An Equilibrium Not of This World – an impression

Projected diptych video, Edinburgh College of Art, Lauriston Place, for Edinburgh Art Festival 2013, by Katri Walker

I lived in Edinburgh for several years. That festival city, where there always seems to be some celebration of one form of entertainment or another at any one time. But last year I left, pulled to Aberdeen by a curiosity to live somewhere new, and to help my partner explore a new career opportunity. I miss those festivals, but I also miss those hills. I’ve talked about the Pentland Hills before. These hills lie to the southwest of Edinburgh, and are mostly protected as a Regional Park, and rest within the counties of Edinburgh, West Lothian, Midlothian and South Lanarkshire. The spectre of the Pentland hills loom large over the city of Edinburgh. There are a great deal of points within the city where the Pentlands can be glimpsed: a stilled, wild, rural and, perhaps most importantly, remote area. To the city of Edinburgh, these hills are always present, but always at a remove, not quite reachable for most; at least, not without some effort.

I used to often make my way to the hills. While the reality of the hills in their intimacy may not quite invoke the wild, stilled and remoteness that their distant viewing suggests (one hill pass is aptly named Windy Door Nick), the relative openness,

Still from An Equilibrium Not of This World, courtesy of Katri Walker.

Still from An Equilibrium Not of This World, courtesy of Katri Walker.

and quietness1 is apparent. In Katri Walker’s piece, she explores and gently reveals the way in which a retreat to the hills can manifest itself in the acting of hill running. As the promotional material puts it, it is about: “the dialogue between body and landscape, interior and exterior, man and machine”. The installation shows two projection screens alongside one another. On the right, a path through hills is tracked; a close up of shrubby branches twitching in the wind; a vista of mountains, with clouds floating through the blue sky above. On the left, the right screen’s loose correlates in the form of various analytic sequences and videos that tends towards the scientific investigation of running: stop animation of a runner (presumably on a treadmill in a lab) and a black and white scan of a beating heart; neurons sparking; a plot of inhale/exhale against a graph-paper background.

The installation took place in the Edinburgh College of Art, in a darkened studio. I sat on floor, staring at the screens, trying to take in the pair of images; wondering what the intention of the work is, and what it stirs within me. The sonic accompaniment too was significant (and wonderful). It featured music by Judith Weir, which flowed between deep, plaintive bowed strings, to a light, fluttering thrill on violin. In addition, there was the sounds of breathing, and of heart beating, weaving in and out of the music. The slow deep music, racing breath, and on the right hand screen, a view of the hill path, being tracked uphill: the sonic expression of the gruel of a climb. But as the descent begins, so the music changes: this is when it gets lighter, and sprightly, as the run goes down hill; buoyed by gravity: a dance with the landscape.

After my third or fourth viewing, the music cuts out. “It does this occasionally, and always at this point!” says the host at the door, by way of explanation. I assume this is a coincidence, though part of me wonders if this is a treat afforded to those who sit through more than a couple of viewings: a chance to have external noise fall away; a chance for my thoughts to come through more strongly. Up until this point, I have been viewing the film from a distance, as an object. Sure, I was trying to imagine my time in the Pentland Hills, and the physical exertion that entails, but all I was doing was calling upon my memories. But when the audio stopped, I suddenly become hyper-aware of myself. I was tired from travelling, and I realised I was shaking to the rhythm of my heart beat. The visual was still present, and my gentle rocking seemed to be a personal expression of the run. It was as though I had transcended that void between viewer and art; as though I had become part of the piece. Not as though I was running, more like my body shaking as the memory of rural exertion was bubbling up through my being (or at least, my-being-there).

Gravitated plants - taken by the author.

Gravitated plants – taken by the author.

Perhaps that’s what it’s really like? When we’re totally consumed by that moment, that experience, that immersion. After leaving the exhibition, I wandered down the corridor, lost in thought. Facing one wall, was a glass-topped display case. The glass top was angled towards the wall: this cabinet had been rotated through 180 degrees, to minimise its prescence; to show that it was not for viewing: that it was mere clutter; had not been removed in time for Edinburgh Art Festival. The case was almost empty. A white card held taxonomic tags, but most of the specimens that corresponded were not to be found. All that was left were a couple of dried branches, looking like heather or some other woody, scraggy shrub. This case wasn’t meant for viewing, but following my intense focus on Katri Walker’s installation, I was drawn in. That naming and taming of nature, subverted by carelessness; gravity pulling the plant away from its ‘label’: an unintended act against subjugation.

Later, I thought back to the Pentland Hills, to my time in Edinburgh, to the festivals. I was struck by how familiar that place was, despite all that had changed since leaving 11 months earlier. That city and its hills had fed into me, become entwined in my being. I had dragged my physical body away to Aberdeen, but I was threaded into this place, and it into me. As Andrew Grieg says:

There are some hills and people
we cannot return to,
because nothing would be the same,
because we never left them.
2



Notes

1 Quietness is deliberate, though not perfect. The hills are rarely completely quiet; conversley it’s not impossible to find peace within the city limits. It’s the contrast I’m trying to emphasise here.

2 Excerpt from Knoydart Revisited, in Greig, A, 2011, Getting Higher, Edinburgh: Polygon, p201

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Pentlands’ water

The Pentland Hills are many things. Destination for walking and other leisure time pursuits. ‘Working’ [sic] landscape for sheep and cattle rearing. Playground for gun-happy soldiers. It is also the key water supply for Edinburgh and urban centres to its east; like the Welsh hills to Birmingham, or the Lake District to areas to its south. That the Pentland reservoirs form such a significant part of its landscape is not up for dispute. But when it comes to Pentland water, what is there? What about other water, beyond the lochs? What of the reservoirs themselves?

