sights and sounds

Like all my pieces, ‘Whistle’ started off as an idea – the sound of steam engine whistles echoing around the landscape and making a journey from town to wilderness. Making it happen is a very different thing. A lot of my work seems very simple from the outside. I like to keep the ideas clear and fairly minimal at heart. Yet that simplicity is often the hardest thing to do. To achieve the illusion of simplicity takes lots of planning, a little bit of technology, a splattering of engineering and an acute attention to detail.

The sound of the whistle had to be just right. On one level the piece sought to trigger something in the memory of those who remember steam engines up the line. That audio memory is very specific, so I had to make sure the whistle would do just that.

First up was finding how that specific whistle worked. The whistle was known as a ‘hooter’ due to its relatively low pitch. The first engines to run on the line had hooter style whistles, but I was keen to replicate the ones used within memory of folk in the village. There’s little detail around about the specifics of ‘hooter’ whistles and engineering drawings were proving to be elusive. Luckily however, a real whistle off an engine of the type used on the line came up at a local auction. It’s a beautiful piece of brass for such a functional object. The chamber and bracket at the base is cast in brass, the top body being turned from another casting. This all makes the piece really weighty. Originally these would have been made by the apprentices in the loco works – simple bits of engineering but ensured that no two were exactly the same.

original whistle

original 1930’s ‘Stanier Hooter’ whistle

The first test up in Glen Ogle back in January used carbon dioxide to sound the whistle. This was powered by a small cylinder from a paintball gun. The cylinder was adapted to get a good volume of carbon dioxide out as the whistle required a lot of puff to sound at all. The first test worked well, and even at the relatively low pressure of the CO2 and in a mild wind and sleet we still managed to get a good echo off the hills.

While trying to find a fitting to connect my 1930’s original whistle to a 21st century paintball cylinder, I stumbled across a great engineering company. Not only could they fabricate a fitting for me (in under an hour), but they had history with steam engine whistles having previously made whistles for preserved steam locos all over the world. Besides, there’s something about having steam engine parts made by engineers in Darlington, with its weight of railway history behind it that I think adds to the narrative. The next site test was going to use compressed air – the carbon dioxide idea just wasn’t powerful enough. Besides, the little cylinders only gave me 3 seconds of whistle. I needed bigger cylinders and much more pressure.

cad drawing

Auto-CAD drawing of the new whistles

The basics of steam engine whistles are pretty straightforward. There’s a volume of air which passes through a chamber and then split into two thin streams. These streams are then passed over an opening and split by a sharp edge (called a fipple), as it does so the air vibrates and makes a sound. The pitch is determined by the length of the whistle body and the volume by the size of the hole. At its basic level it’s the same mechanism as I built for the ‘Curlew Machine’ piece, but at a different scale.

That said, there are so many other variables n the whistle design which make each one very different in many ways. In order to get the right whistle sound we needed to replicate the  Stanier whistle as close as possible, while making it quick, cheap and easy to build. While the original is solid brass, we were using cheaper steel for most of it.


the parts making up each whistle

Once the design was worked out the replica was tested against the original at high pressure to match the tuning and tone – small adjustments were made to the hole to tweak the sound – making it more ‘breathy’ and rounded.


Obviously steam engines use steam instead of compressed air and this in turn makes a difference in the sound. Warm air and steam raise the pitch significantly. The first test on CO2 was a very low note as the gas was expanding liquid gas, and so very cold. I found some recordings of Black 5 engines and some spectral analysis to get the prime note pitch and overtones.

Steam engine whistles have a characteristic rise in pitch as they sound – this is caused partly by the increase in pressure as the regulator is opened, and partly the steam warming up the air in the whistle. rather than shortening the new whistles, a baffle was inserted inside the top on a screw thread which enabled each whistle to be tuned individually.


the interior baffle used to tune the whistles


The second site test was to determine the reach of the radio transmitters which trigger off each whistle, and make sure they worked in the rocky terrain. Blessed with a very still and sunny day, it also gave us a chance to hear how the whistles reacted to the landscape.



With the second test working well, another half a dozen whistles were built (with some small modifications) and a chain of control boxes for a much larger test.

So, a couple of weeks ago we did the first of the big tests – six whistles over two miles of the railway path up Glen Ogle. BBC Radio Scotland came down for the day and did a feature on the Out of Doors programme the following weekend:

That particular stretch of line has the most problems, in terms  of access, terrain logistics so if we got it working there, the rest of the line would be relatively easy. Doing a test over two miles also allowed us to test the logistics of working over larger distances. I needed to know how to deal with issues that were over a mile away. This was by far the biggest single installation I’d done to date, so was a big learning curve. So, it didn’t all go to plan. There were issues with cross-talk with the radio triggers which meant we couldn’t run the whole sequence automatically so unfortunately I still haven’t heard the cascade that I’m after. However, the great folk at Radiometrix were just a phone call away and are already working on a solution.

