We just commented on our previous visit to the Sunken Garden in Castledykes Park how badly worn and tatty the three murals on the southern wall that depicted the history of Dumfries looked. Created by John McKay, they were installed in 1986 for octocentenary celebrations and, sadly, the time was not kind to them.
Nevertheless these murals occupied an important focusing spot in Dumfries cultural self awareness, celebrating the town’s role in the history of Scottish statehood and the nation’s fight for independence. That’s why several years ago I used the walled Sunken Garden as a location for my Urban Portraits Dumfries project session.
The news about the recent unveiling of a new sculpture and new versions of the murals commissioned by The People’s Project were so welcomed by us!
The impressive nine foot tall statue of Robert the Bruce, the first king of Scotland, was sculpted by chainsaw carver Peter Bowsher, of Moffat, from Western red cedar. The four foot pedestal was repurposed by D & S Little stonemasons from a large sandstone block, originally displayed in the centre of the sunken garden to commemorate its past as a stone quarry.
Meanwhile, the southern wall murals were replaced by the identically themed artwork by Jo McSkimming. As before, the right panel depicts William the Lion granting a Royal Borough chapter to Dumfries at Castledykes Castle in 1186. The middle piece of the triptych shows Robert the Bruce stabbing his rival for the Scottish crown in Greyfriars monastery in 1306. The left part of the installation glorifies “Good King Robert” as he parades his victorious standard after capturing Castledykes from the English.
To our excitement, we discovered four more brand new Bruce-themed murals on the western wall of the garden.
In the left corner there is a cluster of panels portraying the Scottish shiltrons on the steep-sided ground, with Bruce in his crown and the red rampant lion on his armour among them, pitted against Edward II’s army in the Battle of Bannockburn.
To the right, on the facing staircase wall, there is a painting of a group of horsemen moving under the cover of the short Midsummer night. I presume the subject is English retreat where Edward with a handful of bodyguard fled the battlefield and the panicking troops tried to escape the carnage.
I noticed that McSkimming’s depiction of animals is often quite full of character and idiosyncratic. The mad expression of the horse full of dread and terror in the centre of this composition is priceless and is more emotionally revealing than the human faces!
Directly behind the wooden statue there is a scene capturing the famous Bruce and the spider story popularised by Sir Walter Scott in “Tales of a Grandfather” in 1828.
Driven into exile after several defeats from the English, Robert was in hiding in a remote cave where he observed the legendary spider again and again attempting (and finally succeeding) to throw a single web strand across the ceiling. The spider’s relentless perseverance inspired Bruce to continue his fight.
Robert the Bruce’s hiding period is generally described as frugal and full of despair. Looking at the painting, John noted that judging from a full loaf of bread of the tray and meat bones thrown to the resting dog at least he didn’t starve in that cave! The artist’s interpretation of the tale also features a delightful alert ginger mouse next to her signature.
I loved how the walled garden looked through the lens of my camera. The garden was flooded with the warm evening sun and the sun flares hitting the lens lent more visual interest. However, the statue that was meant to be the centre piece of the story was completely back lit and muddy. So I had to return next day to video the sculpture separately in a better light in order to reveal the intricate details of the Bowsher’s masterful chain carving technique.
All in all, I think that the 2019 public art revamping of the sunken garden, initiated by the People’s Project, effectively transforms the already much loved location into an open air tribute to the “best known Scotsman in the world” and to Scottish historic drive for emancipation. The newly installed public art solidifies the reputation of Castledykes Park as a culturally important POI not only to locals but also to Dumfries visitors.