David Fisher – Artist (1946-2013), his Clydesdale legacy

David Fisher painting – three panels of Clydesdale through the ages
David Fisher painting – three panels of Clydesdale through the ages

By Tam Ward

David Fisher was born in Midsomer Norton in Somerset, he originally trained as a signwriter and decorator and gradually became a self employed artist. He was commissioned to paint pub signs all over England and produced a remarkable 400 of them over a fifteen year period. He also won a contract to paint the foyers of fourteen Trusthouse Forte motorway service areas between 1987 and 1993, and that is what brought him into my own life in Scotland.

One of his motorway service areas was at Abington Services on the newly constructed M74 through what was then Upper Clydesdale, now part of South Lanarkshire.

The theme for these paintings at each location was to represent local heritage sites and or significant events of historical interest. For inspiration he arrived at Biggar Museum to ask for advice on what was available. I remember first impressions of him as an extremely nice chap and after introductions I think he was quite astounded by what he learned next.

As it happened I was working from Biggar Museum on the M74 in the Abington area as the Archaeological Projects Officer, my function was to identify archaeological sites being disturbed by the new motorway and arrange for their excavation. The excavations were done by Glasgow University Archaeology Department and kick started their ‘commercial’ wing for archaeology, under Margaret Thatcher’s polices of making developers pay for this type of work, rather than the State through Universities and museums etc.

I was putting the finishing touches to my report which included an updated history section of the area which included the local archaeology, when in walked David Fisher.

He explained what his brief was at Abington and I could immediately see the potential in it all, what a glorious advertisement for our local story and it would be seen by countless thousands of motorway travellers for years to come. He asked the question, what could he paint about and had my report thrust into his hands with the statement “you could paint that”.

After I had taken him through most of the stories and features which were right on the doorstep of the new Services; all visible sites which, if one knew what they were, could easily be appreciated, and hopefully would inspire the viewer at Abington to make a stop over at Biggar Museum to gain even more of the experience of Clydesdale Heritage. Off David went with a copy of my report suitably highlighted with a range of possible stories which he could depict with his paint and brushes.

Some time later he sent pics of his preparatory paintings to the museum and asked if we approved, they were great and just what was needed to advertise our local heritage in a unique way in Clydesdale.

David then proceeded to produce the real thing at the Services foyer, they consisted of eight massive paintings on three walls, and when one walked through the entrance they were immediately visible, and it was simply unavoidable to miss them.

Fortunately, I photographed them and with David’s permission used the images regularly in talks and lectures. Later I asked if I could use the pictures in articles and reports as and when I needed them and his answer was “of course Tam, use them with my blessing”, and I have done so ever since and am exceedingly grateful because each one illustrates their topics so well.

However, nothing lasts forever, and now sadly all that remains at Abington Services foyer, now owned by Welcome Break, is a boring painted red area where once the beautiful, informative, and meaningful paintings once graced. The paintings were a real show stopper when one entered because you could not miss them, they were big and colourful and depicted various scenes from the past in the area, but in the minds of the new owners a boring wall looks better.

When Trusthouse Forte opened, I asked if they would like some display cases with objects from the museum to supplement the paintings, they readily agreed and for a while we had an outreach museum display in the restaurant there. Of course when the paintings were no longer wanted, neither were the display cases, now if you go to that establishment, be prepared to learn nothing about the locality, you may as well be in the south of England – somewhere!

I informed David about the sad demise of his work at Abington and know he was disappointed, but I did not realise that the same fate had befallen several other of his works at other service areas.

Anyway, his work is not gone, indeed it survives very well up here and I give images of his Abington murals, which if anyone wants copies of, then please contact me and I will oblige. What follows is the story behind the paintings, and a colourful story it is too.

David Fisher painting – three panels of Upper Clydesdale through the ages
David Fisher painting – three panels of Upper Clydesdale through the ages

The first image was the centre piece in the mural facing the entrance, and we decided on the theme “Upper Clydesdale Through the Ages”. Bastle houses were first discovered far north of the Anglo-Scottish border by Biggar Archaeology Group (BAG) way back in 1986. A series of bastles were discovered in Upper Clydesdale and several were excavated by BAG and have been created into local heritage trails. Displays of models and artefacts from them can be seen in Biggar Museum.

Bastle houses are strong defensive buildings, in fact they were the last defensible houses to be built in Britain. They are cut down versions of a laird’s tower house and were often occupied by tenant farmers. Northumberland and Cumbria have always been well known for such buildings which were a direct response to the infamous ‘border reivers’ of the late 16th to early 17th centuries. BAG are the only organisation to have systematically surveyed, excavated and researched these buildings in Scotland, which are often erroneously referred to as ‘pele houses’.

Several so called ‘experts’ in the archaeological profession are seemingly averse to the name of ‘bastle house’, preferring the name ‘pele house’, but we believe we have made a good case for our nomenclature over theirs, and this and several reports on the subject can be viewed and downloaded on the BAG web site at www.biggararchaeology.org.uk where other reports deal with the remainder of David’s former Abington paintings.

