Landscape and Science: An Exploration

Duncan Ferguson and Wendy Stewart at Glenlair

Duncan Ferguson and Wendy Stewart at Glenlair

Art often draws inspiration from the landscape- indeed, the very word landscape can be traced to the Dutch word landschap, describing the sixteenth century novelty of painting a scenic view, “framing the picturesque”.

Science can also draw inspiration from the shape and form of the land. Although this notion is often overlooked, landscape can be a fertile source for the scientific imagination, informing constructive thought and reasoning.

So, appreciation of the land can bring forth creativity in both art and science; our day’s quest explores these ideas through the work of a scientist, James Clerk Maxwell, and an artist, Charles Jencks. Both have lived and worked here, both draw creative strength from their landscapes.


Duncan Ferguson explaining the history of Maxwell’s improvements to Glenlair

Our day started at the home of James Clerk Maxwell, at Glenlair, Corsock. Here, we were met by Duncan Ferguson, owner of Glenlair and Trustee of the Maxwell at Glenlair Trust, which promotes Maxwell’s legacy and aims to rebuild Glenlair, twice badly damaged by fire many years ago. Duncan explained that Glenlair was James Clerk Maxwell’s family home until age ten; his mother taught him to “look to nature”. He returned for five years, between appointments at King’s College London and Cambridge University. At Glenlair he formulated his Electrodynamic Theory, uniting the properties of light, electricity and magnetism. This revolutionary work underpins our electrical and electronic worlds; this achievement alone puts him in the same league as Newton and Einstein. Duncan told us more; he devised many principles used in structural engineering, pioneered work in optics and produced the first colour transparency. And he explained the stability of Saturn’s rings… in those days, James Clerk Maxwell would be called a natural philosopher… the newer name, scientist, perhaps loses some of the essence of the words it replaces.

Whilst at Glenlair, James designed and supervised extensions to the House, incorporating his own ideas, such as the trichromatic floor tiling, a reminiscence of his experience in photography, and the design of the supports for the rain gutters, ironwork cast in the curves and spirals of his geometric thinking.


Wendy Stewart performing in Glenlair’s inspirational landscape to artists and scientists

As Duncan guided us past the building, along the burn and through the byres, the harpist Wendy Stewart played a selection of her music inspired by James’ life and work: Folds in the Fields, Reflex Musings and Glenlair House. A song too: a poem by James, Rigid Body Sings, set to the tune Comin through the Rye.


Travelling north and east, joining Nithsdale at Thornhill (for lunch), we followed the river to Sanquhar. Just beyond, is the Crawick Multiverse. This is landscape art on a grand scale. Previously an opencast coalmine, the Duke of Buccleugh funded construction of these massive symbolic earthworks to the design of Charles Jencks; here, science informs art, inscribed on the land in a series of sculptured landforms linked by walkways bordered by thousands of aligned standing stones.

Here, we contemplate the relation of the earth with the four zones of grassland, mountains, watercourses and deserts, beyond to the sun, to our galaxy and further, to the grandly speculative ideas of the Multiverse, a theoretical notion of multiple universes, each, perhaps, with their own constants and laws of nature. These are represented as carved shapes or forms in the landscape, weaving a pattern for our imagination.


Sound experiments with chimes at the Multiverse

We walked the high road of the Comet’s Walk to Northpoint, a viewpoint for the multiverse, Crawick, Sanquhar and beyond, to the heather hills, north and south, bisected by Nithsdale, east to west.

Resting here, first we contemplated, then we conversed, then we chimed: along with her harp, Wendy had brought a selection of metal rods…collectively, in a circle atop Northpoint, each holding a rod, swinging and arcing together to meet in an ensemble of unique sound. Here too, Wendy played harp, also letting us try the strings for harmony.


Wendy Stewart performing in Andromeda

Onwards, away from Northpoint, over and upwards to the spiral mound of our Galaxy, then south, to the Omphalos, the Centre, through the Solar Amphitheatre and to our completion.

Retracing our way to Sanquhar, well fed at the Nithsdale hotel, we met at A’ the Airts, Sanquhar’s community arts venue. There, Professor John Brown, the astronomer Royal for Scotland gave his lecture Black Holes, White Rabbits and the Multiverse. His insights into the wonders and mysteries of our universe at its extremes, the realm of black holes and other universes were made even more memorable with his skill as magician and illusionist. These tricks were entertaining in their own right, but were given extra salience as a source of metaphor in scientific thought at the limits of thought and reason.

Finally, into the darkening night to the Merz gallery to visit the Landscape of Waves exhibition. Charles Jencks collaborated with Alex Rigg, a performance artist and founder of Oceanallover. On display were paintings, drawings, sculptures and costumes for the grand opening of the Multiverse on summer solstice, 2015.

A complete day of exploration and imagination: art and science from the landscape.


Further Reading

Cat, J. Glenlair: a brief architectural history. Available at:



Jan Hogarth for curating our day; Wendy Stewart for her music; Duncan, Frances and Angus Ferguson for their hospitality at Glenlair; Professor Brown for his lecture; staff at A’ the Airts; all those attending the quest.