WINTER EXHIBITION KILMORACK GALLERY, BY BEAULY, INVERNESS-SHIRE ****
We ARE told so often that Scotland is remote that we have come to believe it. But remoteness is just a state of mind and the sense of being far away is part of the Scottish cringe. Historically it was not so. We were part of the community of northern Europe. Our neighbours were Norway, Denmark, Germany and Holland quite as much as England.
There were once Scottish communities in all those places, and right around the Baltic Sea, but when the railways were built, sea transport that had linked us to our neighbours in Europe since before history came to an end. We suddenly found the length of England lay between us and the wider world. For a long time, too, air travel made no change. Monopolies made sure it stayed that way. Things are improving. You no longer have to go south first before you go anywhere else.
I wonder how long it will take to change our outward perspective too, to see ourselves simply as one of the old nations of Europe with our own contribution to the collective history of the West. Our art is part of that, but not so long ago, in keeping with our low national self-esteem, we believed what we were told and imagined we had no artistic tradition of our own.
We now think differently. Nevertheless, one thing is certain, until we can see our art properly in the wider context in which it belongs, we will still not be entirely sure of ourselves. We will still have a sneaking feeling that we are remote. Putting that right is the job of our National Gallery. I will go on saying it until something is done. It is time to rescue the national collection from the dim basement were it languishes, implicitly second-rate, and rehang it where it belongs, integrated with the rest of the collection. It is time to put Scotland back among the nations. But if a misplaced sense of remoteness is still a debilitating part of our national psychology, it can affect us just as much within Scotland. We are a small country with long distances between our towns and cities and a wretched infrastructure. It is very easy to feel remote and cut-off. Here, though, things have improved and especially in the Highlands. Art is a measure of how much things have changed.
Robert Livingston is director of Hi-Arts, the organisation that promotes the arts in the Highlands, a region, he likes to remind you, as big as Belgium. Hi-Arts produces an online gallery guide.
"Since we first produced a printed guide in 1999," he says, "the number of galleries has doubled, and we tried very hard to be comprehensive back then. There are now around 180 listed and most of these are private." These organisations vary hugely, no doubt. Some are just tea shops with art on the walls, but not all, by any means.
Take the Kilmorack Gallery, for instance. Situated a few miles south-west of Beauly on the road that eventually leads to Cannich and Glen Affric, but nowhere else very much, it has been run for a number of years now by Tony Davidson. The gallery is a converted early-19th-century kirk. With a high wooden roof and tall windows, it is in that style of Georgian Gothic that is light, airy and elegant and still unburdened by the heavy self-importance of the Gothic Revival. Outside it is harled and lime-washed a beautiful yellow ochre.
Kilmorack's current winter show is a selection of work by around a dozen of the gallery's regular artists. Among other things on view, there are several elegant sculptures by Llona Morris, good Highland landscapes by Allan MacDonald, beautiful, crusty ceramics by Lottie Glob. Lawrence Broderick makes sinuous bronze otters and there is an elegant bronze by Gerald Laing lurking in the background.
In a purely commercial enterprise, the difference between success and failure is quite simply the difference between open and shut, but Kilmorack is thriving and it is not unique. There are other comparable galleries throughout the Highlands.
The most unlikely, perhaps, is the Lost Gallery, run by Peter Goodfellow, up a remote road in upper Donside. In November and December, he says, they were simply inaccessible. Nevertheless, he also says that the biggest problem is not the rigours of the location. It is not giving in to the pressure to show saleable rubbish. If bad artists sell well, as some do, it doesn't make them good. It is creditable how many of these galleries resist that temptation and maintain a high standard in what they show. This is true of Brown's Gallery in Tain, the Watermill Gallery in Aberfeldy and the Castle Gallery in Inverness, to name only a few.
Remote is a relative term. If you don't feel remote, you aren't and maybe that is what is changing. The internet is part of the change, no doubt. You can reach people anywhere instantly, not only to tell them you are there, but for selling too. Tony Davidson says it is important for him. People check out what they want to buy in advance. It certainly has made "remote" more than ever a relative term.
But Robert Livingstone also says that there is a shift in the opposite direction and "localism" is a very important part of what is happening. Taigh Chearsabhagh at Loch Maddy on North Uist is a good example. If remote means on the edge, it is quite literally so. It stands close to the high-tide mark at the sea's edge, but it is a focus for life in North Uist, a little socioeconomic powerhouse.
An Lanntair in Stornaway, the Pier Gallery in Stromness, An Tobar in Tobermory and the Bonhoga Gallery in Shetland play similar roles, but these are public organisations. Private galleries that have to sell to live are just as important. Nor do they all limit themselves to showing commercially saleable work. The Inchmore Gallery on the shores of the Beauly Firth had a programme of non-selling exhibitions. (It has reopened recently under new management.) So does Brown's Gallery in Tain. Craftwork is also an important part of their economics, and many of these private galleries run workshops and related activities.
In terms of added value, art has few rivals. Education is the principal investment, a place to work the principal overhead. Raw materials need not be costly. People want art and they don't want the Turner Prize. The kind they do want has become an important part of the economy. But it is not simply a matter of economics. The art that is bought and sold is part of the whole complicated business of social confidence from which economic confidence ultimately springs, but for art to flourish it is essential to have access to the best; to know what is the best. That is important both for the artists and for those who buy their work. I spent a lot of time a few years ago chairing a steering group with the aim of establishing a world-class gallery in Inverness that could be a partner with the National Gallery and bring the best to the Highlands. The project ran into the political sand. Times hardly seem propitious now. Everybody is scared.
A proposal put out for consultation recently by the Highland Council was to consider shutting almost half the libraries, one of the two major museums for which the council is responsible and withdrawing support for others.
Nevertheless, the case is still strong for an organisation that could provide artistic leadership in the region. Perhaps it is even stronger now as we struggle out of the hole the bankers have dug for us.
• The Kilmorack Gallery's Winter Exhibition runs until 14 March