HOW to start this story? With the late Harry Bell, an eccentric Glaswegian printer obsessed with proving his city was laid out according to an ancient geometric plan?
With Mary Ross, an elderly woman who, as an unmarried teen, was forced to give up her daughter for adoption and who, on her release from psychiatric hospital many years later, spent her days roaming Glasgow and its environs – including many of the places Bell had visited on his own quest – scanning the faces for sight of her lost lass?
Better, perhaps, to begin with May Miles Thomas, the Bafta-winning filmmaker, whose astonishing interactive website, The Devil's Plantation, links the stories of Bell and Ross. Also charted, in a series of short black and white films, is her personal odyssey through the city that she often adores, sometimes abhors, and which represents a troubled past that has shaped her adulthood. "I think it's a great title," she says. "If you took a bad seed and put it in the devil's plantation, you might end up with a city like Glasgow."
Miles Thomas is 51 with blue eyes, long blonde hair, dark clothes and a strong, throaty voice. There is something about her – a kind of implicit toughness – that suggests a film noir heroine, an impression confirmed by the posters for Veronica Lake movies on one wall of the southside home she shares with her husband Owen, a cat called Pixie and some improbably large goldfish.
In 2000, she came to arthouse prominence with One Life Stand, widely credited as the UK's first digital feature, which won – among other prizes – Best Film, Best Director, Best Writer and Best Performance at the Bafta New Talent Awards. Her follow-up, 2003's acclaimed Solid Air, was dedicated to her father and others who have suffered from asbestos-related illnesses.
On the back of these critical successes, Miles Thomas was regarded as a Next Big Thing in British film, but was thrown off course by the death of her mother. Creating The Devil's Plantation has been both a way of making a film without actually making a film, and a means of coping with grief.Earlier this year, it won a Bafta in the interactive category but despite that has remained, until now, a hidden treasure of the web.
Analysis of the search engine terms that bring people to the site suggests it is frequently discovered by chance, late in the evening, by people looking for information on such esoterica as "special floral tribute in Rangers colours", "ghosts on the M8 motorway", or "Gleniffer Braes dogging – TONIGHT". Once found, however, the site can become an obsession; people stay up all night going through it, and it often inspires devotees to make their own pilgrimages to some of the places mentioned.
"It's like pinning jelly to a wall," is how Miles Thomas describes attempts to define The Devil's Plantation. But we must try. The website contains 66 films shot in Glasgow and the surrounding area at locations mentioned in Harry Bell's self-published book, The Secret Geometry of Glasgow. These are revealed, gradually, as those using the site click and drag their way around a map. At the conclusion of each film, a brief written chapter tells a little more of the exploratory travels of Bell, who died in 2001, and Ross, who is now in her late sixties.
Miles Thomas had stumbled across Bell's book online and found it fascinating. She got to know Ross after finding a folder containing her case notes while exploring the abandoned Leverndale Hospital, originally called Hawkhead Asylum, built in the Victorian era for the Govan District Lunacy Board. Ross had been a patient between 1959 and 1992, having tried to end her life. She absconded frequently, making long walks across the city and beyond; the case notes detailed where she went. Fascinated by the coincidence that Ross's bereft wanderings had taken her to many of the sites visited by Bell, Miles Thomas tracked her down in Glasgow, interviewed her on several occasions, and wrote her into The Devil's Plantation.
Working through the website can take three or four hours and is a haunting, meditative experience. The films are hypnotic. Shot in black and white, the camera contemplative and compassionate, they reveal Glasgow and the surrounding countryside in a new way – beautiful, sinister, languorous, weirdly empty. Certain images linger in the mind's eye: the eroded faces of statues in the Necropolis, CCTV cameras perched hawk-like on the corners of high-rise flats, clouds over the Campsie Fells, crime scene tape writhing in the wind.
Music adds to the foreboding mood with a sort of ambient ghostliness through which emerge familiar city sounds – the swoosh of traffic, a seagull's needling shriek, the static hiss of rain. The Devil's Plantation has been described as Glasgow's Da Vinci Code, but that's wrong, too glossy; it looks and feels more like Eraserhead by way of Oscar Marzaroli.
