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Issue 25 - A source of inspiration

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Scotland Magazine Issue 25
February 2006


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A source of inspiration

Scotland's wild, rugged and mystic landscape has been the inspiration for a number of great creative minds. Mark Nicholls looks at the impact famous locations had upon them.

For writers, poets, composers and artists, it is so often the untamed natural landscape that inspires the finest work.

Yet for others, it is the social fabric of a nation that leads to near genius.

Across Scotland there are numerous locations that have left a lasting legacy in the world of music, writing and art.

Some of them are wild and remote, almost inaccessible, whilst others are on our doorstep, staring us in the face, yet open to magical interpretation by an artistic and inquiring eye.

On occasions, artists went to these spots not only for the peace, the quiet and the inspiration, but also to plan the next phase of their lives.

Others went to absorb and then interpret into their own sphere of skill and expertise.

And so it was with Felix Mendelssohn. When on his grand tour of Europe as a 20-year-old, he went to the Hebrides and looked deep into the swirling torrents of Fingal’s Cave.

It was from this inspiration that he wrote one of his most famous pieces of music, the wonderful Hebrides Overture, a piece that brings to life that August day in 1829 and conjures the power and movement of an icy Atlantic swell reaching into the dark depths of the cavern and then withdrawing with awesome power.

Born in Hamburg in 1809, Mendelssohn’s visit to Scotland produced a number of works, but The Hebrides Overture is possibly his finest.

He wrote the completed piece in 1830, though he made an initial score immediately after leaving the cave, and despatched it to his sister Fanny as a musical souvenir of Scotland.

The Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave, was premiered in London in May 1832 and also memorialises the turbulent sea journey the young composer undertook the view the spectacular basalt-rock formation.

Fingal’s Cave is on the uninhabited island of Staffa on the Inner Hebrides and had been discovered in 1772 by explorer Sir Joseph Banks who visited on his expedition to Iceland. It is home to seals and sea birds but it is the colour and atmospherics of the cave that Felix Mendelssohn found so inspiring.

The basalt combines every tint of warm red, brown and crimson, there are stalactites hanging from the roof, green lichens and seaweed. The sea crashes in and out, at times creating a thunderous roar during storms as the air is compressed and rushes out again.

Mendelssohn, who died in 1847 aged 38, also wrote renowned violin and piano concertos, Symphony No 3 (The Scottish) and incidental music for the Shakespeare play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including the famous Wedding March, which is still a popular theme at weddings today.

The island can be visited during the summer months with three boat operators running from April to October, weather permitting.

Other renowned visitors to Staffa include Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, artist JMW Turner and the poets Keats, Wordsworth and Tennyson.

Carol Kirkpatrick from boat operator Staffa Trips said: “When you visit Fingal’s Cave you can see why these people were so inspired, visually it is absolutely amazing and it is so remote. Most people who visit feel inspired as well.”

One of Scotland’s great writers Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was also inspired by Fingal’s Cave.

After visiting, he wrote: “One of the most extraordinary places I ever beheld. It exceeded, in my mind, every description I had heard of it.”

Yet he also sought a different kind of inspiration - from the landscape of the border region.

The writer of works such as Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Lady of the Lake and Red Gauntlet, eventually made his home at Abbotsford near Galashiels on the banks of the River Tweed, a house constructed in the form of a medieval mansion.

Scott had already started his famous series of Waverley but many of his novels were written in the ground floor study of his home – which can still be visited – and drew on the inspiration, peace and solace of the surroundings. Sir Walter Scott is buried in the ruins of Dryburgh Abbey, close to his favourite viewpoint of the Eildon Hills known as Scott’s View.

There is a magnificent monument to him in Edinburgh and the name of the city’s Waverley Station acknowledges the writer’s status and influence in Britain in the mid-19th century. In the north east of Scotland is Cruden Bay, a pleasant coastal resort in the Grampian region.

But it has an uncanny link with one of the great horror stories.

