Finding Scottish Art

NG 2043

Saint Bride, John Duncan 1913

By Murdo Macdonald

In this review I reflect on an issue of cultural neglect, namely the exclusion of Scottish art from representation in ordinary international contexts.  An example of this is the exclusion of Scottish work from the National Galleries of Scotland major exhibition of European symbolist landscape at the Edinburgh Festival in 2012.[1] I give this failure wider context by considering a cognate systemic failure; namely that of BAFTA in 2007, with respect to advocacy of the Gaelic film Seachd / The Inaccessible Pinnacle. I discuss the issues with reference to the critique developed in my paper ‘Finding Scottish Art’ published in 2002.

In 2010 I presented a paper to the Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig conference at the University of Aberdeen entitled ‘Reflections on the Neglect of the Visual Art of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd.’ In that paper I noted the curious neglect of the visual aspect of a Highland culture that had produced both world class illuminated manuscripts in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries and the founder figure of modern Scottish painting in the nineteenth century. At the heart of my concern was, and is, the necessity of re-appropriating such lost histories. Such concern has informed my research not just with respect to Highland art but with respect to Scottish art in general. There should be no need for such re-appropriation, yet even after the publication of Duncan Macmillan’s comprehensive book on Scottish painting in 1990, it was easy to find yourself in one of those strange conversations in which your interlocutor was earnestly trying to persuade you that in fact the area you were studying did not exist. Typically people would tell me that Scotland was a literary nation and that the visual tradition, was, almost as a consequence of this, of no account. Since many of my interlocutors were themselves Scots, or others sympathetic to Scottish culture, this struck me as an intriguingly auto-destructive attitude.  But what underlay it was, of course, ignorance. A refusal to believe that any significant cultural tradition existed, if they themselves had little knowledge of it. So that is my theme here. Lack of knowledge. Ignorance. And the destructive cultural effects of such ignorance.

When I embarked in 2005 on a study of visual art as it originated in and related to the Scottish Gàidhealtachd, similar attitudes were much in evidence.[2] A common response was along the lines of, oh these Gaels have a wonderful song tradition, and there’s the poetry, but there’s really nothing visual to speak of. This desire to ignore the visual aspect of an entire culture struck me as odd to say the least. The difficulty is that such ignorance is not just lack of knowledge per se, but an attitude to such knowledge that classifies it as of little importance, classifies it as something about which it is acceptable to be ignorant. Such attitudes of ignorance become in the end attacks on the culture in question. They are usually – but not always – unintentional, and they are often completely unconscious, but they are attacks nevertheless. In my 2002 paper, Finding Scottish Art, I proposed the notion of ‘an attitude of ignorance’ to characterise such approaches.[3] That is to say not just ignorance in the sense of not knowing something, but ignorance as part and parcel of the promotion within institutions of certain kinds of ignorance. In other words the ‘systemic ignorance’ of my title.

An illuminating analogy can be found in the historiography of the art of the Indian sub-continent. In the early twentieth century there was a struggle between art historians who argued that India had no indigenous tradition of fine art and those who considered Indian art to be an autonomous tradition. It is no surprise to discover that those who advocated the notion that Indian art was merely the result of borrowings from other traditions were commentators like Sir George Birdwood, who were firmly committed to government of India by the British Empire. Equally it is no surprise that those who advocated the independent traditions of Indian art were cultural nationalists such Sister Nivedita and Ananda Coomaraswamy, both, incidentally, close friends of the leader of the Celtic Revival in Scotland, Patrick Geddes.[4]

The point here is that Birdwood’s Imperial attitude had the effect of denying to Indian culture a high status feature, namely a history of art. And of course when you deny a history to a people, you also deny the significance of all indigenous activity, past and present. Until very recently the Highlands of Scotland were in exactly this same condition, denied a history of art, despite one being very obviously present. This is a familiar enough colonial technique: namely to imply inadequacy on the part of the colonised culture, and to make that implied inadequacy part of the justification for the exploitation of resources. Knocking out any serious recognition of Indian art as of any global significance in its own right was thus part of a rationalisation of the status quo of political and cultural domination of India by Britain. There was no attempt to deny the existence of the art, instead it was ‘admired’, and seen as derivative. Such ‘admiration’ was both patronising and belittling.