The logistical problems of working over large areas became more apparent than I’d anticipated – communication methods had their issues too, and it was clear that the compressed air cylinders we had weren’t lasting as long as we needed.

What we did get was a real sense of how the piece strengthened with scale. The sequence of sounds echoing certainly carried way out over the surrounding countryside. The subtlety of the repetitive calls blurring the lines between succession and echo, and most surprising of all for me was the delicacy of the piece – considering just how loud and brutal the whistles are at close quarters. It was also apparent that this was going to be a really difficult piece to document. Although the line it draws in the landscape is very visual, you can’t photograph it. The subtleness of the very distant sounds pushes the limits of what works well in a recording and despite some great audio clips of the test, they don’t quite capture the very real experience of being there.

Compounded with the fact that the piece sounds so very different where ever you are – up on the line, down in the village, as a passing motorist (my favourite bit was drivers in the glen tooting back). the misty morning was also very different to the clearer afternoon – so each and every difference makes a new experience.

Just driving up the A84 from Callander you get a real sense of the vast scale of the piece. It’s really going to be something you just have to experience for yourself. Spend time with it. explore it. contemplate it and the landscape around it.

As a work of art I’m really excited by how it works – its layers of narrative and real experiential nature. Although some of the themes of the piece – landscape, scale, narratives, history – are things I’ve used before, the method of exploring them, the scale and ambition is all really new to me – and that’s a great thing to take away from a residency. It’s also got the whole community talking about it. Whether it’s good or bad is not so much the point as being a topic that intrigues.

On my first evening at the pub in the village the other week,  when the owner found out I was the artist doing this, came over with a list of questions. One of the previous guests was a railway buff and interested in the project. Apparently, his parting remark was “I bet they get the whistle sound all wrong”.

Detail, detail. It’s all important.


So, this part of the residency is sadly at an end. It’s been an amazing journey for me, and one which I hope will continue as we look to realise the final ambitious installation later in the year.

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Testing Testing….

After a successful initial test on site last month, we’re now going ahead with a much larger test on the 23rd April. There will be seven whistles over a two mile stretch of the old railway line starting above Lochearnhead and heading up to Glen Ogle Viaduct. They’ll be sounding approximately every 15 minutes from 1pm until 4pm. Depending on weather conditions they should be audible from the village or pretty much anywhere in Glen Ogle as well as on the old line itself.

It’ll still be very much a test so there may be some alterations in the duration and how far the sound travels and so don’t expect a finished product, but if we get still weather like we did last month it could sound pretty special.

We’ve got a small informal event from 2pm in the village for select VIPs and potential funders of the final 18 mile piece. if you’d like an invite, or would like to volunteer helping install the piece for the day, please contact Charlie at the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

As a taster, here’s how the last test went:

Steve Messam residency – 1 minute trailer from cthrn wr on Vimeo.

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So, after all that walking, reading, talking and listening we’ve decided on a final piece from this residency. Something that brings together all the strands of thinking I’d been doing and packages it up in a nice little packet. Something which encourages people to look at the landscape in a new way. That John Muir ‘standing on your head’ moment…


“A Driver should […] sound the engine whistle when necessary, especially as a warning to persons on the line and frequently when passing through tunnels..”

Handbook for Railway Steam Locomotive Enginemen – British Transport Commission. 1957 p.19

glen ogle railway poster

The railway north from Callander towards Crianlarich played a central role in what was to become a National Park.

Built in 1866 the line connected Glasgow and Stirling with the ferry ports at Oban as part of the big Victorian dream of connecting the country. The section between Callander and Killin (Glenoglehead) took the railway through some of the most spectacular and remote areas of the southern highlands. Villages along the route thrived with the advent of increased access to bigger markets and the influx of tourists and new villages built to cope with the demand. When a new branch was built to Killin, the old Killin Station was renamed Glenoglehead and promoted as a destination for hill walkers to explore the wild hills around it.

The line closed in 1964 as part of the Beeching cuts – the last train left Callander Station with 50 detonators echoing up the line behind it as a final farewell.

Balquhidder Station - image: wikipedia

Balquhidder Station – image: wikipedia

‘Whistle’ is a proposed installation which will audibly traverse the former railway line, linking it to its past. A series of steam engine whistles at 0.5 km intervals will cascade up the path of the railway beyond Glen Ogle. Each whistle will trigger off the next at 0.5 second intervals such that the ripple will traverse the entire 18 mile length in 24 seconds. Each whistle will echo and resonate with its own immediate landscape – those in wooded areas will sound very different to those in wider, wilder valleys. As such the piece will have very distinct and different presences at every stage along its route. In clear still conditions it may be possible to hear all 42 whistles – the weather playing as much role in its sound as the topography. As a rapid, linear sound installation, the sounds to a visitor, will draw a visual line along the route from south to north through ever wilder landscapes before fading into the vastness of Glen Dochart.

