It was on my first visit to Polskeoch/Chalk Memorial Bothy on New Year’s Day when I had an idea; an idea which I thought would take me a month or two to execute and finish. As it was, I didn’t end up putting the plan into action until one snowy day in early April – exactly five months ago today in fact – and it is still not quite yet complete.
I always see potential in things which may at first seem unloved or neglected and Polskeoch Bothy was no different. But after reading the visitor’s book, it soon became apparent that this little breeze block structure in the middle of a forest wasn’t unloved and neglected at all; the same names popped up in the book over the months and years, leading me to think that this place must be special to a lot of people, despite its slight Saw/Last House on the Left/Wolf Creek etc vibe. All I could think was that it definitely needed some colour to create less of a murdery ambiance.
Situated on the Southern Upland Way walking trail 80-odd miles in, Polskeoch sits in between the Dalry to Sanquhar stretch – supposedly the toughest part of the route. I would imagine that this bothy has been a very welcome site for many people over the years; there are currently only 5 bothies along the whole 214 mile length of the SUW, with Polskeoch being the third one along the route. Last week I met a group of walkers there who described it as ‘luxurious’ compared to other bothies they had been to – I felt quite pleased that they thought this about ‘my’ bothy.
It took me over 5 hours to reach Polskeoch the first time I found it – I was still getting easily side-tracked by the wind turbines back then, but nowadays I can get there in 2.5 hours if I take my bike (I say ‘take my bike’ because there are still plenty of the really steep parts where I don’t even try to cycle up – the bike is mainly for the downhill bits). This time last year the bothy was just a tiny dot on the map which I wanted to find, and now, twelve months on, I have lost count of the amount of times I have visited it.
Anyway – my plan was to simply add some colour to the darkness of the bothy by painting a mural on one of the walls. I fleetingly considered just going ahead and doing it without asking for permission from anyone (bad Alice), but I quickly realised that this would not be cool. It took no more than a single email to find the SUW Ranger who is responsible for the upkeep of the bothies in Dumfries & Galloway, who then gave me the go ahead to crack on with it. Ross the Ranger (this is how he is always referred to in our house – he even has his own Biggleton-style theme tune) has kindly given me many lifts up there with my paints to make the whole thing a bit easier.
I wanted to give the bothy a homely, cozy vibe and make it more welcoming for weary walkers, and I wanted to paint something that would give me the scope to somehow include lots of other people in the project, but without the need for them to actually trek up to there. Eventually I decided I’d paint a big bookshelf full of oversized books in a living room setting, done in a sort of Axel Scheffler style (illustrator for the kid’s books The Gruffalo, Stick Man etc etc). Then I thought I could get suggestions from lots of different people for book title suggestions so that they can be a part of the mural – we did initially want to get the Guides or Scouts involved but I didn’t ever manage to sort that out.
It was Ross the Ranger’s idea to have a cat sitting on top of the bookshelf so a few months ago I painted our beloved Buddy. Sadly, exactly a month ago today, our beautiful beast of a cat was killed. Of course it broke my heart – I was there at his birth and I loved him like the first born son that he was, but today it made me feel really happy to see his face up there on the wall, watching over the bothy. He really was the best cat in the world. (This is the third time in my life that I have lost a loved cat to the evils of the motor vehicle so I have decided that I can’t go through this sadness again, which sadly means no more cats for me for the foreseeable future).
As for the books to go on the bookshelf, I realised that it would be difficult to do the text neatly by doing it directly on to the bumpy wall surface so instead Ross the Ranger cut me loads of bits of plywood which I could then paint at home. I went through my books and painted a selection of novels I like (including my favourite book, Erewhon), and a number of books about Dumfries & Galloway, as well as a few of the kid’s favourite books.
After gathering up suggestions from friends, family, SUW walkers and GB Ultra Runners, we now have a wonderfully varied and eclectic selection of books. And I have now very nearly finished it – although I’ve said it for at least the last six visits, I think the next time I go up there it will finally be done. Although despite saying this, it will never actually be ‘done’ because of a whole other side to the mural which I hope will constantly change over the years. Here I painted five gold frames with the the idea of bringing different artists to come and do paintings in them – in the end I painted quick, rough pictures in them so that they weren’t just left blank for ages but the idea is that these will be painted over in time. I’ve managed to take one artist up there to fill one of the frames: Jason Maracani came all the way from NYC and definitely wasn’t expecting to be lead on a 20 mile hike to create art. Sorry Jason – but think of it this way: your artwork now lies ‘just around the corner’ from some Andy Goldsworthy sculptures!
Although I never anticipated it to take as long as it has done, I have really enjoyed the whole process of painting this thing. There have been times, especially on some of the return journeys, in the dark, when it has been quite a challenge, but it is satisfying to see the project slowly materialising with every rucksack-full of wooden blocks I’ve carried up there in all the various brands of Scottish weather. I really hope that the mural makes SUW walkers, hill top ramblers and ultra runners smile when they see it, and maybe even gives them a bit of encouragement – especially if they have one of their book suggestions included.
To check on the progress of the mural, take a look at our instagram and facebook pages @rigghousebandb. And please leave a comment if you would like a book title included!