Johnnie Walker owner donates £4m to help National Galleries of Scotland acquire the painting.
Avoid cliché. That’s what my mentor Michael Jackson told me. Probably more than once. It’s hard to do. Aren’t clichés just shopworn truths whose meaning has been diminished by careless handling over the years?
It sprang to mind when we were stravaiging across the Highlands. Mountains? Tick. Heather coming into bloom? Tick. Hairy coos? Tick. All we needed was a red stag at bay looking into the middle distance, and our I-Spy Book of the Highlands would have been complete.
Maybe the folks on the Lochs & Glens coach would be lucky enough to grab that one. There you have it. The clichés. But the mountains and heather and coos are real. Why, then, are we so irritated by them?
It’s been buzzing about at the (very) back of my mind while I’m trying to relax on holiday, surrounded by birds – a hen harrier yesterday, which was a bit of treat – waves, wind, family, friends, music and books.
There’s a lot of poetry, and it was a poem which brought the whole cliché thing back into focus once again, namely Robin Robertson’s Camera Obscura, which includes fictive diary extracts from the (real) pioneering photographer David Octavius Hill, who worked in Edinburgh in the 1840s.
‘The price we pay for railways, better roads & speedier mail,’ one extract goes, ‘is seeing our most able Artists & Scientists leave for London – their places taken by Thomas Cook travellers decked in tartan looking for “The Picturesque”. It is the end of an old song.’
Robertson may have invented the diary, but the debate about how Scotland was being packaged and sold was real, even in those days. Here’s the dilemma: Scotland became popular thanks in part to the novels of Walter Scott, the poetry of Burns, the paintings of Landseer and the Royal approval of Victoria and Albert.
It was cleared, so there was more romantic space to gaze at without the inconvenience of people working in the foreground. The sheep and deer helped to reduce the number of trees ruining the view, making things more acceptably ‘wild’.
Stag at bay: Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen helped create a Scottish romantic stereotype
Hill and his partner Robert Adamson created calotypes of not just Edinburgh’s great and good, but its overlooked: fishermen, oyster sellers, workers. They are early attempts to move away from easy stereotypes.
Not that they appeared to succeed. By the end of the 19th century, Scotland was ‘North Britain’ (they even named a distillery that to reinforce the point), its music reduced to music hall caperings, its literature and art overtly sentimental.
Or was it? At the start of the holiday, my daughter and I went along to the exhibition on Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow style at Kelvingrove – which showed how radical he and his colleagues were in terms of art, architecture and design at the turn of the 20th century. Anything but clichéd.
Kelvingrove also has a new gallery dedicated to the Glasgow Boys, a loose collective of artists who worked together in the 1880s and whose work was anything but nostalgic or hackneyed.
They painted in the open air, used workers and children as their models, aimed for realism, or at the other extreme created fantastical, gilded and mythical worlds. For a brief period, they were the most radical artists in Britain.
They were pushing back, just as Hill and Adamson had done, and as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid would do from the 1920s onwards.
‘Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?
Only as a patch of hillside might be a cliché corner
To a fool who cries “nothing but heather!”…
How marvellously descriptive! And incomplete.’
Scotland Small (1943)
Edinburgh life: Fisher girls at Newhaven, captured by David Octavius Hill (c. 1843-7)
MacDiarmid’s argument is not to ignore the heather, but to look more closely (which takes us back to Nan Shepherd) and realise that there is richness and complexity beneath the cliché.
He and other writers of his generation – Aeneas MacDonald, Neil Gunn – also began to write about their love of whisky and use it as a symbol, or example, of identity, in their attempts to move away from the glib and sentimentalised idea of ‘Scotland’.
For them, single malt represented the ‘real’ Scotland. It was linked closely to the land and the people rather than – heaven help us – the world of blends, which was only concerned with business, export and balance of trade.
Before anyone jumps on me, this is too partisan an outlook. You can see their point, though. Whisky had wrapped a plaid of late Victorian clichés around itself and sold the world Scotch-land.
On one hand you could say this is where it all went wrong but, were it not for these simple signifiers, would Scotch be where it is today?
As I’ve said before, it’s strange that we still fulminate about whisky’s co-opting of tartan, coos and heather when the industry has long moved away from it. Why then does that perception linger?
Edinburgh ale: David Octavius Hill (right), with James Ballantine and Dr George Bell
Perhaps we haven’t been clever enough to create a richer alternative, which is why now, when there are huge opportunities to talk about whisky (and its role in Scottish culture), it is once again being reduced and simplified to lists and ‘10 things you need to know’ – the online equivalent of an out-of-focus photo taken from the window seat of a Lochs & Glens coach speeding through Glenshee.
‘People don’t have the time,’ we are told. Well, you know, we do. We like films, and binge on box sets. We read books, we sit and have conversations. Yes, we need to find new ways to talk and explain and communicate, but that can’t be done through simplification to the point of inanity because, by doing that, you simply create a whole new set of clichés.
The same battle fought by the writers and artists continues. Resist. Push back. Bring the real Scotland to life. Look into the heather, go to the fishing villages or mines, paint the clarty boots, the slums and the wild coast.
Yes there are coos amongst the heather. Yes, people make shortbread. Don’t ignore it, but don’t ignore the fact that there is more.
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