Scotland at its purest

December 7, 2023
I spent the week alone in a basic, beautiful and remote bothy in the Cairngorm Mountains in the north of Scotland, lovingly restored by its owner, my friend Hugo.

I was making paint from the rocks I found in the surrounding hills, which I ground and mixed with a water from the nearby stream and a binding medium. I grew up in Cape Town but in many ways this part of the planet has become a spiritual home. The weather is extreme, unrelenting, brutal at times. Yet there is also a softness, an overwhelming silence and a feeling of being held in a kind of inner sanctum.

I was there for a project with Cask88, to paint individual labels for around 200 bottles of rare whisky. My idea was to paint the labels using some of the same materials that are brought together to create the whisky - making paint from the local ‘terroir’.

Grinding the ancient, local rocks with the water from the same area that feeds many of the great distilleries of Scotland to make paint felt right somehow. I see the process of making art and making whisky as essentially the same; a kind of alchemical process of taking ordinary substances and transforming them into something beautiful and lasting. Each label has its own unique mix of rock, water, plant matter. Each brushstroke is unique.

Nan Shepherd wrote these memorable words in her brilliant philosophical meditation on the Cairngorms,‘The Living Mountain’; ‘It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind: but the resultant issue is a living spirit, a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.’

Being alone for a stretch of time I found myself noticing everything with an acute attentiveness, my senses sharpened by the silence. Each day passes gently with these basic activities:Fetching wood, fetching water from the spring, collecting rocks, grinding the rocks to make paint, stoking the fire, making lunch, a hike up the hill, reading, painting, making dinner. One afternoon I spot a golden eagle soaring high above and it feels like a sign. Everything takes on extra meaning somehow, takes on a numinous glow. The glow extends inwards as the days pass.

Then night falls. Nocturne.Being without electrical light for a week was wonderful. Gradually as daylight recedes the eyes adjust naturally to the dusk and the candlelight. I found the gentle gradation of changing colour though the window particularly beautiful, like a slowly morphing Rothko painting. There’s something completely luminous about the twilight blue against the darkness. Knowing that the small light coming from the fire and lanterns inside the bothy is the only light for miles is magical. A refuge and a beacon against the vastness beyond. 

Nature is central to my artwork. Placing my body in nature always brings me back to the source of why I do what I do. Certain places have more significance to me, mostly because they are places where the connection with nature is strongest. Being alone in wild, remote places like this leaves a trace in everything I do in the studio and I’m always plotting the next escape.I’ll be back in these mountains soon and am planning to spend a week on the top of a 3,000m mountain in the Swiss Alps in the months to come, making paint from the ground rocks I find again. Again, painting the mountain with the mountain.

Jonathan Freemantle

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