The film, The Devil’s Plantation, retraces the wanderings of an archaeologist and a patient from a mental institution who frequently but unknowingly interweave across each other’s paths through Glasgow’s “oldest mystery”.
Harry Bell and the Glasgow Network of Aligned Sites
Harry Bell (1935-2001) was an archaeologist who during the 1980s almost obsessively searched for an ancient network of aligned prehistoric sites in and around the Glasgow area. He was influenced by Alfred Watkins (1855-1935), the amateur archaeologist and antiquarian who upon researching prehistoric sites in his native Herefordshire, concluded that the landmarks were once part of a network of straight tracks or lines exploiting open woodland glades for use by traders. He called the lines ley, an old Anglo-Saxon word for forest clearings.
Like Watkins Bell used map work and field investigations supplemented by archive research to unearth an aligned and interlocking network of communication lines that ran through ruined castles, burial sites, churchyards, old mounds, Bronze Age forts and Neolithic settlements seemingly scattered about the landscape. These are prehistoric fragments that still poke through the impacted layers of industrial and urban development since the medieval age. His research started at the Devil’s Plantation, a 2000 – 1500 BC burial mound in Devil’s Woods seven miles south of Glasgow and, weirdly enough, very close to where marginalised Nazi politician Rudolph Hess, his plane and his futile solo peace mission crashed in 1941. From there Bell dowsed the lines and, as he put it, ‘archaeo-orienteered’ around the landscape.
Criticism of the ley line theory would point out that the high density of prehistoric sites in Britain mean that alignments and triangles can always be conjured out of the random while divining occult energy is subjective and has no scientific basis. The archaeologist Richard Atkinson demonstrated this by plotting telephone box leys based on the incoherent positioning of phone boxes.
Bell was open to the idea of the occult and sacred nature of Glasgow’s aligned network but the network developed as much from the practical needs for communication and navigation. The early settlers would have methodically fixed the sites on the sightlines of the highest and most prominent geographical points around Glasgow such as the Duncolm, Dumgoyne and Dunwan hills. These points were used as navigation around the wooded (at the time) Clyde valley.
Even so, the lines frequently converge onto the Necropolis, the city of the dead and ancient heart of the city. Hugh Mackintosh, in his Origin and History of Glasgow Streets (1902) wrote “in ancient times… a Druidical place of worship stood on the site of the present Necropolis…” until St Mungo according to the poem The Legend of St. Mungo written by Keelinvine in 1869, enlisted God’s help to save the future city from paganism and Druid ritual.
Bell published his findings in an out-of-print pamphlet, Glasgow’s Secret Geometry: the City’s Oldest Mystery. They were eventually published on a now somewhat digitally disintegrating website to fulfil Bell’s wish that his research would be available for further development.
The Devil’s Plantation
Another way of accessing the wealth of information on Glasgow’s Secret Geometry is The Devil’s Plantation, Glaswegian director May Miles Thomas’s excellent award-winning multi-media project that includes an app, website, photography and film.
The film follows in the footsteps of Bell and Mary Ross (1942-2011), a patient who regularly absconded from Hawkhead Asylum (later known as Leverndale Psychiatric Hospital). May Miles Thomas came across the abandoned medical notes of Mary Ross and contacted her in 2008, meeting her on seven occasions.
Both Bell and Ross unknowingly cross each others’ paths and often end up marking the same significant sites. Mary Ross, who battled years of mental illness, first arrived at Hawkhead young, unmarried, pregnant and suffering from depression, possibly post natal. Her daughter was put up for adoption in the Paisley area and this was inevitably to have a profound effect on her life.
While Bell’s wanderings are a quest plotting, researching and measuring the hidden lines and measurements of a forgotten ancient history, Ross’s criss-crossing of the landscape is deeply personal and driven by the emotional connections of her troubled past.
There are often poignant glimpses into Ross’s life and the troubled lives of those associated with her. She is disorientated to find childhood haunts changed beyond recognition. She scatters ashes and talks to ghosts. She searches for a junkie friend who has disappeared whose dog accompanies her on her wanderings, and who shares in her rare moments of peace and joy. She searches for her daughter in the faces of strangers, wondering if she would still recognise her decades later.
Ross also has a lyrically disconcerting way of deciphering the world around her. A bench’s design makes it look too sad to sit on while a workers gloves lying on a tree stump in one of Bell’s sites looks like they have been up to no good. A mattress in scrubland reminds her of forced sexual encounters. She sees a beast of faces and mouths In the façade of Gartloch Mental Hospital (once a popular abandoned ruin site for urban exploration) .
The film, often described as psychogeographic journey into a city, is atmospherically shot in black and white. It is a hypnotic, haunting and often disturbing portrayal of Glasgow, the surrounding countryside and its legends, its physicality and its people.
The DVD of the film is due out by the end of 2013 – see below for updates and information.
If you want to follow in the footsteps of Bell and Ross the links below will give you enough information and inspiration for many a day to come.