Following lines across the landscape – roads, canals, disused railway lines, desire lines – in an instinctive way, tracing the route of least resistance, reveals connections across space and time that are often unexpected. Walking between two prehistoric ceremonial centres in central Scotland – Cairnpapple Hill and Huly Hill – focused our attention on the spaces in between. Far distant from either of these ancient-yet-modern places, in a slump, many kilometres to go, we had a prehistoric encounter without knowing it. 30th April 2015, on a pilgrimage to Beltane, we encountered the Venus of Niddrie.
In Cal Flyn’s wonderful book Islands of Abandonment. Life in a post-human landscape (William Collins, 2021) there are a few entanglements with my own blogging, notably a trip to Inchkeith, my islands of animal and ceramic middens in Talus. My modest journeys around the post-prehistoric places of Scotland cannot compare with Flyn’s evocative depictions of resilient post-human places, but where out paths have crossed has made me think. Nowhere more so than the red shale bing landscapes of West Lothian.
Flyn writes about these bings. Silbury Hill-like red eminences and amorphous mounds that dominate the landscape around towns and villages such as Broxburn, Winchburgh and Niddrie; seen from the M8 motorway one is reminded of the red sandstone outcrops in central Australia. These awesome spoil heaps are nineteenth century remnants of an industry that extracted oil from shale for use as paraffin, a sort of Victorian fracking, which produced a lot of waste and changed this place, perhaps forever. These changes include many unintended consequences.
The mining and extraction industries of central Scotland have left behind these legacy landscape features, terraforming via waste products. There are familiar landmarks with names – the Five Sisters, the Mexican Hat. As Flyn notes, they are also places of rich biodiversity against all odds: “…ruinous, utterly neglected sites such as these have become refugia for wildlife”. Life as we know finds a way and it seems that this way is easier to find when humans leave it alone. Yet these are also weird and alien places, ‘quasi-Martian landscapes’ as Craig Robertson has called them, that had a troubling impact on the authorities and an unknown psychological impact on local communities.
Completely slipping my mind until I read the chapter in Flyn’s book focused on these ‘waste lands’ was the fact that these artificial miniature mountain ranges were a target for the artist collective the Art Placement Group (APG). I visited a fascinating exhibition about the work of this group at Summerhall, Edinburgh, in autumn 2016 called Context is Half the Work. As the exhibition notes explain,
“The Artist Placement Group (APG) was founded in the UK in 1966. The group initiated and organised placements for artists within industry and public institutions where they would research, develop ideas and projects in-situ. According to the APG principle, artistic practices and knowledge no longer needed to be confined to the studio, but the reach of the artist could extend to commercial, industrial and government contexts in order to contribute to social and organisational processes at all levels”.
The exhibition focused on seven projects delivered by the group working with different branches of government, the civil service, industry, and the media in UK in the 1960s and 1970s, including placements with British Steel and STV. One such project was work done by John Latham (1921-2006) across three months with the Scottish Office and Scottish Development Department (SDD) in 1975-76. (Sadly I can’t find my photos or booklet for this exhibition in my cavernous office and so I am relying on archived websites to fill in details in my memory here, especially the exhibition archive.)
As the Tate explains, the Art Placement Group was an attempt to radically change the role of the artist in society; during Latham’s placement with the SDD, he was tasked with “reimagining these giant spoil heaps … and finding them new purpose” (Flyn 2021, 36). This is when something remarkable happened, because Latham proposed that nothing should be done to the bings. “He attempted to save them from destruction by having them declared ‘works of art’” (Exhibition archive). His rationale was surprisingly prehistoric.
Latham argued that the huge shapeless shale bings around Broxburn and Niddrie were actually giant piece of land art representing what he called the ‘Niddrie Woman’. Cal Flyn notes that Latham suggested that they “had been constructed by 10,000 hands over decades, along the lines of ancient hill figures like the Cerne Abas Giant or the Uffington Horse” (pg 36). Flyn and Roberston both note that he even compared the arrangement of these bings to Palaeolithic ‘venus figurines’, while artist Lucy Lippert in 1983 saw a parallel for these artificial mounds in Silbury Hill, a Neolithic hill with sometime fertility associations. The different bings were allocated body parts of this woman – the torso, the heart, the head and the limb. This was a powerful reallocation of these bings from one sphere of human endeavour – the economic – to another – the spiritual.
Proposals for sculptures or beacons on the top of these bings never came to pass and it would be interesting to find out what civil servants who tasked him with rethinking these bings made of his ideas which were in effect a plea for them to be left alone and not redeveloped or removed. Robertson suggests that they found it compelling, but also notes that in hindsight Latham’s proposal “lacks objective analysis and by turns is sentimental and ponderous, philosophical and stoic. His commentary is biting and highly subjective, castigating planning decisions that failed to consider ‘the bigger picture’.”. One of the implications of his vision is that these bings are more valuable as land art than they are as industrial heritage, even if they are land art only by dint of him suggesting this to be the case.