As the art historian Partha Mitter notes ‘what Birdwood failed to see was the patronising element in his admiration of Indian art’.[5] And ‘failed to see’ is part of the issue here. It implies a lack of analysis based on unquestioned assumptions. Those assumptions are that some kind of cultural or political truth has already been achieved, and any new information, while it may be ‘admirable’, is nevertheless superfluous. The colloquial meaning of ignorant, namely ‘ill-mannered’ is interesting here, for there is nothing more culturally ill-mannered than to assume that you understand something that you don’t.

By ‘admiring’ Indian art in this patronising manner, Birdwood adopted a position that made it acceptable not to study Indian art at all, or only to study it here and there as a kind of peripheral subject. That made actively ignoring it possible. Ignorance was acceptable. This of course sounds mightily familiar to anyone concerned with studying the Highlands and indeed many other aspects of Scotland. Such studies are admitted to be ‘admirable’ but at the same time are continuously redefined as basically peripheral to the main function of the institution in which they take place be that university, gallery, school or professional body. This is actively promoted ignorance. Systemic ignorance.

From the perspective of the visual culture of the Highlands, a particularly interesting example of this active, ill-mannered, ignorance dates from 2007. In that year the Gaelic language film Seachd / The Inaccessible Pinnacle could have been put forward by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) to be considered for a Hollywood Oscar in the best foreign language film category. But it wasn’t. Seachd was just the kind of film one would expect to be recommended. It would have fitted perfectly into the routine advocacy that one might expect of a cultural body such as BAFTA. But instead of contributing to the wellbeing of Highland culture by giving a contemporary Gaelic film the opportunity to be given coverage on a world stage, BAFTA instead chose to actively endorse ignorance of Highland culture.

It is this active endorsement of ignorance that interests me here. The Seachd-BAFTA affair reminded me of a piece I wrote for the Scotsman in 1992. In it I described an ignorance-based reaction to a visual artist of Highland background.  That reaction came from two art critics reviewing the Edinburgh Festival of that year. The critics were from newspapers in which one would not normally expect to find such contempt for other cultures, namely The Observer and The Guardian. The artist in question was Will Maclean. Both critics found the fact that in his art Maclean engaged with his own Highland background difficult to come to terms with. It was as though Maclean had made up his own history, culture and linguistic heritage. If I can quote directly from what I wrote then:

‘There is, of course, always room for critical disagreement about an artist’s work. But that’s not the point here. The point is that Maclean’s work is rejected in large measure because of his commitment to a place, a language and a people, as though these elements of cultural normality were so unlikely in Scotland that they had to be treated with scepticism.’[6]

That is a good characterisation of the systemic ignorance I am referring to here. The normal is considered so unlikely that it doesn’t bear consideration. There is a resonance here with the words of the poet Aonghas MacNeacail who writes of his childhood experience of encountering his own culture not as history but as memory.[7]

A term I coined in that piece about the reception of Will Maclean’s work was ‘metroparochialism’.  It seems apposite to remind myself of it. It refers to the tendency of those in some small cultural parish of London – and those, often based in Edinburgh, who take their guidance from that small cultural parish – to show an ignorance-maintaining contempt for the views of those outside their immediate circle. With respect to the Seachd decision BAFTA’s metroparochialism was indeed impressive.

But that was 2007, surely that could not happen anymore, in the new Scotland where everyone, nationalist and unionist alike, is aware of the significance of Scotland’s cultural contribution as part of the wider international community?

Would that it were so. But it happened again in a very prominent way in 2012 in the major Edinburgh Festival exhibition mounted by the National Galleries of Scotland Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe, 1880-1910. This provided a classic example of metroparochialism. On the evening of the opening in July 2012 I posted the following comment to Facebook:

‘It’s well worth seeing this. It’s a good exhibition, not least the Finnish work. But unfortunately it is yet another example of the National Galleries of Scotland’s inability to represent Scotland in an international context. There is not one Scottish work included. Mackie, Duncan, McTaggart, Dow … there are so many possibilities, so many actually in the NGS collection. I’ve never been able to understand this blindspot in the galleries that seems to regard Scottish art as ‘other’. What an opportunity missed!’ [8]

