Service stations are strange places, transient and uniform, over-expensive and by definition next to loud motorways. In general, they get a bad press, although in a strange way some are a welcome sight when finishing an especially tiring stint of motorway driving. The contradictory nature of these places (which are never incidentally ‘stations’) is perhaps why efforts are continually being made to prettify the buildings and surrounds, which nowadays includes the default exploitation of public art in various forms. (Art seems to be an obligatory element of most new public facilities nowadays, with new schools and hospitals coming to resemble vast art galleries that most visitors / consumers simply ignore.) And one of the most memorable examples of this trend in Scotland was a short-lived mural at Abington Service Station which depicted aspects of the long-term occupation of the surrounding landscape, all the way back to prehistory. Despite the mural now being a thing of the past, presumably painted over, I took a fieldtrip there a few days ago to remind myself what it was all about.
The mural was painted by David Fisher at the Abington Service Station, in South Lanarkshire, a facility serving junction 13 of the M74 motorway, which connects the M6 with Glasgow. It was one of 13 huge murals painted by Fisher in service stations between 1987 and 1993, commissioned by the Trusthouse Forte network. Some of his other service station murals include Gretna (M74), Woodhall (southbound M1), Pease Pottage (M23), Sedgemoor (M5) and Membury (M4). In each case the mural depicts scenes from the history of the general area, or associated events and activities.
The murals tend to fill up big and sometimes unusually proportioned wall spaces at the service stations, wrapping around multiple walls. Fisher felt that this was a positive contribution to service stations which he described as ‘dreadful’. Although the M74 was initially constructed here in the 1960s and opened in 1964, the Abington service station is a much newer aspect of this road, having been opened (according to a shiny plaque near the entrance) on the 17th June 1993. This means that it is almost certain that Fisher’s painting was commissioned for the opening of this new facility.
In the case of the Abington service station, the mural appears to have been inspired by the diverse series of historical stories and archaeological sites associated with the area, including Bronze Age settlement, Iron Age enclosures (see the photo above) and a Roman fort. Despite appearing to be in the middle of nowhere, Abington (and neighbouring village Crawford) sit at the junction of two major natural routeways, utilised for thousands of years and now filled with a motorway and other main roads, power lines and a railway track. And the mural is a reflection of a rich local identity – the people who once lived in this area, the stories attached to this place, the historical significance, the time-depth, the people. And it was extensive in scope spatially as well as temporally, covering several wall panels, wrapped around the entrance area.
One panel of the mural depicted a stereotypical Bronze Age ‘celtic’ style character, all blond hair and muscles, standing in front of a timber roundhouse, the des res of later prehistory in Britain. Standing within the doorway is a huddled pair of women / children, presumably the family of the spear wielding chief. They appear to be sheltering from the sudden gust of wind that has made the man’s cloak billow enigmatically. Beneath this scene of MBA (middle Bronze Age) family life, written in a scroll, is the legend: ‘Lintshie Gutter Bronze Age village 1500-1200BC’. Lintshie Gutter?! What kind of name is that for a village? And did they even have villages in the sense of the word we understand 3500 years ago in rural Scotland? Er, probably not, but is more effectively conveys to the public what the drawing depicts than the reality, Lintshie Gutter unenclosed platform settlement (known to archaeologists by the snappy acronym UPS).
Lintshie Gutter is a Bronze Age settlement that was excavated during the upgrade of the A74 to the M74 (or A74(M) if you want to be pedantic) in the early 1990s by GUARD, a commercial archaeology unit with the assistance of the Biggar Museum Trust. The excavations were funded by the Scottish Office Industry Department (Roads Directorate) under the auspices of Historic Scotland. The site is National Monuments Record of Scotland number NS92SW 28. It is located about 5km to the south of the service station.
The site was historically known as Hurl Burn, and A. Graham recorded its existence in an overview of cultivation terraces in southwest Scotland, published in 1939 in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
It was one of over 130 ‘cultivation terrace’ sites identified by Graham in southern Scotland, although at that time the study of these sites was still in its infancy. It is probable that Graham confused cultivation terraces with house platforms on the Hurl Burn hillside, according to John Terry (not the footballer) in his Lintshie Gutter excavation report. Regardless of how we characterise such humps and bumps in the moorland landscape, such features are nowadays recognised as indicative of later prehistoric settlement and farming activity.
The serendipitous excavations at Lintshie Gutter, provoked by the motorway upgrade, revealed an amazing level of detail about this small settlement in a busy, yet remote location. Excavations focused on eight possible hut platforms. These are essentially flat terraces set into the hillside, upon which a timber round house would have sat; these buildings therefore were situated on slopes rather than the flat valley bottom, an early example of landscape manipulation.
Excavations identified a number of timber round house remains, with structures ranging in diameter from 8m to 13m across. These building would have had turf or thatch conical roofs, and walls of wattle and daub panels. Most buildings had an internal hearth, some had an oven inside, and quernstone fragments discovered during the excavation suggested cereal processing had gone on as one would expect while coarse domestic pottery was also being made and used. Not all buildings were houses, and at least one stock enclosure was identified.
Lintshie Gutter offers a remarkable insight into a way of life we have little conception of today. At least 30 timber buildings straddled the hillside here, probably not all contemporary with one another, but all built and in use in the first half of the second millennium BC (earlier than depicted in the service station mural). Such settlements were fairly typical in the Bronze Age in southern Scotland and northern England, and are usually situated in places that would now be difficult even to farm, never mind live, a result of the slightly more favourable climate enjoyed in Scotland for much of the 2nd millennium BC.
A few days ago I visited the service station at M74 junction 13, although even before my visit I knew from previous visits that the mural, Lintshie Gutter painting and all, is no longer visible, a victim of the revamping of the facility which happened at some point over the past few years. Fisher himself lamented the fate of many of his murals which have now disappeared, some painted over, others destroyed by renovations. He said in an interview a few years ago, “it saddens me more to learn about the murals which have gone forever than ones which have been covered up; there is always the chance they will be rediscovered.” I asked a few members of staff when the mural had been painted over – someone who had worked there for two years told me there had been no mural in her time, offering a terminus ante quem for the paint job. Another member of staff vaguely remembered the paintings, dating to a time when the café had been a ‘Red Hen’. A third told me the service station was always being changed and redecorated, fitting for a place populated by people who are always on the move.
All that remains now in the foyer of the service station, where the mural used to be, is a harsh red painted wall, framing a Starbucks. The multiple layers of paint overlying the mural could be viewed as akin to the layers that archaeologists at Lintshie Gutter stripped in order to rediscover a long-lost Bronze Age settlement. Sadly, David Fisher died earlier this year, but some of his murals do still live on, such as at Gretna and Sedgemoor. And perhaps one day, someone will apply some paint stripper and reveal once again his vision of the historic – and prehistoric – South Lanarkshire uplands.
Sources: The Lintshie Gutter excavation was published in volume 125 (1995) of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and was written by John Terry (not the footballer). This report is freely available online via the Society’s website. The oven illustration was derived from this report. The image of the mural itself was sourced from David Fisher’s website, which is a wealth of information on his service station murals but also his other projects. The quotations about the service station murals came from an interview he did with The Mendip Times, reproduced on Fisher’s website. The Lintshie Gutter photograph was sources from SCRAN, while further info about the road upgrade, and archaeology (and the road building image) can be found on the Biggar Museum Trust webpage. For a little more on the history of the M74, see the online UK Motorway Archive.