22 Jun 2017
June 22, 2017
My partner says The Kelpies are great and that I should lay off them. And I like to drive past them at night when they’re upllit at the side of the A9. And I don’t say we could have spent the money on hospital machines or something, because public art’s important. But in spite of all of this, I’m still not sure about the Kelpies.
The guy who did them, Andy Scott, is best known for putting up a lot of structures along the M9 which are basically the same horses’ heids except in different shapes. So it feels like he’s just got a commission to do another of those things he always does, and he’s said; “how about a couple of horses heids. Again?” And everyone’s gone: “brilliant, that’s just what we need. But hey, can they be really massive? And can someone make-up a dodgy back-story for a bit of cover?”
So I worry that the Kelpies ‘legend’, which is admittedly mentioned by Burns but is hardly anything anyone’s ever heard of before, is a bit of crude post-hoc rationalising to make the heids sound more romantic and imaginative. Plus, The Kelpies are in Falkirk, pretty much on the East Coast while when people try to explain what Kelpies are when they’re at home they always explain that that home is on the West Coast. And another plus, although there’s been an attempt to create a kind of ‘heavy horses’ theme around the place, that really isn’t part of local culture either.
I mean, I get that Falkirk was full of foundries and that horses towed vessels on the canals. But the canals really weren’t a big thing in Scotland’s industrial development and didn’t operate for long either. And although I lived on one side of the original Irn Bru site in Falkirk, and had my office on the other side in the stable of the big horse which pulled the cart around, it feels to me like the ‘local resonance’ is a bit strained. I wonder, too, about an artist who hails the “national and international prominence” of his own new work.
So in essence, my worry is that everyone’s bluffing it so as to escape the fact that the extent of the imagination of those involved in commissioning it was limited to agreeing that yon guy who does horses heids and such like should simply do a couple more in return for a few million quid except to give them a stamp of newness and creativity he should make them really massive.
When Falkirk Council bid for funding for the Kelpies, some of my Labour colleagues at Westminster thought it sounded bonkers. They called them ‘the nodding donkeys’ (in the original plan the horses heids would bob in time to the opening and closing of a lock gate). After all, the engineering and artistic spectacle which is The Falkirk Wheel had just been completed at the other end of my then constituency. And they thought that if you were going to spend a few million quid on public art, there might be more, er, creative ways of doing it. I sort of felt the same, but of course I helped lobby for the project – as one does – and blow me if they didn’t get the money for it. I remember stepping in with the lottery folk in Scotland a little while later because they were getting worried that nothing was happening. The truth is I have a sneaking suspicion that the council didn’t expect to get the money either and were a bit nonplussed when they did.
Anyway, here we are. If you drive up the M9 you’ll see the horses heids. They’re quite a sight, especially at night. I don’t begrudge them their place on Central Scotland’s skyline. But I can’t help hoping that if any other Scottish public agencies are considering spending a few million quid on public art, then they might do something above just ringing the guy who does the massive heids.