Looking back on it I might substitute Mackintosh for Mackie, but nevertheless that immediate response still sums it up for me. It is something of an irony that one of the most interesting recent analyses of McTaggart has been in terms of the work of Henri Bergson, a philosopher of notable relevance to symbolist landscape.[9] So: an opportunity missed. A major international opportunity to give Scottish culture its place at the heart of a European tradition, completely missed. Scottish art defined out of the picture by those whose job it is to represent it. Less than a week after I had written that Facebook post, Duncan Macmillan, writing in his role as art critic of The Scotsman, did something remarkable. He reviewed the exhibition, drew attention to its interest and to the high quality of the work, and then refused to give it any quality rating. The final paragraph of his review is worth quoting in full:

‘The National Galleries of Scotland exist to show the world to Scotland, but reciprocally to show Scotland to the world. Properly conducted, that exchange affects both parties. Scotland is enriched by the presence of great art from elsewhere, but the Scottish story, properly told, should in turn also enrich the wider European story. If our National Gallery cannot tell our story for us, who will? I am supposed to give this exhibition a star rating. I can’t. The pictures would get five stars. The exhibition, seen as a Scottish project as it must be, would get none at all.’ [10]

And he’s right of course. Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland a highly successful international show, supported by the Scottish taxpayer, makes no cultural case for Scotland. Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland, the many thousands of people visiting the exhibition in Amsterdam had no exposure to Scottish art. Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland the same failure will be present when the exhibition goes to Helsinki. Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland every review of this exhibition carries with it the message that Scottish art made no contribution to symbolist landscape in Europe. Courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish art is thus defined as ‘out of history’ in Cairns Craig’s useful phrase.[11] Macmillan continues ‘If this were the National Gallery of Nowhere in Particular, the omission of the Scots would be a serious criticism, but for the National Galleries of Scotland it is inexcusable.’

Inexcusable. I agree. Michael Spens was a little kinder when he commented in his Studio International review that the exclusion of Scottish art was merely inexplicable.[12]  But note that the issue here is not the curation of the exhibition per se, indeed it is excellent as far as it goes. What is inexcusable is the failure to oversee that curation, in the interests of Scottish culture, by the National Galleries of Scotland. The National Galleries of Scotland by acting as advocate of the exhibition and co-publisher of the catalogue, makes it absolutely clear that, in its view, there is no Scottish work worth including in this European context. The National Galleries of Scotland has put its stamp of approval on ignoring Scottish art in a European context. Inexcusable indeed.

Commenting on Macmillan’s review, Lesley Riddoch wrote: ‘What the hell is going on when a national arts body seems to ignore its own talent and subject matter?’[13] Indeed. Consider the following paragraph from the Foreword to the book that accompanies the exhibition:

‘This is a truly international exhibition, comprising artists from all over Europe. It is also the result of collaboration between three European countries: the Netherlands, Scotland and Finland. It has been a fruitful and rewarding partnership, highlighting the individual characteristics of our separate nations, and revealing a similar tenacity and dedication to the project.’[14]

Reading that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. ‘Highlighting the individual characteristics of our separate nations’? What on earth does that mean when the art of one entire nation has been excluded? Would the National Gallery of Finland have been a partner if there had been no Finnish work involved? I think not. Would the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have been involved had there been no Netherlandish art represented? I think not. The contrast is stark, noteworthy and instructive. At the heart of this failure on the part of the National Galleries of Scotland is the echo of Sir George Birdwood and his unwitting capacity to peripheralize the art of India in the early twentieth century. The decision makers of the National Galleries of Scotland seem to be thinking in ways that were found wanting a century ago. But as – in the context of Scottish literature – Irvine Welsh has so cogently reminded us, such cultural hegemony ‘not only breeds arrogance; it also promotes intellectual enfeeblement.’[15]

I do not want to imply in any way shape or form that there are not excellent staff within the National Galleries of Scotland who are well capable of representing Scottish art in an international context, indeed many of them are friends of mine. For example the inadequacy – from a Scottish perspective – of the other main show at the National Galleries of Scotland during the Festival, the Tate-Britain-curated Picasso and Modern British Art, was picked up by precisely such alert staff. As a result relevant Scottish work was introduced for its Edinburgh showing. But that Scottish work will never be seen in London, it will never tour. And that is the point. It is clear that with respect to major international touring exhibitions, that is to say the ones that really matter for the international cultural reputation of Scotland, the staff alert to Scottish culture are not calling the shots at the National Galleries of Scotland.

