November A Pond

Frances Macdonald MacNair, November A Pond, c.1894, Pencil and watercolour on grey paper,
32 x 24cm, The Glasgow School of Art.

Purple glands, like those of the Drosera (sundew) plant, close in on two tiny, emaciated figures with diaphanous, nascent wings – the ‘nymphs’, surely, of the dragonfly’s life-cycle. Sticky dots shaped like eyes and mouths exude from the tallest Drosera glands, and two of the glands seize and force apart the nymphs’ heads. This pond is clearly a bog-pool, where Drosera grow; plants that had been the subject of much research by Charles Darwin, because they blur the boundary of plant and animal worlds, trapping insects with their glands, and ‘eating’ them with secretions.[1] If, in folklore, bog-pools are liminal, ambiguous places, where unsuspecting travellers are lured by bog-sprites, [2] then their mischief is surely here reborn in terms of modern science: the ‘nymphs’ cry out, chins defiant, hands supplicating; here is a Darwinian struggle for survival.

But A Pond is clearly no mere scientific diagram. Macdonald was, after all, one of the ‘Glasgow Four’, including Charles Rennie Mackintosh, whom the press had nicknamed the ‘Spook School’ on account of their formal stylisations.[3] We should also perhaps recall that when adult dragonflies mate, the male seizes the female’s head. Do Macdonald’s Drosera mischievously mimic this, so that, in the ultimate ambiguity, death becomes procreation; even new life? The ‘Celtic Revival’ movement, with which the Glasgow Four were linked, was certainly seeking to build a new Scotland based on the values of the past. It used Celtic interlace (always returning on itself), as found on the objects being discovered at this time by archaeologists, to symbolise this goal.[4] In this sense, the organic ‘interlace’ of stems and bodies in A Pond surely hints at spring’s return, when dragonfly eggs will yield new nymphs. As we seek today to sustain nature’s fragile balance, Macdonald’s intriguing watercolour, with its delicate interplay of line and colour, should similarly inspire us.

Fig 1: Drosera anglica with prey, image Noah Elhardt – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,  

The accompanying image with this piece is a photograph of fossil beetle remains taken down a microscope (Fig 2), dominated by the carnivorous water beetles of the Dytiscidae (Hydroporus) and Hydrophilidae (Enochrus) families, recovered from an Iron age Bog body called Old Croghan Man, in Cloneal Bog, Co. Offaly. The body had been inserted into a bog pool sometime between 362 and 175 BC 5, apparently ‘tethered’ to the bog, perhaps lest the body might rise again 6.

Fig 2: Fossil beetles associated with Iron age Bog Body, Old Croghan Man, Co. Offaly. The beetles remains date to the 3rd century BC are and were likely attracted by the bog body, laying their young on the remains of the corpse. Photo: N. Whitehouse

The excellent levels of preservation of the beetle remains associated with this bog body are the consequence of the waterlogged and anaerobic conditions. These predaceous water beetles are very common in bog pools but were especially abundant in the levels associated with the bog body.  The large increase in the water beetle population is likely directly associated with the bog body, which would have been a food source to both larvae and adults of some of these water beetles, as well as a preferential area for laying eggs, where larvae would have access to a good supply of food. In much the same way as the depiction in The Pond, we have the themes of life and regeneration, alongside death, represented by this fossil record.

In addition to human remains, bogs have attracted considerable concentrations of other objects – some mundane, some votive such as the Bronze Age Edercloon staff shown in Fig 3. These staffs were likely used as decorative staffs or walking sticks; Catriona Moore, the site director for Edercloon says: “there is a tradition of harvesting these pieces in the Netherlands to make what are called goa-stok, a traditional walking stick which dates at least to the Medieval period and in more recent centuries was used in a ceremonial way to announce weddings, births etc and lead dances etc. There were 6 of these pieces in 2 different trackways at Edercloon, so there was something special about them, plus they are part of the very structured practice of artefact deposition at the site. Eamon Kelly thinks they were used in sacred kingship rites”

Fig 3: Edercloon staff, Co. Longford. Made of honeysuckle, modified, trimmed and dressed at the end. From the Late Bronze Age trackway EDC 5, dated 1260-970 cal BC. Image courtesy of Catriona Moore, with permission.


Clare A.P. Willsdon and Nicki J. Whitehouse

[1] Darwin noted particularly that dragonflies, despite their size, could be ‘eaten’ by Droserae. See Charles Darwin, Insectivorous Plants, London 1875, p. 2.

[2] For bogs in folklore see Abbi Flint & Benjamin Jennings, ‘Saturated with meaning: peatlands, heritage and folklore, Time and Mind, Vol. 13, no. 3, 2020, DOI: 10.1080/1751696X.2020.1815293, pp. 293 and 295-6; and 1. Dianne Meredith, ‘Hazards in the Bog: Real and Imagined’, Geographical Review, vol. 92, no. 3, 2002, pp. 319–332.

[3] Timothy Neate, Part Seen, Part Imagined Meaning and Symbolism in the Work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald, Edinburgh, 1994, op. cit., p. 85. 

[4] See Frances Fowle, ‘The Celtic Revival in Britain and Ireland: Reconstructing the past’, in J Farley & F Hunter (eds), Celts: Art and Identity, exh. cat., 2015, British Museum, London, pp. 234–259. 

[5] See Gill Plunkett et al ‘A multi-proxy palaeoenvironmental investigation of the findspot of an Iron Age bog body from Old Croghan, Co. Offaly, Ireland’, Journal of Archaeological Science, 2009, 36, 265-77.

[6] Melanie Giles Bog Bodies; face to face with the past, 2020, Manchester University Press, pp. 192