The whistles will be replicas of those on the Stanier ‘Black 5’ engines – the line was run almost exclusively by those engines from the mid 1930’s until the line closure. The whistles on those engines were quite specific and were in turn descended from those designed for the Caledonian Railway company who originally built the line. It’s entirely possible that that whistle sound was the only whistle sound heard on that line. Sound is a very powerful trigger of memory and it is hoped that those who remember the railway in use will have a very powerful personal experience of the piece.

black 5 whistle

Whistle from a Stanier ‘Black 5’ engine

The installation will be made from 42 identical units mounted on a 3m wooden pole to be planted in the ground. Each unit will consist of a brass steam engine whistle powered by a small cylinder of compressed air. Triggering will be by RF (radio control) with each unit receiving the signal to sound the whistle then sending on another signal to the next unit with a 0.5 second delay. The simple control circuit and compressor will be powered by a 12v battery and enclosed in a locked, weatherproof box. The initial triggering will either be manually from the first unit, via SMS from a mobile phone, or on a built-in timer on the first unit.

map of 42 whistles

——————————————————– . .

Well, there it is all out in the open now. I’m still trying to get my head around the whole 18-mile thing. It’s more than you’d walk in a day. On a clear run it’s a good half-hour’s drive from one end to the other by road.

I’d originally toyed with the idea of a shorter run – say from Balquhidder to the top of Glen Ogle as a more realistic target within the time frame and budget. We did the first sound tests there last month and I walked the route surveying the post sites. However, stunning though it may be – particularly as it passes above Lochearnhead and up into Glen Ogle itself – it missed a key bit of narrative. That of the journey from somewhere. It really needed to start out of Callander – where that last train left 50 years ago. Where thousands of visitors pour out of their coaches at the gateway to the Trossachs. That journey up the Pass of Leny and along the entire length of Loch Lubnaig is part of the experience of venturing into the ‘wild’ lands of Breadalbane. The piece is as much about the linear community up the A84 as that tourist experience. To leave off a big chunk of the original vision seemed too much of a compromise and risked losing key parts of the narrative.

The plan now is to do a short (2 – 3 mile stretch) as a working test in April with a view to realising the full 18 mile work at a later date.

The first sound tests are done, and even at a reduced volume I got some nice echoes off the glen. The first replica whistle has been built and sound matched to a 1930’s original whistle. Within a couple of weeks we hope to have the first one-mile test done on site to check the radio signal strength and hopefully get some good sound recordings to check it’s doing all the things it should. Technical tests are nerve-wracking. it’s where things frequently go wrong and you hope you’ll know how to fix them.

Still, one step at a time. One kilometre at a time….

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There are so many different directions I could take this residency in. The problem with amassing so much information and losing yourself in a place for such an extended amount of time is that you find so much stuff interesting. And yet I’m also very aware that I’ve only really scratched the surface of the place – there’s so much more to discover.

The original brief for the commission was based on this quote about John Muir:

‘John Muir “liked to put his head down between his knees and look at the world upside down to see what he called its upness.‟’

In short – looking at the familiar in a new way.

In John Muir’s world National Parks were about conserving wilderness while it still existed. Sadly, for Scotland, as the rest of the UK, ‘Wilderness’ in its true form is long gone.

However, the consultation by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) on describing areas of core ‘wildness’ seemed like an interesting compromise. I’ve written about that in an earlier post while it was still under consideration. Since then the consultation results have come back with a general support for the concept.

Within the National Park there were only two areas highlighted as potential core ‘Wildness’ and one was right on my ‘patch’.

core wildness map

Area No.8 – Ben More range

The problem, however, was how to use this idea of wildness in a work.

In the end I settled on three potential pieces. This is one.

I like this idea of almost wilderness. To the many visitors who flock to the park from the cities of central Scotland – around 70% of the population of the whole country – the park seems, and even feels like pure remoteness and an antidote to the urban confine. Yet, as previously written, the landscape is far from wild. It bares the marks of centuries of exploitation of its resources – most notably, to paraphrase George Monbiot – it’s been shagged by sheep. Well, sheep and deer mostly.

Yet among the hills and glens there are still pockets where sheep and deer have never grazed and where man has seldom if ever trod.

The top of ‘Rob Roy’s Putting Stone‘ is one such place. Like a tiny microcosm of naturalness, the top of the stone supports a mini-landscape untouched by human hand or sheep mouth. Grasses and heathers thrive protected from any grazing beast.

last wilderness on robroy's putting stone

So, one of my potential project ideas was ‘Boulder’ –  to build a temporary staircase to the top. Not to walk on it – that would defeat the whole idea, but to a viewing platform where you could view this untouched, true wilderness.