Even when the National Galleries of Scotland has initiated something of real significance with respect to Scottish art in an international context, there seems to be no will to follow it up on it on a level of strategic planning. A particularly interesting example of this is art as it relates to James Macpherson’s Ossian. The National Galleries of Scotland, in the shape of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, actually commissioned Calum Colvin’s influential Ossian work in 2002, producing an exemplary Gaelic and English catalogue, and then facilitating international touring of the exhibition.[16] So there is a track record within the National Galleries of Scotland itself that deserves to be in the foreground here. But as things stand, it is not in the foreground at all. For example the whole area of Ossian and art has always had the potential to lead to a major international touring exhibition, taking in not just Scottish work but the wonderful early nineteenth century responses to Ossian from French, German, and Danish artists in particular. Indeed major public galleries in France and Germany demonstrated the potential of this in a joint project as far back as the 1970s.[17] More recently, Ossian work was one of the key themes of the major reconsideration of Girodet at the Louvre in Paris, which took place in 2005 and toured to Chicago and Montreal.[18] The list of such Ossian-responsive artists is extraordinary. As well as Girodet, and Scots and Irish such as Alexander Runciman and his friend James Barry, one can cite, amongst others, Ingres, Gerard, Abildgaard, Runge, even, some would argue, Caspar David Friedrich. A sort of curtain-call of the greatest artists in Europe in the early 19th century. What an opportunity for the National Galleries of Scotland to properly discharge its duty to Scottish culture on an international stage, through a major international touring exhibition. Indeed, what an opportunity to bring it together with the visual response to Kalevala, already pioneered in exemplary fashion by the National Gallery of Finland in 2009.[19] But all efforts to persuade them in this matter over the years have failed. Plus ca change. An irony is that if at any time over the last twenty years the strategic decision makers of the National Galleries of Scotland had taken the Ossian opportunity seriously the National Galleries of Scotland would not have failed in its curatorial oversight of the European symbolist landscape show, for the simple reason that the artists who explored Ossian, such as the brilliant German Philip Otto Runge, are so often key influences on European symbolist landscape.[20] The importance of the sustained Scottish contribution to the cultural networks of Europe would have been clear, not ignored.[21]

So despite the National Galleries of Scotland’s proven ability to commission highly regarded Ossian work, there is no evidence of strategic thinking based on this. It is mystifying that there has been no further response to a work of literature that has had, and continues to have, such a major influence on European art and literary culture and to which Scotland has a unique claim. But it gets back to the actively maintained ignorance to which I referred earlier. Has all the Ossian research produced in the last half century just passed by the National Galleries of Scotland with no effect? Do the decision makers of the National Galleries of Scotland still value Dr Johnson’s dismissive attitude to Macpherson more than the informed scholarship from the perspective of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd provided by Derrick Thomson and Donald Meek, or the research of Fiona Stafford and Howard Gaskill?[22] I suppose that is possible, but if it is true that makes the decision makers of the National Galleries of Scotland not just one, but two centuries out of date in their thinking.

This failure on the part of the National Galleries of Scotland is of course irritating, but it does provide an intriguing set of opportunities for cultural analysis. Exploiting the structure and consequences, both cultural and economic, of such decision-making would make an excellent set of Masters or PhD topics.

But remember that the BAFTA exclusion of Seachd from its nomination process was just as culturally damaging to Scotland as the National Galleries of Scotland’s failure to represent Scotland in the European symbolist landscape exhibition, or of its curious failure to develop its own Ossian initiative. It is as though something in the decision-making processes of such organizations stands in the way of treating Scotland as a normal culture. For these bureaucrats Scottish culture is still ‘other’. It can be ‘admired’, Birdwood-like, even advocated, but only as a separate area, not submitted to ordinary processes of international comparison, such as those provided by inclusion in a major exhibition of European work. Perhaps this attitude will eventually collapse under the weight of Scottish Turner Prize winners, but one should not assume even that. It is easy to justify contemporary work without any reference to wider historical or geographical context. I have elsewhere described this phenomenon with respect to Scottish culture as ‘eternally recurrent renaissance’.[23]