Miles Thomas spent two and a half years putting it together. "I travelled 4,000 miles and never left the city." She shot 40 hours of footage and returned obsessively to particular sites, travelling alone in a Nissan Micra, armed only with a camera, a flask of coffee and two OS maps – Landranger 64 and Explorer 342.
The rustle and the wood stove crackles as she talks about the project in her garden shed, which serves as an editing suite. Stuck to one wall are diagrams showing the lines that link Harry Bell's sites. One is a circle, the circumference of which passes through both Ben Lomond and Tinto Hill, and has at its centre the Camphill Earthwork in Queen's Park, thought to be part of an Iron Age settlement, which is very near Miles Thomas's home. This diagram contains a secret. The filmmaker believes she has discovered a location that resolves the geometric pattern which eluded Bell. Those who work their way through the whole of The Devil's Plantation are rewarded with a glimpse of this.
One aspect of Bell's work that attracted Miles Thomas was that the lines which he theorised linked ancient sites pass directly through both her childhood homes, her primary school and the church in which she was baptised. It was a direct link to her childhood in a Glasgow that, thanks to constant redevelopment, is now largely gone. "I grew up in what was probably one of the last slum areas of Glasgow, and I think my experience of Kinning Park has informed the rest of my life," she says. "Because I mourn the fact that there's no place that I lived, no school I've been to, no place of work I've been to that still exists.
Because they have physically disappeared, these places, I have an incredible sense of loss."
Miles Thomas was raised in a room-and-kitchen, 13 people sharing a toilet, and witnessed the slum clearances, living life in the shadow of the wrecking ball. "Week after week, entire streets would disappear. It was quite a disconcerting experience."
She remembers the darkness of those days, and the dirt. Her big sister Yvonne was sick with TB; Miles Thomas herself – whose family name is Eakin – contracted dysentery. "You just caught them in the street, these diseases. I remember seeing men with rickets. It was more like growing up in the 1930s than the 1960s, when things were supposed to be changing."
Her father, Malcolm, was an insulating engineer. Her mother, May, worked as a hairdresser. Miles Thomas has fond memories of sitting in salons, the air layered with lacquer and fag smoke.
In conversation about her childhood there is a complete absence of the clichs of misery memoirs; rather, her memories have an atmosphere of sooty dread. She recalls, for instance, that the tenement close to where she lived was gas-lit, and that down-and-outs would take a rubber tube and divert the gas from its bracket into a milk-bottle full of water and spirit of salts. Drinking this, they would collapse. "Can you imagine the horror? We lived on the top floor and there would be a man lying there, to all appearances dead, in your stairwell."
Such scenes stoked the imagination of a girl who lived very much in her own head. She would take pleasure in scaring herself with local legends, passed from child to child. A witch lived at number five, they'd say. Or, when she moved to Pollok in 1966, a rumour would go round that a dangerous lunatic had escaped and was hiding in the watertower in the woods. Hawkhead Asylum haunted her thoughts.
There were also real-life horrors. A family member was questioned as a suspect in the slaying of a local butcher. There was, too, a frightening incident when she was five or six years old and visiting family in Castlemilk. While playing in the woods, she was approached by a man who asked whether she was a good girl and did she pray. He encouraged her to sing 'Jesus Loves Me', but she became frightened and ran away. Years later, after the man had become infamous, she realised who he had been – Fred West, who worked for a time as an ice-cream man in Glasgow.
Miles Thomas seems drawn to the idea of close brushes with death. In 2008, two weeks after she moved to her home in the south of the city, Moira Jones was raped and killed in nearby Queen's Park. "That haunted me and intruded a lot into the project. I saw CCTV of the killer walking down our street. This guy, within minutes of having brutally murdered this woman, was passing my house as I slept."