Scarred Tree. A spider’s web protects the tiny water pool within. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Tree Ruin. An altogether more filthy tree-pool. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Where water industry becomes cultural heritage. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Water Over Water. Water supply versus river flow. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

One-Time Waterfall. Overflow from Glencorse Reservoir. Water supply engineering projects for Edinburgh mean this waterfall is no longer needed, as the water level in the reservoirs drops. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Abandoned Waterfall Pool. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Waterfall Reflection. Perhaps the waterfall will be served once engineering works are completed? Should it be? Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Waterfall Detail. Dried pleats of algae, or guano? Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Outflowing Stream. So recently abandoned plants are yet to recolonise. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Damn View. Glencorse Reservoir. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Reservoir Overflow with Submerged Wall. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Loganlea Reservoir Damn. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Not Just Water Supply. Fishing on Loganlea. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Sediment Revealed by Dropped Water Level. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Dual Reserve. Nature + water reservoir. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Boggy Thicket. Taken by the author. © Lines of Landscape

Pentland Remembrance – and beyond

The other day, I took a wander in the style of what some might call ‘cyclogeography’, but which I prefer to think of as merely ‘a bike ride in the hills’. On the edge of the Pentland Hills, which lie just to the south of Edinburgh, there stands a memorial. A look at an Ordnance Survey map will show its location, situated to the south east of the masthead that is Allermuir Hill (situated as it is on the city-facing edge of the hills), in the shadow of the imposing Castlelaw Hill, with its DANGER AREA, and red warning flag and the pop-pop-popping of the rifle-range guns, and a stone’s throw from the Woodhouselee clachan (or hamlet).

Map of Tytler Memorial. Taken by the author. (c) Lines of Landscape

The Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland in 1882-4 describes Woodhouselee as: “a mansion in Glencorse parish, Edinburghshire, 6 ½ miles S of Edinburgh and 4 N of Penicuik. Romantically seated on the eastern slope of the Pentland Hills”. As far as I am aware, there no longer stands the mansion or tower of Woodhouselee, though I’ve never explored the hamlet to find out.  If this is the case, it would be a shame – Will Grant thought it “one of the most delightful in all the countryside” (p66, Grant, 1951). The Titlow family has a long history in the area, being first found in Haddingtonshire, just out in East Lothian. Through time, the name got distorted to Tytler, the family branch of which became seated in Woodhouselee.

It is for the Tytler’s that this monument stands. Built in the 19th century, it commemorates various members of the clan, including Alexander Fraser Tytler, who was a professor of history at the University of Edinburgh and Lord of Woodhouselee. It faces down the hillside, looking across an open field, home to some sheep, cows, and some large ornamental trees (is this the remains of an arboretum, attached to the Woodhouselee estate?), and then over the town of Penicuik, with the Lammermuir Hills making up the horizon.

Tytler Memorial. Taken by the author. (c) Lines of Landscape

But the contradiction of this – and most – memorials is the direction they face. The photo above shows the front of the memorial, and the short view of the hill behind. In order to see the sweeping views out to the Lammermuirs, we must turn our back on the memorial, or stand behind it. But if a memorial is to stand in a landscape, like the menhirs in Francesco Careri’s Walkscapes (2002), then why doesn’t the face of interest also look away from the landscape? So one may view both landscape and the front of the memorial together?

This isn’t the first time I have paused for reflection at this memorial. There aren’t buildings in its immediate vicinity; this isn’t a graveyard – the memorial states that the graves are interred at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. I’ve stopped at this point before. Back then, I leant my bicycle against the rear of the monument, to stand in as a cypher for my own presence, as a means to frame the view behind in order to take a photo. The cross wasn’t significant – I could have leant my bike against a tree or fencepost. But what of the cross itself?

Rear of Tytler Memorial with bench behind. Taken by the author. (c) Lines of Landscape

But this time, there is something more. Since I last lingered here, a bench has been placed on slope behind the cross. Sitting on the bench, one is drawn to the vast view, with the cross at the neartohand. The plaque on the seat states “In memory of Mae and Will Hoggan who so loved these hills.” So this is a more modern take on the memorilaisation. But to what hills does this plaque refer? The horizon is filled with the Lammermuir Hills, but this bench lies unquestionably in the Pentlands. Just which hills did they love?

In 2009, John Wylie considered the memorial benches overlooking a Cornish cove. He conceives of the landscape as being criss-crossed by multiple gazes – gazes of those who are absent, where the benches become those who are absent, and the person sitting on the bench manifests the gaze of the spectre: “looking-with – a host of ghosts and memories” (Wylie, 2009, p277).

It’s a curious notion. As I sit on the bench, I manifest the gaze of the missing couple (whether they like it or not). The bench-and-me becomes the absent. And so too for the cross. The reason the cross faces across to the Lammermuirs is precisely NOT to frustrate those who come to remember those passed. It is because, in the process of creating a memorial, it becomes the very thing it is there to remember. The physical remains of the Tytlers may not lie here, but there forever remains their eternal gaze, facilitated by the cross. The family motto becomes a suitable epitaph: Occultus non extinctus: hidden not extinguished.

The hills so loved by Hoggans become apparent. It is the Pentland Hills, but not just for the hills in themselves, but for the views across the landscape that these hills afford. For while the Pentland Hills may have a neat line drawn around them when viewed on  the map, a categorisation that assists both users and unitary authority in their making their way around, it is these views across lines-of-concept that give the hills their life – even in death.

References

Francesco, C, 2002, Walkscapes: walking as an aesthetic practice, Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili

Grant, W, 1951, The Call of the Pentlands: a land of glamour and romance, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd

Wylie, J, 2009, Landscape, absence and the geographies of love, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 34:3, 275–289