After recent discussion on gaelic culture revival (and anti-gaelic trends) we wanted to reflect on other recent positive developments, in particular a conference that brought together researchers focusing on the visual tradition and the links between this visual tradition and our cultural language. By Murdo Macdonald, Conference Chair, Staid Na h-Ealain / State of The Art State of The Art (National Galleries of Scotland, 24-26 June 2010).

This was a seminal conference. It explored Gàidhealtachd art in Scotland’s premier public venue for the discussion of visual matters, the Hawthornden Lecture Theatre of the National Gallery of Scotland. The support both of the National Galleries of Scotland and of the Royal Scottish Academy was essential to the success of the conference. It was driven by the work of the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, Window to the West: Towards a Redefinition of the Visual within Gaelic Scotland (Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, University of the Highlands and Islands).

The conference was about building cultural capacity. It was a further step in claiming for the Gàidhealtachd what it should have available as a matter of course, namely a history of art and, indeed, a history of visual thinking in general. It built on previous events at the University of Dundee, at the University of Glasgow, and at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic College in Skye. The international context is reflected in previous presentations at UNESCO in Paris, Academy Hills in Tokyo, the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki, Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Trinity College Dublin, and at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik.

The Scottish Gàidhealtachd has produced great art from the time of the Book of Kells begun in Iona in the late 8th century, through the West Highland School of Sculpture from the 14th to the 16th century, to the painter who did most to create the conditions for modern art in Scotland in the late 19th century, William McTaggart. All those artists spoke Gaelic, and the necessity recognized by the conference is the need to reverse the trend away from Gaelic speaking and awareness. Our contemporary artists should be able to speak or in some way engage with the language that informs not just Highland culture, but Scottish culture as a whole. As a result of the residency programme at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, funded by the Scottish Arts Council (now Creative Scotland) that is now happening. Two of those artists-in-residence, Eoghan Mac Colla and Gill Russell attended the conference, and the work of all of them was referred to. That increase in cultural capacity by creating new ways into Gaelic learning through visual art practice, meshes with the intentions of the Gaelic Language Act of 2005 and with the purposes of Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
The conference brought together key cultural activists both as delegates and speakers.

On the Thursday evening the chair of the conference, Murdo Macdonald (Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee) explored the issues in a public lecture, A Highland Art: Reclaiming the Visual for the Gàidhealtachd. He noted that ‘It is perhaps surprising to note that contemporary art rather than being something that one might tack on in a tokenistic way after historical deliberations, is a key source for the appreciation of the wider visual art traditions of the Gàidhealtachd.’ He concluded by noting that a proper history of art must be restored to the Gàidhealtachd, not just as a matter of cultural justice but for the well being of the Gàidhealtachd as a contemporary culture.

That call to action introduced the conference.

The context was broadened by Michael Russell MSP, Secretary for Education in the Scottish Government, who was the first speaker on the morning of Friday 25th. His presentation was about Werner Kissling, the German ethnographer and photographer who, among many other visual contributions to the Gàidhealtachd, made the first film in Scottish Gaelic in the 1930s.

Michael Russell epitomised Kissling’s significance in the comment ‘The unity of his cultural vision should give us pause for thought.’ That comment illuminated the purpose of the conference, for it was just such unity of cultural vision, in which visual, verbal and manual aspects are all given their place, that was explored in the presentations and discussions that followed during Friday and Saturday.

The next speaker was Hugh Cheape from Sabhal Mòr Ostaig who complemented Michael Russell’s presentation by exploring the photography of Walter Biggar Blaikie. Like Kissling, Blaikie worked predominantly in South Uist and Eriskay, but a generation earlier. Blaikie was an outstanding visual thinker, for example he was the controlling presence behind the design and production of the first edition of Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, published in 1900. Many of his photographs were preserved by John Lorne Campbell, and it was that collection that Hugh Cheape explored.

