Approximately 2,000 boulders were used to create the Crawick Multiverse site, a major land restoration project on the Duke of Buccleuch's Queensberry Estate. The materials found within the site inspired Charles Jencks' design, which is influenced by cosmology and astronomy

The M74 north of Moffat must be one of the prettiest stretches of motorway in the UK. It runs across the Southern Uplands, with the Lowther Hills rising sharply to the west, and follows the Clyde from its source at Elvanfoot down into the Central Belt. The countryside looks wild, lovely and empty.

It is singularly hard to remember that just over these hills, fewer than 20 miles away (and still in glorious rural settings) is what was described in 2014 as “a legacy of environmental dereliction that is probably unrivalled anywhere in Scotland” – the remains of the opencast coal mines of East Ayrshire and northern Dumfries and Galloway; brutal scars gouged out of the green land. And they have left behind them a string of small communities – Sanquhar, Kirkconnell, New Cumnock – in sorry need of regeneration.

This, sadly, is hardly an unusual story. What comes next is perhaps more so.

Just to the north of Sanquhar, the Crawick mine, dug into over 50 acres (20 hectares) of hillside and looking out over the wide valley of the upper Nith was, like the others, abandoned. Since the top soil had been removed and the ground thoroughly broken up, it did not self-regenerate; it remained as blatant evidence of post-industrial desecration. It was near enough to the town to be disturbing – ugly, potentially dangerous and a symbol of loss
and decay.

And here the Duke of Buccleugh, whose principal Scottish home, Drumlanrig Castle, is just down the road, commissioned the famous landform artist Charles Jencks to create a work of art that would transform the old mine works into a thing of beauty, an enjoyable outdoor facility for the community – and one that might attract much-needed visitors to the area. And thus was created the Crawick Multiverse.

The artist behind the Crawick Multiverse, Charles Jencks, describes it as "a cosmic landscape worthy of the ancients"

Landscape – or artwork?

When you walk up the track, you emerge into a strange landscape of huge raised mounds, lines of standing stones, complex patterns of grass and rocks, and an almost vertical ‘cliff’ – once the back of the mine – from the ridge of which you can survey both the Multiverse itself and a huge panorama of the countryside around it. Winding paths invite exploration. Both the overall effects and the tiny details delight the heart and stimulate the brain.

The Crawick Multiverse is not an art gallery like the Yorkshire Sculpture Park or indeed The Angel of the North, where individual pieces of art are placed into – or on to – a landscape. In a sense it is something much older than that. At Crawick the landscape is the art, as it was – so far as we can understand – for the builders of Stonehenge, Avebury or Silbury Hill. And as it was for the 18th-century landscape designers such as Repton and ‘Capability’ Brown. In both scale and inspiration, Crawick harks back to a more ancient understanding of the relationship between people and the land, to the sense that the two belong together. This artwork includes a gathering place for up to 5,000 people – the Sun Amphitheatre, a sweeping bowl like a Greek theatre or medieval cathedral, space that is both sacred and social; both cutting-edge ‘high concept’ modern art and a good venue for pop concerts. You are not meant to view it like art in a museum; you are meant to be in it, having fun.

At the same time, it is entirely of the 21st century – the Crawick Multiverse points forward as well as back. Jencks himself has described it as “a cosmic landscape worthy of the ancients”. One of the hallmarks of Jencks’ work is his engagement with contemporary science, particularly physics and astronomy. Another hallmark is his extraordinarily beautiful and satisfying use of sinuous curving lines and spirals. Using the medium of grass, earth, rocks and water, he represents the events and forces that we are presently discovering in deep space: the two massive mounds at the centre of the site illustrate the dance of the Milky Way (our own galaxy) and the Andromeda galaxy, which are, scientists tell us, being pulled into a collision course, with long strands of cosmic debris (lines of standing stones) swirling off them. Each and every feature has an explicit reference to contemporary science – black holes and superclusters and comet tails.

Seeing is believing

I think the Crawick Multiverse is fabulous – beautiful, bold and inspiring. But I am aware that some people may find it difficult, may feel that such fiercely contemporary and intellectually challenging art does not belong in the countryside; or that they won’t know enough about physics to ‘get it’. If you are one of them, I’d suggest seeing it first, and learning about the science from the art rather than the other way round. Jencks has said that a true symbol inspires you to find out what underlies it – and I believe this is true at Crawick. Children running the spirals, delighting in the curves and standing stones will learn with their bodies about their place in the universe here; and grown-ups can, too.

It is also worth remembering that the parks of the 18th century that we now love were just as high-concept – driven by complex intellectual ideas about history and politics. And lots of people disliked them very much. In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen shows her sympathy for Fanny’s dislike of the new landscape gardening.

The Duke of Buccleugh has described the Multiverse as a “gamble”. His courage was probably raised because he is fortunate enough to be the owner (and committed restorer) of a ‘Capability’ Brown artwork – the park at Boughton House in Northamptonshire. Jencks and Brown have a surprising amount in common – not just the delicate balance of raised mounds and flat water, but in bringing intelligence and serious ideas to bear on a leisure facility. And, incidentally, both artists believe that you use what is there – “not a cartload out, not a cartload in” Brown said – you think about mounds because you want to dig lakes and vice versa. The standing stones at Crawick were found on the site as the work progressed.

“Not only has Jencks transformed a brutal eyesore into a landscape of awesome scale and beauty, he has also created something that just might be a catalyst for transformation in this neglected rural corner,” says the Duke of Buccleugh. And I agree.

This is a gamble that deserves to pay off.

Below: Two mounds represent the spiral galaxies of Andromeda and our Milky Way. In the foreground, the land has been sculpted into triangles that represent the Supercluster of galaxies to which the Milky Way belongs


Words: Sara Maitland/ Photos: McAteer, Charles Jencks, The Times/ James Glossop, Mike Dunlevy