Memories can be troublesome. While some fragments of life haunt your waking and sleeping hours, others fade into a fuzzy oblivion refusing to be recalled despite the demand to do so. A recent event, Burns at Hillside, held in memory of the ‘four men of hillside’, reminded me of the haunting presence of the past in the present and the ways in which memories can be captured, collected and shared in powerful ways.
The event was organised by David Ramsay, from The Howe o’ the Mearns Heritage Association, and sought to commemorate the memory of four men; C.J. Shaw, Willie Herd, Joseph Harris, and Adam Christie, who had once erected a small stone plaque dedicated to the memory of Robert Burns. Burns had stopped to water his horse as he passed through Hillside on his Highland Tour of 1787, and the plaque marked the place where the iconic Scottish bard once walked. The story of the plaque had remained a mystery for many years as although it was clear what it was commemorating there was no sense of who had placed it there and no reports or photographs highlighting its inception into the landscape. In-depth research by David, during the ‘Father of the Bard’ project uncovered the mystery, as a letter placed in the Montrose Review led to a phone call from Harry Harris, then eighty-two years of age, who revealed his fascinating story.
Harry’s father, Joseph Harris, and Willie Herd were orderlies in Sunnyside Hospital in the 1930s. Both of the men were Burn’s enthusiasts alongside the Superintendent of the hospital at the time, C.J. Shaw. During this period, patient-artist Adam Christie was renowned in the hospital for his unusual carvings of stone heads and Shaw took a keen interest in his sculptures. Harry recalls that his father came home one evening stressing that “That’s another job well done”, and following the clues it can be revealed that on that night Joseph, Willie, Shaw and Adam went out of the hospital and inserted the plaque into the wall as a secret tribute to Robert Burns.
Hearing this story from a range of generous individuals at the Hillside Event brought to the fore a range of issues that are important to my work on Art Extraordinary. Many of the artists and artworks within the collection are completely unknown, or forgotten, in contemporary Scottish history and this often sits in conjunction with their position as patients in psychiatric facilities. This drive to hunt out these histories from the fragments that remain is a testament to the power that the work has to enthuse and enthral its viewer. The ‘asylum’ or mental hospital is often seen as a closed, locked institution but the story of the ‘four men of hillside’ demonstrate the movement of people, ideas and materials that flow between the spaces of hospital care and the wider community.
Under the leafy canopy at Rosemount Road in Hillside, the piper played a commemorative melody that seemed to wake the ghosts of Montrose’s past into the present. The event was a beautiful demonstration of community and commemoration. I was reminded of the chance encounters that seem to surround so many of the stories from the Art Extraordinary collection and imagined four figures carefully erecting the delicately carved plaque into the crumbling wall and disappearing quietly into the night.