The two papers that followed extended perception of art and the Gàidhealtachd. Lesley Lindsay of the University of Dundee (whose role as co-ordinator of the conference was appreciated by all present) examined the neglected 20th century Gaelic-speaking artist, Finlay Mackinnon. He made poignant works during his service with the Seaforth Highlanders in the First World War, and later worked closely on a number of projects with the notable writer and naturalist Seton Gordon. Joanna Soden of the Royal Scottish Academy then explored another ignored set of Highland works, namely sculptural reliefs for Hydro Board buildings, based on Pictish art, and carried out by artists such as Hew Lorimer and Tom Whalen. Such works revived an imagery to be found in Gàidhealtachd art since the time of the Book of Durrow in the 7th century. These two papers were strong indicators of the work that still needs to be done to restore a full account of visual art and the Gàidhealtachd.

Three papers from staff at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig further explored the discussion of the visual and the Gàidhealtachd. The first, from Mike Cormack, noted the predictability of the structure of external perceptions of the Gàidhealtach in film. There followed two papers – by Meg Bateman and John Purser – that can be thought of together as a pivot of the conference. Both were presented in Gaelic. That is nothing new. What was new was to have papers in Gaelic, on visual topics, which were structured first and foremost round the visual discourse. This is an important development because it offers an alternative way of engaging a non-Gaelic speaking audience. Translation was, of course, available, but the point here is that if a talk is structured round a strong visual discourse it is not entirely dependent on words. By the same token it is then possible to introduce the language in question to non-speakers through that visual discourse. Meg Bateman examined tree imagery not least as one finds it in the West Highland School of Sculpture. John Purser explored the persistence of Celtic symbols, such as the boar’s head, from prehistory to the present.

Following on from this session was a presentation by Malcolm Maclean, director of Pròiseact Nan Ealan. Maclean’s contribution to the advocacy of Gàidhealtach arts has been second to none; he was crucial to projects such as As an Fearhann / From the Land in 1986 and An Leabhar Mòr / The Great Book of Gaelic in 2002. He reflected on these and other projects under the title of, ‘Building from the Rain and Stones’, a title taken from a passage by Iain Crichton Smith ‘we must build from the rain and the stones until we can make a deer on the high hills and let its leaps be unpredictable’.

It is instructive to set those words alongside Michael Russell’s comment that ‘the unity of cultural vision should give us pause for thought’, for it was just such unity of vision that Iain Crichton Smith knew must be rebuilt.

The final presentation on the Friday was by Arthur Watson and Will Maclean. Just as the visual in the Gàidhealtachd should, when possible, be discussed in Gaelic, visual art should, when possible, be discussed by artists. Their discussion included the print series A Night of Islands, a remarkable visual response to Gaelic poetry, and the sculpture Crannghal, installed overlooking the Sound of Sleat at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. The latter symbolises the unfinished task of restoring its own culture to the Gàidhealtachd.

The first paper on Saturday was an incisive assessment by the art historian Georgina Coburn, of the work of two contrasting contemporary artists working within the Gàidhealtachd, Mhairi Killin and Steve Dilworth. Much of Killin’s recent work, including her 2009/2010 exhibition, Absent Voices, has focused on the loss of Gaelic in Iona and Mull. Dilworth by contrast engages with a material world of rock, wood, and nature. Both contributed work to An Leabhar Mòr.

That was followed by a presentation by Alastair Noble on his recent conceptual land art at Isle Martin. Noble is currently Artist & Fellow of New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University. He concluded with a report of his work on BBC Alba, a reminder, if any were needed, of the cultural value of that channel.

In the final session the archaeologist Antonia Thomas looked outwith the Gàidhealtachd, to her own work place of Orkney, to explore issues of contemporary art and prehistory. That comparative perspective resonated strongly with cognate issues both in the Gàidhealtachd and in international contexts. Direct links to contemporary art included the work of Richard Demarco.

The concluding paper of the conference was by Coinneach Maclean. He rounded off and extended of the issues raised over the previous days, not least by challenging the patronising inadequacies of both universities and the heritage industry with respect to Gaelic. Maclean emphasised the need to properly use and contextualise Gàidhealtachd visual material. His message complemented the call to action with which the conference began.

This conference, State of The Art: Staid Na h-Ealain, can be a turning point in the perception of the visual culture of the Gàidhealtachd. We are now in a position to realise the potential of that visual culture.

Coming soon:
Uinneag Dhan Àird an Iar: Ath-lorg Ealain na Gàidhealtach
Window to the West: The Rediscovery of Highland Art

City Art Centre, Edinburgh – 20 November 2010 to 6 March 2011