The view from the air inspired much of Latham’s thinking about the Greendykes shale bings in particular, a collection of several spoil heaps. Robertson writes: “An aerial viewpoint was deemed by Latham to offer a perspective and scale of an otherwise unobtainable human consciousness, and played a hugely important role in his work.” This in interesting as the aerial view has been critiqued by archaeologists such as Matthew Johnson and Chris Tilley (and me!) as being reductive, detached, even non-human in relation to prehistoric possibilities. Latham’s consideration of the bings in West Lothian as being elements of the Niddrie Woman bring to mind the fantasies of the Nazca Lines, or Harry Bell’s Network of Alignments in Glasgow: confections created somehow that cannot have been viewed from above. Thus the Niddrie Woman is an impossible thing, illegible on the ground. Yet it is the spatial and temporal impossibilities that make the whole notion so compelling.
The Winchburgh shale bing is listed in Scotland’s National Record of the Historic Environment and is one of two of these shale bings to be Scheduled Monuments. Noted industrial historian John Hume called this a “spectacular shale-oil bing of flat-topped type” in his 1976 book The industrial archaeology of Scotland volume 1. This is far removed from John Latham’s visionary and eccentric characterisation of this landscape feature from the same year.
It was this bing that Gavin MacGregor and I encountered on our pilgrimage walk in 2015 where this blog post began. Our route from Cairnpapple Hill henge and cairns included passing through the partially ruinous Bangour Village Hospital (a former psychiatric facility), Uphall, then following a dismantled railway line from Ecclesmachan towards Niddrie and Winchburgh. The south to Newbridge and some standing stones.
But miles before Newbridge, ahead, lay the monstrous bing, and we were magnetically attracted to it, resisting routes of least resistance, cutting across the land.
We hugged along the south side of this bing closely on the footpath beside the Union Canal.
The red scree slope dominated our vision for about 15 minutes of walking, but at the time we did not understand this to be The Heart of the Niddrie Woman, the place where Latham’s ashes have been scattered.
The scree-slope plunged into the canal, bushes and scrubs hanging onto the side, almost on the verge of rolling down to the water, tumbling weeds, hinting at impossible fecundity. Cal Flyn wrote about the bings being symbols of fertility, Venus rising from the industrial ruins, prehistoric in all but name. If ‘Venus figurines’ were indeed teaching aids as some archaeologists have argued, then we can learn much from these giants.
Murdo MacDonald has written in The Drouth about a journey to the Niddrie Woman with John Latham in 1990, a different type of pilgrimage in a landscape of deep personal time. In this piece he also documents in detail the scattering of Latham’s ashes on ‘The Heart’ in 2006. This photo essay also includes evocative images of Latham surveying the different elements of the Niddrie Woman, a curious mixture of lunar wasteland and memorial to our extractive pasts.
When up close, one is struck by the stratigraphies of these spoil heaps, inverted geological strata, sections drawn into mounds that evidence this land being ‘stripped bare’ (as Flyn puts it) and reconfigured in random arrangements. There can be no definite purpose to these slopes and hollows, peaks and troughs, other than the convenience of disposal, and a lack of care for the living. One cannot help but admire the bravado of Latham’s act of landscape pareidolia, seeing patterns were there were none, summoning the spirits of prehistory to subvert our more recent heritage and its destructive tendencies.
On reflection, our pilgrimage walk passed by The Heart of the Venus of Niddrie with a respectful nod but little more than that. The red scree was almost too much to process, its meaning having been extracted by mining machines, leaving behind a waste product that escaped out imaginations, our sore feet, our hungry stomachs. Our focus was the prehistory where we began and ended our walk – and yet here it was in front of us in all of its scarlet beauty.
Sources and acknowledgements: this blog post was very much dependent on several sources that have been credited already in the text but for the sake of clarity these were:
Cal Fly 2021 Islands of Abandonment. Life in a post-human landscape (William Collins).
Murdo MacDonald date? John Latham’s Niddrie Woman photo essay. The Drouth.
Craig Richardson 2012 Waste to Monument: John Latham’s Niddrie Woman. Tate Papers 17.
Context of Half the Work. A partial history of the Artist Placement Group. Exhibition archive.
Lucy R. Lippard, Overlay. Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, New York 1983.
I would also very much like to thank Gavin MacGregor for suggesting and leading our pilgrimage walk back in 2016. May we do another – and soon.