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Fairyland Turret: a Creative Tribute Made Possible by Lockdown

Like some modern-day Michelangelo, Kelly Stewart perched precariously on scaffolding, mere centimetres from the ceiling of the highest turret of Victorian chocolate-box-perfect Carlowrie Castle, deftly wielding her paintbrush. For a week, Kelly lived and breathed Carlowrie in complete isolation as she completed a unique mural for this eyrie.

Kelly Stewart, perched high, while creating Isobel's Turret Mural

The usually bustling events venue was deserted, stilled by the nationwide lockdown. The only noises those of the wildlife that lived on the estate and the harmonies drifting up from the small radio Kelly brought with her for company, tuned into Classics FM.

‘I was given a key and had the flexibility to come and go which enabled me to really focus. I stayed on the grounds for a week so I created a little bubble within the time and space, fleshing out ideas and resolutions in my mind when I wasn’t in the turret and being super proactive when I was in the space. ‘For the most part, I loved being there on my own, especially when it came to getting the work done with little distraction. At times I imagined what it must have been like for Isobel [Wylie Hutchison] who spent many of her final years on her own in the castle.’

Since Kelly’s work was a celebration of Isobel and her life, feeling a synergy with Isobel’s experience was an unexpected but insightful bonus of her process. Illustrator, silk screen printer and bookbinder Kelly Stewart was already familiar with Isobel’s story, having created a design for the Isobel Collection, launched in 2018. The collection celebrates the legacy of intrepid Arctic explorer, botanist and writer Isobel Wylie Hutchison, Carlowrie Castle’s longest and most intriguing inhabitant.

Kelly's sketches and ideas for Isobel's Turret mural

Since Craft Design House was first commissioned to create the Isobel Collection for Carlowrie Castle, we have worked together on a number of ventures related to raising Isobel’s profile and her presence within the castle, reintroducing her history into the much-modernised interiors of her former home, from collections to events and installations.

The turret is the most recent addition to this project, a mural installation, an invitation to fully immerse oneself in Isobel’s adventures. Tucked away in the castle’s highest tower is a moment of calm and of wonder, an arctic expanse filled with Isobel’s writings, her observations, her beloved flowers and the photographs that she captured on her adventures.

‘Based on my own research and the contents of the timeline, I had initially come up with ideas around a botanical theme. I wanted to create a space that would have the wow factor when people stepped into it and I thought colourful gigantic flowers spanning the entire 4m height of the turret space and spilling onto the ceiling with a bright sky above would be fun, inspiring, joyous and uplifting which are all the qualities that represented Isobel’s life.’

Lockdown constraints made it next-to-impossible for Kelly to access the materials we had relied upon for previous collections: those held in the National Library of Scotland, the Herbarium of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s (RSGS) archives. Happily, Kelly was able to visit the small exhibit on Isobel housed in the National Museum of Scotland, while we gave her access to our own Isobel Wylie Hutchison archive, built up over the last four years, and introduced her to Jo Woolf, writer and researcher at the RSGS who had worked with us before. ‘I asked her [Jo] to imagine herself coming down the driveway, into Carlowrie castle, up the staircase and into the turret space that represented Isobel’s life and world. I asked her what she saw. Without hesitation, she said she saw an arctic scene, bright, vivid colours with the impression of vastness, to express the sense of freedom that Isobel always referred to during her expeditions. The term ‘fairyland’ was noted and the idea was born.’

With a new focus and solid concept, Kelly set to work establishing the look and feel of the design. ‘I researched imagery of the arctic online, such as the colours, the islands, the birdlife and the like. I found Isobel’s homemade videos particularly inspiring and endearing. The videos were taken by Isobel of the Inuit community, the birds, animals and flowers, of the islands, and snapshots of members of the communities she visited and stayed.’ The videos are held in the Royal Geographical Society archives and kindly shared with Craft Design House for research on the project.

Arctic Poppy's painted on the doors of Isboel's Turret room.

‘Flowers were a huge part of Isobel’s life, at times returning to Scotland from her arctic adventures with over 250 cuttings. It was difficult to choose a few. I chose the arctic poppy, because I felt that it symbolised Isobel. A delicate, bright flower that has the resilience and strength to power on through some of the most inhospitable terrain and weather conditions in the world.

I chose the Alaskan Lady’s slipper, otherwise formally known as the Western Arctic Shooting star as this was a flower mentioned by Jo Woolf as one of Isobel’s favourites. I also chose the Pyrola Uniflora because it’s a flower that Isobel discovered as a child, in the woods, behind Carlowrie. She wrote a poem to express her joy of discovering this flower. Excerpts of this poem are included in the mural alongside it.

Most importantly is the Rowan Berries. I know they aren’t flowers but the significance is very important. In Isobel’s book she referred to the arctic as her fairyland, a place of freedom and joy. In Scottish folklore faeries live under Rowan trees and the berries symbolise the presence of faeries. It seemed very fitting that a single branch of a rowan tree with berries be painted on the outside of the door leading into the turret space.’

Opening the door to Isobel's Fairyland.

When it came to actually putting brush to wall (and ceiling!), the culmination of months of research, planning, measuring, and sketching, Kelly says: ‘I enjoyed every moment of installing the mural, it was like one big zen experience of going in, filling up a bucket of water to take up to the turret space, and slowly but surely translating all the ideas and imagery from my sketchbook, onto the walls and the ceiling. My favourite part of the mural itself was removing the iceberg paper masks from the walls to reveal the full arctic scene.

Kelly Stewart, making icebergs. Removing the iceberg paper masks from the walls.

‘Even though the turret space itself is small, it had two large windows with fantastic views across the grounds when seen from the height of the scaffold. The afternoon light that streamed through was breath-taking, with the fleeting squirrels, grazing deer and squawking crows outside being my only distraction.’

The stories highlighted in the mural installation vary hugely and like us at Craft Design House, Kelly struggled to choose a favourite, although she managed to narrow it down better than we did! ‘There’s too many remarkable stories about Isobel’s life but one of my favourites is that when she returned to Scotland after an expedition she sent dog food across to the Inuit communities in Greenland because she felt sorry for the way that the dogs never got their fair share of food.’ Perhaps Kelly’s own passion for animals was at play here, helping her pick this particular story. Like Isobel, Kelly also adores dogs and is currently working on a personal project entitled: ‘Wanted; Dogs With Personality’. Kelly intends to publish this series of dog illustrations as a book but in the meantime you can find them on her Instagram page dogs.with.personality.

The tower is now open to guests of Carlowrie Castle, and offers a quiet space for reflection, daydreaming, and wonder. It is also the perfect retreat for wedding couples looking to share a private moment in the midst of their celebrations, spirited away to their very own fairyland.


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The North Star Explorer

Learn more about Isobel’s passion for the natural world, her experience of travelling to remote places and her encounters expressed through art and creative writing.

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