After recent cultural excursions to Manchester and Athens, I imagined that Kirkcudbright would be small beer in comparison. Arriving in town with sunshine and blustery showers taking turns, I wasn't sure what to expect.
The place does feel a little cut off, especially so since the railway station closed in the 1960s. Getting there via public transport from any of the Scottish cities requires several changes of train and bus. But the appeal of the place is obvious. A guide book from the 1940s suggests that 'few towns in Scotland' are 'so delightfully situated'. The climber and broadcaster, Tom Weir, described the town as one of the 'bonniest' in the region, if not the whole of Scotland. That episode of Weir's Way
was broadcast in the 1980s. The town seems to have changed little since. It still has old-fashioned bakers and teahouses but also a long cultural heritage that sets it apart from comparable places.
By 1900, the town already had a significant reputation as an artists' town. Many were attracted by the special light evident here. This is captured in Ewan McClure's Low Sun, Castle Street
, one of the highlights of his current exhibition at Kirkcudbright Galleries. After a long campaign by groups such as Kirkcudbright 2000, the galleries opened in 2018 and is now the key venue in a town saturated with art.
McClure's picture captures that moment between heavy showers, when the sun emerges, flooding the drenched streets. The exhibition also features several of his excellent realist portraiture. McClure is currently artist in residence at Broughton House, though on the day we visited he was 'out landscaping'. This made sense in an area of great natural beauty. There's so much to be inspired by.
Alongside McClure's exhibition is Eardley Explored: The Art of Joan Eardley with photography by Audrey Walker
. It was a great treat to see Eardley's work again. The oil and collages of the Glasgow children from old Townhead remain stunning; the cheeky ambivalence of the kids captured brilliantly in pictures such as Little Girl with a Squint
. In a lovely touch, you can listen to recordings of the children (from a BBC radio programme) as you consider the pictures. The exhibition combines excerpts from her Glasgow period with some of her famous work of Catterline. This is all supplemented by photos of her in action, largely taken by Audrey Walker. These two fine exhibitions complement the extensive permanent collection on the ground floor, featuring work by the many significant artists who have been based in the town.
Sources of inspiration
Artists continue to be attracted to the town. These include the South African Joshua Miles who specialises in lino reduction and mono prints. For Miles, the limitations that this medium brings requires everything to be simplified. It's a very time-consuming and demanding form of printing but the results can be superb. A print looking through King's Bridge on King's Stables Road captures the mood of that quiet, dark nook in the heart of Edinburgh.
His studio faces out into the street and he is always keen for members of the public to pop in. His enthusiasm for his art and the town come through in abundance. A number of Miles' prints have been inspired by nature surrounding the town. His dense woodland prints bring to mind the 'enclosed landscapes' pioneered by the likes of John Muir Wood in the 1850s. Sources of inspiration near Kirkcudbright include some absolutely stunning walks, easily accessible from the town. The St Mary's island walk is a particularly satisfying circular trek around a small peninsula.
The first half takes you along a tarmacked road through some beautiful woodlands, with the water close, through the trees. At one point you come to an abandoned boat hut, with only the steps into it and the slipway from it still in existence. It provides a perfect spot to rest tired feet and absorb the stunning scenery via the fantastic views across the bay. The second half of the walk takes you through dense undergrowth, including rhododendrons – escapees from a formal garden built in this area which was then abandoned. The vast number of raspberry bushes – many laden with fruit – are also presumably a legacy of that garden. The tasty fruit was a nice bonus and helped fuel us as we made our way back into town.
Similarly inspiring woodlands are to be found in the Barrhill Wood, on the slopes east of the town. The woods here are quietly magnificent, with a mix of broadleaves and conifers, surrounded by parkland and farmland. The cows looked disapproving as we peered over the fence, their evening slumbers interrupted. In Barrhill, a number of trees have fallen in recent times but are soon being replaced as new growth sprouts in unstoppable fashion, often at strange angles. The woodland is particularly peaceful and is the home for red squirrels. The only breach of tranquillity comes when mountain cyclists thunder through the tracks which crisscross the woods. A new woodland is currently being developed around the site of the original Kirkcudbright Castle (of which nothing remains). This will add even more to the beauty of the place.
Welcomed with open arms
Miles greatly appreciates being in the town where artists are welcome and not seen as 'weirdos'. He also values the strong artistic community here, promoting each others' work, aware that they all have a role in bringing visitors and money to the town. Fiona Lee plays an important role in transmitting awareness of what is available to visitors through her art tours of the town. Her enthusiasm radiated even during the wet weather which hit during our tour. If anything it merely added to the experience as she imparted her entertaining and informative narrative. Sheltering in pends and doorways reminded me of Fringe escapades, darting through the dark closes and cellars of the Old Town. Battling inclement weather adds to the sense of being on a true exploration. As in McClure's painting of the storm battered street, wet weather can sometimes enhance an experience.
