ALEXANDER Moffat’s new painting Scotland’s Voices was unveiled at the Saltire Society headquarters in Edinburgh in August to great acclaim. Here, Alan Riach introduces and discusses the work with contributions from the artist Sandy Moffat, the film-maker Douglas Eadie, who prompted the work, and one of the figures depicted in it, the singer, actress and Gaelic champion, Dolina Maclennan.

Alan: Sandy, could you tell us about the background to this work?

Sandy: When I was a final-year student at Edinburgh College of Art there was a legendary exchange of letters in The Scotsman in March and April 1964 between Hugh MacDiarmid and Hamish Henderson. Believe it or not, The Scotsman then was the main forum for serious cultural debate, with long letters on a whole range of issues appearing almost every week. What MacDiarmid and Henderson were arguing about was the relationship between “poetry and the people”. MacDiarmid’s opinion was that none of the great figures of world literature was popular: “The aim of all great poetry is universalisation, but in so far as attaining it, great poetry is known only to a tiny fraction of the population.” Henderson took the opposite view, recounting from his own experience in Italy during the Second World War how a young Tuscan partisan, an electrician from Florence, had quoted from memory “some fifteen to twenty lines of Dante’s 5th canto of the Purgatorio”.

MacDiarmid was a huge influence during my student years, especially after I first encountered him in action at the Edinburgh Festival’s Writer’s Conference in 1962. He was a firebrand, the man who had single-handedly set the Scottish Renaissance in motion, a fighter for independence and a communist to boot. A few months after these letters, he was the Communist Party candidate in the General Election, opposing the Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas Home, describing Home as “a zombie, personifying the obsolescent traditions of an aristocratic and big landlord order, of which Thomas Carlyle said that no country had been oppressed by a worse gang of hyenas than Scotland”. For the likes of Alan Bold, John Bellany and myself, MacDiarmid was a hero; as the poetic peer of Pound, Eliot and Yeats, he had given us a clear sense of direction in terms of where we might take our own art.

MacDiarmid was in combative mode debunking the folk revival as “the simple outpourings of illiterates and backward peasants” and extolling the superiority of “the epic” and that struck a chord. “The grandeur of the time requires grand synthesis – not only in fine arts, but also in literature, not only in prose, but also in poetry.” Bragging that his musical tastes encompassed the likes of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern he further argued: “Symphonism promotes the monumental. A recent conclusive proof is the creation of Dmitri Shostakovich, whose symphonies form a grandiose ‘musical chronicle’ of the revolutionary decades.”

As we understood it at the time, folk music was simply another form of popular entertainment with groups like The Corries regularly featured on TV shows. This was a million miles away from MacDiarmid’s vision of an intellectual art.

Re-reading the letters today we can appreciate the views held by both men, with Hamish clearly relishing the debate and describing the correspondence “as taking on with every letter more and more of the high mottled complexion of a Celtic flyting” continuing, “let me come right out at this point and say that Mr MacDiarmid displays not the smallest comprehension of the difference between traditional song-poetry in the folk-idiom and the lucubrations of minor or minimal scribblers who in every age are the dim also-rans of ‘art poetry’.” He points out that in MacDiarmid’s Second Hymn to Lenin there’s a section beginning “Are my poems spoken in the factories and fields?” He describes this passage as “an eloquent, and even poignant statement of the artist’s awareness of his isolation from modern society, and of his duty to look outwards, and to attempt to communicate across the apollyon chasms”. Ultimately, Hamish was convinced that “we are again in a period when folk-song and art-poetry can interact fruitfully, and that it is in and through the present movement that this will come about”.

At the time I took sides with MacDiarmid, but there was no doubting Hamish’s stature as a war poet, a folklorist and a great fighter for humanity.

Alan: That’s the historical backdrop, but what prompted the painting?

Sandy: Well, a couple of years ago, my old pal the film maker Douglas Eadie got in touch to suggest I make a large painting of Hamish surrounded by the musicians and singers he “discovered” as he toured Scotland with his tape recorder in the late 1940s and 1950s. I protested! But Douglas persisted and when he told me that MacDiarmid, Gramsci and Heine must be in the painting I began to think that this was something I just had to do. I asked Douglas to put in writing what he had in mind.

Alan: So, Douglas, what was it you said?

Douglas Eadie: I thought a Folk Revival painting would be a kind of companion piece to Sandy’s Poets’ Pub painting. When I came across Tim Neat in his Hamish Henderson biography taking him to task for not including HH in Poets’ Pub I thought Tim was wrong on two counts: (1) Hamish was never a Milne’s Bar man and (2) by the early 1960s he had, very deliberately, stopped thinking of himself as a poet having discovered his true metier as a folk collector/animateur (and occasional songwriter). There was something of a schism back then between the poets and the folkies, most notably The Scotsman spat between MacDiarmid and Hamish. I think it was really just the two wings of the one movement though neither quite saw it that way at the time and the debate has by now been healthily enough resolved. But the element of schism does vindicate the idea of a Folk Revival companion piece, which would have to have Hamish at its centre. It would maybe be not a pub but a tinkers’ campfire. Hamish in his early days at the School of Scottish Studies (of which he was the founder and driving force) used to strap a reel-to-reel tape recorder to the back of his motorbike and ride off into the back-country of Buchan and Sutherland in search of traditional songs. Tinkers were a prime source. Hamish rescued so much from oblivion and passed on so much to others.

