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Gaelic in modern Scotland
Gaelic in modern Scotland

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6 Gaelic culture: a national asset

6.1 The art of the Gàidhealtachd

The art history of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd (Gaelic speaking areas) has received little attention, even though it is known to be important. That is a crucial absence, for the recognition of visual traditions – both in terms of history and current activity – is fundamental to the international perception and everyday wellbeing of any culture. Divorcing a culture from the significance of its visual art traditions can be used to imply cultural inadequacy17.

Some works such as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells are, of course, well known. But as well as those Iona manuscripts of the 7th to the 9th century, the Scottish Gàidhealtachd also gave us works such as the Book of Deer, (a 10th century Latin Gospel Book from Old Deer in Aberdeenshire) and the Celtic Psalter from the 10th and 11th Centuries (which contains hand-written psalms in Latin, with illustrations.) And in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries one finds the remarkable stone carvings of the West Highland School of Sculpture, the era of the Lordship of the Isles.

Figure 34 The Book of Deer is a 10th century Latin gospel book from Old Deer in Aberdeenshire. An image of the Book of Deer can be found here.

It is an irony that the disruptions of the Jacobite period and its aftermath led to tartan, that great visual product of the Gàidhealtachd, first being banned and then being commercialised without benefit to the Gàidhealtachd. Yet its importance persists in Gàidhealtachd art, whether in the 18th century work of the Clan Grant painter Richard Waitt or in the 19th century work of artists such as John Blake McDonald (1829-1901).

A work like McDonald’s Glencoe 1692 might at first sight seem to be merely historical or literary illustration. But when one notes that it was painted in 1879, during the period of land agitation that led in 1886 to the Crofters Act, (which gave crofters security of tenure for the first time) one can recognise it as a visual revisiting of a key moment of Highland history. The painting thus refers to contemporary politics every bit as much as does the emigrant theme of John Watson Nicol’s (1856-1926) Lochaber No More, painted four years later.

Figure 35 Glencoe 1692 by John Blake McDonald (1829-1901)

It is instructive to note that it was a Gaelic-speaking artist from Kintyre, William McTaggart (1835-1910) who, more than any other artist, laid the foundations for modern Scottish art. The contrast between McTaggart’s pioneering paintings and the stereotype of the Highlands could hardly be more marked.

In 1911 that greatest of Gaelic learners Edward Dwelly, the lexicographer who was born near Arundel in 1864, emphasised the visual aspect of the Gàidhealtachd in his illustrated Gaelic-English dictionary (more on this in a moment), not least through the work of the Stornoway artist Malcolm MacDonald. He helped Dwelly to illustrate the dictionary and was one of the first trained visual artists from the Western Isles. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art and the École des Beaux-Artes in Paris, and produced a number of fine oil paintings of Lewis and of sailing ships.

By that time key historical works such as the great crosses of Iona and Islay and the works of the West Highland School centuries had been recorded by 19th century artists like Andrew Gibb and James Drummond.

Gibb, in volume two of John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland, published in 1867, recorded works such as the Kildalton Cross in Islay and St Martin’s Cross in Iona. Equally important was Drummond’s Sculptured Monuments of Iona and the West Highlands, published in 1881, which drew attention to the West Highland School of Sculpture after a long period of neglect.

Following on from this there developed a Celtic Revival art of high quality. One of the great books of the Celtic Revival - and, indeed, of the Arts and Crafts Movement - was the collection of Gaelic hymns and incantations, Carmina Gadelica, edited and translated by Alexander Carmichael and published in 1900.

Figure 36 Pages from Volume 1 of Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Gaelic hymns and incantations

That first edition takes its place as part of Gàidhealtachd visual art. It not only reflects the aesthetic values of its time on a high level but it also revisits earlier Gàidhealtachd art stretching back well over a millennium, not least The Book of Deer. The artist was Alexander Carmichael’s wife, Mary (see Macdonald, M., 2008, ‘The Visual Dimension of Carmina Gadelica’ in Stiubhart, D. U., ed., The Life and Legacy of Alexander Carmichael, Port of Ness: The Islands Book Trust).

Edward Dwelly took inspiration from Carmina Gadelica for the title page of the first edition of his dictionary, Faclair Gàidhlig – air son nan sgoiltean. Le Dealabhan/A Gaelic Dictionary, underlining the aesthetic as well as linguistic links between the two works. The ‘F’ of ‘Faclair’ is closely related to the ‘F’ of ‘Failt’ on page 108 of volume one of Carmina Gadelica.

Figure 37 The title page of the first edition of Dwelly’s Gaelic Dictionary

Thus by the early years of the 20th century there was great potential for articulation of visual art as an integral part of wider Gaelic culture. So why did that not happen, at least in any sustainable way?

One factor was the loss of population through emigration, so eloquently portrayed in William McTaggart’s Sailing of the Emigrant Ship, painted in 1895.

Figure 38 William McTaggart, The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship, National Gallery of Scotland

During that same late 19th century period the de facto anti-Gaelic provisions of the Education Act of 1872 were felt in full force (for a writer’s commentary on this see Campbell, A. P., 2006, Invisible Islands, Glasgow: Otago). The new educational message was that Gaelic was irrelevant as a language. The implication was that the visual tradition was irrelevant also.

McTaggart’s painting has inspired artists of today such as Will Maclean to respond strongly issues such as land ownership. Maclean’s memorial cairns at Balallan, Aignis and Gress in Lewis are good examples of this.

Figure 39 An example of Will Maclean’s Memorial Cairns (Aignis)

The response by artists of today to Gaelic poetry has also been powerful. In 2002 An Leabhar Mòr/The Great Book of Gaelic [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] brought together the responses to Gaelic poetry of 100 artists from Scotland and Ireland. These included, for example, Will Maclean working with Aonghas Macneacail, Mhairi Killin working with Meg Bateman, Kate Whiteford evoking the words of Murdo MacFarlane, Floraidh Mackenzie responding to the words of Derick Thomson, Elizabeth Ogilvie working with a song by 17th century poet Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh, and Calum Angus Mackay exploring the work of 18th century bard Duncan Bàn Macintyre.

This major project by Pròiseact Nan Ealan led to an international touring exhibition which toured internationally for a decade after its creation. The establishment of an artists’ residency programme at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in 2007 should also be noted, not least with respect to the work of Gill Russell and Eoghan Mac Colla.

Work by artists involved in An Leabhar Mòr, including Helen Macalister, Donald Smith, Donald Urquhart, Norman Shaw and Frances Walker, was at the heart of an important reassessment of Scottish Gàihealtachd art held at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh from November 2010 to March 2011.

Figure 40 City Art Centre, Edinburgh

Precursors of this exhibition include As an Fhearann/From the Land: Clearance, Conflict and Crofting (1986), Togail Tìr/Marking Time: The Map of the Western Isles (1989), and the Calanais exhibition in 1995, an international response by contemporary artists to a key Highland archaeological site.

Notable also from recent years in the sculpture, Crannghal, designed by Will Maclean and Arthur Watson and installed at Sabhal Mor Ostaig in 2006. It refers in its boat-like form to the transmission of knowledge throughout the Gàidhealtachd, and in its ‘unfinished’ quality to the fact that this task is not yet complete. Land and language issues are intertwined in such art. These are recognised key cultural issues throughout the world, not least from an ecological perspective. For that reason among many others, the visual art of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd is resonant on local, national and international levels.

Murdo MacDonald
Figure 41 Crannghal, a sculpture designed by Will Maclean and Arthur Watson and installed at Sabhal Mor Ostaig in 2006