Snapshots & Sketches – layers of a townscape

Once upon a could have been: Inverkeithing’s townscape, buildings and layers of history

Donna Sinclair

Donna’s blog post differs from the other because her small sketch of a Janus head, inspired by her childhood memory of a small statue on the roof of the townhouse, became the key element of all of the interpretations. Her interest in this, and in the Inverkeithing witch trials, will be carried forward into further projects with Inverkeithing Arts, but the main body of work she created for the project has somewhat taken on a life of its own!

Donna and her family are from the area, and she has an interest in history which far predates this project. She was drawn to old photographs and illustrations of the buildings and streets of Inverkeithing and surrounding area, and began to piece together the sometimes opaque history of the physical lay-out of the town. Its easy to spend many hours looking at old photographs, which pre-date some demolition or re-build or other and try to work out ‘where on earth is this’. For Donna this became a labour of love for her home town. Not only did she look and wonder, she sketched and drew what she was uncovering.

As she wrote in one of her sketchbooks, this work was a cry for ‘once upon a could have been’ for a town which has not been particularly valued since its heyday. Unlike Culross, chosen as a ‘history town’ despite it once being within the legal boundary of Inverkeithing, Inverkeithing’s heritage was poorly preserved for many years, unrecognised and often changed beyond recognition. With this current heritage regeneration, hopefully at last the importance of its townscape will be recognised.

Donna’s exquisite style has garnered her many admirers, and she is currently working with the Inverkeithing History Society for the ongoing Burgh Survey project. We’ll post updates on this here as it progresses.

Snapshots and Sketches – from inspiring artworks to street motifs

What a strange time it was to be involved with a community art project! It has been challenging in many respects, but very thought-provoking. Without the social restrictions we would undoubtedly have met as a whole group much more often, both outdoors and in different indoor venues. We would have spent time in the library with books and objects, and in the Town House where many original historical resources are kept. We would have met up at Maker to draw together and share ideas, and, perhaps most importantly, we would have enjoyed an opening night of our exhibition together, inviting friends, family and community members to share in our artistic endeavours.

But on the other hand these are historic times. We added the significant phrase ‘Inverkeithing Past, Present and Future’ to the brief in order to reflect this. In the times of Covid we look back at the past with new eyes, perhaps feeling more kinship with people who lived in less certain times, when illness and disease had devastating effects on a more regular basis than we are used to now in the richer nations. ‘The Lazaretto Book’, (as we called ‘Reminiscences of childhood at Inverkeithing; or, life at a lazaretto’ by James Simpson, b. 1826), was especially fascinating, as were stories of plague ships docking in the harbour and being flooded with sea water to disinfect them, and a quarantine shanty town on the outskirts, just outside the town walls.

In the lazaretto book the narrator writes: “The cholera season of 1832 is vividly impressed on my memory. For some time before that I had been at the parish school, which was dismissed when the pestilence made its appearance in the town and neighbourhood. I have no recollection of having realised in any form the solemnity connected with this visitation of the angel of death; and I am satisfied that I was incapable of doing it at that age, unless it had been the death of an inmate of the family, or of one which whom I had stood in close and contact relationship. My associations connected with the cholera are those of the most unalloyed pleasure I have ever experienced; the event was the golden age of my existence, the epoch to which I soon began to look back as the dim antiquity of real happiness. There were the dismissal of the school, the beautiful weather, the family all at home, their variety of plays and amusements, the bigger body of the town sailing and squabbling all over the bay, the burning of tar barrels, and the half solemn, half exciting discussions of what to me were in incomprehensible. Then there were the bustle about the Lazaretto, which had been disused some time before, the boatmen moving about, the receipt and dispatch of merchandise of vessels, the supplying of the men inside the building with necessities, and my daily watching all the operations. Then there was my father going about the house several times a day with a saucer containing saltpetre and vinegar, and fumigating everything by stirring the contents with a red-hot poker. Then there was us children taking our meals (not playing with ‘tea-things’) inside of the hedge at the bottom of the garden, under the trees, on tablecloths spread on the ground.”

This period in history has been very difficult for many people, and we felt that this piece of text, written from the perspective of a small boy, had a brilliant resonance with the times, especially during the spring and summer of 2020, when the project was started. As 12 year old Hope Francis wrote ‘during lockdown, I started a dream diary’. There seemed to be a possibility for us to remember what is important in life, and like Hope, dare to dream (about better times?). In early 2021, however, with a second wave of infections underway, with its suffering and tragedy, combined with the winter darkness and cold, it was hard to have much sense of the possibilities for change which the children’s texts across generations seem to invite.

Now as spring approaches and we maybe feel a bit more positive again, we can perhaps begin again to reflect on the present and dare to hope for the future?

A key motif has been discovered and decided on, and its based on a piece of work that wasn’t actually in the project exhibition at Maker. Some of the artists continued to work after the exhibition had been installed, including Donna Sinclair, who continued her work based around the buildings of Inverkeithing, recreating them from old photographs and paintings. She remembered a small statue of a Janus head that sat on top of the Town House when she was a little girl. Her memory is that it disappeared at some point in the 1980s, she presumes stolen. For the project she made some sketches of Janus heads from her imagination, inspired by the concepts it encapsulates. When we saw the drawings, one in particular had a lovely lively quality, with swirling hair, creating a poetic and very balanced shape.

We found that the imagery and symbolism of a Janus reflects so many aspects of our project, and of Inverkeithing. The heads face in opposite ways and Janus heads are usually set north and south, and often represent the past and future, and the transformative period in between. It can reflect dichotomies such as the land and the sea, church and trade, home and of other places. Janus was a roman god, and used in statuary at gateways into towns and cities, so we can see it can represent transitions and limens, and also represent a welcome to a place. Given that the regeneration project as a whole is about placemaking and improved experiences for both residents and visitors, this really spoke to us.

This motif is key, but we also want to incorporate everyone’s work, paying homage to all of their talent, engagement, hard work and imagination. These have been created and are currently awaiting the final say to make them available to the public. In the meantime, do you remember the Janus Head on the Town House? Let us know if you have any stories about it, or any thoughts on the symbolism and meaning of Janus heads.

Incorporating the artists’ work into the motifs

The work has been developed in progress towards motifs which will be integrated in upcoming public realm works throughout the town centre. It was developed by members of Inverkeithing Arts Initiative and commissioned for the Inverkeithing Heritage Regeneration project, funded by Historic Environment Scotland, National Lottery Heritage Fund, and Fife Council.  The project, running 2019-2024, is being delivered by Fife Historic Buildings Trust.