Alan Riach: Of your own works that have been shown in the Junor Gallery, Sandy, two in particular stand out for me, both epic: “Scotland’s Voices”, the companion-piece or sequel perhaps to “Poets’ Pub”, and the other a version of the great “Radical Road” painting with the determined, cutting red edge of the Edinburgh Crags.

The former is a group portrait of highly individuated people, musicians, singers and poets, the latter an unpeopled landscape empowered by a history of human, political urgency. We’ve talked before about “Scotland’s Voices” (“Meeting the folks” in The National, Friday 20 October 2017), so could you tell us a little more about “The Radical Road”?

Sandy Moffat: Well, I remember in the 1980s I was on an official visit to the main Russian art schools in Moscow and Leningrad and there were no landscapes to be seen. Landscape painting had no place within the Soviet Union’s prevailing aesthetic orthodoxy: “Landscapes are for the summer holidays!” I was told.

Socialist realism meant pictures of the revolution and party-approved subject matter. And I thought a bit like that myself during my student years when everyone in Scotland painted landscapes. You had to ask: What about painting people instead? What about making some kind of statement about the human condition like Goya or Picasso? Painting landscapes didn’t seem right at that time.

Alan: But that changed?

Sandy: Gradually I came round. Sooner or later, the main genres of western painting – still life, the nude, landscape – all present challenges that need to be addressed. An opportunity arose with the individual portraits of the poets, in the early 1980s.

Alan: Your portraits of MacDiarmid, George Mackay Brown, Iain Crichton Smith, Sorley MacLean – many can be seen online – almost all feature real landscapes of their own favoured territories as contexts …

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Sandy: They had to, given the importance of place for those poets. In my portraits of Sorley MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith, I show the barrenness of the Western Isles. The forcible removal of people from their homes was still felt intensely by those Gaelic poets.

Alan: Did bringing portraiture and landscape painting together in this way reconcile the two genres or highlight their distinctiveness?

Sandy: Because it’s so different from painting a portrait, painting a landscape becomes another kind of thing, freer, unburdened, an enjoyable experience.

The landscapes, or landmarks I‘m attracted to usually have some kind of emblematic potential. From my studio window I can see Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags, Calton Hill. The crags and rocks of Edinburgh speak of history and therefore confer identity. It’s similar in Sutherland, with Suilven, and in Italy, the Apuan Alps.

These are perhaps my most pure landscapes – they don’t need people. And it is possible to make a landscape painting that carries additional meaning, as Poussin and Caspar David Friedrich demonstrated.

Alan: So is landscape painting now part of your repertoire?

Sandy: I don’t see myself as a landscape painter in the tradition of McTaggart and Gillies. I’m not a specialist in that way. But it’s something I keep on returning to, in the hope that it will spring surprises and take me in new directions of travel. It usually does.

Alan: Come back to Edinburgh and the Radical Road …

Sandy: Edwin Muir in his 1935 book Scottish Journey wrote this: “The first sight of Edinburgh after an absence is invariably exciting. Its bold and stony look recalls ravines and quarried mountains ...”

This powerful cityscape is something I’ve been making images of for a long time now. In the summer of 1988 I filled a sketch book with drawings of Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags, those volcanic ruins looming over Scotland’s capital city.

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Then I made a number of small paintings attempting to create an emblematic image of Edinburgh – and perhaps of Scotland, again taking to heart Edwin Muir’s description of the Scottish capital: “A city built upon rock and guarded by rock”.

Alan: Landscape as symbol?

Sandy: Well, I was aware of the literary and political significance of the Crags – the setting for James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Walter Scott’s role in the creation of the “Radical Road”.

Alan: This is the path around Salisbury Crags that takes its name from the Radical Rising of 1820, built by weavers from the West of Scotland at Scott’s suggestion.

Apparently his idea was that these political insurrectionists would be better employed creating the path out of the hard Dolerite stone than developing revolutionary ideas, but the legacy is ambiguous. It has always seemed to me that the road runs alongside the rock itself as if they’re both permanent reminders of the relation of the struggle for social justice and the assertion of the earth itself.

Sandy: It was George Garson, my colleague from the Glasgow Art School and an old pal (we were students together), who suggested a big Salisbury Crags painting that would be much more than “a bonnie landscape”.

He had spent the greater part of his childhood wandering over the Crags and always emphasised the importance of the “Radical Road” and how and why it was there. After I sent him a reproduction of my painting I received the following reply: “That red road in the card is really RADICAL, and is the perfect paraphrase of the place as I remember it.”

George’s approval gave me further encouragement to continue with my project. Landmarks are bound up with the mythologising most of us indulge in – the process by which we internalise, and identify with, a particular terrain.

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The Crags and the rocks of Edinburgh speak of a sense of history and therefore confer identity. This is where my nationality was learned. On a visit to Iceland around the time I was working on “The Radical Road” I discovered the rock formations at Thingvellir (the “plains of parliament”) where the Althing (the parliament itself) was established in 930. These rock formations bore striking similarities to the Salisbury Crags. How such places contribute to an awareness of self and country is wrapped in mystery. All we can be sure of is that they do.

The Junor Gallery space as was is to become a Vietnam nail bar but, pending lifting of restrictions, an exhibition is being planned for a new Junor Gallery in St Andrews in 2021. The tide will turn. And with that in mind, and especially for those readers still working on their appreciation of the Gaelic language, let’s end with James Joyce’s words, from Finnegans Wake (London: Faber and Faber, [1939] 1971), p.91, lines 4-5: “… mhuith peisth mhuise as fearra bheura muirre hriosmas …”