The Why?s Man

"My art is place specific and people specific." George Wyllie

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I donŐt intend to add much to the many words written about George Wylie who died recently at the age of 90.

I met George briefly when he had become something of a legend. I knew about the straw locomotive and the paper boat. It would have been difficult not to be aware of these.

I had watched a television programme on his visit to Gruinard Island. There he installed a simple sculpture after the 'Keep Out' signs had come down. Decontamination was hoped to have rid the island of anthrax that had made the place a forbidden area for nearly fifty years, since the detonation of anthrax bombs by British scientists during the Second World War. Apprehension was plaited with the wind and Wylie and his crew were probably more than relieved to take their leave.

The sculptor's determination to land and celebrate the island's return to the living world by the installation of his sculpture touched me, as his Straw Locomotive and Paper Boat touched so many Scots. He understood how to woo the Scots' psyche by creating understandable sculpture that linked to pride in past achievements, and showed how a rich history still mattered, still meant something in a changed world. I met George Wylie when he was persuaded to play a part in a festival I was involved with running. With the Straw Locomotive and Paper Boat in our minds, what George brought to the festival was another icon from our past, a puffer. Though to be exact it was a fleet of puffers made of terracotta clay.

He brought his little rust coloured sculptures across the Clyde where puffers plied during my childhood. It was a common sight to see them emptied of their cargo of coal, building materials, furniture even, high and dry in a harbour, squatting at a drunken angle waiting for the tide. The puffer for many years was the juggernaut of the west of Scotland. Not so fast but better loved, it transported essential heavy goods to remote and island communities. A lifeline service it would now be called, if puffers had survived.

One puffer in particular made its mark. The Vital Spark and her crew, given flesh and rusty steel in the stories of Neil Munro, and then in television series in the 1970s and 1990s. I didn't fully appreciate the television adaptations, and it wasn't until a number of years ago when researching people and events for both festival and interpretation panels, that I discovered the true delight of Munro's tales. They tell so much about the river at that period, its communities and inhabitants. They fizz with pithy comments about those who sailed and raced great yachts in the Clyde estuary, people like Sir Thomas Lipton, various members of the Coats family, Glasgow merchants as well as monarchy.

That was at a time when steamers on a Glasgow Fair Saturday were so crowded it was a wonder they remained afloat. It was a time when boats were still built in the yards along the river's shores, and if you sailed from the Broomielaw to one of the Clyde resorts you were almost deafened by the dang and clang that rang from these yards.

Thank you, George Wylie, for the memories.

Dorothy Bruce, May 2012. Photographs © Dorothy Bruce

First published online in Argyll News

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