In 1969 George Davie wrote of a writer betraying a point of view that takes for granted that modern Scotland does not bear thinking of at all.[24] Curious that a comment from over forty years ago can resonate so strongly with the cases I have discussed, for there is certainly a sense that for BAFTA in 2007 – in a global context – the Gàidhealtach did not bear thinking about at all, and for the National Galleries of Scotland in 2012 – in a European context – Scotland did not bear thinking about at all.[25] Think of what an Oscar nomination for a Gaelic-language film in 2007 would have done for Highland culture in particular and Scottish culture in general on an international stage. And in 2012 think of the benefits to the perception of Scotland’s culture of half a million people appreciating Scottish work as part of a European symbolist landscape exhibition, not just in Edinburgh, but in Amsterdam and Helsinki. And think of the potential positive effect of such exposure of Scottish culture on the international reputation of Scotland, with all that is implied by that economically. No country can afford to have its culture devalued in this way, no culture can afford to be defined as ‘out of history’.


[1] Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910, National Gallery of Scotland, 14th July − 14th October 2012. (Tour: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Ateneum Museum, Helsinki)

[2] Window to the West: Towards a Redefinition of the Visual within Gaelic Scotland, an AHRC funded collaboration between Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (University of Dundee) and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (University of the Highlands and Islands).

[3] Norquay, G. & Smyth, D., eds., 2002, Across the Margins: Cultural Identity and Change in the Atlantic Archipelago. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[4] For more on this see, for example: Macdonald, M., 2005, ‘Celticism and Internationalism in the Circle of Patrick Geddes’, Visual Culture in Britain, Vol. 6, No. 2, 70-83, Manchester: Manchester University Press; Macdonald, M., 2005, ‘Patrick Geddes and Cultural Renewal through Visual Art: Scotland-India-Japan’, in K. Okutsu, A. Johnston, M. Macdonald & N. Sadakata, eds., Patrick Geddes: By Leaves We Live, Edinburgh and Yamaguchi: ECA & YICA, 2005, 46-71.

[5] Mitter, P., 1994, Art and Nationalism in Colonial India; Cambridge University Press; 312.

[6] Macdonald, M., 1992, ‘An Attitude Problem Based In London’, Edinburgh Review, Issue 91, 116-118; 118.

[7] MacNeacail, A., 1996, A Proper Schooling and other poems / Oideachadh Ceart agus dàin eile, Edinburgh: Polygon. [‘nuair a bha mi òg / cha b’eachdraidh ach cuimhne’ that is to say:‘when I was young / it wasn’t history but memory’].

[8] Posted on Facebook, 13 July 2012.

[9] ‘The Gaelic Child in Time’, a paper presented at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh, to the symposium, Window to the West: Art and the Gàidhealtachd, on 11 February 2011, by David Martin Jones then of St Andrews University, now Professor of Film Studies at the University of Glasgow. I quote: ‘When I saw [McTaggart’s] Bay Voyach … I immediately interpreted it as an artistic representation of the virtual existence of the child, or perhaps more accurately, children, in this liminal place. In a certain sense they appear ghost-like figures, at one with the landscape, who have been painted as though they exist on a different virtual layer of time to that of the actual present. These figures are the virtual echoes of another time, or of the virtual nature of time itself, which McTaggart is painting onto the present.  After all, for Bergson – and this is a key point for Deleuze in his exploration of cinema – matter is seen to be light, so the virtual layers of the past insist or subsist with our actual present.’ The author is coming from a film studies perspective but his view complements recent thinking about the significance of Bergson to symbolist art; see Efal, A., 2007, ‘Habitude Against Itself: Re-defining the ‘Symbol’ in Turn-of-the-Century French Visual Symbolist Discourse’ Canadian Aesthetics Journal / Revue canadienne d’esthétique. Volume 13. http://www.uqtr.uquebec.ca/AE/Vol_13/libre/efal2.htm.

[10] Duncan Macmillan, The Scotsman, Thursday 19 July 2012. Headline: ‘Scottish art has been ignored entirely in the Scottish National Gallery’s major summer show. Our critic explains why this is an unforgivable snub – and why it leaves him unable to offer the show the usual star rating.’

[11] Craig, C., 1996, Out of History: Narrative Paradigms in Scottish and English Culture, Edinburgh: Polygon.

[12] ‘… Scottish artists are being entirely and inexplicably excluded on their home ground.’ Michael Spens, Studio International, 26 September 2012. http://www.studio-international.co.uk/reports/symbolism-2012.asp.

[14] Thomson, R. & Rapetti, R., 2012, Van Gogh to Kandinsky: Symbolist Landscape in Europe 1880-1910, London: Thames & Hudson; 10.