Tinto Hill is shown on the image and which can be seen from Abington, is crowned by a gigantic burial cairn which may date back to the Neolithic period, it is sixty metres in diameter by 6m high! And can be seen from many parts of southern Scotland.

David Fisher painting of Bronze age village
David Fisher painting of Bronze age village

Continuing but in chronological order we have the image of a Bronze Age village within two miles from Abington. The site is known as Lintshie Gutter and is part of a grouping of thirty five house platforms strung along the side of the hill at Crawford.

No where else in Britain is there such a proliferation of visible Bronze Age house sites, over 450 can be seen between the upper reaches of the rivers Clyde and neighbouring Tweed which is in in Borders Region. They are known as Unenclosed Platform Settlements (UPS) and were possibly the last undefended house sites in Scottish prehistory. What followed in the Iron Age are numerous spectacular hillforts which have their roots in the latter stages of the Bronze Age around 500BC when the climate changed from a drier and slightly warmer one to what we live in today, damper, and colder! As available farming land became scarcer, it seems that hostilities were prevalent among communities, requiring the need for defensive settlements.

Peculiarly, the UPS sites for the round timber framed and conical roofed houses, always with a porched entrance, were scooped from the sides of the hills to form strings of platforms which were unenclosed and therefore undefended (hence the name), field systems, burial cairns and burnt mounds are found between the house sites in equal profusion. We now know through excavation that these house types were in use throughout the Entire Bronze Age circa 4500 – 2500 years ago. See Upper Tweed Fruid Reservoir project pages for more on UPS.

The Iron Age following is known for its defensive settlements especially hillforts, and two spectacular examples of many in Upper Clydesdale and Tweeddale, can be seen at Abington, one is Arbory Hill and the other is at Black Hill. Both are multi period hillforts having deep ditches and ramparts, but also later massive stone walls built within to protect the round houses they enclosed. The hillforts are often assumed to have been in response to the Roman incursion into Scotland in the first century AD, however increasing evidence points to the fact that hillforts were well developed before the advent of the Romans in this part of the world. Nevertheless, we know that the Romans did have severe problems in subduing tribes in Northern Britain (Scotland) and the hillforts would have helped the locals resist to some extent.

David Fisher's painting of Crawford Roman Fort
David Fisher’s painting of Crawford Roman Fort

However, the Romans did come and did conquer all, because of their superior organisational skills and extremely well trained armies, they subjugated wherever they went, through bribery, or sheer brute strength, building straight roads through any landscape, building temporary camps and more permanent forts as they went. Again, Upper Clydesdale has an excellent representation of Roman sites, the invading armies march north through Nithsdale and Annandale and into the upper reaches of the Clyde, they even left us its name, as ‘Clota’. They marched along the Clyde to the Biggar area where all roads north, south, east, and west met from prehistoric times to the present. Crawford fort was excavated and shown to have been occupied three times, once under Governor Agricola and twice under Emperor Antonine. Most of the Roman objects from the area are in Glasgow museums, but Biggar has a good display of the period. David’s painting shows a model of Crawford Roman fort in Biggar Museum.

David Fisher's painting – Abington Motte and Bailey 12th Century
David Fisher’s painting – Abington Motte and Bailey 12th Century

Right beside the Abington Services area is the only example in Clydesdale of a motte and bailey castle, although there are other important mottes such as Lanark, a Royal castle, Biggar, the home of the first Sherriff of Lanarkshire, Baldwin The Fleming, and Carnwath where a magnificent ‘pudding bowl’ motte sits on the golf course, once the home of the Sommerville family. These were among the first castles to be built in Scotland during the 12th century and under the Patronage of King David I and his grandson Malcolm IV, shown in the painting. David (the king) invited the sons of the conquerors at the Battle of Hastings to come to Scotland and establish law and order for him, the first thing they had to do was build a castle to protect themselves and their followers from the locals who were not quite so keen on them. It is possible that the Abington site of which David (the artist) has painted a model in Biggar Museum, was built by one Albin [Albins town = Abington] who was related to John of Crawfordjohn, and who unusually left his name to the nearby settlement there.

David Fisher's painting for Bastle Houses
David Fisher’s painting for Bastle Houses

The next storyline in the former mural is of bastle houses and which are described above. However, BAG have now created several heritage trails to bastle house sites and a model of one is in Biggar Museum. The trails are at nearby Elvanfoot and Daer valley near the headwaters of the River Clyde. To visit these locations is to feel the atmosphere of the tenant farmers who strived to live off the seemingly barren hills with flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, the very things which attracted the Border reivers. The site at Glenochar was raided in 1600 and around 200 cattle were driven off. Tales of brutal murder and other atrocities are common during this disgraceful period of Anglo-Scottish history.

