A sign of the Tam

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ON A dark November evening in 1986, I stood with my father in the rain. The Main Street of Kirkoswald is dreich at the best of times; a hamlet clinging to the edges of the A77, where it streaks down from Maybole. Articulated lorries, hurrying towards the ferry at Stranraer, don't slow down, leaving the cottages to shiver in the spray as they thunder past.

It had been a long Saturday. That morning, in the first throes of 'Tam fever', my father had bundled me into the car and we had driven off on a sketching trip through Ayrshire. I was ten, and the opportunity of spending a day alone in his company was virtually unheard of.

Tracing our progress from Glasgow on the map, the journey seemed to lead us in search of place-names each more sodden than the next – Mauchline, Tarbolton, Mossblown. They sounded strange to me, but to my father, born in Paisley in 1933, they formed a mental chart, a geography of Robert Burns that had been familiar to him since childhood.

On the shelves of the small flat in Kelburne Drive where he grew up, a leather-bound anthology of Burns had sat amid spartan company. Books from the local library passed through the house, but few were owned. This well-thumbed anthology, however, was one of the exceptions, sandwiched between the complete Dickens and the family dictionary. Each January 25, his own father David would tumble home after a Burns Night dinner and re-enact the evening's readings. My father and his elder brother John would listen intently, absorbing the knowledge of a poetry whose source lay over the Gleniffer Braes, the moorlands at the southern edge of Paisley.

That Saturday afternoon, 40 years later, it was my turn to listen to tales about Burns. We followed a route that took us through Ayr and into Alloway. There, at his insistence, I photographed my father theatrically pretending to ride a horse over the Brig o' Doon and, afterwards, peering through the windows of the ruined kirk. In the photograph, he mouths an expression of astonishment, which may not have been entirely contrived, for in his mind's eye he must have seen, spread before him, the horror that would later be caked on to canvas.

As I put the camera away, he retrieved his pencil and, in an instant, outlined the crooked bell tower, the collapsing gravestones, the claw of a tree scraping at the sky. Then, as the sun began to dip, we headed down to the waves at Girvan, where my father had spent many holidays as a boy. He never used to take any of his three children to revisit the haunts of his own childhood, so I felt strangely privileged that day.

The hour was indeed late when, on the return journey from Girvan, our headlights picked out the nameplate 'Kirkoswald'. "Wait a minute," my father said over the blare of radio, "Robin Hume lives here!" And with those words, we parked up on the kerb, climbed out of the car and found ourselves standing in the glow of a streetlamp, searching for the cottage of an old art-school friend.

The young Alexander 'Sandy' Goudie had not distinguished himself academically at Paisley Grammar School, but the drawings and paintings he never ceased to scribble attracted much attention. At 16, he should have found himself apprenticed at Goudie Brothers, the family plumbing and electrical firm, but instead his father showed faith and agreed to help him attend Glasgow School of Art.

For the next four years, it was pigment that Sandy wiped from his hands, not the filth of a waste pipe. He listened to his teachers, David Donaldson and others, as they handed down lessons in painting that previous generations had passed on to them. They spoke of Guthrie and Courbet, Velzquez and Titian, placing the art school in a proud tradition with which Sandy was determined to align himself – first as a pupil, then as a teacher.

Hume was one of his first students, and admits to having listened, horrified, as this new, bearded lecturer dismantled his afternoon's labours brushstroke by brushstroke. It was the curious starting point to a friendship, and the reason I found myself standing in the rain that evening. We were hoping that some passerby might help direct us, but Main Street was deserted.

As we eventually moved to go back to the car, the roar of the trees was broken by a mournful creaking. My father slowly turned his head upwards to find a signpost directly above us, swinging in the wind. The sign, scarred by the weather, was just about legible and read 'Kirkton Jean's'.

"That at the Lord's house, ev'n on Sunday, / Thou drank wi' Kirkton Jean till Monday, / She prophesy'd that late or soon, / Thou wad be found, deep drown'd in Doon, / Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk, / By Alloway's auld, haunted kirk."

The spirit of 'Tam o' Shanter' was whistling through the trees that night, and a grin appeared on my father's face. Gesticulating wildly in the middle of the street, shouting, "It's the sign, Lachlan, the sign!", he failed to notice a figure wandering down from the graveyard and emerging into a pool of light. There was a shriek of surprise: it was Hume. The road home would wait, and in celebration of our chance encounter, the three of us barreled into the pub.

