Migvie - History & Commissioning ~ Migvie Chapel
There could not be more different men. One is the Hon. Philip Astor, the urbane metropolitan common law barrister who spends his working week in London, but who is also the Laird of the Tillypronie Estate, at Tarland, in Aberdeenshire.
The other is Peter Goodfellow, artist and owner of The Lost Gallery, at Strathdon, in Upper Donside. He is a blunt –speaking, volatile Yorkshire-man with firm ideas which he will readily argue when challenged.
They surely are as different as the proverbial chalk and cheese. And yet, together, they have created something very special, turning a near derelict little kirk into an oasis of tranquillity, a place for contemplation where the only distraction is the soft chatter of small birds as they play in the soft spring air. The peace is surely palpable.
Philip Astor’s family came from Tillypronie in 1951. His father Gavin Astor bought the estate as an alternative to the hustle and bustle of life in London, where he was chairman of The Times Publishing Company Ltd, and later, with the merger of The Times and The Sunday Times, life president of the newly formed Times Newspapers Ltd. A few weeks later, he bought the neighbouring Towie Estate to give himself a total holding of almost 14,000 acres.
But this was no playground where he and his friends would occasionally shoot and fish, neither was it simply an investment left tot others to manage. Gavin Astor lived on the estate, striving for the betterment of the land and the tenants who occupied and worked it.
Philip Astor inherited the estate in 1984. Previously, he had been no more than a visitor to Tillypronie during holidays from Eton. No he spends his working time in the rarefied atmosphere of the Courts of Justice, but at weekends he invariably takes a plane to Aberdeen and happily makes the hour-long drive to what he sees as his real home. “It’s a source of great pleasure,” he says, “the contrast between being in some dingy County Court on a Friday afternoon and coming up here and having the magic of the hills and the surroundings.”
Peter Goodfellow came to Upper Donside in 1986. He was born in Cleveland, where his father was a foreman at the giant ICI chemical plant. Following his early discovery of a talent for art, he embarked on a long and frequently frustrating journey to fulfilment.
It was a journey that would take him through the morass of art-school life and on to the hard pavements of London – pavements which he quickly realised were not paved with gold but frequently washed by tears. But Goodfellow is not the type to weep. Rather, he battered on publisher’s doors until they finally looked at his portfolio, and gave him work.
The rest, as they say, is history. Goodfellow became one of the preeminent designers in Europe and America, responsible for a number of designs that have become icons of their time – not lease the crossed fingers on the National Lottery campaign.
But there was something missing. Characteristically, Goodfellow had other, more demanding dreams to realise. Together with his wife, Jean, he settled in a remote glen in Strathdon, and announced ambitious plans for an art gallery.
Many people thought they were crazy. Surely no one would make the challenging journey to such a remote place. By the end of the first winter, the sceptics said, the pair would be heading south. The sceptics did not know their man; Peter and his wife were determined to stay.
Now, seven years later, they have The Lost Gallery, one of the most progressive art galleries in Scotland. It not only fosters local talent but provides an outlet for more established painters, sculptors and carvers. It has made their names known in Europe, America and the Far East.
Philip Astor and Peter Goodfellow then were the two men who, nearly three years ago, stood outside the tiny kirk in Migvie, and dreamed a dream – to restore it as a place of contemplation, religious in theme but free of any one constrictive doctrine. Ancient Pictish and even pagan symbols would be mixed with more modern thoughts to bring not only peace but a wider understanding.
But there was much work to be done before their ambition could be realised, or even started.
“The floor was all but wrecked, and there were holes, quite serious, dangerous holes,” says Philip Astor. “The ceiling was pretty rough and ready, and many of the windows were smashed.”
In short, it was a source of embarrassment to the laird, who feared that people would think he and his father before him had not accepted the responsibility they had accepted when, after deconsecration, in 1979, Gavin Astor had bought it.
Then there were the local and national authorities, who had vague plans for the place, but as so often is the case with such organisations, they were not quite sure what those plans were. They issued a directive the 18th-centuary church was a listed building. Happily, Philip Astor’s experience stood him in good stead, and the claim was given short shrift.
In the meantime, Goodfellow was at work. He laboured for six months developing his ideas for submission to his patron. It was not easy, he recalls.
“Philip is a very articulate, urbane and eclectic man,” says Goodfellow, “and he’s quite strong-willed. For a while we couldn’t see eye-to-eye but eventually our brains clicked and we understood each other completely. Then the designs came to fruition and everything was ok.”
“Peter is a very accomplished artist,” adds Philip Astor. “I very much admire his bold use of colour.” He starts to chuckle warmly as he goes on: “Some of his own personal choice of subject matter I haven’t favoured myself but with a degree of careful guidance, we’ve been able to reach agreement. I think it has worked in the end.”
It certainly has worked. From the moment the door is opened and the automatic light comes on the place starts to work its magic – a simple, clear message of reassurance and hope.
The interior has a number of wooden panels, each containing quotations by the great and good –men such as Quaker William Penn, who first settled the American state of Pennsylvania, the scholar Benjamin Jowett, and the late Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume.
Also, there is a beautiful door, stunningly carved by Gavin Smith. The subject of the carving is a symbol taken from the ancient Migvie Stone – an early Christian relic that stands outside in the graveyard.
Four large episcopal chairs occupy the centre of the floor. Carved in stone by Louise Gardener, they carry the words of a psalm in English and in Ogham, an ancient Celtic/Irish system of writing that uses only vertical and diagonal lines.
Jane Bayliss produced the stained glass windows from designs by Goodfellow. Here too are echoes of the Migvie Stone in a mounted horseman. It is not known whether the original figure represented a king or a warrior, but in the adaptation he represents the bringing of Christianity to the pagans.
“I knew them all,” says Peter Goodfellow, talking of his fellow artists. “Gavin Smith is one of the best wood carvers in Scotland. Louise is a very good stone carver and she, like Gavin, lives locally. Jane Bayliss has a stained glass workshop in Fintray, so it was a question of logistics, having the artists reasonably close as well as being good.”
“It is astonishing, once you start asking around, how much talent there is in the hills,” comments Philip Astor.
As well as being responsible for getting other artists to work on the project, and supervising the restoration of the fabric of the chapel, Goodfellow also painted all the panels, including the large panel that has ‘portraits’ of six early saints, and the silhouettes of two tiny birds which he put directly onto the plaster walls.
“When the builders were in, “ he explains, “there were two birds nesting in the chapel, one a swallow and the other a wagtail. “I just told the builders they would have to work around them until they had fledged.”
“Over the weeks, the birds became quite tame. The swallow would fly in and out and the wagtails reared their chicks and then they flew away. I decided to commemorate their leaving the chapel, and to remember it was once a home for these birds I painted an image of each of the birds.”
“We like to think that in years to come people will visit the chapel and wonder what on earth these birds are doing here. They might do some research and find out why they’re here.”
Now all the work is all but finished, even Goodfellow, who is rarely been heard to ‘go overboard’ about anything, has pronounced himself “really happy” with the results.
Astor, too, has nothing but praise for those who helped him to bring his aspirations to fruition. Not only has the tiny country church been brought back to life to service an increasing need in these hectic modern times, but it provides a fitting tribute to the memory of his father, who died in 1984, and his mother, who died last year.
Even the local authority has finally fallen in with the concept. After all their earlier huffing and puffing they gave it ab award for best architectural and artistic achievement!