THE first time I watched it burn I wept. I was not alone. That much I remember from looking around me that sad day back in 2014 when the “Mack” as it’s affectionately known was engulfed with flames. Standing on Sauchiehall Street the fire tearing through the building’s timber barely a hundred yards away, I could feel my stomach churn as some of the happy memories of my time in Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s architectural masterpiece flooded into my mind’s eye.

I spent the best part of a decade at Glasgow School of Art (GSA). At first, I trained as a painter and sculptor, while later after graduation I returned as a member of staff and taught art and design history.

It would be no exaggeration to say that my time at the school dramatically changed my life. Again, I’m far from alone in this regard as is evident from the heartfelt stories recounted by those fellow former students that speak so eloquently in filmmaker Calum Angus Mackay’s new documentary Mi Fhèin is Mackintosh/Art on Fire that airs on BBC Alba tomorrow night.

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Former Glasgow School of Art student David Pratt watched in horror as his alma mater burned twice in the space of four years

“It was during periods spent in my studio painting last year that I began to reflect on the journey of fellow students who attended Glasgow School of Art. In some respects, they were my other family,” explains Mackay, whose own sister the artist Maggie Smith and daughter Sian Mackay have also journeyed as students through the school.

It’s that sense of being part of the GSA family as well as each individual’s own passage through the school’s studios and workshops and the towering presence of the Mack at its epicentre, that gives this film such resonance.

Most who have been lucky enough to draw or paint in the Mack’s light-filled studios, read in the cosiness of its magnificent art nouveau library or sit through lectures on those buttock-breaking mahogany benches of the Mackintosh theatre would say the same. Glasgow School of Art is a life-changing kind of place. There is a moment in the film when Harris-born John D Urquhart talks of how his first sight of the Mack “took my breath away” and how on walking up those famous steps into the building he felt the need to reach out and almost caress the brass plates that adorned the doors. Urquhart, who as a youngster had watched his uncle Donald gather driftwood from the beaches of Harris and make amazing things with it in his barn, had been inspired to study art and went on to do furniture design at GSA. He recalls thinking of how many renowned artists had made that same walk up those steps among them my own student peers the painters Peter Howson, Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski, Alison Watt and the incredible talent that was the late Steven Campbell.

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I too remember going up those steps for the first time and, from the moment after pushing through those heavy swing doors, being left in no doubt that I was in an engine room of creativity. Just as quickly, like so many of my fellow students, I realised that talented as you might think you were, there were others all around you who sparkled far brighter. Of the 800 or so hopefuls who applied for a first-year place during my years as a student back in the late 1970s, perhaps only 120 would be selected annually on the basis of their portfolio and qualifications.

Once inside GSA’s exciting embrace, I found myself surrounded by fellow students so gifted and able to think out of the box that my own efforts seemed mediocre by comparison. That such a climate generated competition is a given, but it was the ideas and experiences shared that made GSA such a unique place.

Painters, sculptors, designers, architects are all exactly what you would expect any art school to produce, but Glasgow wasn’t just any art school.

DURING his speech at our graduation ceremony, Professor Anthony Jones, a former director of GSA, made the point that we students had just had an opportunity never likely to be repeated.

“Here you have had four years, not simply to become a painter or designer, silversmith or ceramicist, but to find out what makes you tick creatively,” he summed up.

How right he was. Yes, I painted and made sculpture, but I also found myself using other mediums like photography and being given the opportunity to write, both of which led me ultimately into journalism.

It was the same story for many of my peers. They had come to study visual art but in this cradle of creativity found themselves becoming musicians, playwrights, actors, novelists and poets.

That former GSA students like John Byrne, Robbie Coltrane or Peter Capaldi went on to become playwrights, actors and members of the bands Franz Ferdinand and Travis studied there is well known. But there were many others who found themselves engaged in a diverse range of creative pursuits. Just like previous generations of artists, pushing the creative boundaries was what mattered most. Though the GSA family was close knit, we often became little groups and “schools” within the school where some of us might have a shared aesthetic or idea of what art’s purpose should be. We argued and even fought over such things, all of which fuelled a fire of inspiration that the 2014 blaze could never match. That much of this took place in a building that painter Kenneth Burns in the film describes as “a riot of artistry, beautiful carvings and mosaics ... coloured glass panels, green and purple and crimson”, only made it all the more special.

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What surroundings the Mack was in which to listen to art history lecturers whose passion for the subjects they taught made you feel you were right there living in the midst of the Italian Renaissance, or the political cauldron out of which came Russian revolutionary art movements like Constructivism and Suprematism. That our tutors so often shared this creative energy and were enigmatic and inspiring characters only made for an even tighter community.

