ post)

Mostly this blog concerns itself with space, place and their representations on maps, ‘time’ plays second fiddle. But the Lines of Attraction mini-fest contained so many time distortions I thought they deserved unpacking. Without a watch and with no phone signal those five days in the yurt occurred ‘outside of time’, each moment was experienced in and of itself, I inhabited it as much as I did the yurt. There was a time-rich ‘dense’ quality to the experience. So, it came as no surprise to read how time literally alters with altitude:

“…time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level. The difference is small but can be measured with precision timepieces… This slowing down can be detected between levels just a few centimetres apart: a clock placed on the floor runs a little more slowly than one on a table.”                                                                Carlo Rovelli “The Order of Time”Can ‘now’ be cupped within an episode from 1774? I could have been Maskelyne residing in his bothy, taking a cuppa outside after dark to check the night sky for stars. Like he, eminent locals, surveyors and scientists met with me in my temporary residence to discuss the mountain; not quite a ‘re-enactment’ but echoes thereof: ripples in time. And on our last night we too held a Ceilidh though ours – in an age of health and safety – was a soberer affair, nothing burned (apart from the odd sausage). Stories and memories are like time-capsules, altering with age and telling, and during our Ceilidh new histories of Schiehallion were forged, new memories made alongside the playing of folk tunes as old as the fiddle (we did rescue THE fiddle from its ‘museumy bonds’, and heard it played – but not at the Ceilidh where the risk of history repeating itself was too great). I keep thinking back to a poem written by Jon Plunkett for the event which conveys those space/time fluctuations of physics so much better than I:

“We are talking minute measurements here.
fractions of fractions taken from the space
between a star-line straight and true,
and a plumb-lines slim deflection,
the subtlest bend of gravity,
the tiniest sway of cosmic force,
just enough to weigh the world.”

Extract from “The attraction of mountains, 1774” by Jon Plunkett, 2018

The ‘Yellow London Lady’ being played by Fiona Farris of the Lus Collective

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Companionship, Place and the Contour Walk

“What apps do you use?” We’re on the first steep climb to reach the 700m altitude of our Contour Walk on Schiehallion, a mountain that can descend into cloud at the drop of a hat, so to have navigation tools is advised. My response? I use the most highly prized and sophisticated navigational guide I know, one with the ability to provide detailed background information that I didn’t even know I wanted to know. More versatile, responsive and sympathetic to users than the most expensive micro-gadget, my prized asset is a refined ability to seek out people who ‘know’ a landscape and are generous enough to walk with me. Then I can ‘lose myself’ in the walking, looking and listening and if we stray from the path it’s not that we are ‘lost’, more likely our attention has been diverted by an unanticipated ‘find’.

Image courtesy of Richard Paul

We were well endowed for the Contour Walk with: botanists, geologists, surveyors to name a few. The aim – beyond the climb – was to traverse following ‘a line of equal altitude’ so, yes, our guide had an app for that. Leaving the path, the ground grew soft with heather and hummock, our right legs learned to shorten slightly as we leant into the mountain, and the best route finder ‘app’ became our guide’s dog, she could pick out the most even routes – and occasional deer tracks – better than we.

Image couteau of Richard Paul

Stopping for lunch at the remains of the Southern Observatory it became clear why locals would have chosen this place, sheltered from prevailing winds, when more tempting flatter (but windier) areas were available nearby. Was it local man ‘Red’ Duncan (Robertson, the fiddle player) who chose it for Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne?

For the experiment in 1774/5, the involvement of local people was essential, as it was again in 1802 when John Playfair made his Lithological Survey (as Maskelyne had failed to ascertain “the specific gravity of the rock that make up the mountain”). After 25+ years, all trace of the ring of theodolite stations around Schiehallion was gone from the landscape, but not from the memories of locals who had been involved with the experiment.In Playfair’s writing, there is a palpable sense of ‘treading gently’ in this place, it was “not necessary to dig into the mountain or blast the stones with gun powder” (or even “procure holes to be bored” as Hutton had suggested). Instead he speaks of ‘native rock’, ‘rock species’ and ‘living rock’ (I think of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain), he must have been in the company of these same local men who loved Schiehallion and for whom its burns, wells, stones and caves spoke: alive with myth and legend, and thus feeding Playfair’s own sympathy for this land, one hears it again in his description of parallel plates of strata, he perceives as having “a neatness and accuracy which a work of art could hardly exceed”.