[15] Irvine Welsh, Is there such a thing as a national literature?; presented to the International Writers’ Conference at the Edinburgh Book Festival, 2102. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/19/irvine-welsh-a-national-literature. Also at http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2012/08/20/irvine-welsh-is-there-such-a-thing-as-national-culture/

[16] Colvin, C., 2002, Ossian: Fragments of Ancient Poetry / Oisein: Bloighean de Sheann Bhàrdachd, Edinburgh: Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Between 2002 and 2008, it toured both nationally and internationally. In the latter category: Festival de Musique de Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Beaulieu, France; UNESCO, Paris; Scotland House, Brussels; Inverness County Centre for the Arts, Nova Scotia, Canada; University of Guelph, Canada.

[17] Hohl, H. & Toussaint, H., 1974, Ossian, catalogue of exhibition at Kunsthalle,

Hamburg, and Grand Palais, Paris.

[18] For a sense of the significance of the Ossian element of this exhibition see Donald Kuspit’s Artnet review: http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/kuspit/kuspit8-16-06.asp.

[19] Kalevala, shown at the Ateneum Art Museum (National Gallery of Finland), Helsinki, from 27 February to 9 August, 2009.

[20] See e.g. Strasser-Klotz, S., 2005,  Runge und Ossian. Kunst, Literatur, Farbenlehre, Doctoral dissertation, University of Regensburg. See also: Fingal in Lochlin, Berlin, Goldschmidt-Gabrielli, 1920.

[21] Symptomatic was the ignoring of Ossian work in The Romantic Spirit in German Art, an exhibition mounted in 1994 by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Hayward Gallery in London. It toured to both London and Munich in 1995.

[22] See Thomson, D. S., 1952, The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd; Meek, D., 1991, ‘The Gaelic Ballads of Scotland: Creativity and Adaptation’, in Gaskill, H., ed., 1991, Ossian Revisited, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 19-48. Also note that as long ago as 1964, S. Foster Damon provided a very fair assessment of Macpherson in his companion to William Blake (under the heading of Ossian). Since then I would note in particular:  Gaskill, H., ed., 1991, Ossian Revisited, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; Gaskill, H., ed., 2004, The Reception of Ossian in Europe, vol. v of the Athlone Critical Traditions Series, London: Thoemmes; Stafford, F., 1988, The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; Stafford, F. & Gaskill, H., eds., 1998, From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic Translations, Amsterdam & Atlanta: Rodopi.

[23] Macdonald, M., 1990, ‘Scotland, A Paradox’, Catalogue essay for Alan Johnston, 11 Cities, 11 Nations, Leeuwarden: Netherlands. Also note: ‘That is to say, however much activity there is at any one time, a few years later it seems as though it has never happened because the knowledge generated has not been integrated into the strategic decisions of, for example, galleries or universities or schools. The point is that if you are not informed about your own culture you are not just impoverished at a personal level, you are at an international disadvantage.’ Murdo Macdonald, Scottish Literature and Visual Art: A Caledonian Synergy, Inaugural Andrew Tannahill Lecture at the National Library of Scotland, 2009, unpublished. A version to be published in 2013 as To Dain do Eìmhir from Carmina Gadelica: a Visual Context for the Poetry of Sorley MacLean.

[24] This is from a response written to a set of seminar papers published (under the title ‘Discussion’) on 204 to 205 of Wolfe, J. N., ed., 1969,  Government and Nationalism in Scotland, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. It was reprinted under the title of Nationalism and the Philosophy of the Unthinkable in Edinburgh Review, no.83, 1990.

[25] In my paper ‘Finding Scottish Art’ published in 2002, I attempted to theorize this ‘unthinkability’ a little. There I noted that the St Andrews philosopher, James Frederick Ferrier coined the very useful and popular term, ‘epistemology’ which, as we all know, refers to the theory of knowledge. But he also coined a term for the theory of ignorance, ‘agnoiology’ which has been almost completely forgotten. For me what is important here is not the detail of Ferrier’s thinking, but the fact that he saw the need to attend to that of which we are ignorant, or, as his younger contemporary Freud would have it, are inclined to deny.  So what really interests me here is what is in fact known, but treated as though it is not known, for that is still the treatment of so much Scottish culture Highland and otherwise.



