IN 2004, a poll was held among 50 Scottish connoisseurs to find out what they believed to be the most important work of art their nation had produced.

It followed an earlier poll carried out over the whole UK before the award of that year’s Turner Prize. There, the work that beat all-comers was Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a white urinal he had signed and included as his own creation in a show in Paris in 1917. In 2004 he figured as the unexpected choice of the British critical elite.

The Scottish panel consisted of gallery directors, art historians, auctioneers and artists themselves. Each was asked to select the three most important works from any period of Scottish art, which would be ranked using a points system.

For this report I’ll take the top three in reverse order. In third place was the Skating Minister, Henry Raeburn’s sublime portrait, of about 1795, that shows the Rev Robert Walker zooming over Duddingston Loch near Edinburgh.

In second place was Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, no longer to be viewed by us spectators, since the original was almost destroyed in the two disastrous fires of 2014 and 2018. Its future remains uncertain.

READ MORE: Glasgow School of Art fire investigators unable to find cause

In top place came Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta, a sculpture garden he steadily created between 1966 and his death, at the age of 80 on March 27, 2006.

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Though the five acres of Stonypath (the original name) are laid out within the boundaries of Lanarkshire, it lies only about eight miles from Edinburgh. It is open to the public in the summer months.

Finlay was a Scot by parentage, born in the Bahamas in 1925. His father lived off smuggling alcohol into the US during the Prohibition. The son served in the British Army right at the end of the Second World War. After being demobilised in 1947, he went to Glasgow College of Art, even though he defined himself at that time primarily as a writer – indeed, throughout his career he was, in his own eyes, a poet rather than an artist.

In 1966 he moved with his wife to Stonypath while it was still a barren Scots hillside. Here he set about creating the garden that became his central life’s work. He changed the name to Little Sparta to sharpen the contrast with the nearby Athens of the North, where architectural glory was made to blend with military glory. Finlay was a pacifist.

One path he followed was to bring out that artistic statements are often incomplete, because of the uncertain medium in which they may be formed. As a poet, he had become dissatisfied with – as he saw it – the failure of verse on the page to reflect any visual meaning. The overall aesthetic significance therefore remained deficient. But repetition, imitation and tradition might be used to explore “the juxtaposition of apparently opposite ideas”.
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Finlay found one answer in a Brazilian volume of “concrete poetry”. It took the look of words on the page to be as important as the meaning of the words. Layout and typography had their contribution to make. As Finlay developed the concept, a typical work of his own might feature a brief poetic text beautifully lettered, printed or cut into stone tablets, alongside sculptures where the words could evoke their visual effects and associations.

There remained a barrier to understanding, that the sculpture garden is not a familiar art form and may need its own context to be evoked as well. For example, Little Sparta was to be explained as a unique assemblage of sculptures, structures and inscribed stones in a rural setting. In addition, the ideas to which these gave concrete form ranged widely over philosophy and myth. Often they took their own particular shape in a chilly neo-classicism.

Finlay’s highest theme was deep hostility to war in all forms, from Homer onwards. Yet in person he was easily tempted into confrontation. His foes ranged from the local authorities of Strathclyde to the UK’s arts councils to the government of France.

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He was no pacifist when fighting for what he believed in, whether in the columns of the press or in the courts of law. This passion brought him wider fame than might have been expected from his art alone.

The running battle with Strathclyde showed his refusal to let art fall victim to bureaucracy. The council wanted to charge business rates for a ruined byre on his land. It claimed that on this spot he had created a commercial gallery. To him it was a structure of an altogether different order – the garden temple – which no legislation covered or should cover.

Again, the structure of arts bureaucracy set up for the UK, with different councils for different countries, almost asked for trouble from Finlay, who duly gave it to them. At least he appeared to deliver more of it to the English council than to the Scottish one.

THE row in Paris concerned a commission of 1989 for the 200th anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. Finlay was hired to create a “revolutionary garden” at Versailles. Disputes with fellow sculptors led to a charge that his art had a “racial basis”. It became a cause celebre in the French capital, which eventually cancelled the commission.

The affair dragged on for a couple of years and included a prosecution for libel brought by Finlay. He won this, but it was a pyrrhic victory that awarded him damages of a single franc.

A typical paradox emerged as Finlay’s reputation grew while physically he got more restricted to Little Sparta. He suffered from agoraphobia and concentrated his creative energy on the garden. He refined the place by composing poems incorporated through sculpture into the natural environment. Today it is tightly organised with inscribed stones, monuments and whole buildings, many reflecting, by way of myth and legend, on war.

Finlay continued to regard himself as poet rather than craftsman. He left material mastery to assistants who were always credited and treated as collaborators. He made a basic principle of precise execution and first-rate technical achievement in any work that bore his name. Though there is never any doubt that the essentials of concept and design are his own, for a complete achievement he chose to work with the best calligraphers and carvers he could find.

Though in bad health, Finlay produced works in many media. In 1981, he co-founded the Wild Hawthorn Press as an outlet for contemporary poetry, particularly of the concrete variety. Gradually it came to concentrate largely on his own enormous output of poems and texts, photographs and prints, ceramics, tapestries, carvings, bronzes and furniture.

Finlay never had trouble in winning recognition abroad, where sculpture often has functions separate from remembering great men and their deeds. It is a shame his own Scottish nation still finds trouble in making out just what he meant.