We spent the next couple of hours treading over lines from 'Tam o' Shanter'. The room was warm, with a low ceiling and panelled walls stained with nicotine. There was a fire bleezing finely and so many cronies littering the bar that I was directed to photograph the scene repeatedly. "Go on, Lachie, make sure you get that one! Now that one! He's great!"

"Dad, that's enough!" I protested. There was clatter and laughter, and Hume told his queerest stories, explaining that his new home across the road had been the scene of a local tragedy. Before we left Kirkoswald, he hurried us to his cottage. We were led up a rickety staircase, and in a room lit only by a bare bulb he directed our attention to the marks of pellets sprayed across the ceiling – the previous tenant's parting shot to the world. Once more my father's grin widened, and a chill shivered through me.

No wrath would be incurred by our late arrival home that night, since the house in Glasgow was empty. My mother was in France visiting her parents. Marie-Rene 'Maine' Dorval had left the Breton village where she had grown up at the age of 18. She had arrived in Scotland to learn English, and ended up staying for 50 years. She never lost her accent, but gained a husband instead.

My parents visited Brittany on a number of occasions before their wedding in 1962, though those early trips only hinted at the richness Maine and her homeland would bring into my father's life. In Scotland, he was increasingly known as a portrait painter, but under towering Breton skies the sources of his inspiration grew proportionately. The land and the sea gave him a harvest of imagery that he cultivated over several decades. It introduced him to a different language, demanded the use of an unfamiliar palette and revealed Gauguin, Matisse and the entire French school of painting in a new light.

As this world became more familiar, 'Tam o' Shanter' started to run through my father's mind, and his gaze shifted. He found that rural Brittany, with its farmers, fishermen and peasant-folk, could also be translated into Burns's Ayrshire. From his archive of sketchpads and photos, accumulated over decades of visits to France, he began to draw out the characters that peer at us from the paintings on these pages, with their narrow eyes and weathered skin.

During our drive back from Kirkoswald, those faces must have crowded his mind alongside the regulars at Kirkton Jean's. For my part, I stared out of the window as the darkness slipped by in a blur of roadsigns and tangled undergrowth. The cassette player blared out Strauss's 'Salome', and my father, lost in a red-eyed fug, mouthed the words, "When chapman billies leave the street…"

Hedgerows, branches, old twisted fences, a flurry of litter, a startled crow and then suddenly, a fork in the road. The violent climax of Strauss and wailing tyres brought our car tearing to a halt. The smoke of burnt rubber clouded across the headlamps while my father, his hand stretched out over the gear-stick to fasten me into the passenger seat, breathed heavily. I watched him fumble to switch off the music. "I'm a stupid man, Lachlan! A very stupid, stupid man!"

Taken aback by his fierceness, I nervously mumbled, "No, Dad. No, you're not." "Yes, I am. A stupid man. I'm sorry."

The remainder of our journey was slow and steady. He whispered his penance to himself as the glow of Glasgow drew us home. We didn't mention the incident again, nor the tree trunk that had loomed over the bonnet of the car in the darkness.

The next morning, my father took me to the airport and we flew to London for the day. There was an exhibition of Frans Hals at the National Gallery, and he wanted to see it. Yesterday's scribbler of blasted hedgerows and Ayrshire types had awoken as the society portrait-painter, searching for lessons in the Old Masters. We walked across St James's Park, inspected Buckingham Palace, where he would one day paint the Queen, swapped Kirkton Jean's for Green's of St James's and had oysters for lunch. We both wore suits and bow ties.

"LIFE IS but a day at most," wrote Burns. My father packed a lot into those fleeting hours, and for the people who spent time in his company it could feel like being carried along in the chase. There was noise, hoopla, turmoil and occasional frenzy – an enthusiasm for stretching out and always grabbing a handful of experience. The paintings illustrated across these pages encapsulate that spirit. They are an invitation to join the pursuit, to strive for exuberance, to raise your pulse and grasp at the vital energy of life that courses through the words of Burns.

Alexander Goudie

Born Paisley, November 11, 1933

Studied at Glasgow School of Art, graduating in 1955

Married Marie-Rene Dorval, the daughter of a Breton doctor, in 1962, with whom he had two sons and a daughter

Famed for his portraits, including the Queen and Billy Connolly

The 'Tam o' Shanter' cycle consisted of 54 paintings, which were first exhibited at the Freemasons Hall during the Edinburgh Festival in 1996. They attracted as much controversy as praise – the images of a black mass in the Auld Kirk, for example, led a minister of the Free Church to accuse him of blasphemy. Now the series is published as a special edition by Birlinn, priced 100

Died at home in Glasgow, aged 70, on March 9, 2004