Hidden treasure: the modernist mural buried in a Scottish mountain

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Hidden treasure: the modernist mural buried in a Scottish mountain
Elizabeth Falconer’s mural // Photo: Ruth Clark

Fifty years ago, a vast mural decorated in gold leaf was assembled 1km beneath Ben Cruachan. We go underground to uncover the story behind the country’s most remote art work

If you want to get up close to the most remote work of art in Britain, you’ll need to make a 2 ½-hour train journey from Glasgow to the Highlands, drive 1km into the heart of a mountain and climb a flight of slippery steps on to a viewing platform before you can catch a glimpse: a 48ft x 12ft mural made of wood, plastic and gold leaf, sparkling away at the centre of a vast cave like some fairytale treasure. In terms of accessibility, it’s not the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square: even the artist behind the work has never made the trek to see it in situ.

What may sound like some postmodern joke on modern art’s elitism is, in fact, the opposite: a period piece that tells a story of a very different Britain, a country in which artists enjoyed a more intimate relationship with the world of industry than that of entertainment. For years, the work and its creator, Elizabeth Falconer, were forgotten. A new radio play by the art writer Maria Fusco, co-commissioned by Radio 4 and Artangel, now rediscovers its significance.

Fifty years ago, Ben Cruachan in Argyll and Bute was the equivalent of London’s Silicon roundabout – a place of technological innovation on which an entire nation was pinning its hopes for the future. The madcap idea was to turn a rugged peak in the Scottish highlands into a geological battery: using excess energy in the national grid, water would be pumped from Loch Awe at the bottom of the mountain into a reservoir at the top. Whenever the grid experienced a surge in demand – when the nation switched on its kettle during the Coronation Street ad break, say – you could simply release water back down the mountain through the turbines and reproduce energy at a few seconds’ notice. […]