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…

About stevemessam

Artist, designer, curator and rural activist
This entry was posted in history, landscape, research, Uncategorized, walks, wilderness and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s