A staircase would wind its way around three sides of the boulder – using the scale and bulk of the stone as part support against the uninhibited wind up on top of the mountain. I envisaged a spidery, but elegant staircase – maybe in bamboo scaffolding echoing the spindly staircases up to remote Chinese mountain temples. 

pagoda on mountain

stereotypical Chinese mountain and pagoda scene

The idea of using big boulders as viewing platforms is not a new one. There’s been a staircase up the Bowder Stone in the Lake District for over a hundred years. It would be an extension of that sense of tourist adventure that I guess is the whole raison d’être of the national park. A glorious natural spectacle that’s easy to get to. An accessible wilderness.

bowderstone postcard

Bowder Stone from an early 20th C postcard

From the top (maybe a covered viewing platform as an architectural curio in its own right) you would look over this precious patch of real wilderness and out to the surrounding mountains as picturesque backdrop.

Yet, possibly the most interesting aspect of this pure landscape is in the handful of trees growing there. The miniature, but thriving sitka spruce.


Despite it living so well in the highlands, it’s not a native species. It originally comes from Northern Canada, but grown here in commercial plantations by the thousands and millions as it loves the wet, temperate climate and grows quickly and solidly. However, it grows and reseeds so well within plantations that it easily creates monocultures where it practically wipes out everything else.

Yet, here they are are, growing quite happily on this remote miniature wilderness, untouched by human hand. And this is the story of maintaining ‘wildness’. These trees have been seeded by natural means (probably by birds) and therefore on one level are quite natural – a reflection of the contemporary ‘wild’ landscape of the national park. On the other hand, they are an alien species, which on their own do no harm, but pose a continuing dilemma for those tasked with ‘conserving the natural landscape’.

Sitka Spruce is a big issue for the national park. THere’s no definitive right and wrongs and no global solution in either case. Conserving the landscape isn’t a black ad white thing. It’s way more complicated than that.

As an artwork ‘Boulder’ is both an immersive experience and one which asks far more than it answers. I really like that it’s not easy to get to – it’s a good hour’s walk from the nearest road, and the journey up there is as much part of the experience as the visual ones – that of the physical staircase and platform clinging to the rock, and that of the view across the top.

The effect would be to temporarily transform this giant chunk of rock into a work of art. Transforming it with a work of art. Conceptually and physically moving people’s view point on the wilderness landscape. That putting your head between your knees that Muir talks about.

There’s lots that I like about this piece,

but it’s not the one for now…

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This residency has three key stages to it. First up was the research stage. This was the bit where I spent big chunks of time living in the park and exploring my chosen corner – mostly going for walks, taking pictures and reading bucket loads.

The last stage is the delivery of a final piece. Something which sums up my experience in the park – the culmination of all the research, the walking, the looking, the talking and listening with people. In some ways this is the most visible bit of the residency – the bit where everyone goes “ah, that’s the art bit”. The big reveal.

However, for me, the real art bit is this middle stage. It’s the bit where I go through everything that I’ve collected and amassed and process it all into something. It’s generally the slow bit. It needs to be. During the research phase you are accumulating so much information, constantly. Typically I’d be working every day from the moment I woke up – filing all the images, sounds and information I gathered the previous day, then planning what I was going to do next. I’d then go out exploring until it got dark – walking the hills, searching for information in the landscape, meeting people and generally trying to get under the surface of the landscape. In the evening I’d just read up on stuff I’d found and continue reading until I fell asleep.

So, now I’ve had time to distance myself from the daily information overload, I can slowly start to piece everything together. Filter it, distil it into purer, more succinct ideas.

Some of these ideas get used, others are syphoned off, either to be fed into future ideas or filed away. Yet the essence of each and every item become part of the fabric of the project as a whole.

While out on my walks I tried to capture the life of the landscape. Look for clues as to what made it, how it works, what it does and how it changes. Mostly I did that through photographs and note taking. However, I also did dozens of sound recordings. As I was doing them I had no idea what I would use them for, nor did I have a conscious theme in mind. They were just lo-tech recordings made on my phone, so the quality isn’t brilliant and they suffer from wind noise in places. But just going through them I realised there’s a strand running through them – they’re the sound of the background. The subtle texture of the landscape.

glen ogle viaduct handrails

One of the first was the sound of the wind blowing through the handrails on Glen Ogle Viaduct. It was a particularly windy day, and the glen is exposed at the best of times. The recording is mostly the wind on the microphone, but just in the background you can make out the different pitched rails, each playing in time. A barely-there layer.

When I first came across the damaged ash plantation in the previous post, the farm at Inverlochlarig was moving some of the sheep around. I’d past a small flock being driven down the lane on the way. In the distance the dogs were still excited by the running sheep, the steep slopes of the glen and the cold, still air carried the sound of the shepherds calling the dogs from nearly a mile away.


