Alec Finlay – bower  |  shelter

X New Bud Bough Bower crop
word-drawing (bud-bough-bower), AF, 2012

My work for Duke’s Wood envisages a bower; a wild shelter in which people can spend the night. To better grasp what form this might take, I am working with collaborators to touch on aspects of the culture of temporary natural shelters, exploring some of the different types of construction and their various uses, from ice fishing to arighs out on the sheiling.

This wide-ranging conversation will, over the coming Spring, make the transition from mindscape – poetry, song, and image – to landscape. Come Summer we will enter the constructive mode. A bower will be made.

I’m mindful that I am going to sleep under this wild shelter, for at least one night, and that, whatever materials the walls and roof are made from, I would like my bed to be dry. This adds impetus to the design process.

A wild shelter
wild shelter, Rosehall Primary School, Lairg; photograph Graeme Smith, 2009

Amy Todman, an artist and art historian, shared her ideas and, through our chats, I became aware of the complex and shifting relationship between the natural shelters that humans have always made use of, the classic bowers of the forest, and their artificial double, the garden arbour.

To these two outdoor forms, arbour & bower, a third can be added, for, coming indoors, making the transition into the realm of architecture, we enter the erotic bower, or boudoir.

In old ballads and songs the term bower is used interchangeably for the woodland and roofed version, whether the lovers happen on a hideaway in the forest, or enjoy their liberty in a boudoir.

B Child Ballads

Hanna Tuulikki sent me a profusion of examples of lines describing bowers in the Child Ballads; here the listener pictures the scene depending on the description: lattice branches, the door of a painted bedroom, or, in some lines, the ‘bigly bower’, shelter of the pudenda.

///a little to yonder green bower
 there sit down to rest you
///and has he broke your bigly bowers? 
or has he stole your fee
///and he came to the ladie’s bower-door,
 before the day did dawn
///and then my love built me a bower, 
bedeckt with many a fragrant flower
///and when he came to Fair Margaret’s bower,
 he knocked at the ring
///and ye may swear, and save your oath, 
your bower I never tread
///who is this at my bower-door, 
sae well that kens my name?

One reason for this confusing use of ‘bower’ is that, in historical terms, there was no readily defined space – nor expectation – that, within their own dwelling, an ordinary person should be at liberty to enjoy privacy, or have entry to a room they could share with their lover.

The bowers of the forest offered privacy and, in the sung bowers we can hear society being impelled towards the creation of private space. Safe within stone walls, boudoirs mimic wildness and woodland, offering scenarios for sex recalled in the flowery patterns of bedspreads and pillows.

D William Morris honeysuckle
honeysuckle, William Morris

In their essay, ‘Interior Bowers: The Dormant Wilderness of Nineteenth- Century Boudoirs’, Mark Taylor and Julieanna Preston describe the boudoir as ‘the intersection of landscape and surface pattern’, an interior of ‘vegetal ornamentation’, in which ‘Nature, in the appearance of a garden, envelopes the interior wall and carpet in the guise of designed artifice.’ They quote from Francois de Bastide’s novel of 1780, La Petit Maison:

‘The walls of the boudoir were covered with mirrors whose joinery was concealed by carefully sculpted, leafy tree trunks. The trees, arranged to give the illusion of a quincunx, were heavy with flowers and laden with chandeliers. The light from their many candles receded into the opposite mirrors, which had been purposely veiled with hanging gauze. So magical was this optical effect that the boudoir could have been mistaken for a natural wood, lit with the help of art … Mélite could scarcely contain her delight’.

Woodland Platform, Hidden Gardens
the woodland platform, the hidden gardens
Alec Finlay & Chris Rankin, 2002

Returning outdoors, there has been an upsurge in art-architectural constructions, shelters of many scales that offer a hybrid form of public private shelter and reclusion. Though the purpose of these dwellings is never overtly erotic, one often hears tales of folk who spent the night their, or were interrupted.

Hidden as these places may be, they are more likely to be constructed so as to direct our eyes towards a view. Ken Cockburn and I visited a number of these constructions on our road north journey, where they become our proxy for the temples Basho visited – themselves frequently placed so as to offer an inspiring view – and we attempted to summarize the movement (for it has surely earned that name):

every era of eyes
enshrines vision
granting the volcanic
tumult of mountains
the richly accented
outline of tradition

the vision flows on
through Druidic groves
and the tenebrous
lantern of the church
to the beal of today’s
secular temenos

mountainside frottage cottage
wooden platform
stone enclosure
roofless shelter
lay temples that raise
our eyes to Gaia’s skies

E Outlanda
Outlandia, London fieldworks & Malcolm Fraser Architects, 2010

Some notes: the Scots word ‘beal’ is an estuary; the temenos Ken and I had in mind was James Turrell’s sky-space at Kinloch-Rannoch; the frottage cottage is the hut, Outlandia, in Glen Nevis; the Woodland Platform is my own work, made with Chris Rankin, for the hidden gardens; the roofless shelter is the collaborative An Turas, on the isle of Tiree.

