OWNERS OF THE SOIL: WILL MACLEAN & SHAUN FRASER
Owners of the soil sees artists Will Maclean and Shaun Fraser examine ties between land, identity and ownership through the early Scottish diaspora’s dual identity of colonised and coloniser. Taking as his subject the Scots who arrived in Nova Scotia, as it was to become known, Fraser looks at the land from which First Nations Mi’kmaq people were displaced. He explores the attachment to place and questions to whom these areas belong. Maclean takes the very personal histories of his antecedents and their communities, forced to leave and find new lives.
Maclean’s boxed constructions, collages and drawings recount the experiences of six residents of Polbain, Ross-shire. Each one, a native Gaelic speaker, was born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Boxed constructions house artefacts that are detached narratives of each person’s life. Maclean’s work often looks at the ways that cultures can themselves become cargo. Mary Ross and Alexander Campbell settled in New Zealand; Rhoda Maclean in Australia; Alexander Maclean and Kenneth Maclean in North America and Murdo Macleod in South Africa. It was an accepted part of life that they would have to leave their homes to find a living in the south or overseas. John Smith, a headmaster near Ullapool, commenting on the 1872 Education Act stated: “Emigration, whether voluntary or enforced was strongly encouraged by education and the losses caused in this way very often of the youngest and the best were irreplaceable and are nowadays simply incalculable.”
Fraser, through a variety of processes - glass, bronze, bitumen, soil and print – binds together landscape and people and their physical and emotional interplay. Incorporating peat and organic matter, his work holds an innate link to the locality, evoking a sense of place.
Maritime Canada’s strong historic bond with the Scottish Highlands is profoundly reflected in the dominance of place names which mirror those in Scotland; Uigg, Iona, New Perth, Argyle Shore, Inverness, Stornoway. These are often locations, territories and terrains which already possessed First Nation Miꞌkmaq titles. Fraser, who grew up in the north of Scotland and for whom big landscape defines his very self, frequently comments upon notions of identity and connections with place through his work.
We asked Gerry Carruthers, Francis Hutcheson Professor of Scottish Literature, University of Glasgow, to expand on these themes and are grateful for his essay:
Clearance. Colonialism. Empire. Emigration. Exile. Diaspora. Settler. Oppressor. Victim. Each word conveys huge experiences. Each is also a headline for the various judgements we make on the Scottish historical account. As prejudices change with time, we interpret and re-interpret. Once, there was a narrative of downtrodden highlanders, exiled to the Americas, who nevertheless carried across the Atlantic the seeds of civilisation, enlightening terra incognito. Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) expressed such an idea in his long poem, Gertrude of Wyoming, marvelling at how the one-time victim became a symbol of freedom:
Who taught those sires of empire yet to be,
To plant the tree of life, to plant fair Freedom’s tree!
The moral currency of our own time repudiates the notion that the white man brought civilisation to non-European continents. But we can still hear echoes of British supremacy in the idea of Westminster as the mother of parliaments, or our zealous promotion of conflicting human rights. The Scottish experience pulses through our confused judgementalism. Fleeing Jacobites were our indigenous persecuted tribespeople, or they were tenants betrayed for sheep, or they were slavers in the Caribbean, or they were battalions of fighting Jocks, conquering “new” lands. Truths and stereotypes go hand-in-hand.
What do we really know of individual human beings in these situations? If we did know, we would no doubt condemn some and sympathise with others. But we are often more in love with collective stories, made via group symbols: the big account.
When we judge the past, we presume to understand it, often with all too much certainty. We dethrone the previously respected, we rehabilitate the once-despised, we find out the real bad guys. Our histories can never be settled. But artistic reprisal may be more self-examining, challenging the senses, including that centre of combined senses, the mind. Instances of creative settling can become creatively unsettling: for instance, Shaun Fraser meditating on the colonial reiteration of Scottish places in Canada, which had prior first nation Mi’kmaq names, and practicing his own “redrawn territories” in response, asking his own unsettling questions, refusing simplicity.
The grace notes and fragments of incidents essayed in Will Maclean’s art are symptomatic of broken diasporic experience. In such circumstances, human identity has to be recuperated and remade, but not made whole again. Were we ever whole? Aesthetically, we may be better attuned to the uneven, the impure and the broken. In Scottish terms, we might think of the New Zealand novelist Keri Hulme (b 1947), of Maori and Orcadian ancestry, mixing Celtic and Maori mythic elements in her work. Or less harmoniously, the essayist Hugh Maclennan (1907-70), highlighting the acrimony of indigenous groups in Canada. When are we “at home” or “in exile” or merely free-booting? Thinking about diaspora through artistic expression, we find difficult truths and shifting realities.
Whatever the moral conflicts of the Scottish diasporic experience, one thing may be claimed quite neutrally: that it involves transformation. In his “Elegy for Angus Macdonald of Cnoclinn”, one of the great poets of Scottish descent, the Australian Les Murray (1938-2019) sums up how the “savages” became the “settlers” and the displaced became the displacers.
Exile’s a rampart, sometimes, to the past,
a distiller of spirit from bruised grains;
this is the meaning of the New World.
Is the “rampart” of exile an offensive or defensive condition? Whisky and human spirit are distilled out of the hard old world. This seems to make poetic sense, but Murray’s tongue is always eloquently reaching for his cheek. The “New World”, that western-centric concept, is spun so that it relates to art and experience. What is solid about our knowledge of our ancestry, of ourselves? Not very much. We play with received ideas, with symbols, but if we wish to challenge our own place we need to reach for new perspectives, not be bound by the past, nor to settle it.
As Les Murray did, Shaun Fraser and Will Maclean draw aesthetic capital from the experience of diaspora, revealing a painfully converting currency.
Gerry Carruthers, Francis Hutcheson Professor of Scottish Literature, University of Glasgow
Owners of the Soil: Will Maclean & Shaun Fraser, part of Edinburgh Art Festival, 29 July - 28 August
For all enquiries please contact email@example.com
CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP TO RECEIVE THE FINE ART SOCIETY'S JOURNAL