One fair sunday morning from a hill above Balquhidder the church bell rang cleanly down the glen:

balquhidder glen

While high in the mists at the top of Kirkton Glen, while the landscape played hide and seek in the shifting clouds, a solitary raven made its presence known.

top of kirkton glen

These are all background sounds. There’s a fragility to them – barely there, but part of the landscape none the less. They’re the sounds of listening – not the noise of attention, but a subtle harmonic picked up by the shape of the landscape. As much the texture of the place as pine needles or drops of mist.

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It’s been a while since my last post. I’m back in Cumbria now and only popping back up to the park for the odd day or two to get things done. From the outside it may look like things are slowing down, but in reality this is the bit when the serious work happens. It’s the bit where I look back on all the research and ideas I’ve been accumulating over the past few months and shaping them into some tangible, physical form.

A large part of my residency has been just looking at the landscape and observing it. Looking beyond the tourist gaze and seeing how it works. I’ve really enjoyed exploring the area through photography. One of the longest lasting images has been that of the damaged ash tree plantation in Inverlochlarig Glen.

trees at inverlochlarig

I saw this quite early on in my residency on a showery day when I just went wandering nowhere in particular. I was struck by the uniformity of the line between the dark lower trunks and the white bark above. The regularity of the planting – in dead straight rows added to the visual impact of the piece. The scale of it was impressive too – there must have been over a thousand trees identically banded in this way. Getting down to the level of the line created an optical illusion of a false horizon. When I first tweeted the picture many people thought it had been photoshopped. OK so I sometimes tweak the colour a tad to bring out the effect, but the whole thing is 100% genuine. The scale, precision and attention to detail had all the elements I try to instil in my own work. Only on this occasion I doubted this was the work of an artist.

photo - Version 2

At lunchtime I called into the rangers office in Callander and spoke to one of the ecologists. Her initial thoughts were that it was caused by deer grazing on the bark. Grazing is a big issue. Deer love the soft bark of new trees. There are examples nearby where the constant grazing by deer has created bonsai plantations. The trees are well established and mature, yet never get above 18 inches high – new growth being eaten annually.

While I like the idea that this was an art installation made by deer, I was initially sceptical as there was the standard 8ft deer fencing around the plantation. Also, the height was so precisely uniform. And it was on every tree, but not on any of the trees outside the plantation.

Following a bit more conversation on twitter, a tree specialist from the Forestry Commission had another more plausible explanation – that it was caused by leaving on the bark guards that protect trees from deer grazing for too long and shocking the trees:

“Tubex tree guards have caused the lower part of the trunks to try and behave like roots, due to their enclosure, high humidity and loss of climatic action on the bark.

You can see lesions on the stems below the ‘tide line’ that may have been caused by the guard abrading the stem or else browsers removing the nutrient rich bark. There may also be evidence of adventitious roots and or shoots.

Leaving the tubes on, may have stressed the trees sufficiently to make them more prone to the attack of Pseudomonas savastanoi pathovar fraxini that is causing the black lesions further up the stems above the ‘tide line’ of the tubes.

Judging by the ground vegetation, I would suggest that this is an ex-agricultural surface-water gley, that may have some water-logging issues, hence the Juncus effusus and fallen trees in the background, throughout the stand.”

This would at least explain the uniformity of the horizontal line. If this was man made, then at least I could file it away as a potential method for something else in the future – just needed solving the long term damage to the crop value.

_DSC1176 - Version 2

However, there seemed to be a problem with this theory. A couple of the park rangers I discussed it with thought it was impossible for it to be caused by bark guards as some of the trees had split into two branches lower than the line. If it was caused by bark guards then the tree wouldn’t have split within the tubes, or at least one of the branches would have a tide mark at a different level. If it wasn’t tubes and too uniform for deer, another possible cause maybe flood damage.

The plantation is certainly close to a water course and it would explain the absolute horizontal effect. My doubt with his was the height, but not knowing the land and how fast the water level could rise or even how far it would rise that far up the glen I was open to accepting this cause.

So, there it was. Flood damage. Recent floods elsewhere in the UK show just how high rivers can go in a wet season.

L1120858 - Version 2

That was until BBC Radio Scotland decided to feature it on their weekly Out Of Doors programme. So last month I went back out there with presenter Mark Steven and local wildlife expert Edward Chadfield. Apart from completely dismissing the bark guard theory as nonsense, they were convinced it was grazing after all. Yes, there were certainly teeth marks on what we could see of the trees. There was even a deer carcass which suggested deer certainly get in. We even saw a herd of red deer scarper up the mountain behind. Though to be honest, we didn’t actually see them amongst the trees, or go round the perimeter fence to see if there was a bit missing.

grazing damage

a typical grazed trunk on a nearby tree

grazing damage close up

teeth marks on nearby tree indicating grazing damage. Note the difference in colour to those in the main plantation

You can listen to the article here from their weekly podcast:

The jury is still out as to the cause. Most of the explanations have been made on the basis of photos alone. Even with the radio we only observed from behind the deer fence. Maybe the best person to have asked would be the person whose land it was in the first place. They probably know exactly what caused it.

