Inspection of Abbey graffiti uncovers find of possible ‘cultural significance’

Underneath the crude scrawl of ‘Smithy was here’, Historic Environment Scotland found an “elaborate incised drawing” that had remained unseen and was probably made around 250 years ago.

A report said there was a link to Andrew Carnegie and added: “This unusual feature would also raise the cultural significance of this monument, and might be worthy of interpretation in its own right.”

Dunfermline Press: Underneath the graffiti on a monument to a man who died in 1743, a finding of possible cultural significance was found, which may now need to be recorded and preserved.Underneath the graffiti on a monument to a man who died in 1743, a finding of possible cultural significance was found, which may now need to be recorded and preserved. (Image: Historic Environment Scotland)

HES have now made an application to Fife Council for listed building consent for stabilisation and stone consolidation works, including graffiti removal, at two mural monuments to West Fife men in the north porch of the abbey.

Colin Muir, a stone conservator with HES, said: “One monument has a subtle, possibly unrecorded cultural significance that may require recording and preservation, whilst the other appears to present a possible risk to public safety.”

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He carried out an inspection almost five years ago, in January 2019, after being asked for a conservation assessment of “recent graffiti damage” on the monuments.

His report from that time, which also assessed the vandals’ climbing abilities and studied the writing to see if it was likely to be the same person, was included with the application submitted by HES last week.

Mr Muir said it was clear that graffiti in the north porch of the category A listed abbey was just one of a “variety of unsociable activities” carried out there.

He wrote: “This medieval structure has an elaborate rib-vaulted ceiling but no door, so despite being sheltered from the rain it is essentially a ‘semi-external’ location.

“As a result it is exposed to the full range of ambient external temperature and humidity fluctuations.

“In addition, the locality is open to public use at most times, and the porch must be viewed as an attractive option for young people to congregate in, being sheltered and largely unseen.

“When visited, not only were there signs of generations of graffiti on the stonework, but also discarded food and drink containers, and a strong smell of recent urine.

Dunfermline Press: The mural monument to Adam Rolland, of Gask, who died more than 280 years ago, in the north porch of Dunfermline Abbey.The mural monument to Adam Rolland, of Gask, who died more than 280 years ago, in the north porch of Dunfermline Abbey. (Image: Historic Environment Scotland)

“It would seem then that the site is used for a variety of unsociable activities, of which the graffiti is only a part.”

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Both murals were constructed of white marble in the conventional “neo-classical style of the late 18th century”.

He added: “It should be noted that the areas of graffiti on both monuments were out of reach from the ground, and must have required some climbing to execute.”

The first monument is to Adam Rolland, of Gask (around five miles north of Dunfermline), who died in August 1743 at the age of 57.

Mr Muir said: “It is possible it was erected sometime after his death by his son, also Adam Rolland, who became a leading Scottish judge and philanthropist.

“He founded the Dunfermline Free School where Andrew Carnegie was to receive his free education.

“It has been suggested that Carnegie’s own philanthropy may have been inspired by this background.”

Dunfermline Press: HES said this was an 1843 illustration showing the design on the monument.HES said this was an 1843 illustration showing the design on the monument. (Image: Historic Environment Scotland)

The report said: “The recent graffiti takes the form of large scrawled text; ‘SMITHY WAS HERE’, over the upper left-hand side of the panel.

“Whilst closely inspecting the surface for further graffiti it became clear there was not only substantial older graffiti present but also unknown, organised incisions.

“Initially assumed to be earlier damage, it became apparent this was hatching on an elaborate incised drawing covering the whole panel.

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Dunfermline Press: The second mural monument, to William Hunte who died in 1788, is a danger to public safety as there's a risk it could fall from the wall.The second mural monument, to William Hunte who died in 1788, is a danger to public safety as there’s a risk it could fall from the wall. (Image: Historic Environment Scotland)

“Given the professional quality to the few discernible marks it appeared it was contemporaneous with its construction, and an intended part of its design.”

He added: “The important incised line-carvings on this monument need to be recorded before the surface is cleaned.”

The report recommended scanning the panel with a hi-res 3D digitiser that “should clearly show the extent, form and detail of the carving present”.

The second mural monument is to William Hunte, a merchant in Dunfermline who died in February 1788 at the age of 78.

Dunfermline Press: HES suggested the graffiti on the Hunte memorial may have been unfinished, with the culprit having been disturbed in the act.HES suggested the graffiti on the Hunte memorial may have been unfinished, with the culprit having been disturbed in the act. (Image: Historic Environment Scotland)

Mr Muir wrote: “As with the damage to the Rolland memorial, this latest graffiti has been light scratched onto the marble surface.

“It appears to read “PADI – YL”, though it is possible the last letter may be an unfinished ‘E’, perhaps indicative of having been disturbed in the act.

“Though apparently contemporaneous in execution to the other graffiti, this shows signs of being by a different person.

“The lines are multiply scored and the writing is smaller and tighter in style, whilst also being carried out at a greater height than the other graffiti described.

“This suggests a more capable ‘climber’, able to operate comfortably at height and use a slower and more deliberate method of mark-making.”

Dunfermline Press: A 3D scan has been made of the Hunte memorial to try and establish how it was fixed to the wall of the north porch, and to find the best way of stabilising it.A 3D scan has been made of the Hunte memorial to try and establish how it was fixed to the wall of the north porch, and to find the best way of stabilising it. (Image: Historic Environment Scotland)

He said that, apart from the graffiti, closer inspection of the mural showed an “alarming degree of movement” and said it was at risk of falling off the wall and presenting “a danger to public safety”.

Mr Muir said it was clear that “young people are climbing up to it” and added: “Obviously this type of behaviour may endanger the monument’s survival, though equally it may also jeopardise their own, or others that use the location at a later date.”

He recommended using water and brush cleaning the panels to “effectively hide” the graffiti and improve the “green algae-covered surfaces”.

And Mr Muir said a degree of dismantling will be required to remove the Hunte memorial and re-fix the displaced parts – HES put up temporary panelling over the porch entrance and access was restricted – while other minor conservation treatments should also be carried out.

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