One was a wonderful Italian anarchist who had a penchant for scrawling relevant sentences on his studio walls, such as Gertrude Stein’s “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” to match the series of rose-coloured abstract works he was then painting.

Another was a former shipwright who made enormous mosaic relief pieces and wrote poetry at night while consuming large quantities of malt whisky. Some I would later go on to work alongside as a staff member. Among them was Stephen Mulrine, the Scottish poet who penned the Coming Of The Wee Malkies, and who later learned fluent Russian to enable him to translate Chekhov, Gogol and Gorky from the original.

Then there was art historian Ray McKenzie, the most captivating lecturer I have ever heard, who made work from across the ages come alive in his talks and seminars. Later some of those students whose dissertations I would supervise would make their own mark. Among these immense talents were artists including Roddy Buchanan and sculptors Kenny Hunter and Andy Scott, creator of the much-loved Kelpies.

In my own student days such was the creative energy of this environment that it was often impossible to separate work from downtime. In the students’ union, I danced to Ian Dury and the Blockheads as they played live and saw punk makes its impact on fashion design. I listened also to Sorley MacLean recite Gaelic poetry, and with the arrogance of rebellious youth, argued with famous visiting pop artist Peter Blake that he had produced nothing of significance since co-creating the sleeve design for the Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the days after I first watched the Mack burn in 2014 such memories were never far for my mind. But that June night of 2018 when the cruellest of blows struck and the second fire ripped through the Mack just as the renovation was nearing completion was something else again. It was I remember thinking at the time, like being with an old friend in their death throes. As artist and former student Ishbel Murray describes it in the film while watching Glasgow’s fire-fighters tackle that second blaze, we all “felt pained”. That night the GSA family gathered again in the street or online to watch their alma mater burn, consoled only by the fact that no-one was injured or killed.

“It was a very emotional experience, people were crying, I was crying, and we were hugging each other. Old friends and colleagues had gathered to watch the fire and we were all emotionally overwhelmed by what we were seeing,” recalls Kenneth Burns.

EVEN that generation of students who had never really known the Mack having come to the school while it was still under restoration from the first fire, felt that profound sense of grief and loss.

At home in Stornoway Sian Mackay watched it on television, while Daisy MacDonald was messaged while on holiday in South Carolina in America. On Sauchiehall Street another of the current generation of students Rachel Kate Macleod, found herself asking the question so many of us now found ourselves pondering: “What now?”

It was Macleod says “just so strange, so I just decided I was going home. I didn’t want to go out anymore. I didn’t know how I should feel,” she confided, speaking in the film.

As for myself I was just a few days back from working on assignment in the Syrian city of Raqqa, one of the most destroyed and violent places in the world at the time when I heard the Mack was on fire that summer night in 2018.

By the time I got to Glasgow’s Bath Street I could see the enormous glow before eventually taking a detour through the back alleyways of the Garnethill neighbourhood where the Mack sat to get close to the fire.

Having just days before been in Raqqa I remember how odd it felt witnessing such destruction here in my home city. I found myself torn between a desire to stay with my old friend the Mack through to the end or leave to avoid my own hurt.

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In the end again just as in 2014, I decided to stay and capture what I could of this terrible moment with my camera. It seemed the right thing to do given that it was in this very building that I learned to see and render the world in images. How I wish though there had never been any need to make those photographs that terrible evening. As the inferno’s embers began drifting down on to my jacket the fire-fighters asked myself and another photographer to move back, their courage that night in tackling the blaze was inspiration in itself.

Up until that moment the Mack had been a phoenix about to rise from the ashes, but I knew now for certain that out of the cauldron before me there would be little left to salvage.

It was London Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic, who previously directed Glasgow’s year of architecture and design, who described the sight of the Mackintosh Building ablaze in 2014 as “like watching acid being thrown at a Rothko canvas”.

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Gone was the uniquely beautiful building that so many of us found ourselves in as we set about student life. In the days that followed each and every one of the GSA family would pause and reflect on our own rite of passage through this wonderful institution.

“Our own relationships and our relationship with the actual building, they are almost all intertwined. In some respects, they are almost as one. The building itself therefore represents the people and the people still carry the building in their hearts,” says former student John D Urquhart in what is a moving film that will touch at the heart of everyone who loved the Mack. What now will become of all that remains is anyone’s guess, but the memories of happier times will always live on. Glasgow School of Art, my art school, our art school, is too special a place for it not to.

Mi Fhèin is Mackintosh/Art on Fire airs on BBC ALBA on Monday, August 9 at 9pm and will be available on the BBC iPlayer for 30 days afterwards