Today’s paintings for the Wells of Arthur’s Seat upcoming exhibition and event. All info Here
The two directly above are still in progress, nearly there!
Today’s paintings for the Wells of Arthur’s Seat upcoming exhibition and event. All info Here
The two directly above are still in progress, nearly there!
Today’s paintings of Arthur’s Seat …
I played around with different experiments and approaches today, just to see what works, so I’ll have a think about these in the meantime.
For the St Anthony’s Chapel painting, I was a bit inspired by the strangely beautiful atmosphere of Medieval paintings, such as those featured in the Medieval manuscripts – ‘The Book of Days’ (example below) I might work on that approach more.
I’ve also been working on the video for the project, as there will be a video showing the background to the project as part of the event.
As described in my last blog post, I’m exploring the history of Arthur’s Seat and in particular the way the wells were used for ancient healing rituals.
I’d discovered that St Anthony’s Chapel (painting above) was bult in the 12th century, but the nearby well (named St Anthony’s Well) had probably been used for many centuries beforehand as a place of worship or healing.
As mentioned, early Christian churches were usually built on or near sites of ancient worship. In the first place this was simply to encourage local people to incorporate Christian ideas with their own beliefs, but by the 16th century this had become unacceptable to the Christian church.
Martin Luther’s ideas for reformation of the Catholic church started out simply as a series of criticisms of corruption in the Catholic Church; one of his main points being that the church accepted payment for atonement of sins in lieu of confession and repentance, which obviously became a lucrative sideline!
The other complaint was that the worship of various Catholic saints was too similar to ancient ‘heathen’ practices of praying to or invoking numerous deities as the situation required, rather than one god. Also Luther believed that people could have a direct relationship to god, without requiring elaborate rituals by popes and the church hierarchy.
(By the way it’s probably best if I interject at this point to say that I don’t follow any religion and therefore have no prejudice towards any particular religion. Certainly I’m no expert on the subject! I thought I’d better explain this in case people assume I’m working towards a religious argument, when I’m simply showing the ways that religion was politicised or appropriated towards the aims of various rulers, whether from institutions of church or monarchy).
Luther’s observations made sense in many ways; but he’d never intended the subsequent actions during the Protestant Reformation which involved horrific violence, not least witch hunts, which were at their height during the reign of James VI of Scotland (First of England).
I won’t go into more detail about all of that though today, except as it concerns our well-worshipers on Arthur’s Seat. Some of their activities would have been viewed as devil worship at one time, not because they were running around naked, painted red and invoking Satan (as far as I know), but rather because their rituals didn’t invoke the one God of Christianity – they were not monotheistic, they invoked or prayed to a variety of deities, most often at those wells, springs or trees, which were believed to be sacred, or to have magical powers.
With varying details in each country or locality, this was a pan-European world-view in pre-Christian times, as explained by Aude le Borgne in her thesis, which I discovered online recently (* see reference/footnote at the end of this post).
Le Borgne’s thesis is a wonderfully rich source of information about the rituals people enacted at these wells, I’ve only read the part dealing with wells, but she goes into great depth about the possible meaning or beliefs behind the rituals.
You may have heard of ‘Clootie Wells’ (called Rag Wells in England). Clootie means cloth, in old Scots and to this day there are numerous wells around the British Isles, Ireland and France where people leave a rag, cloth or offering, yet few people even know why they do this!
According to Le Borgne, whose evidence comes partly from court trials held during the Reformation, there were numerous types of ritual held at the wells, for a variety of purposes such as healing, praying for better crops, or marking important times of year in the calendar such as the summer and winter solstices, or May day.
She describes; “the notion of balance that underlies this mode of thought – that human beings and supernatural forces share power..” and explains that understanding this is helpful as part of her explanation “to show how popular healing practices clashed with the Christian ideology”. *
To describe a typical ritual, according to Le Borgne, here’s how a visitor or healer may have conducted a healing ritual at St Anthony’s Well on Arthur’s Seat …
First they circumambulated the well, this was thought to ‘close off’ the area, to create a barrier or make it a safe space for healing to take place. It was also to stand aside from time, from the everyday, so a healer might circumambulate the well three or more times. The healer, or visitor would walk around the well “sone gaitis, deiseil, i.e. sunwise” *, or clockwise as this was deemed lucky, to walk around anti-clockwise was seen as dangerous; against nature, or possibly attracting ill will.
