Linda Brown

Robert Burns, quill in hand, with his border collie, Luath, by his side, looks down at me. Mallie the sheep, resplendent in her tartan sash, watches over a gaggle of geese, and in the garden, bonny bluebells, thistles and daffodils flourish.

I’m admiring the vibrant and quirky artwork on the wall inside Alloway Tunnel, near Murdoch’s Lone, Alloway – the first stage of an ambitious venture organised by the Alloway Railway Tunnel ART Project, a charity established in late 2022.

“The mural is amazing, isn’t it?” a passing dog-walker calls out to me.

I agree. Amazing indeed.

Later, I chat with Alloway Tunnel’s Secretary and Trustee, Shelagh McLachlan, and ask about the background behind the art project, which will totally transform the long disused railway tunnel, now part of a popular walking and cycle path following the route of the old railway line.

“The tunnel was full of graffiti and really dirty with soot, slime, broken glass and litter. Family groups, cyclists and walkers use the route and the tunnel was such a blot on the horizon,” Shelagh says. She then explains how some of her fellow Trustees, who were involved with SAPI (South Ayrshire Paths Initiative), were concerned about its terrible state. “They wanted to enhance the tunnel and so they founded the Alloway Tunnel charity and they invited me onboard to help,” she adds.

An Ayrshire College student stepped up to help develop the charity’s business plan, (and now he’s one of the Trustees) while other students built Alloway Tunnel’s first website.

Inspired by the fabulous artwork inside Colinton Tunnel at Edinburgh, the charity decided they wanted a similar mural and made contact with its artist, Chris Rutterford.

“When we saw a video of Colinton, we were blown away with what Chris had done, how he had transformed that space, so, after a tendering process through Creative Scotland, we commissioned him to do the work.”

Keen to have community involvement with all aspects of the project, the charity then surveyed local folk, collecting opinions on what should be featured on the mural.

“We worked with South Ayrshire Council and the Tourism Department, talking about the history of Alloway, Ayr and Ayrshire to see what could be included. Then Chris came back with a storyboard which we took to the Council and Community Councils for approval.”

Work then started, with volunteers from the community cleaning, litter picking and jet-washing the tunnel, planting daffodils outside and helping to fundraise. Ayrshire College’s painting and decorating apprentices undercoated the tunnel with masonry paint and CCTV cameras were installed to prevent vandalism.

Last September work on the mural began. Subjects such as lambs, flowers and geese were painted on plywood (which was later treated and varnished by participants on South Ayrshire Council’s Community Payback Programme) then fitted to a framework to form the mural. Children from Alloway and Doonfoot Primary Schools, members of the public and community groups attending workshops held at Burns Cottage, contributed to the artwork.

“All ages from three to 90 years old have taken part. Chris took everything back to his studio and added his professional artwork on top of their work over the winter, and the first section was installed in March,” Shelagh says. “Over 850 people have been involved just getting the project to the stage where we are now.”

There will be four installations of the mural, covering the tunnel’s 150 metres length on both sides and the ceiling. The first installation includes Robert Burns, his cottage, garden and a menagerie of animals. Look out for the furtive foxes… my favourites. The final section of the first installation, due to take place after this issue of Ayrshire Magazine goes to print, will be a ploughing scene based on Rabbie’s poem ‘To a Mouse.’ The second installation will be themed around Ayr town centre, an Ayr Market and a tavern, while the third will feature iconic Ayrshire subjects such as Ayrshire tatties, the Waverley paddle steamer and Ailsa Craig’s curling stones, plus Ayrshire industries like fishing, mining and lacework. The final sections will incorporate Tam O’ Shanter and, of course, the last train to Butlins. Shelagh informs me that people will be able to purchase the opportunity to have their portrait painted and be included as a holidaymaker’s ‘face’ on the Butlins’ train.

One hundred portrait spaces will be available to buy. What a fantastic gift for your nearest and dearest, or a lovely way to remember a loved one.

All this is a mammoth operation and I ask Shelagh about the project’s funding.

“We need at least £200,000 to complete the tunnel, and we are nearly halfway there. We’ve had a recent donation from the National Lottery Community Fund for £12,600, which is fabulous and that will pay for the next stage of the project, allowing us to be inclusive and outreach into other communities, meaning that Thriving Community groups such as women’s groups at Kincaidston, Lochside and Barassie & Troon are getting involved in the painting.”

Other sponsors, including Ayrshire College Foundation, Sustrans, Postcode Lottery, and Paths for All, are listed on the Alloway Tunnel’s newly designed website, funded and built by Neat Digital. Last year a successful Crowdfunding campaign raised £5,000 and currently the charity has a JustGiving page.

I’m interested to know if Alloway Tunnel has any other ongoing projects.

Shelagh says, “We’re making short documentary films. People can then use their phone to click on a QR code and access them to find out more about a particular aspect of the mural. We’ve already made a documentary at the Scottish Ploughing Championships, filming farmers and Clydesdale Horses.”

This film, Of Mice and Men, can be viewed on the Tunnel’s YouTube channel. Twenty other films on Ayrshire industries, including mining, railways and lacemaking are in the pipeline. There are plans to help teach South Ayrshire Young Carers to make films and to work in collaboration with primary schools, getting children involved with narrating the documentary stories.

“These extensions make our project more of a heritage-themed project rather than solely an arts one,” Shelagh adds.

So when will the Alloway Tunnel mural be completed, I wonder?

“If everything goes to plan, and we can still bring in the funds, then this time next year we are expecting to be finished. Chris Rutterford, the artist, has committed a whole year to working on the mural. It is a huge project; massive, very ambitious and visionary as well. We’re hoping this will be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, mural in Scotland,” Shelagh informs me. “Chris wants to breathe fresh life into an old area and transform the tunnel to create a destination. We’re hoping it will become a visitor attraction and people will come from far and wide, international tourists as well, as the mural will be something quite special and different.”

It certainly will be an incredible achievement when completed.

With its level of community involvement, the heritage films, and the personal portraits, the Alloway Tunnel mural will be unique and I know one visitor who will make the journey from faraway East Ayrshire. Me! I can’t wait to see the finished mural – from Burns to Butlins – it’s going to be a stoater.