Death was, in fact, a driver of the whole Devil's Plantation project. Miles Thomas suffered three bereavements within 18 months – her mother, mother-in-law and her husband's grandmother. "I went into a really dark place," she recalls. Inheriting a home in Edinburgh, she moved to the capital. "But I couldn't settle. Glasgow was calling me back."
She hadn't lived in Glasgow very much since her late teens, having fallen out with her family, and eventually moving to London for work. Now she was drawn back to the city. She decided to make a film about Glasgow "to come to terms with the loss of place as well as the loss within my family. I'd rather use the word solace than closure," she says.
Sometimes, the experience of filming for the website was emotional, for instance at the Southern General Hospital, where Miles Thomas was born and her mother had died. "She was a troubled soul. She died too young. She was also an alcoholic, which didn't make things easy, though by the time it was really getting bad, I was up and out. I got kicked out at 17.
"I thought my mother was hugely intelligent beyond what she was able to achieve. She was never in a place where she could afford to be ambitious. She was an ordinary wee working-class Glasgow wummin, who got pregnant to my dad and ended up having to get married."
Living away, Miles Thomas was distant from her family. She didn't see her sister for 17 years. They were reunited on the night their mother was taken into intensive care. "That actually brought the family back together again." So has The Devil's Plantation been an attempt at reconciliation with Glasgow and her own past? Miles Thomas nods. "That's no' a bad way to look at it."
Of course, the website could – and probably should – be appreciated without knowing any of that back story. It is a serious work of art, and arguably as seminal a portrait of Glasgow as the novel The Dear Green Place, the film Red Road, or Joseph McKenzie's photographic collection Gorbals Children. It is also admirable for resurrecting the work of Harry Bell, who seems to have been a remarkable man.
He had been a paratrooper who fought during the Suez crisis and was later a printer, working in Glasgow and living in East Kilbride. A father of two, he died from leukaemia in 2001, aged 65, a few months after the sudden death of his wife. Friends remember him as an intelligent and somewhat eccentric man, with the looks of the young Joseph Stalin, his bedroom walls covered in maps scattered with pins. He was a keen student of archaeology, undeterred that he was unable to get the establishment to take seriously his theory – inspired by the notion of ley lines – that the layout of Glasgow is based on ancient sites and paths which, together, formed some sort of meaningful pattern lost to modern understanding.
His 1984 book, The Secret Geometry Of Glasgow, is hard to find, but can be read online. It is a warm and charming read, quite modern in its mix of reportage and memoir. At one point, Bell gives an account of lifting his young son Colin on to a boulder and teaching him the names of various hills, an impromptu tutorial which both enjoy until the boy is distracted by ice-cream chimes.
What comes across in that passage and others is Bell's passion for the landscape around him. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of his ideas, there is a strong sense of a man who walked out into the world because he loved it, attempting to follow the footsteps of his ancient ancestors as a sort of devotional act.
And what Bell did then, Miles Thomas is doing now; The Devil's Plantation is a palimpsest – a new story written on top of what has gone before.
Bell began his investigations at the De'il's Plantin' – the local name for Bonnyton Mound, thought to be an ancient burial ground, just off the road between Eaglesham and Newton Mearns. It was said to be haunted, Bell recalled, and he always made sure, cycling past in the dark, that he was in top gear.
On a bitterly cold November day, a watery sun hazy between the tall beeches and twisted oaks, Miles Thomas poses for photographs at the De'il's Plantin'. "It's all coming back to me now," she laughs. She first came here three years before, right at the beginning of the project to which this small green hill gave a name. It's a sombre sort of place, eerie, with mossy roots jutting like skeletal ladders from the soil and exposed tree boles forming crazy abstracts.
Miles Thomas seems happy, though, pointing out the view across Glasgow to the Kilpatrick Hills, a view that – more than a quarter of a century previously – her fellow traveller, Bell, had regarded with growing excitement. There is a strong sense, standing here, of something coming full circle. "We've all got our own personal journeys we have to make," says Miles Thomas, "as Harry made his, and Mary made hers, so I have made mine." n