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EXPLAINED: The mysterious three trees artwork in Inverness city centre

By Neil MacPhail

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Three Virtues in Church Street, Inverness. Picture: Callum Mackay.
Three Virtues in Church Street, Inverness. Picture: Callum Mackay.

They "erupt" from the pedestrian area in Church Street, three clusters of stone slabs each crowned with a living birch tree...one even bearing a bird nest.

They are officially the Three Virtues, an art installation that is a mystery to some visitors and local people alike - and there is little if any explanation nearby.

What is it?

It is a sculpture unveiled in March 2008 created by the Inverness Old Town Art (IOTA) project to form a new entrance to the Old Town area.

IOTA existed to deliver projects associated with the original phase of streetscaping works sponsored by the Scottish Government and supported by Inverness Common Good Fund between 2006 and 2012.

Later, the City of Inverness Area Committee formed a new Highland Council-led group, Inverness City Arts, to deliver a series of publicly funded art projects, (some very controversial) also supported by the Inverness Common Good Fund. IOTA was officially disbanded in 2012.

What are the three virtues in Church Street?

From Victorian times until 1955, three statues by local sculptor Andrew Davidson dating from about 1860 stood on top of the building which has been replaced by McDonald's on the corner of the High Street and Castle Street.

These were modelled on Greek mythological figures, the Three Graces, but became known to locals as Faith, Hope and Charity.

IOTA lead artist Matt Baker wanted to create a new art work to represent three virtues which would more characterise a modern Inverness.

How were the Three Virtues chosen?

The "Search for Virtue" began with discussion among church groups, then widened to include other community groups before spreading around the whole city in the form of a text and website vote. The process concluded with an event called loftily The Philosopher’s Salon in Leakey’s Bookshop, Church Street, with 25 people participating. After much consultation and debate they were finally whittled down to: Perseverance, Open-heartedness and Insight. Highland Council at the time spelled out the thinking behind the Three Virtues...

  • Perseverance was an early favourite and never faltered throughout the decision process, reflecting the "never say die" attitude of the dogged Scot.
  • Open-heartedness was chosen since during the virtue search a strong theme emerged for "Highland hospitality" and of the tolerance shown to those who come north. However it was felt that hospitality is the name of an industry and that "tolerance" has slightly negative undertones ie that we tolerate under sufferance.
  • Insight: There were many suggestions for words such as Vision, Creativity, Enterprise. In the end the decision went in favour of Insight as having a sense of looking to the future whilst also retaining a sense of the wisdom and sensitivity in the Highland character.

What was the designer's thinking?

Mr Baker, a prominent Scottish artist, took his inspiration from the landscape of the surrounding Highlands in creating three sloping outcrops of Caithness stone protruding from the pedestrian area at the south end of Church Street.

Each outcrop is crowned by a different species of birch tree – one native Scottish variety, one North American and one Asian – to reflect that Inverness is home to many diverse communities. Each is inscribed with one of the new virtues, in English, Gaelic and Old Norse.

What happened to the old Faith, Hope, and Charity statues?

Three Graces statues next to Ness Bank Church. Picture: James Mackenzie
Three Graces statues next to Ness Bank Church. Picture: James Mackenzie

The building on which they stood was demolished in 1955 and the statues went into storage until being bought in 1961 by Norris Wood, a stonemason and antique collector from Orkney who installed them in the grounds of his home. Ironically, as the new Three Virtues were being born in Church Street, the City of Inverness Committee in 2007 successfully negotiated the Three Graces' return, and the 9ft tall figures, each weighing 4.2 tonnes, are back in the city, mounted on plinths in Ness Bank Gardens, courtesy of neighbouring Ness Bank Church which held a special ecumenical service in 2011 to mark their Inverness resurrection.

This £55,000 project was paid by Inverness Common Good Fund.

So now Inverness is awash with six virtues!

Mr Baker said: "Faith, Hope and Charity had been chosen for the town in the Victorian age and it made me wonder what people would chose to ‘look over’ the city today.”

Do the Three Virtues work?

Bird nest. Picture: Callum Mackay.
Bird nest. Picture: Callum Mackay.

As ever the appreciation of art is in the eye of the beholder, and the former public art co-ordinator Marie Mackintosh said at the time of installation: "It is hoped that the Three Virtues will work as an entrance feature for the Old Town, a symbol of the rebirth of the area as a cultural district of Inverness, and that it will be useful to the public in many ways – as a calming place to sit or meet friends, as a traffic-free space for performance or music."

It is certainly a magnet to children of all ages who are drawn to run up the sloping sides and jump off – and there is a happy family of birds somewhere that put one of the trees to good use, just as nature intended.

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