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  • Alec Finlay

Mapping the Wild City, Fiadh-Bhaile, Orasul Salbatic

Artist Alec Finlay recently collaborated with The Walking Library (Dee Heddon & Misha Myers) and poet Ken Cockburn to create Wild City – a program of participative walks, public readings and workshops exploring wild nature in the city of Glasgow. Finlay introduces us to some of the themes of the project.

Alec Finlay Wild City grass growing in pavement crack

Wild City

Alec Finlay with The Walking Library; photograph Mhairi Law, 2018

In recent years I’ve been developing a philosophy and practice of place-awareness – a blend of eco-poetics, the expression of place-names as ecological markers, an awareness of cultural traditions of viewing and perception, for instance, Gaelic colour perception – along with an interest in current movements such as rewilding and ‘hutopianism’, and, personal to me, the search for imaginative ways to overcome constrained walking due to long term illness. This work has mostly been focussed on the Scottish Highlands, a landscape of great beauty and considerable ecological and social trauma.


Alec Finlay, from A Far-off Land (morning star, 2018), commissioned by MacMillan Cancer Care, Arbroath; photograph Hannah Devereux, 2017

I’ve studied traditional hill culture, in particular at the leisure crazes of stalking and climbing, and explored new approaches to walking, with a necessary emphasis on viewing – follies, Gaelic suidhe (seats), and place-name conspectus – and very short walks. Three books, Some Colour Trends, A Far-off Land and Gathering, record this work.

Hill Colour Wheel

Alec Finlay, for gathering, Hauser & Wirth, 2018

My most recent project, Wild City, Fiadh-Bhaile, Orasul Salbatic, challenges those projects, and extends them, by applying place-awareness and rewilding to an urban situation. It is an attempt to map wild nature in the greeny howe of Glasgow. Of course, that word ‘wild’ is freighted with multiple meanings. I’d like to extend the project in a number of venues to explore these ideas in different contexts. The project is also, implicitly, a consideration of creative approaches to climate breakdown, and a survey of imaginative ways for the city to adapt, using historical models and innovation. For instance, there’s an urban folk-tale of goldfish and turtles living in a canal by an old factory which warmed the water and allowed this niche community of dumped pets to survive. This 1970’s myth prophesies the current plan to use heat-source pumps which could heat the city using old mine-workings, or the River Clyde. I collaborated on a Land Art Generator Initiative proposal for Glasgow that identified this technology as feasible. Those situations where one can support or even force change is much the most exciting thing to work on and Wild City becomes a future-oriented album of possibilities.

Mapping the Wild City

Alec Finlay with The Walking Library; photograph Mhairi Law, 2018

The work I have been doing with place-names has focused on the Cairngorms, using them as a way to understand what once grew in a place and could again, where paths were, and where shieling – summer huts for pasture – existed. But this approach works just as well in Glasgow as any rugged abandoned glen. In the city one can find woods, shielings, wells, springs, fords, willowbanks, grazing, duns (hill-forts), common land and sheepfolds, all of which can be re-purposed, whether as willow grown for biomass, or renewed orchards growing Scottish native varieties like the Bloody Ploughman:


Wee Grove



River Clyde

forceful flower


Speckled Dùn



Wild City

Alec Finlay with The Walking Library; photograph Mhairi Law, 2018

The project was collaborative and it centred on eight participative walks guided by Dee Heddon and Misha Myers, who are the Walking Library. I’ve always enjoyed the way their work blends knowledge with places and people. A street corner becomes a location where a particular idea was shared – on seabird behaviour, wild food, invasive species, or dystopian futures. Young people and families also contributed drawings and writing at walkshops that were run by Ken Cockburn and Kate McAllan. And I composed a Wild City Manifesto – some extracts are reproduced below. Ten of those texts were made into risograph posters. I also made a second set of risograph posters Mapping the Wild City, using place-names and their meanings. Mhairi Law and I photographed these at various sites in Glasgow.

Manifesto for Wild City

Alec Finlay with The Walking Library; photograph Mhairi Law, 2018

The Wolf Den

Alec Finlay and Richard Bracken, for Project Wolf, Trees for Life, Dundreggan, photograph Mhairi Law, 2017

These posters follow on from an edition of risographs that I made as a manifesto for humandwolves in 2017. The earlier posters relate to Project Wolf: a small ‘pack’ of humans spends a month in Spring fulfiling the role of the wolf by harraying deer, in order to protect pine seedlings. This is such an imaginative concept – it works! – and an example of a rural context supplying innovative thinking in terms of remediation and adaptive thinking. I find the same thing in my work in renewables, where a small island on Orkney can offer a model for the post-Carbon era.

In the UK cities struggle with this kind of imaginative change – John Latham’s ‘Big Breather’, a proto-tidal renewable device, was proposed for the Clyde in the mid-1970s, but we’re only just beginning to consider the actuality of urban renewables. Wild City is a map that reveals how conservative our urban planning is. There are the beginnings of city gardens, urban crofts and urban orchards in Scottish cities, but they are few and they often squat precariously on land that is vulnerable to developers. Scottish cities have a catastrophic reality in terms of food and fuel poverty, diet, and alienation from nurture. We need hundreds of urban crofts.

Wild City

Alec Finlay with The Walking Library; photograph Mhairi Law, 2018

The final Wild City walk ended at North Kelvin Meadow and the Children’s Wood, on an idyllic Sunday of picnics and music. That wild green niche is a perfect example of community power and common ownership.

Wild City

Alec Finlay with The Walking Library; photograph Mhairi Law, 2018

These are some of the themes of Wild City. In terms of the publications, I enjoy the simplicity of the poster and their associations with political acts – the words need to be displayed in a place and then let time rub away at them, and hopefully the thoughts resonate. We forget too easily the value imagination has in terms of making necessary change happen.

Alec Finlay

from Wild City

nothing makes people more afraid than poverty – in a landless city with no place to grow food for your family

allotments represent the right to care for the land not the right to own it

our material existence cannot be sustained without wildness

when the wild becomes unthinkable then life becomes impossible

we’ve ghosted the wild

wildness doesn’t begin or end at the edge of the city

the wild flit of the seasons is a rush of signs

the wild surrounds us, everywhere, because we have nerve-endings

wildness puts a kink in the path

nothing wild appears on the satnav

the wild city brings city streets and animal habitats into a new relationship

we have folds of sea and earth within us

for anyone ill the wildest thing that they know is happening inside their own body

we consider the mountains as the nation’s lungs but most people do their breathing in cities

the diesel rainbow floating on the puddle is a memorial

a culture so fixated on death has no need of breath

if only we were more hare-brained

wild things have their own sequence

the wild opens up spaces in the city for new thought

grubbing round in the weeds is a good place to find new arguments

bring back the seasons!

the wild city reverses destiny

the wild city is only the past repeating

All works copyright Alec Finlay and Mhairi Law.


During the Wild City project Alec Finlay created 'Mapping the Wild City' – a new series of risographs posters which are available in our online shop as a suite of 10 for £150, and individually for £40. Please click here for details.

The 'Wild City' publication is available from Edgework for £8 (Free UK P&P)

Two exhibitions celebrating the completion of the Wild City project were held at Govanhill Baths, 99 Calder Street, Glasgow G42 7RA – 'A Wild City Manifesto' featuring work by Alec Finlay, and 'Walking Library for a Wild City' by Dee Heddon and Misha Myers will ran from 10 - 29 October 2018. The book 'Wild City' was launched at The Hidden Gardens, 25A Albert Street Glasgow G41 2PE on Sunday 28 October and is available from Edgework.

For further information about Finlay's work please click here.


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