Uinneag Dhan Àird an Iar: Ath-lorg Ealain na Gàidhealtachd (Window to the West: The Rediscovery of Highland Art)

December 2010

Publication: The Times

Not long ago it was impossible to study for a degree in Scottish literature or art history in Scotland.  These subjects have only received proper academic treatment in the last 40 years or so. As a corollary it’s inevitable that the study of Highland art should now be the subject of serious scholarly analysis. This exhibition is the culmination of just such an exercise: a collaboration begun in 2005 between the University of Dundee and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig– the Gaelic-medium university college on Skye. The project takes its title from Sorley Maclean’s poem ‘Hallaig’:  “Tha bùird is tàirnean air an uinneig/trom faca mi an Àird an Iar” [The window is nailed and boarded/
through which I saw the West].

 

Gàidhealtachdart –as it has been properly termed – is a problematic area. Any history suggests a continuity and a set of influences passed from one generation to another.  But the history of art in the Gàidhealtachd appears far from continuous and the binding thread – if there is one at all – is not visual, but linguistic for there is an insistence here on the link between the Gaelic language and visual art.

 

But the problem of defining Gàidhealtachd art remains. Is this art made in the Highlands or by Gaelic-speaking practitioners; or art relating to its landscape or its culture? All of these definitions must apply as all are represented. The show includes Jon Schueler’s Summer Day, Sleatand documentation of Joseph Beuys’ Celtic Kinloch Rannoch Scottish Symphony created in Scotland in 1970 under the auspices of Richard Demarco’s Strategy: Get Arts exhibition. Schueler was an American living in Mallaig and Beuys a German who made work in Scotland over a series of eight brief sojourns.

 

Visual art in the Gàidhealtachd might rightly be said to begin with the writing of The Book of Kells, created in Iona around 800 AD by followers of St. Columba. Remarkable carved stones and crosses were made all over Scotland around this time and in the centuries immediately after this. In the Middle Ages a school of sculpture flourished predominantly in Argyll producing many remarkable carved stone slabs.

 

In the mid-Victorian period Thomas Faed began to treat Gàidhealtachd subject matter seriously in works such as The Last of the Clan. It was only with William McTaggart  who, thirty years after Faed’s painting, treated  the aftermath of Highland Clearances with serious attention in an idiom which today we regard as ‘modern’. McTaggart’s The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship (curiously not shown here) with its clear anti-emigration stance is as hard-hitting a piece of social commentary as found anywhere.

 

There are inevitably huge lacunae here so the idea of an art historical tradition remains contentious. Inevitably then the bulk of this show consists of contemporary and 20th century art – and it is from these periods that some of the richest, most complex and engaging work is to be found. Among these are Crossing to Finlaggan  by Frances Walker and Norman’s Shaw’s drawings derived from aural interpretaions of landscape. Near the entrance one is greeted by Arthur Watson’s and Will Maclean’s Crannghal – a full-size maquette for a bronze casting of the same name sited at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. The work relates to a curach – a boat made from hide and wood, popular from the time of Columba. The arresting skeletal form acts as a vivid symbol for the spread of knowledge.

 

However, the show poses as many questions as it answers not least of which is the exclusion of a host of other contemporary artists. This is a ground-breaking  show which lays some of the groundwork for a more probing and representative future Gàidhealtachd art history.