Le Borgne describes in some detail how ritualistic approaches followed a belief that balance of opposites was vital in all aspects of life. Disease itself was viewed as an imbalance of nature, therefore each action or event had a counterpart, or required a counterpart for healing.
Interestingly, if you explore ancient religions or spiritual beliefs, balancing opposites was often perceived as the aim of life in general – the attainment of wisdom and well-being. Yin and yang for example.
Water was seen as possessing this liminal property – an essence or quality of ‘the in-between’. A Christian, for example, might describe a spiritual place as being ‘a thin veil between heaven and earth’. Wells were perceived in a similar way.
Borgne observes that water was universally perceived as possessing healing or sacred properties – Scottish rituals included. Water might provide a cure through drinking, immersion, or by washing afflicted body parts, but although it was valid for anyone to practice these rituals, it was often the case that a healer or another person would conduct the ritual on behalf of the person with the ailment or disease.
A mentioned in my last post, which quotes an eye witness from the 19th century at St Anthony’s Well (from Paul Bennett’s book; Ancient and Holy Wells of Edinburgh) people would dip a piece of cloth in the water, then apply it to the place that was diseased. What that quote didn’t describe though, is that the cloth was then buried in the ground near the well, or hung on a nearby bush or tree.
Le Borgne explains that the practice of using, then leaving, a ‘clootie’ or piece of cloth has often been misinterpreted in various ways, i.e. as an offering, or as an act of cermonial union with the deity of the well, but in fact its purpose (apart from dipping it in the water and applying it to the place that required healing) is likely to have been to ‘ask’ the well, or deity of the well to dissipate or ‘take away’ the disease (it was seen as unlucky to touch any such ‘clooties’ if they were encountered near a well, so bear that in mind if you visit a Clootie Well!)
Again, the idea of balance was observed; by way of gratitude, the visitor or healer would then leave a token of thanks or offering at the well, most often a coin, nail, or wild flower. As propitiation.
I think one of the most interesting aspects of these rituals though, is that they were often conducted in complete silence. Le Borgne explains that this practice, which again is fairly universal as part of many sacred rituals, may have been because the deity or magical property of the sacred place is seen as inexpressible, or that human words can’t equate to or communicate with the spiritual nature of the sacred place, which is unknowable.
Silence was perceived as a form of respect to the power of the sacred place, and again, this has parallels with many spiritual practices across all beliefs and religions – meditation for one example.
With that thought, I’ll end today’s post and wish you a peaceful evening …
* Thesis by Aude Le Borgne:
CLOOTIE WELLS AND WATER-KELPIES:
AN ETHNOLOGICAL APPROACH TO THE FRESHWATER TRADITIONS OF SACRED WELLS AND SUPERNATURAL HORSES IN SCOTLAND
Aude Le Borgne. PhD, The University of Edinburgh 2002
(Please note, I’ve had no luck in finding contact details for Aude Le Borgne, I hope I’ve referenced the thesis accurately, and credited it sufficiently, but I’ll tag this post to make it clear I’ve quoted and referred to it. Any feedback or enquiries can be emailed to me at email@example.com)
Today’s finished painting of Edinburgh in the snow. I’ll be submitting this for competition next month, wish it luck!
The view is from Regent Road looking across to Salisbury Crags on Arthur’s Seat. In the foreground you can see buildings of the Royal MIle obscured by snow.
