‘MCTAGGART had been Scottish in every fibre of his being ... he had sought out the secrets of lights and dipped his brushes into blue and gold, silver, amethyst, and rose, singing songs of the Scottish heart, deep, poetic, and enchanted as no other artist had ever done of his own country.”

Thus wrote the great Scottish artist DY Cameron, who himself knew a thing or two about the west of Scotland. William McTaggart, however, records its social realities – not with the brutality of which they were the outcome, but with a heart-rending depiction of a reality he was powerless to prevent. Memories were strong in McTaggart’s mind. The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship was painted in 1895. Here Professor Murdo MacDonald asserts its significance in a Gaelic context: “It looks back to McTaggart’s own experience of emigration from the communities he knew in Kintyre during his childhood … Although in terms of training modern art is predominantly a metropolitan product, nevertheless the modern art of Scotland is firmly driven by the work of a man rooted in – and continuously returning to – the Gaidhealtachd. McTaggart’s art is defined by this relationship throughout his career.”

McTaggart, The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship, 1895

There is a kind of terrible anonymity in this work, made all the more poignant by the dog on the quay, its muzzle stretched high as it howls its desolation to the skies. For McTaggart it is as though to depict the humans would be almost unbearable. Almost, but not absolutely. In the close-up figurative painting A Sprig of Heather – Farewell to the Emigrants of 1893, we see only the side of the face and an ear, no eye or mouth. There is a touching discretion at work here, in stark contrast to the invasive cameras of today. This is the same girl as features in some versions of The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship.

She holds in one hand against her breast a tiny bunch of pink and white heather, and from the other raised hand there flows in the wind a kerchief of the same stuff as her shawl, of the same texture and colour as the bunch of heather; as though the luckiest flowers of the landscape were woven into the fabric of her life, held hopeless against the winds of history, as the emigrants make their way across a rich blue sea towards the emigrant ship whose bare spars are silhouetted against the sky. McTaggart returned to this subject often, for he was an Argyllshire man and he knew well, not just the sea-road of the saints, but the sea-road to America, along which so much of Gaelic identity, individual and communal, Scottish and Irish, had made and was still making its way.

McTaggart, A Sprig of Heather – Farewell to the Emigrants, 1893

I prefaced last week’s article with the following quotation from Jack Yeats: “It was an honour to think that every step was a step nearer the west. Where I am I always want to walk to the west. As well as from a desire to get to an ocean coast, from a wish to be going with the sun.”

The National:

Of course if you follow the sun you reach Hy Brasil or Tir-nan-og. The concept of a Land of Youth, floating out there in the west is a fantasy based upon visual realities. Because of the variability of the weather, with layers of air at different temperatures and highly varied types and densities of cloud, such phenomena as mirages are a commonplace. Islands are frequently seen apparently floating, their apparent distances and heights dramatically altered by the bending of light. Take McTaggart’s vision of Tir-nan-og ...

READ MORE: The twilight zone: William McTaggart and Jack Yeats Part One

McTaggart, Summer Sundown Tir-nan-og, 1880

The National:

If this is Celtic Revival it is without any foolish sentimentality. For McTaggart, Tir-nan-og was simply there in the west of Scotland where he was, on a beach, looking westward, but requiring no fantasy world of fairies for it to have reality in his mind – and, as ever, it is primarily a painting of the sea and sky, mirroring each other.

Jack Yeats, A Blackbird Bathing in Tir-nan-og, 1943

Jack Yeats’s vision is of a different sort, but it also celebrates nature. A human – I’m not too sure if it’s a man or a woman – is lying on his or her front, head supported by the right hand, elbow on the ground. In front, at no distance whatever, a blackbird is bathing with total abandon in a tiny pool in a steep and lovely stream issuing from a large pool above. I think the human is whistling to the blackbird. It’s an extraordinary image of the potential oneness of man and nature in a world whose inhabitants, like those of his strange novel Ah Well have eaten of the Tree of Life, but not of the Tree of Knowledge. It was painted in the middle of the Second World War and perhaps asserts an innocence, a beauty and a force of life smothered throughout much of the world at that time.

The National:

Yeats painted largely by memory. In that, he was positively druidic. But it also freed him to paint as he chose to remember, and that allows vision – by which I mean the visionary to find its proper place in art.