For whatever reason – he never knew his father (who was, perhaps, the Duke of Atholl) and his mother died when he was just fourteen – there must have been a big element of personal search – his discoveries seem to have been predominantly women, who were generally absent from Milne’s Bar. So maybe with Hamish around the encampment fire and his tape recorder you could have Jeannie Robertson, Jean Redpath and Dolina Maclennan …

Alan: Dolina, you’re depicted in the painting but you also knew all of the other characters. Can you tell us something about them?

Dolina Maclennan: Well, going from left to right, start with Willie Scott (1897-1989). Willie was a Borderer and a shepherd. His songs were first collected by Francis Collinson in 1950. Back then there were no folk clubs and it wasn’t until Willie moved to Kinross in the late 50s or early 60s that he appeared at Dunfermline Folk Club. After that, he became a favourite at all folk festivals and clubs throughout Scotland. He was also a crook maker, fashioning intricate handles from horn. His performance of the song Keilder Hunt was truly memorable, especially his “loud halooos” at the end of each rendition!

Douglas: Then there’s the fiddler Aly Bain (born 1946). Music from the roots of the tradition was for Hamish as important as song, and the kind of music Aly brought from Shetland to Edinburgh has since taken off all over the world.

Doli: Then you can see Belle Stewart (1906-1997), the Grande Dame of the family known as the Stewarts of Blair. She was a very beautiful, elegant woman with a piercing clear voice. She was born a MacGregor into a travelling family. She had versions of ballads hitherto unknown until they were collected by Hamish for the School of Scottish Studies. Her composition The Berryfields of Blair described the camaraderie in the berry fields when people gathered from all the airts to pick the berries. That was when songs were shared and stories told.

Then you have Jimmy MacBeath (1894-1972), who was born in Portsoy into a travelling family. Life was hard and Jimmy started work as a farmhand at the age of thirteen. He was used to ballad singing with hearing them from his mother, so when he became a “bothy man” he was ready to absorb all the new songs shared by the bothy fire and at work.

He knew hundreds of them. Jimmy joined The Gordon Highlanders and fought in Flanders in the Great War. After demob, he worked as a kitchen porter, a berry picker and various other jobs, until the wanderlust took over and he set off to tramp the country, “roon an’ roon”! He first came to the folk enthusiasts’ attention at the People’s Festival Ceilidh in 1951, when Hamish recorded him. Thereafter Jimmy became a feature of ceilidhs, festivals and clubs, entertaining with songs and stories and his style of jumping about the stage to emphasise the lyrics of whichever ballad he was singing.

Douglas: Then up in the corner there, you have three great revolutionaries looking down on the proceedings from above, three of the greatest influences on Hamish’s intellectual and political development. Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), the radical German poet; Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), the Sardinian communist writer jailed by Mussolini, whose Prison Letters Hamish was the first to translate into English, and Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978), poet and founding genius of the Scottish Literary Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s.

And then immediately below them, there’s Dolina herself, born 1938, who was among Hamish’s closest friends and confidantes. And Allan MacDonald, one of three piping brothers from Moidart in the West Highlands …

Doli: Hamish always referred to these players as “source-musicians” as opposed to the singers and storytellers. So, next to Allan there’s Jeannie Robertson (1908-1975). Now, Jeannie was born into a travelling family and spent six months of the year on the road. Her mother Maria was a source of many of Jeannie’s songs. While all the menfolk were away fighting in the First World War, the women sang while trying to make a living for their infant children. Jeannie’s father was a well-known piper, and died when she was young, but Jeannie seemed to have this piping quality to her singing. She was “discovered” by Hamish in the early 50s and began a career in folk song unsurpassed at the time. Her singing of The Battle of Harlaw and Son David was extraordinary. Once you heard these songs, her voice rang in your ears forever.

And then there’s Jean Redpath (1937-2014), last but not least. Jean first appeared at the Edinburgh University Folk Song Society in 1959/60. The president at the time wrote in a minute: “New girl, Jean Redpath, sounds promising.”

Alan: The president at the time was you, Doli, was it not?

Doli: There was never a truer prophecy! In 1961 Jean went to America to attend a relative’s wedding and stayed! This wasn’t her intention but the time was right and she began a series of “Dollar-an-hour jobs” to make ends meet while she established herself among the burgeoning folk musicians of the time. She shared an apartment with Bob Dylan among others in The Village, where it was all happening in the early 60s. Soon Jean became the most sought-after singer, with her true traditional songs, her unique voice and her amazing sense of humour, and in no time she was touring the world. She produced more than 50 records – seven of them of Burns songs to the original tunes.

Alan: Scotland’s Voices complements and opens the range of work that Poets’ Pub established. This is the “carrying stream” that Hamish talked about. Not only are the great poets of Poets’ Pub all men, they’re all literary men and the quality of their work is still with us by virtue of the culture of print and book circulation. The distinction of Scotland’s Voices is not only

that many of the singers and tradition-bearers were and are women, but that the cultural

activity being celebrated here

is pre-eminently oral. The painting depicts an oral and popular tradition – “popular” not in a commercial sense but in the sense of, “of the people”. It’s a crucial distinction, and taking the two paintings together, that distinction is essentially a reciprocal thing, it refuses to undervalue either print culture or oral culture, or to undervalue either women or men. Douglas was right to persist!