I’ve deliberately kept it vague since that’s how it appears as you walk into a snow blizzard along Regent Road, which is underneath Calton Hill halfway down to the valley of the Royal Mile or High Street (my photo below from a few weeks ago) …
I also wanted to get across the ‘feel’ of the Old Town, with its medieval buildings and wood timbers, hence the exposed wood in the painting and roughened edges, blurring old and modern buildings. Some close-up details below showing texture …
Edinburgh has just been voted the most popular tourist destination in the UK, and living here can make us a bit blasé about the features that make the city so unique and appealing, but the recent snow seemed to bring everyone out of winter hibernation. Arthur’s Seat was thronging with folks enjoying the snow – kids on sledges, a plethora of snowpeople! I slid about in the snow with my pal Donald, and it was great to see and experience…
And although I felt thwarted in my plans to get to the Cairngorms this spring due to train cancellations, I ended up appreciating Edinburgh instead. It is truly beautiful in the snow, hence these recent paintings (I’m working on a couple more).
So for those of you who don’t know so much about Edinburgh, and in the spirit of internationalism (and let’s face it, without the Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh would be a fairly boring place arts and people-wise, not-with-standing my dear Edinburgh family and friends!) I thought I’d include some brief words about Edinburgh’s history.
Briefly though, today I decided for the first time to check overall blog stats since 2013 and it turns out that visitors to this blog include folks from, in order of most views:
So, thank you to folks taking interest in an obscure Scottish painter’s blog!
Anyway, here we go with a condensed Edinburgh history (illustrated with my own photos) …
Edinburgh’s dramatic landscape was formed by volcanic activity that took place between around 358 and 298 million years ago.
The view from Edinburgh in my painting above sits between two of Edinburgh’s extinct volcanos – Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat. If my painting panned to the right you’d also see Edinburgh Castle on top of the volcanic plug that forms the base of the castle.
After volcanic activity ceased, the landscape was submerged under sea water. Sedimentary rock (formed by waves of sediment washed over the land by water over millions of years) then began to form the Salisbury Crags (the cliff seen in my painting and in photo to the right), which were gradually tilted up to their current dramatic angle as pressure eased after the ice age.
The ice-age sculpted Edinburgh’s landscape into the shape it retains to this day – for example the ‘spine’ that forms the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood House was formed by retreating glaciers dragging or depositing debris with them to create a trail behind each hill and mountain.
These rocky promontories must have had immediate appeal to early settlers as look-out spots; almost all of the summits of Edinburgh’s volcanic hills reveal signs of early bronze age people.
Although I’ve been walking around Arthur’s Seat since I was a kid, the fact that I now live so close to it has inspired me to explore more, and I’m beginning to get an ‘eye’ (with the help of my archaeologist friend Sabine!) for Bronze-age remains (shapes or patterns in the land as opposed to actual buildings) not to mention spotting Edinburgh’s early sites of worship, healing or spiritual interest – such as wells; the traces of which can be found alongside later Christian religious buildings and sites (more on this in later blogs).
If we’re thinking about a definitive beginning for Edinburgh though, it would clearly be the Castle Rock; easily defendable with its sheer basalt cliffs. It was called Dun Edin (‘dun’ means hill) and we know that there were settlers there from at least 850BC
As more people settled around the dun, or rock, the city would have grown in reputation as a stronghold or well-defended fort.
The castle itself (or the original building) was built from around the 12th century. To protect the growing city that began to grow along the ‘spine’ of the Royal Mile down to Holyrood Abbey, a wall (the Flodden Wall, remains of which can be seen today) was built around the city, and this was the catalyst for the distinct, tall buildings or tenements that lined the Royal Mile or High Street.
Builders built upwards, not outwards, because of the restricting wall. As centuries passed this created fairly unsavoury conditions (extremely unsavoury by today’s standards!). Packed into twelve storey tenements, Edinburgh’s effluent had nowhere to go and (readers from Edinburgh will groan with boredom at this point, having heard this story too many times) the oft-heard cry of gardez l’eau (pronounced GARRRDY LOO! with a strong Scottish accent!) rang in the streets as residents chucked the contents of their chamber pots into the filthy cobbled streets below.
(Edinburgh had long-held connections with France, for many reasons, hence the familiarity with French language)
Disease was rife, and no matter how posh you might be, you lived cheek-by-jowl with ordinary folks. On top of that, numerous open fires in such a small, over-inhabited space meant that the High Street was black with soot and smoke, hence Edinburgh’s nick-name of ‘auld reekie’ (old stinky).
