Head of the Holy Loch

George Henry, Head of the Holy Loch, 1882, oil on canvas, 59.1cm x 89.5cm, Kelvingrove Scottish Art, Glasgow Museums,  Glasgow  
Image: licensed under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/  

George Henry was one of the progressive artists known as the ‘Glasgow Boys’. In this picture he boldly abandons the mists and highland peaks beloved of the Romantic tradition to evoke what a period critic called ‘a stretch of flat marsh-lands bordered by the sea, with hills in the distance, all suffused in strong sunlight’.[1] Swooping gulls complement the slower arcs of silver, brown and green traced by water, peat, and bog-grass: here is a wild, elemental place, where the peat guards its secrets, and a rough track is partly submerged by the pooling bog. It’s hard to imagine that by the mid twentieth century, Holy Loch will be a state-of-the-art naval base, with nuclear warheads at nearby Faslane. 

In the snaking track and circling gulls, Henry indeed seems almost to recapture something of the sinuous patterns of Celtic art, that in 1890 would form a focal element of his Druids bringing Home the Mistletoe (Fig 1). Painted in collaboration with Edward A. Hornel, who was an amateur archaeologist, and inspired in part by prehistoric ‘cup-and-ring’ rock markings on moorland at High Banks, near Kirkcudbright (Fig. 2) [2] the Druids contributed to the late nineteenth-century ‘Celtic Revival’. Led by the botanist and polymath Sir Patrick Geddes, this looked to the ancient Celts’ perceived closeness to nature to inspire modern social and national renewal. 

However, the lunula (golden collar) in the Druids held by the bottom right Druid, and echoed in the decorative picture frame, does not actually fit the subject chronologically, and is essentially an evocative rather than ‘literal’ element. Likewise, in The Head of the Holy Loch, the silvery reflections and the golden cloud caught in the ‘strong sunlight’ add an almost transcendent note; a reminder that Holy Loch takes its name from Saint Munn’s arrival there from Ireland in the seventh century. A church in Munn’s name had been built where a ‘vessel from the Holy Land, laden with consecrated earth for the foundation of the cathedral of Glasgow’ had been stranded on the loch’s shore.[3] In this sense, Henry creates a logical prelude also to The Star in the East that he painted with Hornel in 1891;[4] a work illustrating the birth of Christ, in which, as in The Druids, they used actual gold leaf to create symbolic and decorative reflections. But if these later works, one pagan, one Christian, are overtly mystical, then the alchemy of water, land and light in Head of the Holy Loch already reminds us that wetlands, as liminal sites, are themselves traditionally associated with memories, visions, and the otherworldly.[5]

The gold lunula is an example of one of the earliest artefacts made of metal; they belong to the Late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. Scottish examples were either imported from Ireland or made locally from Irish gold. Lunulae were commonly found as part of hoards of precious metals and artefacts, collections of objects that are buried together, sometimes tens of items. A common trend during the Bronze age was to bury hoards in boglands, perhaps here also representing the importance of peatlands as liminal places in the prehistoric world.  At Dunfierth, Co. Kildare, Ireland, for example, four gold lunulae neck ornaments were deposited together in a bog. Objects in gold hoards were often found in pairs and appear to represent personal objects; Fig 3 shows an example from Cornwall. In contrast, druids feature in accounts by the Roman author Tacitus with reference to the conquest of Britain by the emperor Claudius in AD 46, some 2000 years later!

The cup and ring marks found on rock across Atlantic Scotland (often taking the form of outcrops on areas of moorland) are known as prehistoric ‘rock art’; generally, they are abstract symbols and motifs.[6] The most common of these are cupmarks (a circular hollow in the rock); these are often surrounded by concentric rings – cup and ring marks, such as the ones from Achnabraeck, also surrounded by moorland, near Kilmartin Glen, Argyle and Bute, one of the finest panels in Scotland (Fig 4). Curved linear motifs are also common (grooves). There is also a range of variations of these main forms. There are at least 2400 carved rocks across Scotland, mostly in Argyle and Bute; Dumfries and Galloway; Perthshire and Angus, mostly on boulders and rock outcrops, close to places were people lived and farmed.  Many date to the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, between about 6000 and 4000 years ago.  Rock art is also found across northern England, Cornwall, Ireland (north and south-west) and north-west France and there are distinct regional variations in their forms and shapes. We know very little about what their purpose or meaning is but they were clearly of major spiritual importance to the people who carved them.

Fig 1: George Henry and Edward A. Hornel, The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe, 1890, oil on canvas, 198.3cm x 198.3cm x 9cm, Kelvingrove Scottish Art, Glasgow Museums, Glasgow. Image: licenced under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/
Fig 2: Digital scan of High Banks 4 Rock art, Kirkudbright; High Banks, amidst the Galloway moorland, is one of the best displays of rock art in Dumfries and Galloway. ScRAP copyright HES[7]

Fig 3: Gold lunula (Gwithian, Cornwall), with engraved geometric decoration at terminals and around edges (Museum number 1838,0519.1). 
© The Trustees of the British Museum under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence.
Fig 4: Achnabraeck Rock art panel, Argyle and Bute, Scotland, showing cup and ring marks and linear motifs. Photo: Phil Barratt.

Clare A.P. Willsdon and Nicki Whitehouse

[1] David Martin, The Glasgow School of Painting, Edinburgh 1976 (first pub. 1897), p. 24.

[2] See note 9 of Myths, Legends and the Spiritual Introduction for further information. 

[3] Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1846, Vol. 1, p. 336.

[4] Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Glasgow.

[5] As discussed in Abbi Flint & Benjamin Jennings, ‘Saturated with Meaning: peatlands, heritage and folklore’, in Time and Mind, Vol. 13 (3), p. 292, and pp. 295-6, doi: 10.1080/1751696X.2020.1815293, and especially D. Meredith, “Hazards in the Bog: Real and Imagined” in Geographical Review Vol. 92 (3), 2003, pp. 319–332. doi:10.2307/4140913. Bog-sprites and will o’the wisp (negative) and fairies (generally positive) are amongst the imagined ‘beings’ in wetland folklore.

[6] See the Scottish Rock art web site for additional information: https://www.rockart.scot

[7] Information on this site may be found here: https://canmore.org.uk/site/64442/high-banks-1?display=collection; an excellent 3D model of one of the rock panels may be viewed here: https://www.rockart.scot/rock-art-database/?scrapToolsaction=datatools:panel&id=23DC454F-89FE-48CB-90732FF6ED579A2E