The rhino on the bus stop

5 Dec

The villages of Holywood and Lincluden, ‘suburbs’ of Dumfries, have between them two very different monuments. One is what we would regard archaeologically speaking as a monument, the 12 Apostles, a proper old-school stone circle made of chunky boulders of local rocks erected in an elliptical setting. The other is a cast of a rhino on top of a fake bus-stop. How can we begin to make sense of any of this?

the 12 apostles

In the 1980s, or early 1990s, depending on who you believe, artist Robbie Coleman, after consultation with local school children, created a fibreglass rhinoceros to be placed on top of an otherwise unremarkable bus shelter in Lincluden on the northern outskirts of Dumfries. When I was a student, participating in excavations at nearby Holywood, we passed this weird site / sight most days. The power of the piece and its memorability for me derived from the curious juxtaposition it represented. The sculpture of a rhino on a plinth, or in a park (such as Christine Hill’s sculpture Black Rhinoceros, in the Hancock Museum, Newcastle), or presented as one of a group of wild animal statues would have been unremarkable. A bus stop with a miniature bus stuck on top, or associated with a statue of a poor commuter huddled beneath an umbrella bent into the wind would have seemed appropriate. It was the combination of these particular elements that stood out in my memory, a hybrid of beast and bus stop.

The rhino in 1995

This structure seemed to have no fixed or definable purpose. It was, all at once, a functional and rather mundane place, but also a fine and visually pleasing work of art. This is not to say that art cannot be associated with functionality, but that we do not readily imagine art in terms such as the route of the old Western Scottish No. 14 or the MacEwans No. 100 bus. The bus stop could be said to be the epitome of modern urban placelessness, a transit point where people mostly congregate to go somewhere else, or be nowhere. The network of connections from this place stretch across large parts of southern and central Scotland, from Dumfries itself to as far away as Edinburgh. Journeys could be defined as starting, or ending at the rhino, and a glimpse of its shiny grey hide from the bus in the early evening may have evoked feelings of ‘home’ and dwelling for local commuters. The bus shelter was also a starting point for a cycle trail, again serving as a place to leave, but not to stay at for too long. The static structure of the bus shelter existed only to facilitate movement.

Picture from Hume bookAs with other public structures such as this, alternative functions were developed by the local community. While the rhino appeared not to suffer from vandalism, the same could not be said about the bus shelter, a focus for graffiti, littering and other anti-social behaviour. The appropriation of such an authority space for alternative and illicit activity seems inevitable (as I have also found on my travels visiting stone circles and henge monuments in central Scotland). Yet the beast remained immune to graffiti. The respect for the rhino may have been due to its cute face, some form of social pride, or simply that it was difficult to reach for the casual vandal. Perhaps the rhino and the bus shelter were regarded differently by the local population rather than as a package (although later events would contradict this).

Furthermore, the perspective of the user may have affected the experience. From outside the bus stop, the rhino would have been clearly visible, but from inside, there would be no indication that this was anything untoward up above other than a normal drab bus shelter roof, the rhino being impossible to see from directly beneath. Therefore, when being used for its mundane purpose, the bus stop ceased to be a work of art for the user; its aesthetic qualities could only be appreciated by detached observation.

How might we engage with this puzzling monument from an archaeological perspective? We could start with an engagement with the materiality of the sculpture itself, and what it might symbolise. There are five types of rhino that are currently living in the world today, each with their own distinct geographical distribution and physical characteristics. The five types are: Indian, White, Black, Javan and Sumatran. Which of these is the Lincluden rhino? Several of these types can be discounted quickly: our rhino has one horn and so cannot be a Black or White rhino, as both have two horns. It also cannot be a Sumatran rhino, as they are bi-horned, and also have a brown, hairy appearance, whereas the Lincluden rhino is grey and hairless. This leaves us with two rhino types: the so-called Lesser One-Horned rhino, the Javan, and the Greater One-horned Indian. Both are largely grey in colour and hairless with ‘armour plates’, so the only way to differentiate here is based on size; at c2.5m in length, the sculpture seems at face value to be a large Javan rhino. However, it seems more likely to be a female Indian Greater One-horned rhino, rhinoceros unicornis, as later events were to prove. It is difficult to tell if the rhino has been given a semi-prehensile upper lip, another characteristic of the Indian rhino. There remains the possibility that the rhino is simply an idealised version of what we think a rhino should look like, a caricature, hewn using artistic licence.

The typical habitat for an Indian rhino is the grasslands and plains of Nepal and India, where the creature grazes on the vegetation and shrubbery; in this respect, the statue would appear to be environmentally out of place. And the rhino is a naturally fast runner, with a top speed of 28 mph, just within the urban speed limit for Lincluden (although not the ubiquitous ‘twenty’s plenty’ zones).

In more recent years, as the original erection of the monument faded into the distant memory of the local community and the rhino became part of the urban furniture of the Lincluden landscape, it came under threat, an endangered species. The upgrade of the A76 Kilmarnock to Dumfries road in 1998 meant that the location of the bus stop became vulnerable. Ironically, the statue of the land animal in the world second in size only to the elephant was to be displaced by a trunk road. After some discussion and lobbying by local school children, it was agreed that the rhino would be relocated a hundred metres or so from its original location, this time perched on top of a mock bus shelter. It was also accompanied by a second rhino, this time a calf. The new non bus shelter was set in a patch of grass by the side of the newly improved A76 where it quickly took on the appearance of another piece of urban furniture, looking rather like an elongated brown tardis.

