John Latham – Scottish Office (1975–76)

Three-month feasibility study

In the course of his three-month placement in the Scottish Office, John Latham addressed the post-industrial restructuring in Glasgow and planning projects such as the large spoil tips around Edinburgh. The tips, known as ‘bings’, were formed through the remains of earlier paraffin production, and presented a problem for which the administration sought a solution. For Latham, however, they had sculptural relevance as monuments to Scotland’s bygone industrial era. He attempted to save them from destruction by having them declared ‘works of art’.

During Latham’s three-month stay in the Scottish Office in Edinburgh, where he was given his own office, he developed various, at times idiosyncratic and unorthodox ideas regarding the social upheavals and changes in Glasgow and across Scotland. His proposals ranged from restarting a local cable TV network for self-organised use by local residents and media artists, the setting up of fish farms in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant near the city, and a tidal powered energy generator.

© Jürgen Harten
John Latham, Aerial View of Niddrie Woman, 1976 © John Latham Estate and Jürgen Harten

Of utmost importance for his artistic work was his interest in the bings. Latham selected five formations on the basis of their landscape qualities, and suggested measures for their conservation and use by tourists to the Scottish Office. Of particular importance for his work was the heap that Latham renamed ‘Niddrie Woman’. Based on aerial photographs, he joined the hill formations with references from Celtic mythology, proposing the creation of sculptures as landmarks on each summit. Despite Latham’s years of correspondence with his contact in the Scottish Office, the planning director Derek Lyddon, and the various local authorities, no long term placement was ever arranged, nor were any of Latham’s proposals ever directly implemented. In terms of Latham’s work having a long-term effect, however, it might be no coincidence that two of the bings were listed as monuments in the 1990s, albeit without reference to Latham’s original proposals.