David Fisher painting – The Broken Bridge Mail Coach disaster
David Fisher painting – The Broken Bridge Mail Coach disaster

Before the coming of the railways in the early and mid-19th century, transport had been developing by roads. The Romans built the first roads through Clydesdale and these may still be seen in parts of the upland landscape. However as wider commerce increased across the country better roads and the means of travelling on them became necessary. In the 17th century there would be no wheeled transport in rural areas because there were no decent roads for such traffic to run on. It was horse back or foot for everybody. Better roads and bridges were required for example by the Hopetoun lead mining operations at Leadhills to get their lead to the port of Lieth for shipment to the Low Countries in the 17th century. Things began to improve with private trusts to build roads and, because many people were being drowned trying to cross rivers in flood, bridges were built often by local authorities, privately and by public subscription.

The first Royal Mail began running in Scotland between London and Glasgow in 1790 with stage coaches trundling along single track roads and bridges. The Great Road between London and Glasgow was a mere gravel track. It was another 36 years before Edinburgh had a similar service. The business is full of disaster stories of all sorts regarding the stage coaches everywhere in Britain, and Clydesdale has its very own – The Broken Bridge Mail Coach Disaster of 1808.

On a horrendously stormy night the north and south bound coaches should have met at a particular bridge south of Elvanfoot, near Beattock Summit. The south bound coach crashed over the collapsed bridge killing occupants and horses, however, one lady found herself stranded or a rock in the middle of the swollen river, screaming into the gale lashed night in forlorn hope of rescue. The north bound coach was arriving and but for the woman’s screams, would have joined them over the side of the broken bridge, they pulled up just in time.

During the rescue a young man attempted to save the stricken woman but afraid of the strict protocols of touching her, he shouted to his driver “Whaur wull ah grab her?”, the poor woman in instant peril of being washed away at the moment of salvation shouted back “Grab me where you will – but be sure to grab me firm”, what part of the woman’s anatomy was grabbed is not recorded, but she was saved. Thereafter the bridge was called The Broken Bridge.

Roads continued to be improved during the first half of the 19th century to speed the Royal Mail on its way and not to improve the lot of passengers in any form, they were simply an add on for extra revenue, but it was The Mail which was important. The great Thomas Telford was commissioned to improve the route south from Glasgow with better roads and bridges, some of the bridges still survive but most have been demolished (just like the paintings at Abington) by so called improvers with no sense of heritage in their bodies.

David Fisher's painting depicting the Caledonian Railway
David Fisher’s painting depicting the Caledonian Railway

All seemed to be going well until literally at a stroke, the Royal Mail coaches were out of business along with most roads and bridges, because the new form of transport was the Caledonian Railway which came through Upper Clydesdale in 1847, completed by the famous bunch of navvies, many from Ireland.

During the construction in 1846 many navvies came across from Ireland to escape the Potato Famine only to succumb to typhus and cholera which was rife at that time. Thirty seven navvies are buried in a little graveyard beside the Clyde at the point where the old A74 road crosses. There once was an urban myth that the locals would not allow them to be buried in the old Crawford burial ground because they were Catholics and undesirables, but that is not true, the old church yard was already filled to capacity and that was the only reason they were eventually buried where they now lie. Later, the ground was consecrated by the Bishop of Glasgow, but not the Catholic one it was the Episcopalian Bishop.

The trains put the Royal Mail stage coaches out of business, now the Mail and the public could travel from London to Glasgow in a single day, in much greater comfort and safety, before that it could take two weeks “God permitting”! There were no outstanding feats of railway engineering in Upper Clydesdale as the track and bridges were fairly straight forward. However, to get over the Southern Uplands at Beattock Summit often two engines were required to push and pull the trains over the top. David’s painting includes ‘The Caledonian, Red Revolution on Beattock’, from an original painting by artist M A Turner 1985. The line was electrified in 1974 and now ultra-fast and silent trains run smoothly through Clydesdale, but not stopping anywhere apart from Carstairs where the original branch line to Edinburgh still operates. So it is that since the Mesolithic peoples of 10,000 years ago to the present, Upper Clydesdale has been the route in and out of south central Scotland. Firstly the river was used by hunter gatherers to find their way through, then the Romans built the first roads, followed by others down the centuries until the present M74 was constructed in 1992.

David Fisher's painting of the M74
David Fisher’s painting of the M74

The final aspect of the former mural at Abington is the image of the newly constructed M74 Motorway between Abington and Crawford. Bringing the story right up to date at that time. The original route used by the Romans was improved to take stage coaches, then bettered by Thomas Telford. Only to be ruined by the railway, but then roads were resurrected by the demands of the next form of transport, cars, lorries, and buses. Once the A74 trunk road, it was rebuilt as a dual carriageway in the 1960’s and then upgraded to the road we use today, the M74, which, unfortunately whisks much of the traffic through the area cutting off its numerous attractions and incredible story of the past. All of the detail of this history is available in various BAG productions on this website.

David Fisher, artist – report on his Clydesdale legacy report is produced in memory of David Fisher and hopefully as a more lasting legacy of his contribution to our local heritage. The images are available from the writer if anyone wishes to have them, as David said, “the stories of the past belong to everyone and one way to provide them is through art”, never was a truer saying, so thank you.