Categories: Arts & Culture, Identity

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24 replies

  1. Great article. Important though to understand who is responsible: we need name or names; he or she must be held to account for this extraordinary decision to exclude Scottish Art from EF 2012 show. What’s his or her name?

  2. Thanks for this. A good article that leaves me a bit gobsmacked. I’d no idea.

  3. Great stuff, albeit infuriating. Must be parallels across all genres.
    I recently asked BellaC to consider publishing a tribute to the late Gavin Wallace – his final editorial (with Robert Alan Jamieson) in Edinburgh Review (ER98, 1997) was a brilliant piece which would make a great companion to this article. I’ve a hard copy, but have been unable to trace any online version. Is there anyone at ER who could release the essay? It was called ‘MORE BOREALI: (Latin:in a northern way). I would transcribe it, but it’s a pretty hefty chunk and needs to be taken as a whole – editing it wouldn’t seem right.

    • A depressingly familiar read. Ian, I for one would love to get to read that tribute to Gavin Wallace on Bella. As to your ‘parallels across genres’, how about the late great Isi Metzstein of Glasgow Architects Gillespie, Kidd and Coia. Internationally acknowledged master pieces of post war architecture all either already torn down, or rotting ruins untouchable because the Catholic Church of Scotland is for some reason totally opposed to selling them on to people who understand and value world architectural heritage. This is how Mackintosh was saved from skips by enthusiasts and how Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s greatest works are either burnt out wrecks or rump Churches (amazing though they are) with their adjoining tenements destroyed long ago, while eventually gaining UNESCO world heritage status FFS! Glasgow Cooncil should be flushed right down the f’n pan when judged on every single objective criteria!

      • If you haven’t already seen it, Vronsky has flagged-up another worrying scenario at Abbotsford House:

        http://wingsland.podgamer.com/karine-polwart-statement/#comment-288860

      • Ian, yes I saw that earlier. Seems this stuff runs right up and down our ‘cultural’ output and from across, through and over it as well. Fk them, they’ll no stop us and the world will be just that bit more surprised at the sudden decloaking of an ancient fully functioning creative modern culture appearing overnight in their midsts! Quite dramatic to witness I would say with a definite longer lasting impact for our International status. We can but hope anyway eh? Chin up and on we go!

  4. Thanks for posting this – a hard-hitting article that leaves us under no illusions as to where we stand.

  5. Thank you for a very interesting essay.

    It strikes me that ‘systemic ignorance’ is a consequence of internal colonialisation. Daniel Hechter writes in “Internal Colonialism” of the denigration of indigenous culture. Denigration is not needed if the art is ignored, not taught, not discussed. It’s like it does not exist and speaking of non-existence, didn’t the UK government publish a legal opinion earlier in the week suggesting that Scotland was extinguished in 1707?

    “And think of the potential positive effect of such exposure of Scottish culture on the international reputation of Scotland, with all that is implied by that economically. ” A potential positive effect when the Scots are preparing to vote in a referendum about independence? Not what we want at all, dear boy (to give a Sir-George type response).

  6. As if by magic, we’re back to Alasdair Gray’s recent, now infamous essay. Perhaps some of those queuing up to bash the man would like to have a wee think again after reading this.

  7. Murdo, well done for bringing this ‘ignorance’ to our attention. I admire your tenacity greatly. It is people like your good self that facilitates the awakening of the Scottish psyche that has been, for so long, subverted by a complex draconian mixture of cringe, neglect and downright arrogance. One can only lament at what the Finnish and Dutch critiques thought of the Scottish ‘contribution’ to the symbolist exhibition. Perhaps the National gallery mistook it for a nihilism exhibition.
    Keep plugging away Murdo. Perhaps John Leighton might better be suited to polishing worthless baubles.

  8. What a weird thing for the National Galleries to do! I think “internal colonisation” is the right term. On another note, I have a copy of that painting in my room!

