Carving the Ballachulish Figurine

Mark Griffiths

3rd August 2017

Of all the carving projects linked to The Pallasboy Project it has been the Ballachulish goddess that has given me the most sleepless nights. The 2500-year-old figurine, held in a glass case at the National Museum of Scotland, bears very little resemblance to the only surviving photograph taken around the time of her discovery in 1880. This blurred, grainy image hides much of the figure’s carved detail, however it cannot hide the goddess’s haunting stare. And it was the challenge of capturing her unique personality that woke me in the early hours.

On landing at Glasgow, I quickly collected our hire car and made my way to Dumbarton, where Orla, Ben and Brian were waiting. We planned the next few days work as we drove through the stunning landscape of the Scottish Highlands. Our small hotel, nestled like the rest of Ballachulish, on the shoreline of Loch Leven was soon found. As soon as we had deposited our heavy bags of tools and technical equipment we made our way to the local village hall to meet with Rob. It was Rob who had organised our project venue, the event publicity and even the timber for the carving, and that was our next destination, to meet up with a local woodsman who would fell a suitable tree for us. Finding timber to match our projects is often a challenge. Our woodlands and access to them is very different from what it was two thousand years ago. Therefore, unlike the original figurine which was carved from a single trunk of Alder, our goddess would be crafted in Birch. The Birch tree was locally sourced, grown on the hills overlooking Ballachulish, donated and felled especially for our project, this was good enough for me.

In the evening the group held an open event at the village hall for anyone interested in the project. We introduced our work and explained how it brought us to Ballachulish. As the evening progressed, the importance to the community of this figure created two thousand five hundred years ago was made very clear and a lively debate was had on the recorded find site and her origins.

Early the next morning I started carving. The first task was to strip the Birch log of its thin layer of bark and the slimy sap residue that covered the bone-white timber. The clean surface could then be marked with the figure’s outline. As well as a number of enlargements of the original photograph I had one printed to scale, on to this I could plot the goddess’s exact proportions and then transfer them onto our log.

The soft, creamy wood of the Birch carved well. Just a day after felling, the cuts made were crisp and sharp, even when using the crude Iron Age tools. This said, it was still going to prove a challenge to craft a credible likeness in the short time we had. By late afternoon I had her form roughed out and by end of day her rather stumpy legs were taking shape. As I worked, a steady stream of tourists and locals wandered in to chat and watch the figurine emerge. Ben asked visitors to collect examples of the distinctive quartz stone found on the shoreline. Set into the eyes of the original goddess its washed grey colour mirrored the deep loch and looked as if it had been chipped from the water.

The work on the first day had gone well. Before our evening meal we wandered to the contested find site in the bog fields of Ballachulish then on down through a stand of Alder and Oak to the Loch Leven shoreline where we walked silently, heads bent, looking for small quartz stones.

Waking early the next morning, I read that the West of Scotland had experienced its largest earthquake in thirty years on the same day as we had started work on our goddess of wind, thunder and mischief. Maybe it was fear of unleashing further wrath that found me unlocking the village door at five thirty in the morning ready for work. As the weather had improved from the day before (a happy goddess?) we decided to move the carving outside to attract more interest. It felt good to work in the open in the shadow of the same mist-shrouded mountains which, thousands of years past, had inspired a carver to create this iconic woman.

By midday the head and body were finished as were the only carved details found on the torso that we felt were clear enough to faithfully reproduce. All that was left was that face. For me, the power of the Ballacuhlish figure is found in her expression. Though formed in the distant past, her look of indignant rage has lost none of its potency. Pensively, I shaped her long nose, furrowed brows and twisted mouth. Two of our visitors, Bilil and Edouard, who had recently moved to Ballachuhlish, had both taken a keen interest in the project, even offering to bury the finished figurine in the garden of the beautiful house they were restoring. Looking at one of the printed images of the original, Bilil noticed the mouth had been finished with an exaggerated ‘Joker’ grin – a wonderful detail missed by me, but soon incorporated. After much apprehension the figure had her face and I was happy with it.

Late in the afternoon, putting the final touches to the carving I became aware of the large crowd of people gathered around – some had wandered curiously over, some had been following us for the past two days. It felt like the perfect time to give the goddess her eyes. The final act. Taking the two small quartz stones, selected by Brian as the best match, I cut two sockets under her brows then gently tapped the stones snugly home. As I raised the finished figurine to her feet I became aware how the conversations of the people around me silenced. This was the moment that a crudely carved log had taken on a deep significance to this place and people.

We drove the finished figurine to the location the original was supposedly unearthed. Here, in the soft rain, Brian captured some beautifully evocative images of the goddess framed against her mountains. As the sky darkened with the threat of a heavier downpour we headed back to the village for shelter and food.

Early the next morning, we made a last visit to the hall to assist Orla as she made a scan of the figurine, capturing our creation in digital form. Bags of equipment were then squeezed into the hire car, goodbyes were said and soon we were following the Glencoe road back to Glasgow. My focus on this trip had always been to capture something of the power evident in the stare of that figure carved over two thousand years past and rudely unearthed a mere two hundred years ago. However, over three days I learnt that the true power of the Ballachulish figure was her bond to this part of Scotland and its community. Her legend and myth, inspired by the landscape’s fierce beauty, were still told and passed on. When unearthed in 1880 the local workmen refused to touch her, such was the respect still for all that she represented. That the people of Ballachulish welcomed us, worked with us and made this new figurine part of their story was in the end the true success of the project.

A NEW GODDESS FOR BALLACHULISH from Brian Mac Domhnaill on Vimeo.

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