the rhino reinstalled in 2006

rhino and mother

The movement of the rhino, and the replacement of the bus shelter with an idealised representation of a bus shelter, moved the structure into an altogether different category. No longer a functional focus for travellers and those sheltering from the rain, it was rendered a folly, a piece of pure art. Its appearance re-calls the original, but lacks its authenticity and purpose. The bus stop is half the size of the original, the wrong colour, and has no windows. Its survival in this fossilised form was largely due to community pressure not to lose the rhino and so it is interesting that the bus shelter element of the structure was retained as well; it is as if the rhino had become so bound up with the idea of the bus shelter that without it there was somehow a loss of meaning and authenticity. Furthermore, the addition of a baby rhino seems to be a metaphor for the re-birth of the statue, and perhaps even the community who now could access Dumfries two minutes quicker in the morning. The presence of a young rhino suggests that this is in fact a female, not male rhino. It also hints rather whimsically that without the regular presence of commuters, the adult rhino may have needed some company. In the wild, this relationship would be known as a ‘stable association’. The gestation period of a rhino is 15-16 months, about the same amount of time it takes to upgrade a major A road.

In its current location, in a park and not the roadside, more prominently visible from the main road than previously, the rhino and rhino junior have the potential to be appropriated by different constituencies, from the fleeting glance of drivers passing by, to the bemused gaze of customers of the new MacDonalds across the road, to another focus for urinating dogs. As one passes on the road by car, the plinth is obscured, giving the appearance that the rhino are hovering in mid-air; the rhino on the bus stop has the potential to become mythologized (and may already have been). It could easily have taken on a life of its own within the local community, perhaps with an affectionate nickname (Ronnie the rhino is one example). Stories have become attached to it, some oral, others recorded on the internet. There is a rumour locally that children, and not an artist, made the initial rhino, and there have also been rumours that the adult rhino is in fact not the original one. A similar rhino has been spotted on the roof of a second hand car dealer in Port Glasgow, Clyde View Car Sales, and its origins are unclear but some say it has travelled from Dumfries. Rhinos tend to have a territory of up to 20 km² so a migration of this distance would be unusual, but it does appear to belong to the same species (or at least came from the same cast). One can imagine stories about the rhino told to children in the same way as standing stones developed mythological associations, that it is a petrified real rhino that was caught breaking the Sabbath or dancing with the devil at dawn. Perhaps it is a stuffed and embalmed real rhino, the secret pleasure of a mad taxidermist who watches it from afar with binoculars.

the port glasgow rhino

I have tried to engage with the rhino on the bus stop in the same way as I would a megalith that I encountered in the field. I deliberately did not delve too deeply into the construction or planning of the monument, and consequently found myself trying to make sense of it through reading the arrangement of architecture and the biography of the site from personal experience and some rudimentary research. Some of the traditional things that archaeologists do with megaliths and monuments would have been less helpful. The concept of empirical recording of the site was of little importance: the exact length of the bus stop or the rhino’s weight seemed to me of little significance in helping make sense of the meaning and function of the monument for instance. Rather I concentrated on elements of the structure that would also be of interest if this were, say a stone circle or chambered cairn: location in the landscape, the relationship between bodily engagement and architecture, symbolism and material culture.

measuring the rhino 2006

Like Neolithic monuments, the Lincluden rhino is dynamic and contested, more than the physical sum of its parts. It was planned and built in circumstances that are becoming less well-remembered, it has embodied a number of functions, its appearance and component parts have changed through time, it has served a number of roles, it means different things to different elements of the community, it denotes identity, it has a biography, it has been appropriated and it carries meanings. Like Neolithic monuments such as huge standing stones, it seems an ostentatious folly, weird and alien to our modern eye. Can we draw comparisons between monumental art, landscape art, and prehistoric monuments? Recently in archaeology it has become fashionable to gain inspiration from artists and art, although here I am not drawing inspiration from the art itself but how narratives can be spun around the monumental. Our engagements with Neolithic monuments are like this: contingent on the observer, open to negotiation, ambiguous, and quite probably wrong in many respects. Even geophysical survey and excavation in 1997 failed to make any sense of the 12 Apostles, and we are left with these kinds of engagements, walking up to and around the stones, spinning stories and narratives, imagining what the builders and users were thinking, and then getting a bus.

Sources: much of the basic information on the rhino comes from The Scotland Magazine, issue 6 dated 15 October 2005 and Hume, J 2000 Dumfries and Galloway: an illustrated architectural guide, The Rutland Press, pg 6 (also source of the second image used above). The Port Glasgow rhino image was sent to me by Ray MacKenzie. The report on work at the 12 Apostles stone circle can be found in this book: Thomas, J. 2007 Place and memory: excavations at the Pict’s Knowe, Holywood and Holm Farm, Dumfries and Galloway, 1994–8. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

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5 Responses to “The rhino on the bus stop”

  1. John Douglas July 18, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

    the Rhino of Dumfries was immortalised in song by the band I am in, The Trashcan Sinatras.. I wrote the song about our adventures heading South in pursuit of musical glory.. The Rhino was one of the mant wonders that we encountered .. Here is the video we made that features a brief glimpse of the beast https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXXmcYpngGg

    • balfarg October 6, 2015 at 10:27 pm #

      God, how did I miss this comment!? What a great video and the rhino does make a striking appearance. It really is one of the wonders of the south. Cheers! Kenny

      • John Douglas October 6, 2015 at 10:49 pm #

        cheers Kenny .. glad you like the video

  2. Anne Denniston November 15, 2015 at 1:26 pm #

    The choice of a rhinoceros could be due to the poet Robert Burns, who lived and died in Dumfries.
    He described the people of Dumfries as having “more idea of a rhinoceros than a poet”.

    • balfarg January 22, 2016 at 1:36 pm #

      Thanks – that’s interesting, I have not heard this before! Quite a curious comment to make especially as rhinos would have been very exotic back in his day…

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