IN 1981, in an exhibition called Seven Poets at Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre, Alexander Moffat’s seminal painting, Poets’ Pub, was exhibited for the first time. The painting, which was later bought for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, shows the key players of the Scottish literary renaissance clustered in a Rose Street hostelry.

At the centre is Hugh MacDiarmid, his bright red scarf immediately drawing the eye. He is the first among equals, whom Neal Ascherson has called “the father of the modern Scottish imagination”. Around him are gathered Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Robert Garioch, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Sorley Maclean and Edwin Morgan.

The painting is, in strictest terms, a fiction. It was created by the artist from a series of individual portraits. By the time it was painted, MacDiarmid and Goodsir Smith were dead, Mackay Brown lived in Orkney, Maclean on Skye. But it speaks to an earlier time when these writers did patronise, in various groupings, the howffs of Rose Street.

However, Moffat does much more than this. He lodges a powerful image in the nation’s visual memory. Diverse as these poets were, and at times quarrelsome, he has painted them as a group, celebrating their shared achievement. In his essay for the book Seven Poets in 1981, Neal Ascherson describes them as “a sort of college, demanding, sometimes eccentric, often echoing with terrible rows, whose legacy is both its own body of verse and (more important), a fundamental confidence available to Scottish poets whichever of the three national languages they work in …”

Poets Pub is at the centre of Landmarks: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland, an exhibition which opened at the Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie in January and will travel to Montrose Museum and Art Gallery next month. Created with the support of the Saltire Society and others, it revisits Seven Poets, bringing together the individual portraits Moffat made. The accompanying book also includes Ascherson’s original text.

But Landmarks also goes further. There are portraits in words – reminiscences and poems by Alan Riach, writer and Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University – and a new body of landscape paintings by artist Ruth Nicol of the “favoured places” associated with each writer. Just as the poets themselves are “landmarks”, navigation points by which our nation’s literary culture steers, their places are milestones in the geography of the imagination.

In his introduction, Riach reflects on the Gaelic word “duthchas”, the single word meaning land, people, culture. Writers have places significant to them, places which formed them as people, or which shape their work: it would be impossible to imagine George Mackay Brown without Orkney, for example, or Norman MacCaig without Assynt. Several of Moffat’s original portraits included landscapes in the background; Nicol’s work takes that idea further. The places themselves become a kind of portrait.

The exhibition weaves together a series of journeys. Moffat, as a young painter in late 1970s, set off to track down his literary heroes, beginning with Hugh MacDiarmid. By the time he reached the cottage at Brownsbank near Biggar, he knew he was in a race against time: MacDiarmid was dangerously ill with cancer. He then continued to Orkney, to Skye, to Iain Crichton Smith’s home in Oban.

Around the same time, each unbeknownst to the other, Alan Riach was beating a path to the same doors. As a student of literature at Cambridge and a young academic, he was tracking down these literary giants with the same sense of urgency. Many of them became his friends and collaborators, and he writes movingly about them. He says, they “help us all to breathe and live and work”.

Ruth Nicol began her own journey some 30 years later. By this time, all the poets were dead (Edwin Morgan died in 2010, the year she graduated from Edinburgh College of Art), but she had grown up with their work, passed on by her father, a teacher and Scottish literature enthusiast. Now, she travelled in the footsteps of their ghosts, painting the landscapes they made their own, one large-scale painting and a series of smaller works for each poet.

But one cannot paint landscapes in Scotland without being aware of the genre’s complex history. Paintings of Scottish landscape became fashionable in the 19th century, even as the country became the sporting playground of the landed gentry. But it was a romanticised picture of empty glens grazed by deer and highland cattle: glens from which people had been displaced. This is part of the poets’ landscapes too: Sorley Maclean, in his home in Braes, on Skye, lived daily with the history of the Battle of the Braes in 1882, the crofters’ last stand against the Clearances. He and Crichton Smith shared an anger at the fate of the Gaels and their language which, even as they wrote in it, seemed to be in terminal decline.

Nicol does not paint the obvious vistas, the picture postcard mountains and lochs. She does not prettify. Her works are ambitious in scale, robust, modern, uncompromising. Her clean lines and angular buildings create landscapes of edges. Her view of Lochinver is of clustered cottages clinging to edges of coastline, dwarfed by sea and sky. Vaternish on Skye looks stormy and lunar, the habitations almost lost in the dark folds of the land.

IT is perhaps no coincidence that many of these poets’ places are on the edges of Scotland. Nicol describes Iain Crichton Smith’s first home on Lewis as “on the edge of the edge of the village”. George Mackay Brown made Orkney his home, his fortress and his muse, and rarely left it. MacDiarmid seemed to go in search of edges: born in Langholm, on the southern edge of Scotland, he went to live in Whalsay, Shetland, in the 1930s, Ascherson says “to try to understand if the utmost diversity of Scotland could form a coherence”, before settling again in Biggar, close to the border. But his edge-place at Brownsbank became a kind of nexus. Here, Seamus Heaney, Allen Ginsberg and Yevgeny Yevtushenko visited him.

Only two of the seven poets are truly urban. Robert Garioch, perhaps the one whose work is least read today, was an Edinburgh man. He was a writer in a much earlier tradition, that of mocking and celebrating the life of a city, a wry, incisive commentator (in Scots) on the capital and its mores. For him, Nicol paints for him a view across the rooftops of Holyrood towards the Scottish Parliament. This building was not dreamt of when he died in 1981, and yet it seems entirely appropriate: how welcome his knowing eye would be on today’s politicians. Nicol’s view looks across to the side of the building from Calton Hill: she “tells it slant”, as poets do.

EDWIN Morgan was a Glasgow man, and for him Nicol paints a view of Strathclyde Distillery. Perhaps the key factor here is not so much the specific nature of the building as the fact that it is industrial and resolutely urban: a triangle of wasteground in the foreground, the angular lines of towerblocks behind. Morgan’s milieu was not the leafy sandstone crescents of the university, although he worked there for many years, it was the modern city. He looked, always, to the future, with enthusiasm and tireless curiosity.

In a sense, Morgan fulfilled aspects of the vision which MacDiarmid had set out, of a Scottish literature which could embrace universal themes, which could take its place on a world stage. Iain Crichton Smith once told Riach that “MacDiarmid’s real importance wasn’t that his poetry could be emulated in any way but that he showed that it could be done. It was possible to be a poet working in Scotland.” Morgan, by translating Mayakovsky, Neruda, Brecht, often into Scots, showed that it was possible to be a Scottish poet working in the world.

That these poets succeeded in what they set out to do is shown by the fact that today few even stop to ask such questions. To paint the key literary figures in Scotland today would be a much more difficult proposition: they would be men and women, young and old, they would come from different races. A pub would not contain them all. The middle-aged men in the Rose Street pub are part of history now, but one must know one’s history. The genius of their work outlives them, as does their cultural achievement. It is important that we do not forget the giants upon whose shoulders we stand.

Landmarks: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland, will be at the Montrose Museum and Art Gallery, 10 March to 21 July. The book of the exhibition is currently available from the Lillie Gallery, Milngavie (0141 956 5536), and after 10 March from Montrose Museum and Art Gallery (01674 662660)