THE major retrospective exhibition currently running at the Edinburgh City Art Centre, until October 2, is “Will Maclean: Points of Departure”. It includes 150 items spanning half-a-century’s work and all aspects of Maclean’s practice as an artist.

There are drawings, prints, sculptures, collaborations with poets, images of the installations in the landscape of the islands, especially Lewis, all earthed in the ground or carried by the seas of the Highlands and islands, informed by his experience of family and his own personal relationships with elemental economies.

But the uniqueness of his achievement also indicates an absence in our larger understanding of Scotland’s history.

Sandy Moffat: Without Will Maclean’s sustained body of work from the 20th through to the 21st centuries, there would be almost no images of the Highland Clearances in Scotland’s visual arts other than those of William McTaggart in the late 19th century.

Alan Riach: That’s an extraordinary idea, that the Clearances are almost unrecorded in the visual arts from McTaggart to Maclean. There’s certainly no equivalent lack in literature. The Clearances are represented in some of modern Scotland’s greatest novels, poems and plays, in Gaelic, Scots and English. Think of the novels, just to begin with – Neil Gunn’s Butcher’s Broom, Iain Crichton Smith’s Consider the Lilies, Fionn MacColla’s The Albannach and And the Cock Crew – and there are so many poems, from Hugh MacDiarmid to our own contemporaries and, of course, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was a watershed in modern theatre.

I remember the great critic Raymond Williams telling me as an undergraduate at Cambridge that that play was a major breakthrough in modern theatre generally – not only in Scotland – but the precise significance of the Clearances there is a distinctly Scottish aspect of it. Is there a corresponding question to ask about Scotland’s music? John, what do you think? I’m not necessarily thinking of ‘programme music’ as such, but music as evocation or allusion?

John Purser: Much of the material comes from the late 18th to the 19th centuries, both at home and abroad. It is, naturally enough, in the form of song. It’s worth remembering that song has an ongoing public life both in the home ceilidh and more publicly at Mods and the like, so that the topic never really went away.

The National: One of Will Maclean's windows into the Highland ClearancesOne of Will Maclean's windows into the Highland Clearances (Image: unknown)

As regards Scottish classical music, any reference would be very indirect, more by way of attempts to rehabilitate the culture rather than anything politically motivated. The nearest I can think of immediately is the Second World War ballet The Earth Shapers by Erik Chisholm with designs by Taylor Elder – but it is not about the Clearances though clearly favouring a Celtic way, a Celtic ethos, however that might be described.

Of course, there are many memories in song from the diaspora. They may not specifically reference the Clearances, but they didn’t need to. Everybody knew the background to that nostalgia. Some Gaels arrived in Australia or America and took it out on the Aboriginal people and native Americans. It happens so often.

People are victimised and instead of learning forgiveness or how to forget, they victimise others. I do believe, however, that Scotland is slowly coming to understand itself and that it is not always a pretty picture and so we are reaching towards a better idea of who we should be.

Alan: So, what is the great barrier stopping our visual artists from taking such a devastating chronicle of our history into their forms of representation? And how would we describe – if not define – that elegiac aspect, the retrospective quality of Will Maclean’s work? Is it a record of the past, rather than a prospect for the future?

Sandy: The exhibition helps answer that question.

Alan: To me, it seems that Will Maclean’s art is resistant and stands as protest but it is also resigned, its grim force is unrelieved. And it shouldn’t be. This isn’t a circumstance you can cure with frivolous humour. The monumentality of his art is balanced by its minimalism – it arises from the domestic, the intimate details of wood, material, steel and crafted matter, and it also comes from the economy of fishing, of the work of the mariner, of travelling across seas, the work of fishing and the fact of coastal identities.

Epic themes and a great social vision come through it all, authenticated by the precision of detail starting from close observation. But since the materiality of that fishing economy is almost entirely gone, what is there that survives? Is there any humour at all to be found here?

Hardly – there is nothing to be funny about, no “entertainment” in its vision, nothing of the circus at all – and yet there is a steely humour of resolution, of sheer application, of patience, and of irony in the act of opposition to the implacable. And that makes it exemplary, as we face up to a political world in which the unthinkable is being propelled towards us as if there is no alternative – when we know very well that there is.

Sandy: Once again there is this terrible gulf between literature and the visual arts in Scotland … which led Will to look to Sorley MacLean to show the way rather than to earlier generations of painters.

In itself, of course, that’s no bad thing. Murdo Macdonald helps here: “The fact that visual art is not properly articulated as an integral part of Gaelic culture has left the Scottish Gaidhealtachd without a key marker of cultural status, namely a history of art.

That is a crucial absence – for the recognition of visual traditions, both in terms of history and contemporary activity, is fundamental to the international perception and everyday wellbeing of any culture.

A history of art has now been restored to Scotland as a whole, and the same is now being done for the Gaidhealtachd. Why has that history not been restored to the Gaidhealtachd long before now?”

Alan: Murdo keeps returning us to this question: “Thus by the early years of the 20th century there was great potential for articulation of visual art as an integral part of wider Gaelic culture. Why did that not happen, at least in any sustainable way?”

