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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Lines of Attraction

‘The Lines of Attraction’ Schiehallion mini-festival is fast approaching. The exhibition opens next Wednesday (in Pitlochry). Places on the contour walk booked up fast but there are plenty other opportunities to visit. We will be ‘at home’ (at yurt?) at the foot of Schiehallion just beyond the car park the afternoon of Weds April 18, so please call in and see what we are up to. More structured activities include early morning walks to see the black grouse strut their stuff on a Lek plus Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn will be leading a walk and talk on place names kicking off 10.45am on Saturday April 21 (meet at the yurt).Drop me a line if you’d like further information, and if anyone out there knows the words or tune to “The Yellow London Lady” PLEASE get in touch.

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Walks and Talks on Schiehallion

Thrilled to announce – with the support of Creative Scotland – we are organising a mini-festival on and around Schiehallion from the 19th of April with The Great Lines exhibition on show at the Alan Reece Gallery, Pitlochry throughout.

‘We’ are (me) the John Muir Trust and Artlink Central who came up with the brilliant idea of erecting a temporary yurt on Schiehallion to run some of the activities from. In so many ways they are a great partner, their work is all about diversity, bringing artists together with people experiencing exclusion, disability or disadvantage. It’s a dream team as the John Muir Trust engages people with wild places.There are a number of events that are open to all, two of them – if you are in the vicinity, or happy to travel – are:

A ‘Contour Walk’ on Sunday 22nd April, 10am till 3pm. This will be an exploratory walk along one altitude of Schiehallion observing the differences between South and North faces. We will focus on the flora and fauna (with Dr Liz Auty from the Trust), but also explore the mountain’s history and the surveying of it in the 1770’s… yes, that’s my thing. Places are limited please book early through Eventbrite.

Then on Saturday 28 we have a series of talks at Pitlochry Festival Theatre titled ‘Four Views of Schiehallion’, with Chris Fleet, Robin Johnson, Liz and myself and – hot off the press – live music too thanks to Munro Gauld. The Eventbrite page for this is live already.

Both these events are free, but booking essential.

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