Regardless of the cause, it’s still a stunning effect. And while I’m working on another project that looks at farmers as designers of the landscape I’m interested in the strong aesthetics created where the man-made plantation meets the serendipity of natural causes.

My original proposal for this residency was to create temporary installations that accentuate the many uses of this perceived natural landscape. Making small interventions in the normal working practice to create strong images and get people discussing them. Just like this. Darn! I so wish I’d thought of this first…

_DSC1158 - Version 2

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Fairy Stories

I like stories. Landscapes are full of them – lying one on top of another like the geological strata. Uncover one of them and you reveal the traces of many more below, but all add up to the rich narratives that make up the hills and rivers and mountains.

One such story concerns the Reverent Robert Kirk.

Born in Aberfoyle in 1644, he studied theology at the the University of St. Andrews and gained his masters at Edinburgh University before gaining his first ministry at Balquhidder in 1664. During his time at the chapel he was involved with the translation of the Bible into Irish. Then, as most locals couldn’t read the Irish Galic script he proceeded to rewrite the entire Irish Bible in Roman script.

However, it was his unorthodox interest in spirituality that he has become known for. While at Balquhidder he made frequent observations of the fairy knowle behind the church. He started to note all the different types of fairy and small folk, their customs and even their choice of weapons.

After his father died, he returned to Aberfoyle taking up the ministry there. He continued to research and write down his findings of fairy folklore and would often take night-time walks up the nearby fairy knowle of Doon Hill.

In 1691 he wrote a detailed pamphlet, rather catchingly titled ‘The Secret Commonwealth or an Essay on the Nature and Actions of the Subterranean (and for the most part) Invisible People heretofore going under the names of Fauns and Fairies, or the like, among the Low Country Scots as described by those who have second sight, 1691’. Now considered one of the most important works of fairy folklore, it wasn’t properly published until Walter Scott did so in 1815.

Shortly after releasing his pamphlet, on May 14th 1692, Robert Kirk took one of his customary night time walks up Doon Hill. However, the fairies were so aggrieved by the revealing of so many of their secrets that they stole him and encased him in a Scots pine tree and the Reverend was never seen again.


Following my own bit of history with the fairy folk around Loch Lomond, as my final full day staying in the park for my residency I thought I’d take a pilgrimage to Doon Hill. Trying to keep it simple I decided I’d only use the camera on my phone rather than lug big cameras around. It’s only a short walk after all.

First up on the walk from Aberfoyle is the old graveyard of Kirkton. Here is the restored remains of the old church where Robert Kirk preached overlooking Doon Hill.

kirkton church

It’s a fascinating little chapel ruin. Either side of the door are two full-sized cast iron coffins – used to be placed on top of new graves to stop body-snatchers digging up the grave. Around the back of the chapel, facing Doon Hill is the memorial to Robert Kirk himself.


What lies underneath the tombstone remains a mystery given that no body was ever found…

Further up the road it seems even the Forestry Commission takes the fairies seriously:

trail sign

Beyond there the road becomes a track and finally a footpath heads up through the woods to the top of Doon Hill.

At the top of the hill stands a circle of trees – mostly Scots Pine and holly. The whole site has become a shrine to the ‘mostly invisible’ fairy folk – with every tree festooned with decoration – from the traditional clooties (rags and ribbons) to the rather unsettling little gifts and letters in sealed plastic bags.

doon hill shrine 1 doon hill shrine 2 doon hill shrine 3 doon hill shrine 4 doon hill shrine 5

Whatever you think, it’s still a very special and highly charged place, with the sun shining through the brightly coloured offerings.

Then my camera-phone stopped working…

and there ends my time in the park.

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Of Mists and Mountains

I wrote a post on my normal blog – Mud ‘n Art – on wandering the hills alone and the experience of photography…

of mists and mountains

Rob Roy's Putting Stone

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I’m now well and truly engrossed in John Muir’s writings. The early years stuff about his childhood in Scotland, then as settlers in America is an amazing document of rural existence in the mid 19thC. But it’s the bit from the age of around 15 that things start to really get interesting. It begins with some rather harmless stories of how he would only sleep for four hours so that he could get up and read in accordance with his fathers strict religious rules. And then, starting with a little saw mill, the young Muir builds a series of machines and inventions: A simple alarm clock, a clock which tips you out of bed in the morning, a clock which doesn’t just show the time, but the day, month, year and lights the fires in the morning, a clock shaped like a scythe to symbolise Father Time – all whittled by hand from hickory. He also created a thermometer built from a big chunk of steel he found lying around – the expansion and contraction was amplified by a series of levers and pulleys so much that it would register the warmth of someone walking past.

