In the fifth volume of ‘Remembrance of Things Past‘, the French author Marcel Proust wrote “The only true voyage … would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we do, with great artists; with artists like these we do really fly from star to star.”
Martin at the start of the installation, photo Clare Cooper
Artist Martin McGuinness, the final member of our quartet of great ‘Imaginers’ for our No Boundaries launch programme, has unquestionably enabled us to see legendary Scots poet, Hamish Henderson, with new eyes through the creation of his giant portrait at the Spittal of Glenshee, which celebrates the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Born in Blairgowrie and brought up to speak Gaelic, Hamish is recognised as one of the most brilliant Scots of his age. He spent his first five years at the Spittal of Glenshee, going on to be schooled in England at Dulwich College, and then at Downing College Cambridge.
He is considered to be the most important Scots poet since Robert Burns and was one of the founding fathers of Scotland’s 20th century folk renaissance, making more than 9,000 recordings of working people from all over Scotland, discovering such notable performers as the Stewarts of Blair, Jeannie Robertson, Floea MacNeil and Calum Johnston and preserving an oral tradition of stories and songs dating back hundreds of years.
An exceptional man in many ways, he served as an intelligence officer in Europe and North Africa, helping Jewish people escape Nazi Germany; was a communist, linguist and intellectual; a political activist, involved with the peace movement, Anti Apartheid and the campaign for Scottish Home Rule; co-founded the School of Scottish Studies; and wrote songs in addition to poetry, one of his most famous lyrics being ‘The Freedom Come-All-Ye.’
Martin at work on North South, photo Clare Cooper
A graduate of Duncan of Jordanstane College of Art, Dundee, Martin is particularly interested in exploring the connection with his immediate surroundings and experiences. No stranger to working at scale, one of his other major pieces, with long term collaborator Fraser Gray, is North South, a major commission to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the building of the Tay Bridge in 2017, and coming up, another commission with Fraser to create one of Dundee’s largest murals on the side of a tenement block in Stobswell which has been supported by V&A Dundee as part of their one-off 3D Festival celebrating their opening.
Martin, who lives in Alyth, at the southern edge of the Ecomuseum, began researching sites and materials for the portrait this Spring, finally choosing to work with the natural fabric of Jute, a material that was central to the development of the place of Hamish’s birth, Blairgowrie.
Martin & Shaun Moore pinning down the Jute on the side of Bad an Loin, photo Clare Cooper
After walking each of the hillsides around the Spittal of Glenshee, where Hamish grew up as a small boy, he chose Bad an Loin, a suitably steep slope, which offered a good viewpoint opposite the northern junction of the Spittal road loop and, very importantly, over a hectare of a relatively flat hillside surface on which to create his design.
Martin with Sandy Moffat on Bad an Loin, photo Clare Cooper
After negotiations with the estate owner and tenant farmer confirmed access to the site, Martin turned his attention towards the design. Research at the School of Scottish Studies archive and elsewhere, led him to the paintings of the great Scottish Realist painter Alexander (Sandy) Moffat and in particular, a study of Hamish as a young man that Sandy had made in preparation for his landmark painting, Scotland’s Voices.
Sandy Moffat’s landmark painting, Scotland’s Voices
With all the main components of the project now in place, Martin then spent weeks of work designing the image, which he’s called “come aa ye at hame wi Freedom”, the beginning of the last stanza of The Freedom Come-All-Ye.
On-site testing of the Jute in different weather and daylight conditions enabled him to calculate that he could make the design using 4,000 metres of Jute in three different shades. Further research on potential dyers of the Jute led him to the well known dyers and finishers in Galashiels, Schofield’s, who were so excited by the project that they offered to sponsor the dyeing, a huge contribution to a very tight budget.
Martin being shown around Schofield’s dyers and finishers, photo Clare Cooper
By the middle of October, Martin was ready to start the installation. Over a period of 28 days, working dawn to dusk in all weathers and with help from three trusted collaborators, including Fraser, the extraordinary image of Hamish emerged on the hillside, completing on time and ready for the actual 100th anniversary of Hamish’s birth, the 11th of November.
Martin during week 2 of installation, photo Clare Cooper
Speaking about the experience of making the portrait, Martin said, “This is the most ambitious artwork I have created so far and I have had to learn a lot of new disciplines to make the design fit comfortably in its environment. Using digital software to aid the dimensional layout of the Jute and map the design out on the hillside, then using the human eye adjustments from the perspective point over 1KM away has been challenging in a mountainous landscape. This has meant a lot of fine tuning on the hillside itself, with one of the team down at the Spittal of Glenshee loop viewpoint with a two-way radio. And then of course there is the weather! The strong winds and frost at the start of the installation were manageable, and thankfully, we completed just before the first snow fell. The portrait is facing Ben Gulabin where Hamish’s ashes are scattered. I hope he would approve – he has certainly been an inspiration for me and I am proud to be able to make my contribution to the 100th anniversary celebrations of such a legend of Scottish culture. It’s been a pleasure to be working amongst Kestrels, Buzzards and Eagles flying around all day too!”
The portrait a few days before completion, photo Clare Cooper
The portrait will be taken down at the end of November and the Jute re-used as a geotextile.