21 April 2009

A Mount Rushmore for Scotland?

With the long, strangling winding down of my term - with correlative essay commitments - I've been a touch distracted over the weekend. Nevertheless, I've a post or two brewing which are distinctly out of joint with the news cycle, and so won't hurt being left to condense for a few more hours.

To edify in the supervening gap, I thought I'd draw folks attention to the half-defunct, but to my mind, wonderfully mad scheme to blast and carve a vast Ossianic Warrior in the side of Ben Cruachan. The originator of this munro-maiming crusade is Sandy Stoddart, the splendid neo-classical sculptor whose fine rendering of Adam Smith has graced Edinburgh's Royal Mile since 2008 and whose (to my mind rather dafter) David Hume sits further up the Mile, tit-out, with a hardy masculinity of bearing and a Classical ripeness which I fear the goodly and portly Edinburgh philosopher did not himself possess.

I see that in a 2008 interview with the Scotsman, the interviewer writes:
"In the partitioned area set aside for maquetes, he sprays water on a tiny clay model of his "magnum opus", a "mammoth representation and celebration of the Ossianic phenomenon" earmarked for an amphitheatre site which will be hewn out of the ground at Ben Cruachan. With a finger and thumb, he twirls a tiny spike of clay to demonstrate the height of a man. "I've been trying for this for 15 years now, and we've got a bit of headway."
Naturally, when the idea was first mooted in the late 1990s, wooly-hatted, galloshes wearing nature lovers enjoyed a seismic spasm at the notion of knocking artistic lumps out of the side of a hill. Expect references to defacing the smooth and lovely face of Gaia. Or more lumpen equivalents. In fact, anticipate the very definition and fullest expression of lallands peat worrying.

Personally, I think it would be absolutely splendid. Ben Cruachan is just another ugly lump of rock anyway, hardly a loss.

I found this report in the no doubt much-thumbed - The Mountaineering Council of Scotland Newsletter no. 35 - February 1998 - which contains a little more information about the scheme as it was proposed ten years ago. As I noted, save for yon wee remark in 2008, I can't seem to find any further details about the progress which this splendid notion has made. Such a pity...


The MCofS has called for an artist's plans to create a 1,000 foot long carving on the side of Ben Cruachan to be dropped. A first stab at a debate occurred on Channel 4 News on January 15th, with Mike Dales and the artist participating.

This project is seen as a challenge to wild land. It's another example of man trying to control nature. That's not to say that it shouldn't be done in Scotland, but the mountains are not the right place. This is monumental art, and monumental art is a monument to the artist's ego. If this kind of carving is to take place it should be in a heavily developed area where it might actually enhance the landscape - perhaps in the central belt where it would be seen by far more people, and working conditions wouldn't be as extreme as those encountered on Ben Cruachan.

The artist is Alexander Stoddart from Paisley. In the TV interview Mr. Stoddart said: "If this project is about waging war in any way, then it wages a total war on the dumming down, perfunctory, temporal, polaroid world. After all, it is entirely normal for mankind to do this kind of thing. If you think of the great Buddha that's carved in the cliffs at Kaiping in China. 600AD I think. You think of the Crazy Horse project in America currently running. If you think of the great lines that were made on the plains of the Central Americas. All these things are natural for mankind to do."

Mr. Stoddart went on to say: "If you look at the great examples of 20th century mountain carving, a work of absolute genius, high taste and sensibility, conceptually wonderful, then complex. That's Mount Rushmore. You would have thought that the most famous carving in the world would have the name of its maker on everyone lips as a household name. Can you tell me who the man was, who erected that carving? Of course not, it's a tendency in great monuments that they obliterate finally the name of their maker for ever."

Also interviewed on the Channel 4 News were local councillor Campbell Cameron and WWF Scotland Director Simon Pepper.

Campbell Cameron spoke in favour of the plan, saying: "I think it's a tremendously imaginative project that Sandy has come up with, and that imagination has been caught by both the people and the councillors in the area. It's early days yet, because we've got a lot of work to do to actually move things forward, and indeed to bring the remainder of the public with us, which we must do."

Simon Pepper said that: "Scotland has got a number of white elephants lying around, some of which had artistic intentions some time ago, and others had more economic development intentions, and all of them are rather embarrassing white elephants littering the landscape, failures, disastrous failures."

Sandy Stoddart has chosen Argyll for this project because it is reputedly at the centre of the legends of Ossian. The figure that he wants to carve is Oscar, son of Ossian. Inspired by other giant rock carvings such as Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, Mr. Stoddart has chosen a granite mountain. There the similarity with Mount Rushmore ends. Ben Cruachan is made up of 5 different types of granite, and geologists describe the mountain as heavily jointed. With no visible faces of sufficient size on Cruachan, soil and vegetation would need to be stripped away to expose the rock, and the harsh West Highland conditions would also wear any newly exposed rock very rapidly.

The planned development is expected to take 40 years to complete, and employ 20 people. Some simple arithmetic suggests that the wage bill, at today's prices, is likely to amount to around £10M. Mr. Stoddart gave no indication on Channel 4 as to how he intends to fund this project, although Rory MacLean, who made the report, ended the article by saying: "The next job for the monuments backers is to see how much it will cost, and that's only a tiny part of the mountain they'll really have to climb to realise this vision."

Perhaps the last word should go to the locals who have dubbed the proposed monument as 'Chilly Willy' as the private parts of Oscar are particularly large and the winters cold."

1 comment :

  1. Stoddart is that rare thing in Scotland, a genuine genius. The scale of this proposal is beyond the wit of most. If like most civilised nations we spent as much as 1% of GDP on public art it would be a given, and a boon culturally and economically. Sadly, until Westminster is democratically obliged to take its boot off our throat it won't happen.