In 1860 he took some of his inventions to the Wisconsin State Fair in Madison – hitching a ride right on the front of the engine on the railway so he could see how it all worked. Coming from a poor farming community he presumed his inventions would be regarded as some rural novelty conscious that most machines were made in iron and steel and brass. Instead the pure craftsmanship and technical mastery of his pieces were given centre stage in the fair.

While at the fair he was draw to the university and the idea of learning (he hadn’t had any schooling since he left Scotland aged 11). A year later he started at the university, paid for in part by selling his automated waking beds. While at university he built what must be one of the most incredible machines:

“I invented a desk in which the books I had to study were arranged in order at the beginning of each term. I also made a bed which set me on my feet every morning at the hour determined on, and in dark winter mornings just as the bed set me on the floor it lighted a lamp. Then, after the minutes allowed for dressing had elapsed, a click was heard and the first book to be studied was pushed up from a rack below the top of the desk, thrown open, and allowed to remain there the number of minutes required. Then the machinery closed the book and allowed it to drop back into its stall, then moved the rack forward and threw up the next in order, and so on, all the day being divided according to the times of recitation, and time required and allotted to each study.”

(John Muir – ‘The Story of My Boyhood and Youth’. 1913)


(image © )

desk drawing

(image © the Sierra Club )


On my first trip out exploring the Trossachs with one of the Park Rangers, we came across one of the elegant and solid aqueducts in the forests just outside Aberfoyle. The striking perfectly engineered, horizontal black trough contrasted with the millions of vertical softwoods in this vast plantation. There was something tantalising about the way it seemed to emerge from one side of the forest and, revealing itself briefly atop the three slender pillars, disappears again the other side. Much as you catch those rare glimpses of deer – long enough that you get a good look at them and you are reawakened to their presence, but just as quickly disappear again. You know they are there and when you spy one its a magical moment, but their invisible presence is everywhere.


There’s several of these aqueducts in the Loch Ard Forest. Some towering above deep valleys, others mere inches above the ground over smaller becks. These form an important supply route of clean water from Loch Katrine to the tenements of Glasgow.

In the mid 19th C. as the population of Glasgow grew, the supply of drinking water became a major issue. Originally water was taken from the River Clyde to water works above Cunningar Loop (where another couple of artists residencies are happening at the moment). However, frequent outbreaks of Cholera proved it to be a problem. The solution was to be found in the untouched waters of the Trossachs. In 1852, superstar engineer John Frederick La Troube Bateman – who had previously resolved Manchester’s drinking water issues – worked out that the 227million litres (50 million gallons) a day needed for the city could be made available by raising the water level of Loch Katrine by just 1.2m (4 feet).

The route from Loch Katrine to Mugdock reservoir in East Dumbartonshire then onward to the rest of the city was major feat of engineering. The supply is just gravity fed along the route – there are no pumping stations as far as Milngavie. The first 25 miles to the reservoir being the most challenging. the route being as direct as possible meant tunnelling through mountains and bridging deep ravines. The majority of the route lies in a 2.2m diameter brick lined tunnel under the ground. Mostly this was done as ‘cut and cover’ where the line was dug down then covered over. The foothills of Ben Lomond were more challenging. The longest single tunnel as the water leaves Loch Lomond was bored through hard bedrock at around 600ft below ground accessed by 12 shafts and drilled by hand – this was before the invention of pneumatic drills. There were 60 drills in constant use, with each drill bit only lasting long enough to drill an inch.

aquaduct ventillation

(aqueduct access shaft)

The apart from a couple of steeper falls, the aqueduct was built to a level fall of just 6 inches per mile. That kind of gradient is so slight as to be invisible  – not enough to make a football roll, but enough to ensure the water kept flowing and negate the drag caused by the brickwork.

Along the route are over 3 miles of bridged aqueduct. Here the water is carried over lower ground in cast and wrought iron troughs supported by stone pillars. The longest one (nearly 400m) is at Corrie.


It’s a level of precision and expertise that made such a scheme possible. You can’t but admire the skill to achieve that kind of detail in something hewn by thousands of hands without any powered machines – much the same way as John Muir’s inventions were so admired at the same time – the Loch Katrine Aqueduct was opened by Queen Victoria in 1859 and water reached the whole city by 1860 – the year John Muir showed his work at the State Fair. In fact both Muir’s machines and the aqueduct are powered by gravity and have their own relationship to time – two of the biggest constants.

I find something poetic about that relationship between precision engineering and the ruggedness of vast landscapes. Something definitely worth exploring further I think.

aquaduct 2

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Views (reposted)

N.B. – this post was previously published to my Tumblr blog

I broke into my volume of John Muir writings. I wanted to get a bit more insight into this idea of Wilderness and why he fought so hard to create the first National Parks in 1902. The over-riding thing about John Muir’s writings is that there’s a lot of them! Any notion that I could scan-read them for some choice quotes about wilderness were soon forgotten.  So, like every good thing – the best place to start was at the beginning and go from there.