In Duke’s Wood, the bower returns us to an earlier mode of shelter, for lovers and the outcast. The first steps I took, in terms of imagining how such a construction might look, were to refer back to The Woodland Platform, built in the hidden gardens to house a xylotheque – a library of the native woodland, represented by wooden books.

F xylo

I did once spend an August night in the hidden gardens, in the company of a posse of poets, writing a 24 hour renga. Though there is a roof, the cupola is open to the sky, so that the oak can grow tall. This is a root-friendly building, not intended to be dry, or for overnighting.

My next model for the bower was a kind of austere alpinist wig-wam that I discovered when I was working on a poetic mapping of Skye – A Company of Mountains, launching this May.

G Rennie's shelter
Rennie’s design, 1897

This is the wonderful kennel-style wooden tent that Rennie designed for a party of climbers in 1897. Its rudimentary walls guarded against Coruisk’s torrential rain, but the shape seemed too implacably solid to qualify as a bower – which, to my mind, is more a matter of weave than solid plane.

Then, as if by magic, just at the right moment, I discovered the architect Kevin Langan’s wild shelters – 100 wild huts, to be made within a strict set of principles:

‘built on any piece of ground that harbours enough natural resources; to sleep rough in each shelter for one night; to experiment with hut form, structure and materiality’.

H Wild Hut 07 copy
wild shelter 7, Kevin Langan, 2013

Immediately I was sure that I had found the key collaborator for Duke’s Wood.

The bower will be made to Kevin’s design, and a future blog will discuss his work in more detail.

For now, I want to juxtapose Kevin’s contemporary shelters with the tradition of the bower.

To shed light on the culture of bowers, I invited Amy Todman to select a range of structures, made from many types of material, illustrated in paintings, embroideries, and engravings. I suggested that she should set each bower alongside one of ‘Langan’s lodges’.

courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum

Arbour, arbor, n. A bower or shady retreat, of which the sides and roof are formed by trees and shrubs closely planted or intertwined, or of lattice-work covered with climbing shrubs and plants, as ivy, vine, etc. Forms: ME–15 erber (e, herber(e, ME herbier, erbor, arbre, ME–15 arber, 15 herbor, harber, herbour, arboure (all obs.), 15– arbour, arbor. (The original characteristic of the ‘arbour’ seems to have been the floor and ‘benches’ of herbage; in the modern idea (since 16th c. at least) the leafy covering is the prominent feature.)

—OED Online, June 2012 (Oxford University Press)

In talking over what we each understood of the bower, Alec and I discovered a shared sense of its hovering between several more-familiar histories. I saw the arbour, a made-structure, in relation to the grove, an apparently accidental arrangement of trees. The bower seems to usefully overlap and borrow from both, in its etymologies and visual imagery.

The historic range of forms selected here reflect the bower’s idiosyncratic nature, its romantic but also practical possibilities. Pairing these ‘pretty’ old forms with Langan’s more clearly functional structures brings similarities, often structural, rather than temporal distance, to the fore.

The relationships between the paired forms are clear, and begin to sketch out, in word and image, the combination of reference points, aesthetic and practical, that informed, and continue to inform the idea of the bower across time, cultures, and uses. Kevin’s contemporary refuges renew a need we have always had.



7 Virgin and child

brave and recreative
arbours to rest under


Wild Hut 13

3 Tierra del Fuego bower

weeping bowers
for fires and showers


Wild Hut 10

2 lady_honor_450

turf dais bowers
screened in the garden

Wild Hut 14

4 the nuptial bower

plants and bracken


Wild Hut 06

5 BM Bower of Venus

both love and paine
that builde their bower in brest


Wild Hut 02

8 walled garden

where the Mayd-Bower
had wont to be



6 BM book illustration bower

A cover of reed
A quilt of flowers



2 thoughts on “Alec Finlay – bower  |  shelter

  1. Despite the seamless rain your post has inspired me to want to play out! And ‘playing out’ was always about making dens; a less enduring version of your bowers. Language is so generous to give us so many names for things. A word that came to mind from this post is basha. Basha sounds as if it is a word of Indian, Arabic or Persian linguistic origin and describes an outdoor shelter.

    Will you have a fire to tell stories around or give comfort in solitude?

  2. Pingback: Lodged, Land Shift, Silent Spring, Duke’s Wood and others | Write off the map

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