Craigengour, a promontory high above Monreith Bay, was chosen by Galloway Wildlife Trust as the most appropriate site for a memorial to the author of Ring of Bright Water, Gavin Maxwell (1914 – 1969).
Maxwell was born a few miles away at The House of Elrig. On visits back to the family seat of Monreith House, Maxwell would exercise his tame otter Mijbil on the beach below the cliff. The story of that otter, Ring of Bright Water became a best seller and is considered a literary masterpiece, eventually selling over two million copies. A film of the same name was made and released in 1969. The National Film Board of Review placed Ring of Bright Water on its list of the Top Ten Films of that year and in 2005 The Daily Telegraph called it “one of the best-loved British films of all time.”
The sculptor commissioned in 1978 for the life-sized bronze of an otter in memory of Gavin Maxwell was Penny Wheatley. Her fine sculpture captures the sleek alertness of an otter just as it is turning to view the beach and the sea below.
It is regarded with great affection perhaps only equalled by the work of another sculptor of animals who is associated with the area.
I cannot be sure what brought the sculptor Phyllis Mary Bone (1894-1972) to the Machars of Galloway in the 1930’s. She was exhibiting bronzes such as ‘Sheep Dog Penning Sheep, Newton Stewart Sheep Dog Trials‘ in Glasgow in 1939. It seems she moved to Galloway in the mid-1930s when she gave up her main home in Edinburgh, though she continued to keep a small flat and a studio in the city. Exhibiting at the Royal Glasgow Institute exhibition in the 1940s her address is given in the catalogues as Penninghame House, Newton Stewart.
After attending Edinburgh College of Art, Bone trained in Paris with the animal sculptor, Edouard Navellier. In her late twenties, Bone gained her largest and most prestigious commission for the Scottish National War Memorial, Edinburgh Castle.
The proposal to site the War memorial at Edinburgh Castle was controversial. Among others, the Secretary of State for Scotland appointed to the organising committee in 1918 were Sir Herbert Maxwell of Monreith and Sir J Lawton Wingate, President of The Royal Scottish Academy. Both men resigned four years later. Maxwell over the site and Wingate because he thought the scheme for the memorial was too complex and, “too exclusively a glorification of militarism”.
Overcoming these criticisms, building was underway by 1923. For Bone, to be commissioned for sculptures when so young was indeed an achievement and the architect of the memorial, Robert Lorimer must have been confident in her abilities. She was one of a number of women artists whom Lorimer encouraged and who played an outstanding part in the building.
The War Memorial opened in 1927. Two of Bone’s sculptures prominently flank the main entrance to it; the Unicorn and the Lion, the heraldic beasts of Scotland and England. Their slightly geometric forms give an Art Deco feel to the proud animals. Depicted at rest and only supporting shields, it would be difficult to see them as a ‘glorification of militarism’.
In the interior, in roundels between the arches, Bone carved the heads of animals that had played a part in the First World War.
The collective title of her work in the memorial was, ‘Remember also the Humble Beasts’.
Millions of animals were used both in warfare and on the home front. They died in their hundreds of thousands.
Some of the animals that had been engaged in the ‘war to end all wars’ are surprising. Due to the lack of horses, elephants were taken from zoos and circuses and put to work as military auxiliaries. Some six million horses and mules hauled food, equipment, ammunition and other supplies for the troops.
Camels were used by cavalry units. Dogs carried messages and laid telephone wires.
Goats were not only military mascots but were also a source of fresh milk for the soldiers in the trenches. Reindeer served as pack animals to move supplies across frozen terrain.
Messenger pigeons played a vital role in communications, relaying messages from the front line to headquarters more reliably than telephone or radio.
The animal medallions by Bone continue round both transepts of the building, but in a gentle and charming touch, at eye level on the side wall of the westernmost arch a small relief commemorates canaries and mice, ‘The Tunnellers’ Friends’. They were employed to give early warning of toxic fumes when troops were tunnelling underground to lay mines below enemy trenches.
Phyllis Bone was an exceptional ‘animalier’. Her work for the National War memorial places her among Scotland’s finest sculptors of the twentieth century. In 1944 the quality of her work was acknowledged officially when she became the first woman elected a Royal Scottish Academician. She moved from Newton Stewart to Kirkcudbright in 1950 and remained working in the artist’s colony there until her death in 1972.