The other week I had a great weather window to do some further exploring for a day. It seemed to be very limited – the days before were dull and showery and the day after looked like some heavy snow on the way for the peaks, but for one day the forecast was fine, cloudless even, with barely a breeze. The mountains were calling.

Breadalbane view 1

I’d settled on something I could walk to from my cabin, and not too ambitious – these hills are much more serious than the ones back home, so I didn’t want to push my luck and head straight for the nearest Munro. So I settled on Meall an t-Seallaidh (pronounced Melon Telly) – a Corbett of 852m.

I’d been interested in how people looked at the landscape here – how people had their own very specific viewing points. I hadn’t anticipated it was such a big thing. It seems that there’s great views to be had almost everywhere you look around here, and wondered if that looking at the view was merely the preserve of the tourist. Meall an t-Seallaidh roughly means the lump with the view, so it seemed a good place to look at the looking business.

It’s not a particularly well visited peak. The paths up the nearby Munros of Ben Vorlich and Ben More are well trodden and well marked. Last weekend I witnessed the popularity of Ben Vorlich – the South Loch Earn road strewn with cars parked along its verges, all full of people trekking up the mountain. I’m guessing that on a cold and not that clear day there must have been over a hundred people on its slopes. It’s part of the reason I don’t go up the Lake District Fells back home that often. Catbells in the summer is busier than the M6. I get the feeling some of the paths are like that here.

After following the upper railway line out from Lochearnhead I took the track up Glen Kendrum. I’d spotted the track on Google Earth – a made-up track gong right over the ‘wild land’ to Glen Dochart. Many of these Glens were used as routes through the mountains avoiding the tolls on the turnpike roads. Drovers stuck to these back routes when the turnpikes started to charge per head of cattle or sheep and in turn became more established rights of way. This track up over the pass is quite a substantial one, although still only really passable with a landrover.

cutting it fine with the daylight coming down the mountain

Shortly after entering the Glen, my route took me across the Kendrum Burn crossing at a narrow falls, then up the slopes of the southwestern flank. From a distance the ground looked good and grassy – there were plenty of sheep grazing it. However, it soon became apparent that this was classic water catchment land – reedy and occasionally boggy, but always hard going and uneven under foot. It looks easy on a map and I thought I’d be up it in a matter of minutes. An hour later and I was still struggling up – the top constantly revealing itself to be a little further away than it seemed – and grateful I hadn’t gone for anything bigger, when I came across someone sauntering up from another slope almost effortlessly. This was the first person I’d seen out that day. A sheep farmer from Balquhidder Glen he was up bringing in the ewes for dipping and tupping. He had two dogs, but there were another six hands out on the hills with probably another 16 dogs between them to bring down around 600 sheep. All blackface. The Swaledales (my own local breed) would come down for tupping even later. He keeps the Swaledales for ‘raking’ – they heft further out than the blackface and go to the extremes of the territory. Once tupped, all the sheep will go back out on the hills – it’s where the sheep are happiest.

bringing down the sheep

By this point I was up on the plateau and found the cairn on the un-named peak at 790m. Technically this was my first Corbett. Big sense of achievement. At this height the view point changes significantly as you see over the lower hills and theres a sense of community with the other real mountains all around. The big ones to the north particularly impressive with their big white cloaks of snow on.

Yet, for all this sense of ‘wild-ness’ there are stark reminders that this is still a working landscape. All along the ridge from the 790m cairn stride a line of metal fence posts. The marking of some once significant boundary between territories – erecting a metal fence up here is no mean feat. The cast iron posts are bolted directly into the exposed bedrock. None of that just knocking in a wooden fence post into the soil here. It’s a very determined delineation that says more about the perceived importance of ownership than anything else.

fence posts

Following the line of the fence posts it was an easier stroll up to the trig point on Meall an t-Seallaidh. By that point the sun had past it’s peak and the temperatures were beginning to drop fast. There was a light dusting of snow on the top revealing the boot print of another recent walker. It might have been another of the farm hands bringing down the sheep but there were no paw prints, so I suspect it was another lone walker. Where they came from and where they went I have no idea. I didn’t see another soul all day.

From the top you got an understanding of the importance of the viewpoint. from here there was an obvious line of sight down all the surrounding Lochs and Glens – Right down Loch Lubnaig, Loch Doine and Loch Earn. As a strategic vantage point you would be able to see anyone coming over Glen Buckie, Glen Ogle or Glen Kendrum. Looking over to the north west I got my first look at the ‘wild lands’ of Ben More. That tract of land between Balquhidder and Glen Dochart devoid of houses or roads even. That rare bit of almost pure nature.

view NW from Meall an t-Seillaidh

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