By Streedagh Strand, painted in 1940, carries with it many memories – of the slaughter of Spaniards in the late 16th century, of Yeats’s own childhood days with Ben Bulben a constant drama in the background and, as Hilary Pyle has described it: “The strand, the heather, the sweeping waves, rocketing clouds, and the light sky sing with a variety of colours. Mountain and man are outlined with scattered sunbeams … The half-length figure draws the spectator into the emotion of the moment, standing by the water, so that the sensual visionary

experience may become a more immediate reality.”

McTaggart, The Paps of Jura, 1902

It was the same for McTaggart. The Paps of Jura was painted in 1902, and here is how Duncan MacMillan memorably describes it: “The mountains of Jura on the horizon are only an incident in the blue distance … The transience of the waves and the permanence of geology have become equal. Existentially their substance does not differ. All the careful differentiations of the qualities of matter that were such an important preoccupation to the philosophers of empiricism dissolve in a description of experience as continuum or flux. The artist carries to its logical conclusion the removal of the distinction between seeing and knowing that follows [Thomas] Reid’s account of the nature of intuition. He responds immediately to experience with action and his painting becomes gesture. McTaggart, like Monet, but drawing on his own intellectual and artistic traditions, reaches through the conventional vision of contemporary painting to an independent and authentic statement of western self-perception at the threshold of modernism.”

The National:

Western self-perception? Well, I think – I trust – that by that MacMillan really means western as I have been describing it, for there is not a human being to be seen in this painting and the artist’s own self-perception is not evident at all. What is evident is the absence of self-perception. There is no ego at work here. The painting is virtuosic, but only because it has to be, to deal with such a subject: it has no interest in impressing for its own sake. This is a painting of great humility in its homage to its subject matter – the western seaboard of the Gaels.

When Jack Yeats wrote the stage direction “The sky, sea and land are brighter than the people” for his play The Old Sea Road, he was giving theatrical expression to a relationship between nature and man fundamental to his creative output, both as painter and writer, and in particular in his later years. The land-sea-and-sky-scape are themselves at least as important characters in the action as are the humans. Yeats’s stage direction caught Samuel Beckett’s attention, and he referred to it in his review of Yeats’s novel The Amaranthers. But that “elemental empathy that should not be mistaken for existential despair”, which has been noticed in relation to McTaggart, was indeed to develop into existential despair in Beckett’s own work, notably in the play Not I which Beckett wrote in English for an old Irishwoman to say. The title could not be more explicit in its economy, but it is not to be thought of in philosophical isolation. It came from a Gaelic background.

“I knew that woman in Ireland … I knew who she was – not ‘she’ specifically, one single woman, but there were so many of those old crones, stumbling down the lanes, in the ditches, beside the hedgerows. Ireland is full of them. And I heard ‘her’ saying what I wrote in Not I.”

Beckett brings an existentialist angst to the problem of the ego, but the stark negation of the title suggests a longing for a release from it. In constantly using the third person, the Mouth enacts the title of the work. In this context, Beckett would surely have approved of Yeats’s statement

“To me, man is only part of a splendour and a memory of it.”

Jack Yeats, Queen Maeve Walked Upon This Strand, 1950

I want to conclude with one of Yeats’s largest and greatest paintings. It’s Queen Maeve Walked Upon This Strand which is in our own National Gallery of Modern Art. Who is the man watching the swan bathing in the salt pool of the sea, much as the figure watched the blackbird bathing in Tir-nan-og? Yeats himself? And who is the swan? Maeve? I think not. I think she is the same swan that we hear in Scottish Gaelic song, the song of the swan on the beach, the Bewick swan that lives between Ireland and Scotland and sings “My feet black and myself all white, my nest was plundered while I was away in Ireland”.

The National:

“Mo chasan dubh, Mo chasan dubh, Mo chasan dubh, ‘S mi fhéin gléigheal. Gibhi gi gibhi gó, Gibhi gi gibhi gó, Gibhi gi gibhi gó, Gibhi gó gibhi gó. Chreachadh mo niod, Chreachadh mo niod, Chreachadh mo niod, ‘S mi fhéin an Eirinn.”

The tides of the sea are, after all, timeless, and into its magnificent flux, McTaggart and Yeats have plunged with the abandon of those for whom such an environment is welcome, and for whom its impersonal disinterest reinforces that natural Gaelic reflection upon the place of humanity in nature, a new theory of vision in which being and perceiving are as one, humbled, awestruck and glorious.