Blog: Monarch of the Glen? Context, Murdo MacDonald
Murdo Macdonald is Emeritus Professor of History of Scottish Art at the University of Dundee. His research interests include Robert Burns and art, the art of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd, and the cultural milieu of the Celtic Revivalist and ecologist Patrick Geddes (not least with respect to cognate revivals in India and Japan). He has a longstanding interest in James Macpherson’s Ossian as a point of origin of the Celtic Revival. With Eric Shanes in 2013 he identified J M W Turner’s lost Ossian work from 1802. He was appointed honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture in 2009, and honorary fellow of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies in 2016.
Excerpt from Murdo Macdonald: Art, Maps and Books (2006)
“Tracking across the Minch to Skye we find the inspiration of another work by Will Maclean which brings more Highland issues into focus. Made in 1984 it is a construction measuring about 18 inches across. It shows the boarded up window of a deserted croft. Looking out through this window we see the conning tower of a submarine. In this work Maclean draws together two essential and interconnected elements of our visualisation and revisualisation of the Highlands and the Gaidhealtachd: clearance and militarism. The title of this piece is Inner Sound, and this gives us a specific geographical location for the work. The ‘Inner Sound’ in question is the stretch of water between Raasay and Applecross, with which in his days as a fisherman Maclean was very familiar. But there is a hint also of a psychological inner sound that we should be listening for. This sound is the sound of the Gaelic language. To some of us it is the sound of a language we still understand. To others, including myself, it the sound of a language which we should understand, but which we have lost. A language that has been culturally cleared from us. So there is another layer to Maclean’s reference to clearance here for loss of land is often the loss of language as well, and – as his work implies – the trade-off of a language for weapons systems is not a good one, anymore than was the trading-off of that language for sheep or deer.
The locating of this work in Raasay gives us another clue as to how we should read it, for this boarded window is a deliberate link to Sorley MacLean, himself the subject of a notable portrait by Alexander Moffat. Will Maclean’s reference in Inner Sound is to lines of the poem Hallaig which read, in poet’s own translation from the Gaelic: ‘The window is nailed and boarded / through which I saw the West’. We stand at a point in our history today that gives us an opportunity to unboard that window. Part of that process of repair must, I think, involve understanding visualisations and revisualisations of the Highlands. Maclean’s image also helps us to understand the parameters within which were made stereotypical images of the Highlands such as Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen. Where Landseer’s deer (and the estate surrounding it) existed to serve the pleasure in hunting of people who did not even need to eat it, Maclean’s window is symbolic of all those windows which once sheltered people who needed to eat deer that were denied to them. There is a grand disjunction here between those who hunted deer but did not need to and those who would have liked to hunt deer to sustain them and their families, but were prevented from doing so. In 1887, thirty-six years after Landseer painted the Monarch of the Glen, this tension was sharply expressed in Lewis, when the men of Pairc put their own human rights before the legal rights of the estate owners and hunted the deer. It is that great deer raid of November 1887 which is commemorated by Will Maclean’s memorial outside Balallan in Lewis.”