In the original streets of the town (such as Castle Street and the High Street), the attractive pastel coloured houses are traditional, almost staid. The closes give these streets real character and depth. None more so than Greengate, once the home of Jessie M King and E A Taylor, and other members of the bohemian 'coterie' of artists who stayed and worked there. A flavour of the eccentricity is manifested in the long, thin garden – reached via a particularly picturesque close.
At the foot, there lies a particularly eccentric section 'curated' by Colin Saul, containing all manner of strange and surprising objects, including a totem pole encased in ivy. This strange hidden garden is a highlight of the art tour. The garden at Broughton House is far more formal but is equally beguiling. With a strong Japanese influence, the place is a compressed jigsaw of narrow paths and exuberant growth, opening out into a series of sundial lawns. A work of art in itself. At the foot is a bench looking out over the River Dee; an inspiring view for anyone with an aesthetic sense.
The artistic impulse is manifested in several features of the town. These include the bridge over the Dee, which, Lee relates, was the result of an artistic competition. Charles Oppenheimer, an important figure in Kirkcudbright's artistic evolution, was upset to lose out in the competition. So much so that, according to Lee, he left the bridge out of his subsequent townscapes. Certainly, for some it's a bit of an austere eyesore in an otherwise picturesque town.
The town's rather magnificent war memorial (by the sculptor George Henry Paulin) is also rather more inspired and eye-catching than the norm. The model for the war memorial is displayed in Broughton House, the home of the colourist Edward Hornel, one of the 'Glasgow Boys' and a key figure in the creation of the Artists' Town. However, as Fiona Lee emphasises, the tale of Kirkcudbright's relationship with art is one which runs from the past very much into the present. Though figures from the past litter her colourful narrative, she is keen to emphasise that the town is going through a 'renaissance', building on this legacy, not living off it. This is manifested in the large number of artists' studios and galleries dotted around the town.
The town itself has inspired great artistic endeavours. This means that the town has been captured by a number of fine artists. These include Samuel Peploe, who spent time in the region. Though, as Fiona Lee relates, he found the town rather dull. His most famous picture of the town (focusing on the Tolbooth) was rather more colourful than the reality. It, like much of the painting which inspired him, has an almost Mediterranean feel. In truth, a number of the cottages and closes could, if the temperature was 15 degrees higher, almost be from a Greek fishing village.
The town's artistic life gives the place an unusual feel, beneath its very genteel veneer. This perhaps explains why it was selected as the location for a number of scenes in the cult folk horror film The Wicker Man
(a music festival with that name ran from 2001–2015 in nearby Dundrennan). The High Street Gallery which features on the art tour was where interiors and exteriors of May Morrison's sweet shop were filmed. Here Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) made inquiries about the missing girl Rowan. What is now the Harbour Gallery also features prominently in the film, as well as being the focus of many paintings. These locations have changed little since the filming took place in 1972/3.
The eccentricity of the place was evident during our visit when, on a particularly wet evening, the town was flooded with over 100 horses and riders from local villages and towns as part of the annual Riding of the Marches event. Warmly welcomed at every hostelry and on every street corner, the horses (some of them small ponies) and riders paraded around the town for some time, eventually getting drenched. The event had a quiet drama about it, as well as a communal feel. The number of events in the town is impressive for such a small place, including country fairs, pipe bands and a regular 'Scottish Night'. The programme for the Arts and Craft Trail in August lists 136 places and venues to visit – an astonishing number given a population of just over 3,000.
There's little doubt that art and artists have given the town a clear identity, as well as providing a reason for people to visit it. This has helped support the local economy. Once one of the most important ports in Scotland and a significant trading centre, this aspect of the town is largely no more. The main harbour was filled in and is now the site of the information centre. However, Kircudbright's cultural richness is economically significant.
Having a strong cultural legacy has been crucial to the revival of cities such as Liverpool and Manchester. In Scotland, Glasgow's rich culture – centering particularly around the Art College – has been an area of continuity as the city around it changes. The arrival of the V&A in Dundee has boosted the city. The Festival and Fringe have helped Edinburgh establish itself as a culturally significant place – even if some feel that cultural legacy has been somewhat squandered in recent decades. As Edinburgh gears up to be flooded with cultural tourists, Kirkcudbright offers refuge from the hubbub but also cultural richness in a slower, calmer form.
New Work is at Kirkcudbright Galleries until 13 August 13 2023;
Eardley Explored: The Art of Joan Eardley with photography by Audrey Walker is at Kirkcudbright Galleries until 1 October 2023.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics