GERARD M Burns didn’t decide his paintings were political; that was a decision made for him by others.

He still doesn’t see them that way. To Burns, the rich, crisp oil paintings are all part of how he sees Scotland; questions asked about who we are and where we’re going. But the 60-year-old also knows that his artworks, filled with Saltires and imagery, have also become part of the conversation about how Scotland sees itself.

“It certainly wasn’t any kind of plan,” he says. “If there’s anything underpinning what I do, I paint what I know. I’m a Scottish painter, I’m really digging deep to get to grips with what Scottish identity is.”

A self-described “overspill kid” raised in ­Cumbernauld by parents who’d left the sprawl of Glasgow’s Springburn district, Burns is one of the best-known artists working in Scotland today. A ­former teacher, he built his creative career up on the side before quitting the classroom for good after 12 years in what he calls “the best job in the world”.

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He’s made more than a success of life behind the easel, winning the Not The Turner Prize in 2003 and capturing portraits of everyone from crime writer Denise Mina to rugby great Doddie Weir, national treasure Billy Connolly to Baroness Helena Kennedy QC. Sports stars, business moguls, politicians, actors – Scotland’s household names have queued up to sit for him.

But he’s perhaps best known for another strand of work, those sombre, atmospheric compositions of ordinary people, mostly children, with the Saltire. Canvas after canvas shows the blue and white of the St Andrew’s standard carried by unsmiling girls and boys who often aren’t looking back at us but at ­something else, something inscrutable.

The National: The artist Gerard M Burns pictured at home near Glasgow. The painting behind him is The Rowan and which hung in the Holyrood office of Alex Salmond when he was First Minister...Photograph by Colin Mearns.12 November 2021.For the Sunday National, see

It was one of those pieces, The Rowan, that got Burns pegged as a political painter. In it, a young boy holds the flagpole while a young man keeps the top corner aloft. A girl clutching a posy is also figured, as is an older man, black-jacketed, solemn faced.

The ­figures show the three ages of man, the painter ­explains, with a dug added to represent fidelity, a crow to hark back to our Pictish past and the word “cras” written on the wall behind them – Latin for “tomorrow”. The Saltire takes up 85% of the canvas, with a sliver of a city keeking from behind it.

It hung behind Alex Salmond’s desk when he ­became First Minister. But it had been destined for the walls of Holyrood before that. A call had gone out to Scotland’s artists seeking pieces to adorn the ­people’s new parliament in its very first days, Burns recalls, and he’d been told he was in.

Labour knocked it back because it was deemed to be nationalistic,” he says. “In what country in the world could the national flag be deemed to be nationalistic?

“Nothing had been produced in ­Scotland recently that was more ­appropriate – you have got these ­children, you have got the future, you have got the flag and there’s a pathos about the painting. They are not flag-waving, they are very sombre, reflective pieces. The initial word was ‘this is perfect’,” he goes on.

“Then it went cold and when I dug a bit deeper the feedback was it had been knocked back for that reason. But it did end up in the parliament and it did end up behind Alex’s desk.”

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Arguments over how the flag is used, and even who can or should use it, have come like waves in recent years, all coloured by the fevered debate around the constitution. Burns waves that off. “It’s the Scottish flag,” he says. “It belongs to everyone.”

Burns, who has also captured the ­image of Nicola Sturgeon in Bute House, says the treatment of this image of ­Scotland had a profound impact on how he now sees our society.

“I would have described myself as ­apolitical,” he says of the vision he had when he created the piece.

“Politics was a bad word for me, I shied away from it. I painted the painting because I am ­Scottish and everywhere in the world I went, the Saltire jumped out at me. I was at a point where I thought ‘I can’t believe someone hasn’t done something with this’ and I made a painting where the Saltire takes up 85% of the canvas.

“It’s things like that that change things for you. In the build-up to the ­referendum, like so many Scots, I had to take a position on independence. My journey took me from being probably ­actually more inclined to the status quo to a very, very profoundly pro-independence standpoint.

“These paintings have taken on a political resonance, but that wasn’t intended at the beginning, he goes on. “They have become linked to Scottish political history. They are symbolic, I think, with the push for independence.”

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It could all have been very different. Burns attended Glasgow School of Art, an experience he says almost “knocked art right out” of him. It was a “negative” experience, he says, and a place where he received plenty of space to develop, but not the hands-on tuition he’d expected. A foray into music followed, as did a record contract for his act Valerie and the Week of Wonders, but the band’s route to the charts ended after changes at the label saw them dropped.