  9. Regarding the link with Alisdair Gray’s essay, there’s an interesting Scottish Review article titled ‘Scotland’s universities are virtually overrun by non-Scots’. http://www.scottishreview.net/AlfBaird61.shtml

  10. Dear Murdo MacDonald, thank you so much for writing this piece and to Bella for publishing it. It’s beautifully brutal in it’s exposure of a guiding attitude found inherent to most institutes of modern Scotland, cultural, artistic, legal, etc… You ask ‘Think of what an Oscar nomination for a Gaelic-language film in 2007 would have done for Highland culture in particular and Scottish culture in general on an international stage. And in 2012 think of the benefits to the perception of Scotland’s culture of half a million people appreciating Scottish work as part of a European symbolist landscape exhibition, not just in Edinburgh, but in Amsterdam and Helsinki. And think of the potential positive effect of such exposure of Scottish culture on the international reputation of Scotland, with all that is implied by that economically.’ When you answer that question honestly, you will come to realise why this ‘metroparochialism’ can only get worse as Scotland rises out the mists and starts to be seen and reassessed internationally outwith the control of these so called Scottish cultural institutions. The answer is that they know, as well as you and I, what these shows, nominations and general visibility would do for Scotland’s self esteem, confidence and international reputation and are in place intentionally to insure against those circumstances ever coming to fruition. Feels like the final parallel will be with the Scottish Press and their disconnect (to the bitter end) from modern Scots of a modern Scotland. Thanks again. sadsadweeface

  11. A’ Mhurchaidh, thank you for posting this. I was unaware of the Birdwood perspective. I will definitely use in the thesis which I have now focussed on the Tourist ‘gaze’ on Gaelic Scotland. I am taking a postcolonial perspective. In looking at varieties of muted ‘gaze’ I am looking at the Romantic visitors. Literature is straightforward with the Wodsworths but I wondered about artists’ perspectives? Perhaps we can have a chat soon? Coinneach

  12. After reading Graham’s link, ‘Scotland’s universities are virtually overrun by non-Scots’, I came across this via twitter;
    ‘Scotland’s decaying capital city shows why this country is not ready for independence.’ by Richard J. Williams, Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures at Edinburgh University, in an American magazine.

    http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentaries/191303531.html?refer=y

    Professor Williams was born in the States and brought up in England – you just couldn’t make it up!

    • He is about to publish, “Sex and Buildings”. He is traumatised by trying to get around Edinburgh for the last wee while and that is why he seems so anti independence. It is a complete mare to have to travel around, you can’t argue with that but it is no reason to condemn independence.
      I read the comments left by the readers of the article, in the name of the wee man! Braveheart has been their Scottish history lessons.

      • Was reading today that said Prof is considering voting Yes in 2014. That aside there are serious problems in the governance of Edinburgh. It is no better and no more honestly run that Glasgow. And that ain’t a compliment.

  13. I have just finished The Black House, the book this video refers to, and was entranced by its description of landscape, weather and guga hunt. Much more than a detective thriller, this is about childhood and a way of life, beautifully portrayed by a Glaswegian who, when he worked on the Gaelic soap Machair, spent many months over a five year period living and working on Lewis.
    For everyone who has struggled to find a publisher, listen to Peter and wonder why publishers here were unwilling to publish a book which has been such a success internationally. Insufficient audience for a book about Scotland is an oft used phrase, and yet Peter’s experience gives the lie to this.

    http://www.ur-web.net/PeterMayFrancais/pmvideo.html#The__Blackhouse

  14. Yes, I have since read that Professor Williams blames the editors of said article for manipulating what he was trying to get across. Glad he’s considering voting Yes, he might sell more books!

    And yes, there are more councils than Edinburgh that are definitely dodgy. South Lanarkshire had Tom McCabe as council leader in 1999, the year he was elected to the Scottish Parliament as our MSP. Happily, we’re now shot of him; although he appears to be doing alright for himself

    http://www.newsnetscotland.com/index.php/scottish-politics/5435-just-another-day-at-city-chambers-as-more-claims-of-party-cronyism-hits-labour-run-glasgow-council

    Good luck wi that yin, Glesga!

  15. But what else could we expect from the NGS with its basement collection of Scottish paintings? At least the visual arts now feature in the Edinburgh International Festival after being totally ignored by the previous director. Hard to imagine Amsterdam or Venice holding international arts festivals that ignored their own parochial stuff.

  16. A bit of international context

  17. Do not attribute to malice that which can be explained by ignorance and stupidity.

  18. In Laramie Wyoming, 2011, the University of Wyoming Art Museum staged the exhibit “From the Scottish Sublime to the American West.” We lacked major works, necessarily, but the exhibit was a fascinating expression of how Scottish art and its influences travel internationally. If we can do it . . . ?

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