Brian Ferguson: Private visions boost capital’s culture cred

Isle of Islay. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Isle of Islay. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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THERE are definitely worse ways to spend a bitingly cold Monday afternoon. Gathered around a wood-burner nursing a 40-year-old malt, which had lain undisturbed on the Hebridean whisky capital of Islay was an instant contender for the year’s magic moment.

Sadly I wasn’t on the island this weekend as it hosted one of Scotland’s latest festivals, a different kind of spirit conjured up by hotel owner Graham Allison to help off fend off the pre-festive economic demons with the new “Islay Sessions”.

Instead I had to conjure up my own images of the striking views of the Paps of Jura offered up to visitors to Bunnahabhain Distillery, in the north-east corner of the island, from the outskirts of Edinburgh.

With the distillery’s owners reluctant to gamble on the vagaries of the weather in one of the wilder parts of the west coast as autumn took its grip, a group of journalists flown in from around Europe found themselves sampling the one-off bottling at Jupiter Artland, the other-worldly attraction near Edinburgh Airport.

They ended up there purely as a result of the distillery commissioning one of the many artists who have worked with its owners, Robert and Nicky Wilson, to create a unique design for the labels adorning the 750 bottles.

His style would not only be instantly recognisable from the map issued to thousands of visitors who flock to Jupiter Artland when it is open over the summer, but also from his illustrations for Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series in The Scotsman.

If the group of international whisky writers were entranced by master distiller Ian MacMillan’s explanation of the malt maturation process, they were positively spellbound as Jupiter Artland’s gardener Richard Irving led them around the ever-expanding collection of artworks in the grounds.

There is still an undiscovered treasure feel about the experience of visiting Jupiter Artland, partly because of its remote location, but also because there appears to have been a deliberate attempt by the Wilsons not to blow their own trumpets about the specially-commissioned works to be found there by Ian Hamilton Finlay, Anish Kapoor, Nathan Coley, Charles Jencks, Jim Lambie and Andy Goldsworthy.

There have been plenty plaudits for the National Galleries and National Museums for their big refurbishment projects over the last 18 months.

But as I peered through Antony Gormley’s giant Firmament sculpture of a crouching man, towards the iconic image of the Forth Bridge, it struck me that the Wilsons – who had been named among the UK’s top ten art collectors just before my visit – have quietly created what must be one of Scotland’s most unusual and intriguing attractions.

One of the few formal plaudits the couple have earned came just months after they opened the doors to the public when they picked up a Spirit of Scotland Award.

Later this month another distinctly under-the-radar figure is in the running to be honoured in that same art category at the awards run by another big-name whisky brand Glenfiddich, in partnership with The Scotsman.

Robert McDowell is the owner who has sunk millions into the creation of an equally inspiring artistic venture on the other side of Edinburgh.

The transformation of the former vet school overlooking the Meadows has taken place in just over a year, from a slightly haphazard Fringe venue into a bustling year-round hub featuring everything from theatre and exhibition spaces and studios to a cafe-bar and even an on-site microbrewery.

Its programme features everything from photographic exhibitions of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, to talks with writer Alasdair Gray, late-night club events and film screenings. A quick glance at Summerhall’s website reveals a plethora of exciting events between now and the end of the year.

Both Jupiter Artland and Summerhall have of course been privately financed. But what has been created out of the vision of a handful of individuals seems nothing short of a minor miracle.

In the face of the economic downturn, which has battered the financial services sector in the city and hampered growth in the tourism industry, their impact on Edinburgh’s reputation as a centre of cultural excellence surely cannot be underestimated.