After attending the Pioneering Painters exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, I began to question why I never learned about the Glasgow Boys at school. Radical, bold and fervently European in their outlook, the Glasgow Boys represent a new progressive Scotland. However, the art collective remained off my cultural radar until I attended Glasgow University and stumbled upon their works at the nearby Kelvingrove Museum. On re-examining their most radical and exciting works at the Royal Academy of Arts, I drew an immediate contrast with Burns Night.
Reflecting back on my primary school days in Aberdeenshire, I vividly remember my P6 teacher’s poetry recital classes with ‘A Man’s a Man for all That’ being the proverbial jewel in the crown. With my Anglo-Irish vowels, I always dreaded Burns week and felt extremely self-conscious that I couldn’t recite verses in guttural Doric like my Aberdonian peers.
While I eventually grew to admire some of Burns vernacular gifts, I have remained curiously ambivalent about Burns Night. It always felt somewhat contrived to me. Almost like a post-modern image of Scottishness that bears no relevance to day-to-day life.
Burns Night is arguably the biggest literary event in the world with an estimated nine million people participating last year. A typical Burns night has poetry recitals, bagpipes and three courses of traditional Scottish fair, which usually involves cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, neeps and tatties and a complimentary dram.
With the greatest respect this dour cuisine is certainly not the most alluring of European dishes. If there is a Scottish restaurant in Rome or Barcelona then I certainly haven’t seen one. All the while the Haggis represents a comic sentimental image of Scotland and I find it deeply regrettable that a foul peasant condom is our national dish, when the nation’s glens, forests and lochs are home to some of the finest game and fish in Northern Europe.
Whereas other countries define themselves around wars, revolutions and kings, Scotland remains a stateless nation and embraces cultural nationalism to exert her identity. Burns Night remains consistent with the twee sentimental image of Scotland constructed by Sir Walter Scott in the nineteenth century.
After nearly two hundred years of progress, Scotland is still renowned for its kilts, whisky and majestic Highland landscapes. Anyone walking past a triumphant Visit Scotland billboard will be in no doubt of the country’s national identity. What is fascinating is that the Glasgow Boys emerged towards the end of the 1870s and radically vowed to challenge the sentimental Victorian obsession with the Highlands.
By challenging this twee conservative vision of Scotland, I found inspiration from the Glasgow Boys exhibition that there is an alternative to Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. The Glasgow Boys were bold, radical and experimental painters, whose stunning collection of works represent a genuinely progressive movement. A collection of artists that dared to look towards the Mediterranean and Japan for inspiration instead of turning inwards towards the Highlands.
What I find surprising is that the Glasgow Boys remain a quirky afterthought in Scottish culture. If I hadn’t stumbled upon their paintings in the Kelvingrove Museum, then I could easily have remained ignorant of their existence.
A truly confident country should look outwards for inspiration and I see no reason why the Glasgow Boys shouldn’t be universally affiliated with Scotland like Dali, Gaudi and Picasso are with Spain. It is regrettable that this radical confederation of painters have been unable to impose a greater cultural influence in their own country.
Robert Burns remains Scotland’s most iconic and influential poet but anyone tucking into their Haggis tonight should be under no illusions that nationalism is anything other than a created product.