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Three Maps

In an age where maps are created without touching the land, a satellite’s orbit will suffice, here are three maps (with 3,000 years between oldest and youngest) each made through being and walking on and around Schiehallion. Two artists, both with research and process as part of their practice (both also with an interest in the Wells of Schiehallion, but that’s ANOTHER story), have inspired and introduced me to all three. While creating the ‘How to Draw a Mountain’ series, the earliest map I consulted was from 1731. It was fascinating then to be introduced to the Pont map dated 1583-1614 by the wonderful musician/artist/researcher Munro Gauld. Here Schiehallion – the only mountain on the map – is drawn from its Eastern aspect thus suggesting his direction of travel, whereas the castles and other notable buildings are mostly depicted on a South-North axis. It hadn’t appeared on my earlier searches as he named it ‘Kraich’, which Alexander Maris (artist, researcher, walker) has since pointed out, is potentially an anglicised spelling of ‘Cruach’ meaning Conical Hill.

Session with Corbenic walking group showing Schiehallion & stone

What makes a map? Schiehallion has such an intense presence within the landscape, what would our ancestors have felt on first encountering its insular majesty? At the foot of Schiehallion resides a ‘cup stone’ aligned on the same East-West axis as the mountain. With a little imagination it appears to echo the mountain’s form, is it this quality that made it special enough to ‘sculpt’ 3,000+ years ago? It became special to us during the workshops as from it there is a good view of the mountain and, as an easy walk from the yurt, it became our aid to experiencing and exploring a sense of place.

Lauren from Artlink Central

We made the climb from car park to peak followed by steep descent of the western face with pastels and charcoals, feeling our way with hands, rubbing the mountain contours and colours into paper.What should a map consist of to be called a map? Whilst at art college a tutor set an exercise to draw a portrait as if the pencil were a ladybird creeping over the face of the sitter, executed well, the features began to emerge through the tangle of intersecting lines. The process reminds me of the third and most recent map included here. Created by Maris and titled ‘Schiehallion GPS.’ it is the sum of his walks over and around the mountain. Like Pont, his presence in the land was essential to his map’s creation; the intensity of his visits conveys a knowledge of, and intimacy with the mountain, such that its form emerges through the walked lines, as recognisable and familiar as a lover’s face.

Schiehallion as walked/drawn by Maris

 

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Lines within Lines

Yesterday I was working with primary school children creating conceptual art.

Our long drawings of ‘lines within lines’ sprang from an investigation of the ‘endless’ lines we could see on a map: the rivers, roads and pylon cables tracking across a landscape. Then we looked at the orange/brown contour lines encircling Schiehallion, we could just see the tip of the mountain from the school, but no trace of these necklaces.The process reemphasised for me why contour lines hold such fascination; unlike fences, walls, boundary lines and occasionally rivers, they do not apportion land: ‘mine’ ‘his’ ‘yours’. Neither do they define specific routes as railway, roads, bridle and footpaths do. Instead, by aiding us to understand elevation (on flat paper or screen), they support us in moving through a landscape. They suggest where traverse might be foolish, but their presence never hinders us in walking forth. I love them for this lightest of touch on a landscape.The Lines of Attraction mini-residency finishes Sunday when I de-install at the Gallery, the last ‘event’ is the talks this Saturday. It will be hard to leave, and harder to process such a wealth of experiences and new connections to place. Making it all such a fantastic experience are the people I have met these last two weeks, for whom there is no ‘thank you’ big enough.

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The Fiddle

Musical instruments have insect-like ‘life-cycles’, sheathed in hard-casing they’re dormant most of the time, then burst into life when picked up and played. And they can ‘live’ 100’s of years. “The Yellow London Lady” – gifted to Duncan Robertson in 1774 – has lost its casing (nearly lost its neck, but that’s another story) and currently resides under glass. It was gifted to Robertson by Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, who after arduous months on Schiehallion observing the night sky, then surveying by day (when weather permitted), organised a big last night bash in his bothy; at some point flames broke out and bothy burned to the ground taking Robertson’s original fiddle with it.Since then the replacement fiddle has remained within the Robertson family, passing from one Duncan to the next. The original recipient, delighted with his new fiddle composed a tune to it, leaving us wondering: what would it be like to hear that tune played on the instrument it was composed for? Present-day musician – and all round gudd’en – Munro Gauld is working to release it from its museumy bonds so we can hear it, record it (then hopefully return it unscathed to dormancy).

Please forgive me, I know this blog is ostensibly devoted to contour lines, and this fiddle is quite tangential to that story. But here’s the thing, for me it aids thinking about processes: how we remember, how we archive, how materials, maps and resources can be dormant and then ‘activated’. How sometimes in order to understand the history we are exploring we need to be active: follow the map in its landscape, re-draw it to understand it. Like Maskelyne, I am an outsider to Schiehallion, my experience of the mountain is of limited value compared to those who live within sight of it. Hopefully the next few weeks in residence will be a lively opportunity to learn, to share and explore, and to hear that fiddle revived.

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