The Caol Ruadh estate at Colintraive on the shores of the east Kyle of Bute would not be half the magical sculpture park – or outdoor gallery – it is if it wasn’t also a spectacular garden.
Since owner, Karen Scotland and her family came to Caol Ruadh around 14 years ago, her major focus has been on landscaping and designing the long neglected gardens. The house and grounds had been a residential school for 60 years.
A charmed place to begin with, Caol Ruadh has everything – open wooded hillside, sweeps and terraces of land, wonderful massy rock bluffs, blankets of luxuriant moss clothing slabs of stone, secret dens and a shoreline that is at once unseen and private yet watches over the activity of the Colintraive ferry to Bute to the south and the passage of all sorts of boats through the rocky islets with their seabird colonies, just offshore.
For these last years it has also had the inestimable advantage of someone who is in sympathy with its particular character, has freed that to delight and has not made it tightly manicured and resistant to humanity.
All of the dry stone walls, the landscaped ponds, the slate ‘river’, the gated rose garden and the ‘stairway to heaven’ – the stone steps carved out of the rock cliff and leading up to the moss covered woodland – have been created by Karen, along with bridges, paths, rechannelled burns…
In the lush microclimate of the Kyles, there are magnificent trees to the shoreline, complemented by paths sneaking away to mysterious places and a lily pond, fed by a redirected burn below stout rock cliffs with a stone-stepped path climbing them – and everywhere planting that celebrates freedom and movement.
Caol Ruadh at heart is playful. It teases, invites, promises and surprises. It runs, strolls, hides and pounces. It has light and deep shade that is somehow welcoming and not unnerving. It immediately offers a relationship to be defined as much by you as by itself. It’s not a place that wants or allows you to be passive. It engages you.
It is all of this that has made it so natural a place for sculpture – not sculpture of the massively magisterial ‘public art’ variety but garden sized pieces that can bring endless pleasure to any garden of any size.
This is a commercial gallery created and run by business partners Karen Scotland and Anne Edmonds. The nature of the enterprise means that the exhibition keeps changing. Better again, it will start next season and successive seasons with different collections, offering new experiences to addicts – and yes, we’re there already, helplessly in thrall to it – and introducing a succession of new artists, providing or creating pieces out of their individual responses to Caol Ruadh.
For this first season, Karen Scotland and Anne Edmonds started with the collective sculpture workshops and studios of Edinburgh and Glasgow, following other trails from there. They then brought the artists they finally chose to Caol Ruadh for weekend induction adventures. After this, they saw each of them choose specific items for specific places in the gardens, with some making new items under the spur of the challenge of a particular location that had seized their imagination.
A great deal depends on the curating, with some inspirational decisions here by Karen and Anne.
Kilmun-based Andy McClintock’s pieces were notionally assigned to be with the hostas at the side of a little burn. They didn’t look right. The curators moved them up into the wood where they literally dance through the ferns and marry wonderfully with the trunks of trees and the spears of flag iris leaves already there, drawing them all into a woodland ceilidh of free spirits.
Down on the shore, in, out of and sometimes under the tide are works by Rob Mulholland – ‘Tide Flow’, figures and abstract shapes; and by Kevin Dagg, ‘Ebb and Flow’ – a cluster of tiny, roofless ‘clearance’ crofts in concrete, huddled together on the shingle, amidst the seaweed.
These are perpetually overwhelmed by successive tides and survive them all, rising to present their silent tale again and again.
There is a doughty invincibility about them, tiny against the scale of their setting and of the elemental forces to which they are prey.
The Mulholland figures and shapes are in reflective stainless steel. They take their clothing of the moment from what they reflect and boy do they have a wardrobe to choose from.
They can seem black skinned, white skinned, masculine, feminine, almost naked, swathed in tie-dye sarongs or wet T-shirts. They can be brutal, surreptitious, passive, active, static and mobile.
Sometimes, as they watch in their stillness, they appear to guard, to warn off; sometimes to be almost wistful, longing to join the party, not to be perennial outsiders but to be a part of what they see rather than merely observe.
One suddenly sported what had all the look of that awful eagle tattoo the otherwise essentially elegant David Beckham has across the back of his neck. Here it was the reflection of a sculpture of a rising cormorant on the wall at the top of the beach some distance away.
These figures have definite relationships with their surroundings – in the eye of each beholder and each camera lens. There are places they seem always to want to go to, to be on the way towards. There are places that offer them shelter for their surveillance or for their aloneness – and others where they stand confidently in the open, overtly on watch – or start moving.
We made a second visit to Caol Ruadh at the end of last week, specifically to see what happened with the Dagg cottages and the Mulholland figures and shapes when the tide was in. The first time we were there a few weeks ago the tide was out, so we had one introduction to the shape of their lives. We wanted more, to see how they responded to the water.
The ambition was to get into the water with them but get to the seaward side of them as well, seeing what their relationship is to the land from the water when it surrounds them.
We were prepared to get wet, with sailing wellies bound to be inadequate but Karen Scotland lent us fishing waders welded to oilskin dungarees so we were able to chomp about chest-high in the water, with an unexpected buoyancy from the wading outfit that let little waves bounce us off our feet from time to time.
As well as opening up new relationships with the Mulhollands, this wading capacity let us get out to see the totally submersed Dagg cottages and observe the lives they were leading down there in sheer endurance. Then there was the triumph of their emergence and their resolute presence in a world they seem to have inhabited forever.
Above, on the grassy slopes, is a piece by Andrea Geile, a collection of slender giant grasses in gently rusted forged steel, Petalostia gigantea ‘rostbraun’. The sheer delicacy of these tall stems with their witty crowns contrasts with the stoutly rooted trunk of the great tree beside them and leaves the view to the loch unimpeded.
The gardens at Caol Ruadh are spell binding but the addition of the sculptures multiplies their impact.
From Saturday 28th July to Sunday 2nd August, each day from 2.00pm-5.00pm, the gardens will be open, as part of the Open Gardens initiative. Admission is £6.00, which includes tea and cake and all proceeds go to charity. Karen Scotland and Anne Edmonds will both be there.
The sculpture park will continue to operate normally, closed on Mondays and Tuesdays but otherwise open between 11.00am and 6.00pm.
On Saturdays and Sundays the Tignabruaich Gallery, run by Penny and Andrew Graham Weall at the nearby village on the west Kyle, has arranged to have a satellite art gallery in Caol Ruadh’s lovely boat house by the shore. They change the exhibition there every week.
Note: Our earlier illustrated article on the Caol Ruadh sculpture park / outdoor gallery – Dreamlike Caol Ruadh outdoor gallery a first for Argyll is here. The photographs and text above add to but do not duplicate that.