The Invergordon murals
It’s around 11am and we’re wandering the streets of Invergordon, a small town in the Scottish Highlands, in search of its famous murals. The place is dead: all the shops appear to be closed, there’s no traffic and no pedestrians either. We’ve not logged onto the Internet this morning, so maybe civilisation ended overnight and we’ve missed out on the news?
We continue to explore the main street, our eyes scanning random walls for murals, cameras at the ready. After about a quarter of an hour we encounter a dishevelled, middle-aged guy slumped on a bench seat. He eyes us suspiciously.
“We’re here for the murals,” I say brightly by way of explanation.
“Oh, them!” he grumbles, “they’re rubbish. I can do better with a can of spray paint, even when I’m drunk!”
We must be looking doubtful, so Wasted Tam – as I like to think of him – adds, with more than a hint of bitterness, “I live around here and I’m telling you, they’re rubbish. You should go to Inverness, or…anywhere but here. This place is rubbish.”
Although it’s not yet lunch time, a miasma of alcohol fumes hovers above Tam’s head, and I calculate that if I strike a match right now we’ll all go up in flames. We resolve to treat his assessment of Invergordon and its murals with a degree of caution. But we also note that this place is not without problems!
Invergordon is a small port town on the Cromarty Firth in north-east Scotland, infamous as the spot where – in 1931 – the UK’s entire Atlantic Fleet went on strike when the government tried to cut ratings’ pay. The Invergordon Mutiny, as it became known, ended peacefully and the town slipped back into well-deserved obscurity for 70 years, until local resident Marion Rhind proposed an idea to brighten up her neighbourhood and attract visitors by scattering some murals about the place.
Marion was inspired to come up with her cunning plan by her parents, who told her about a little Tasmanian town called Sheffield, where gable ends have been brightly painted to depict local characters and stories. Coincidentally, Mrs P and I have also visited Sheffield and liked the place. I wrote about it on my blog of our 2016 trip to Tasmania, but never knew it had prompted a similar initiative in Scotland.
Following Marion’s lightbulb moment, a working group was formed in January 2002 to help turn theory into practice. The Invergordon Off the Wall group came up with the following aims for its project: to…
- revive the community spirit of Invergordon, by giving the community a common aim
- enhance civic pride
- celebrate the history of Invergordon
- halt economic decline by re-branding the town as a destination for tourism
- create a cultural focus for the town through a special outdoor art gallery
- promote an ongoing interest in our own history
Lofty aims indeed, and although there are perhaps not as many murals as we anticipated they are fascinating and well executed. One shows the range of sports that are, or have been, played by local people, while another offers insights into the Invergordon Highland Gathering. A third celebrates the local lifeboat and its volunteer crew, and another reflects nostalgically on “The Way We Were.”
One of the most striking murals depicts a fire that engulfed Invergordon’s Royal Hotel in 1973. This was reportedly a dramatic, memorable day for local people, and the magnificent mural serves to keep those memories alive. Also eye-catching is “Pipes and Drams”, a tribute to the Invergordon Distillery Pipe Band. I can’t help thinking that Wasted Tam must approve of the distillery’s product, even if he hates murals (and possibly pipe bands too!)
However, my favourite of all the murals is “Our Legacy”, depicting some of the wildlife and wild places to be found in the Invergordon area. It includes this quote from Trinidadian author Aliyyah Eniath –
“Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.”Taken from “The Yard” by Aliyyah Eniath
The quote echoes my own feelings for the natural world, and as an added bonus the colourful mural features in one corner my favourite bird in the whole world, the oystercatcher. The mural was created with the assistance of local children, whose names are preserved for posterity beneath the images they helped to paint.
Taken as a whole Invergordon’s murals are a fine example of community public art, but I worry that they’ve done little to boost tourist numbers or revive the local economy. And, if Wasted Tam is in any way typical of other townsfolk, they’ve not done much to enhance civic pride either. Invergordon Off the Wall is a well-intentioned, impressive project, and deserves to be better appreciated.