Sandy: These are quotations from Murdo’s essay “Gaidhealtachd Art Historical and Contemporary” in Rethinking Highland Art (Royal Scottish Academy, 2013). And there are no clear and obvious answers … Alan: With this in mind, Will Maclean’s achievement seems all the more remarkable.

The National: Sculptor Will MacleanSculptor Will Maclean

John: I would wish to emphasise the monumentality of Will’s work with respect to the Lewis monuments – and the fact of STONE.

Alan: That’s crucial. Those monuments are built to last.

A permanent memory.

Sandy: We know the Glasgow Boys went off to London and Guthrie travelled to the Middle East and Hornel and Henry to Japan. They were all in search of the exotic. John Duncan, the first on Iona, also falls for the exotic in his depictions of Celtic saints and heroes and Fergusson and Peploe are off in the south of France.

All these artists go where they go and do what they do, paint their great paintings, perhaps as a reaction to the grimness of industrialisation. But as we move into the 20th century, you can’t really imagine William Gillies or William Johnstone tackling the Clearances … Alan: So maybe the question is, “When is there a realisation across Scotland that the horrors of the Clearances are an important part of our own history? With John McGrath’s The Cheviot, for example.

Sandy: You get the feeling when you read or watch that play that McGrath had only just discovered this material, hence the urgency to get it into production and on tour.

Alan: So maybe it’s a question of not being aware of our own history generally?

Sandy: Yes. That’s the slow process John was referring to, that Scotland is only now, slowly and with difficulty, beginning to approach an understanding of itself. You’re right, John, it’s not always a pretty picture, but hopefully, as you say, we’re reaching towards a better idea not only of what Scotland was and who we were in the past, but also of who we should be in the future.

John: I also think we should acknowledge that the pioneering work of the West Highland Free Press has had a major role in educating its readership about the Clearances and all that came with them and still follows on. The Clearances are not over.

Alan: As you say, Sandy, it feels as though in 1973, John McGrath had only just discovered this history – presumably partly or even maybe primarily through the people of the 7:84 (Scotland) Theatre Company he was working with – which raises the questions when and how did the production come about? But it’s more than that.

When 7:84 took the play on tour in the Highlands, it was presenting that history to people whose families had been part of it, sometimes the perpetrators as well as the victims – and most of whom not only would not have been to a city theatre but also would not have ever experienced their own history put in front of them literally, close up, dramatically, like that.

The play appeared at a time when the change across the two decades of the 1960s and 1970s was remarkable. In the 60s there was so little professional theatre doing much for Scotland, but in the 70s this had turned around and so much was being done, original material, new ways of thinking, new plays and reinvigorated practices on the stages in the theatres, so The Cheviot is at the hinge of that – it’s not the only thing but it’s crucial.

It’s crucial to understand this: that so many of us in Scotland might be three or four or more generations away from the Gaelic language, but it’s still our language, it’s a language that belongs to us, or, better, that we belong to.

We need to rediscover it along with our own history and culture if we’re to do anything worthwhile in the future. This is maybe the central, most forceful point we should make: that what we so conspicuously lack is a coherent, comprehensive understanding that all these things are parts of and essential to what Scotland is.

The culture and the politics of the nation are so complex and multi-faceted and utterly inextricable from each other. This comes through forcefully in Will Maclean’s work, and this exhibition.

Sandy: The far-travelling artists fit in with this idea: as we noted, those in Japan (Hornel and Henry), in France (Fergusson and Peploe), or approaching the idealist or exotic (Duncan) – they don’t deal directly with the reality of the historical tragedy. They’re preceded by McTaggart.

Alan: And before him, we should note Tom Faed, maybe one of the most iconic artists of the Clearances, whose paintings have become perhaps too familiar, and perhaps suggest a more sentimental reading, where McTaggart’s paintings are chilling, intellectually challenging.

Sandy: Faed’s paintings of the Clearances are Victorian sentiment writ large, on a par with the Monarch of the Glen. In them, the reality of the Highlands is simply passed by. But then we leap way beyond from them to Maclean, with Sorley MacLean first, and then Will, there are these intersecting lines from the literary to the visual.

John: With respect to Tom Faed, I think Duncan MacMillan’s comment on The Last of the Clan “it is difficult not to see Faed’s picture as exploitation” is perhaps a little harsh. Faed described himself as a slave to the Academy. Anyway, it is a striking painting.

Alan: Introducing Will Maclean’s work in 1992, Sorley wrote: “Never has a common ground between art and poetry been more necessary than it is today, but that necessity is timeless and universal”. This goes beyond mere “illustration” towards a kind of embodiment of a complex totality of vision.

Sandy: Maybe that’s what he meant, not an abstract idea of literary/visual relations but an immediate political source of an informing vision, reintegrating the economic, the social and the aesthetic, both literary and visual.

Alan: And political, always, filling out the full picture, seeing the whole thing. The fact is, we need Will Maclean’s work now more than ever. It’s one of the most literary – in the best sense – intellectually engaging, informed, demanding, challenging bodies of work we have in modern art in Scotland.

And the exhibition in the City Art Gallery is accompanied by a new book, Compelled by Memory: The Lewis Land Monuments 1994-2018, with texts in both English and Gaelic.

Sandy: That wouldn’t have happened 10 or 20 years ago.

John: Progress. Slow – but progress.