Burns channelled his experience of performing into teaching, but continued to make artwork on the side and began building his reputation. His first solo ­exhibition in London took place in the 90s and brought about an unexpected new perspective on his output, and a ­realisation that what he shows to the world can take on a life of its own.

“I took down quite a lot of big strong figurative pieces, quite dark,” he remembers. “I was confronted over and over again by people talking about ‘Celtic’ or ‘Scottish’ faces, which was a total surprise to me because they were just faces in my mind.

“People bring themselves to artworks. I can intend something and people will see something else.

“My palette is distinctly Scottish, the dark colours, the tonality. There’s a whole school of Scottish painters who use these very bright colours – maybe on one day a year you get those, but those aren’t the colours you see. We live in a tonal landscape, particularly from now to April.

“My portrait of Doddie Weir is a ­distinctly Scottish, not just because of the colours, but the individual ­concerned, the classicism, the way I have painted him with the shoulders back and head up, the inclusion of his tartan, that ­beautiful ­Borders landscape in the Eildon Hills. If ever there was a contemporary ­portrait that screams of Scotland, it’s that ­painting.”

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A lot of what he does, he says, is ­“slightly accidental”, but it’s also about “unpicking ideas” through oil paint and canvas. If there’s every an abstraction in the way those ideas are expressed, there’s a ­decided realism in their depictions. “I choose to use technique in the way the Old Masters used technique to convey what I want to convey,” he says. “One without the other doesn’t work.

“There’s a school in LA where they are producing unbelievable technicians who have virtually nothing to say. I look at their work and they don’t know what to do with it. My work, the majority of the works, are about ideas. There’s a very ­specific narrative.”

Sometimes that’s centred around one of our most famous narratives, that of ­Jesus Christ. There are no robes in Burns’ ­retellings of this story. His figures are ­tangible and recognisable everymen – people you could meet on the street. They wear hoodies, they wear trainers, they’ve widow’s peaks, watches and jeans. The body of Jesus is carried by through a ­Glasgow street past walls decorated in graffiti tags. But he hasn’t done St ­Andrew. Yet.

“Paintings come around because of words,” he tells the Sunday ­National. “This conversation could cause me to look again at St Andrew. It’s ­never come into my radar, it’s never been ­something I’ve thought about. There has to be some other take on it, otherwise it ends up like a chocolate box, a ­repackaging, maybe sentimental, which I always try to steer clear of.”

Not that the grandfather-of-four isn’t open to a bit of sentimentality. The Monarch of the Glen, one of the iconic paintings about Scotland, remains a box office draw, pulling in large crowds when it toured venues in 2017, but has also attracted criticism for a romanticised vision of the Highlands.

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Burns will have none of it. “In ­trying to create a new iconography, there’s a ­danger that we throw away the baby with the bathwater. It’s a magnificent picture,” he says of the Landseer piece.

“It’s ­brilliantly executed, it’s part of that slightly ­chocolate-box Scotland which lots of us would like to move away from, but it’s part of the cultural identity.”

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Burns has similar enthusiasm for the works of a host of his contemporaries across different fields – the “inner world” of Alison Watt’s tonal canvases, the “amazing stuff” produced by design house Timorous Beasties, the monumental Kelpies by Andy Scott. “What he has done is remarkable,” Burns says. “It’s a new Scottish icon without a shadow of a doubt, a real living example of creating something new.”

The Dullatur-based painter will do that very thing himself next year for his ­Mother Glasgow project, a series of 12 portraits of immigrant women living in the city of St Enoch, who was forced out of her father’s East Lothian kingdom of Gododdin in pregnancy. Amongst other issues, the project will look at perceptions of immigration.

He’s most often used the people ­closest to him as models, including his children, but Our Future, the multi-figure artwork created by Burns for COP26, features local youngsters from a range of ­backgrounds.

The six were chosen from St Anne’s ­Primary and the artist was ­particular about revealing the multi-culturalism of Scotland’s biggest city. They’re shown in a line-up confronting the viewer, with the lacework on nine-year-old Fifi ­Falaye’s dress almost good enough to touch.

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“People have never lost the wonder, the sheer wonder, of approaching an oil ­painting produced in that way just to revel in the brushstrokes,” Burns says of his technique.

“I have argued long that unless an artwork grabs you on that level, unless there’s something about it that makes you want to get closer and know more then all the symbolism in the world doesn’t ­matter.

“Our Future is a Scottish painting.”