WHEN thinking about archives, it’s easy to imagine a dusty old room with folders lining shelves and cabinets from top to bottom and endless bits of paper lying around.

But the Alasdair Gray Archive, dedicated to one of Scotland’s most influential creatives, is so much more than that.

“It’s an archive but it’s also a living, breathing space and saying archive or library or museum can mean so many different things to different people”, the custodian of the archive, Sorcha Dallas, told the Sunday National.

“This space isn’t just about celebrating what he produced, it’s also about embedding who Alasdair was and the principles by which he lived his life, within it.”

Gray died in late 2019 but his work will continue to inspire others for generations. Later this year sees the release of Poor Things – a film based on his 1992 novel of the same name.

READ MORE: Inside the archive of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

The archive is a space not only for people to remember Gray and his work therefore, but an opportunity to tell new stories and enrich it for the future.

How did the archive come about?

Dallas met Gray back in 2003 and started working with him while she was running a commercial gallery.

“He was more well known as a writer throughout his creative life but he described himself always as ‘an artist that fell into writing’.

“When I met him, he was starting to collate his visual archive for the biography called A Life in Pictures. I came in when he was reflecting on that, helped order it for him and think about his legacy.”

The National: Sorcha Dallas is the custodian of the archiveSorcha Dallas is the custodian of the archive (Image: Alan Dimmick)

This ultimately led to conversations about what would happen to his work after his death and how to readdress that balance between the literary and the visual.

When Gray died, he was living in a flat which belonged to his second wife Morag McAlpine who had passed away in 2014.

The artist had been left a lifetime lease in the flat but it was then passed back to McAlpine’s family upon his death leaving the need for a new space to house Gray’s work.

The Space

The archive is now located in The Whisky Bond (TWB), the same building which houses archives for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and The Glasgow School of Art, which contains materials relating to Gray’s time studying there.

Dallas had to move quickly to secure Gray’s legacy, with many individuals and organisations supporting this process. This was completed at speed and the space at The Whisky Bond was secured in March 2020 thanks to support from the Scottish Government.

“The process was very quick which was in some way helpful because it meant decisions were made quickly”, she explains.

The National: The archive is about more than paying lip serviceThe archive is about more than paying lip service (Image: Fiona Watson)

“From the start I was having conversations with others about investing time into building something. Collaboration was at the heart of Gray’s practice and it was crucial for the archive to reflect this approach.

“I knew TWB was a safe space, it houses other archives, and would be an ideal location for the material. Also much of the material held in the archive was drawn or inspired from the location next to TWB by the canal so there is a mirroring of the landscape within the collection which makes it an even more apt site.”

The legacy

The archive itself is quite literally like walking into Gray’s flat. Inside is the green chair he used to sit on, his old desk, shelves made from floorboards adorned with the many, many books he used to own and actively use within his work.

Arguably what’s most important though is the “battered old ledger” lying on the desk.

READ MORE: Alasdair Gray's final interview: 'I hope I’ve learned how to be an artist'

Dallas admits herself that the book “isn’t much to look at” but it effectively serves as a history of the city Gray called home.

She explains that he found the ledger in a skip, circumstances prompted by the fact Gray was “skint”.

“You can still see existing entries from the accountancy firm from back in 1957. He was essentially scrap-booking, it’s got sketches, studies, photographs, maps and a recording of the city before the motorway was built.

“We now know that it contains sketches that shaped two of his greatest works – Lanark, and the painting Cowcaddens Streetscape in the Fifties.

“All this is contained in an unassuming ledger book.”

Giving access

Having such a large part of Gray’s living space as part of the archive, for Dallas, helps keep the work accessible.

He’s quite rightly been described as a genius and his influence stretches well beyond Glasgow and indeed Scotland, but the archive helps bring him back to earth somewhat.

Dallas said: “We can use these terms (genius, polymath) to describe him but that maybe puts him on a pedestal where he appears to be above or apart from others but that’s definitely not how he considered himself or how he operated. 

The National: The archive is free to accessThe archive is free to access (Image: Alasdair Watson)

"He was famously generous, using his position to support and give voice to lesser know creatives that were often marginalised or overlooked.

"This is what we are continuing in his name, extending the collection to tell others stories, the first step with this is setting up the archive of the writer Agnes Owens within this space, so we are reflecting the community that was around him.”

Anyone unfamiliar with Gray or his work Poor Things will likely hear about it later this year when Academy-award nominee Yorgos Lanthimos releases his take on the work.

Literary adaptations can be risky projects, leaving directors potentially facing the wrath of the fans or, even worse, the original creator but Gray’s work is perhaps an exception.

That’s not to say the film won’t split opinion or be interpreted differently, but Gray prided himself on building his work off of what he knew.

Poor Things is after all effectively a re-telling of Frankenstein in Victorian Glasgow and it’s the book Dallas recommends people start on if they’ve never encountered Gray before.

“Alasdair was always creatively responding to things that existed already and continuing these creative responses through the commissioning work the archive is doing is very important too. I think the new Poor Things film will take this approach and will be Lanthimos’s interpretation of the novel”, she says.

“If it’s not too risqué then hopefully it could become a valuable teaching aid. I think this book is very accessible and there’s a case to be made for it being taught at Higher.

“Hopefully the film will bring more readers to Alasdair’s work and more interest in adapting and responding to it in the future.”

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She added: “I still think with Poor Things, there’s an argument to be made on filming a version that is rooted back into Glasgow. We have been developing a digital project that is launching before the film’s release that will hopefully do just that.

“Gray and Glasgow are like (James) Joyce and Dublin or (Charles) Dickens and London. That’s not to say you can’t remove it from that context but I think it’s important as a city and a nation to take pride in rooting things back to where they come from and understanding how creativity can be an essential cultural asset.”

The Alasdair Gray Archive is free and open to all. To find out more, click HERE.