Artistry to light up the 'Lantern'

26th October 2012 at 01:00
Pupils and artists have created a modern `Book of Kells' for Elgin Cathedral. Jean McLeish reports

A new treasure has been unveiled at Elgin Cathedral and the pupils of Alves Primary have played a key role. The 13th-century cathedral known as the "Lantern of the North" is now home to what is being described as a contemporary Book of Kells.

Beautifully bound and decorated, the book tells the story of the cathedral through the art of Moray schoolchildren and community groups. It's a colourful collection of artwork, created in workshops led by a team of six artists including sculptor Mary Bourne, who each worked with a school and a community group.

The cover and binding was designed and made by Kirsty Wallace, a student at Moray College in Elgin, and the book is to be housed in a specially built case and put on permanent display at the cathedral.

Today the cathedral is an imposing ruin. Historic Scotland embarked on this venture to shine a new light on the building and its remarkable role in Scotland's past.

"I think Elgin Cathedral is one of the most important medieval buildings in Scotland and one of the most beautiful too," says Jenny Ebdy, local learning officer for Historic Scotland at Elgin Cathedral.

"So this is really to try and get the local community to realise what they have in their midst and to come and visit and be inspired by the building. I came up with this idea of a modern take on the Book of Kells - one of these treasures that were kept at religious buildings like this."

She says: "I think if you have a building like this in your midst, quite often you don't bother going to it because you think, `I'll come another time - it's there.' Making them come with school groups, or as parent helpers, they realise what there is here and how wonderful it is."

This afternoon, a busload of French tourists marvels at the skill of long- dead stonemasons and loads up with souvenirs of the visit. In the cathedral's lovely octagonal chapter house, which remains intact, guests are celebrating the book launch with songs and speeches.

Visiting children from Alves Primary have taken advantage of the autumn sunshine to play in the cathedral grounds and clamber the narrow, winding staircase up one of the remaining towers.

Eleven-year-old Erin Young has come with her mum Morag and her wee brother Liam, 9. He likes exploring here. "It's really cool and fun and there's lots of information," she says.

Her class's artwork, featuring gold decorative bosses inspired by the cathedral, is on the first page of the book.

"They're smallish circles and they're gold and you make patterns on them," says Erin. "If you look in the chapter house and if you look up at the ceiling, you can see that there's different patterns and different pictures on the bosses."

Her friend Skye Kenny, 11, adds: "They're little medals that had pictures of people's lives," and their friend Megan MacIver, 10, says: "We got a tour of the cathedral and made clay models of the bosses, which are in the book."

Erin's mum, Morag Young, is chair of the parent council at Alves Primary and has a keen interest in history.

"Just doing this as an art project and knowing they've done something that's going to be on display and part of the community has been thoroughly enjoyable for them - and for us as well to come and see it," she says.


Alves Primary pupils had the privilege of working with sculptor Mary Bourne for their project on Elgin Cathedral.

Ms Bourne's public commissions include the Carpet of Leaves at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh, which was created around the lectern in the open-air performance space.

She is in the chapter house for this afternoon's celebrations and points out the children's work in the book and shows the bosses which inspired them on the vaulted ceiling.

"The first thing we did was talk about the role of the mason within the cathedral, because there were different sorts of mason - the ones who designed it, who were architects and so on," says Ms Bourne.

"We were then able to go and visit the mason training yard - Historic Scotland trains masons here and we could see masons at work, carving masonry for the cathedral. They do a mason's qualification here, so they can go and work elsewhere afterwards.

"We then talked about how the decorative carving articulates the architecture. So the bosses in the ceiling - you see where the ribs cross - they hid the joints. They had that practical purpose, so if the joints didn't quite meet up, they were hidden and were part of the decorative scheme," she says.

Over the altar and main door, the stonemasons would work on formal religious themes, but in the bosses they could be less formal and sometimes humorous in their depiction of Scottish life in the Middle Ages.

Ms Bourne is currently working on commissions for two Aberdeenshire schools and collaborating with pupils on projects under way at the new Mearns and Ellon academies.

"I really love this cathedral and I have made sculptures about bits of the architecture here, inspired by this place. So, yes, it was really great to come and do this."

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