This issue (for Edinburgh’s rich inhabitants anyway) was finally addressed when an architecture design competition was held in the mid 18th century and a young architect called James Craig won (I think he was in his early to mid-twenties at the time, I’m not fact-checking most of this but do correct me if I’m wrong!).
The plan was to create an entirely new area outside the High Street/Royal Mile, across the valley (which now contains Princes Street Gardens and Waverley train station) to the north of the old town, hence why this area of Georgian architecture is called ‘the New Town’ to this day.
All the filth that had accumulated in the Nor Loch (the loch or lake below and to the north of the Castle Rock) was dredged, this, and the detritus from building the new town, was used to form a bridge south to north from old town to new town.
This was called the Mound, and atop of this now sits two of Edinburgh’s most elegant buildings; Edinburgh’s National Art Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy of Arts (Stock photo above right, looking west along Princes Street).
Only the richest inhabitants of Edinburgh could afford this new luxury accommodation, so people in Edinburgh’s Old Town still had to muddle along with their chamber pots, and up to the 1970’s, the High Street was seen as a bit seedy. Nowadays, it’s the most distinct part of historic Edinburgh and the most popular tourist destination. It retains an extraordinary level of historical features, not disimilar to cities such as York, which was similarly ‘neglected’, thankfully, for the sake of history at least.
This brings us pretty close to the present day, but the18a and 1900’s were truly, literally, headier times to say the least. Maybe it was imbibing all that volcanic spring water, but Scotland’s Enlightenment (much of which was born from, or whirred around the hub of Edinburgh) is rightly perceived as impressive for a wee, chilly country in the north (read more Here)
As a born and bred Edinburgher, thinking about the sheer magnitude, depth and breadth of invention, creativity and brain power of Edinburgh’s Enlightenment days brings a tear to my eye!
Yet, as I wander around the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, the voices I wish I knew more about are those of Edinburgh’s less vocal past; ordinary folks who held sacred vigil at the wells of Arthur’s Seat, long before the hand of organised (politicised) religion silenced their voices and beliefs. We only know what their thoughts and beliefs may have been because of the numerous court cases at the time of the Protestant Reformation …
That will be the subject of my next painting series; the wells and springs of Arthur’s Seat. I know I’ve mentioned it several times, but it’s a bit ambitious, I’ve been researching alot – there is much mystery to reveal (genuinely, I’ve discovered some interesting, possibly new information about those times) and so I have now postponed the exhibition and event to the 21st June.
More snowscapes today. I’m leaning towards Edinburgh snowscenes – the contrast between white snow and the shapes of buildings. I might paint an interior view from a window looking out on to snow…
Today’s paintings – the painting from yesterday developed into a view of Edinburgh from snowy Salisbury Crags. At least I think that’s what it shows, I’m not sure it’s quite there yet. I don’t want too much detail though, or it’ll end up looking like a Chrsitmas card – maybe that’s not a bad thing!
Also some small works on 4×4″ wood blocks. I experimented with gesso and salt then put them in the oven which created a nice crackle effect…
I’ll work on these more tomorrow, but I’m quite pleased with the small one of odd coloured buildings. It’s of the 16th century Dutch colony buildings in Leith. If you wander in amongst the modern buildings you come across this interesting architecture here and there – a Dutch tower with yellow stucco walls and a teal blue tower with a silver dome – very pretty.
The Edinburgh snowscape also has a sprinkling of salt/glaze which makes the city look glittery in certain lights. I’ll have a think about that tomorrow in the daylight, the painting’s bigger than it looks here – 22.5×10.5 inches, a slightly odd size which suggested a panorama.
It got dark outside today with a sudden rainstorm at 2:30pm and the light didn’t really recover – the down side of painting in winter, but I’m really enjoying this series so far, and look forward to seeing them in the exhibition space which has white walls and wooden roof beams. I’m going to light candles and serve mulled wine on Thursday 10th December. More info here – Snowscapes