Irish writer Bram Stoker was inspired by the coastal terrain of Cruden Bay for his epic horror story and cinematic classic Dracula, the Victorian tale of a bloodthirsty vampire.

Stoker stayed at the village’s Kilmarnock Arms Hotel in 1895 and while there was mesmerised by the imposing Slains Castle, which he depicted as the vampire’s lair.

Sitting atop a tall sea-facing cliff and hauntingly silhouetted in the mists at night, it was constructed in 1597 by the 9th Earl of Erroll but fell into disrepair in the first part of the 20th century. Now an extensive ruin, it can be reached on foot from the village.

Cruden Bay is still popular to visit with its beach, sheltered bay and picturesque fishing harbour, as well as offering a number of walks. A writer who found solace in the remoteness of the Inner Hebrides was George Orwell, who spent several months on Jura each summer from 1946-49, a seclusion that produced his classic novel 1984.

At the end of the Second World War, Orwell began to put into action plans to retreat to a remote island, somewhere he could write and ponder undisturbed and away from the distractions of London after becoming something of a literary personality following the success of Animal Farm.

With the help of friends he found a farm on the northern part of the island at Barnhill, seven miles from the hamlet of Ardlussa, deemed as a suitable retreat to carry out a sustained period of writing.

Jura is remote and as Orwell described it: “an extremely un-gettable place.” He once wrote to a friend giving directions from Glasgow. It took up 19 printed lines.

At 28 miles long and eight miles wide, it has a population of 200 people and 6500 deer, one main road and then narrow tracks.

Orwell, real name Eric Arthur Blair, was ill with tuberculosis and although the climate on Jura could be bleak, it was also temperate and better for him than the London smog. Eventually, the island would not only be a writing retreat but somewhere to convalesce.

Orwell’s biographer DJ Taylor said: “I don’t know whether it’s possible to say the place inspired him, but I’ve stood in the study at Barnhill looking out of the window and even in summer the place has an extraordinarily remote atmosphere, which may have contributed something to the isolation that lies at the heart of 1984.”

He finally left Jura early in 1949. He was seriously ill and exhausted from the effort of writing 1984 – for a sanatorium in the Cotswold. By January 21, 1950, George Orwell was dead.

Jura can be reached via ferry, though Orwell’s retreat at Barnhill is not open to the public. But while on the island, the whisky distillery is open for free visits to see where the famed Isle of Jura single malt whisky is distilled and matured.

It is not always the natural environment that inspires a writer or artist.

At times, it can be the architecture of a city or the social environment of a community.

Crimewriter Ian Rankin draws inspiration from modern-day Edinburgh for his phenomenally successful Rebus series of crime novels.

And he even frequents many of the places he writes about himself.

Inspector John Rebus may be a fictitious policeman but he works in a real police station, lives in a real street and drinks in a real pub.

That is the Oxford Bar, where Rankin can often be spotted, tucked away in a corner.

“People don’t really want to see me,” he told me in a recent interview. “What they want is the world of Rebus.”

Fife-born Ian Rankin has produced a string of hit Rebus novels including Fleshmarket Close, Knots and Crosses, Resurrection Men and AQuestion of Blood.

The books paint a picture of a different side of Edinburgh, yet one that is already proving to be a tourist attraction.

Rankin said: “For those who visit, the books take them away from the tourist spots of Edinburgh towards more contemporary locations with contemporary problems.”

There are now even Rebus walking tours of Edinburgh blending locations in the books with unusual historical fact and the city’s rich legacy of detective fiction.

Many artists, writers and composers have been inspired by Scotland in so many different ways.

Fortunately, their vision of the landscape or how it inspired them, has been captured in the words, paintings and music we can still enjoy today.


Scottish tourism:
Staff Trips:
Gordon Grant Tours:
Jura Ferry: +44 (0)1496 840 681
Isle of Jura Whisky:
Aberdeen and Grampian Tourist Board:
Scottish Borders: