ALAN Riach talks with Sandy Moffat about his current exhibition at Fire Station Creative gallery, Dunfermline: Alexander Moffat at 80.

Alan Riach: When you visit the ancient town of Dunfermline – now officially acknowledged as a “city” although the best of it still retains the old town ethos – you might walk up Carnegie Drive and be brow-beaten by the imposing façade of the Tesco superstore but don’t go past the building beside it. You’ll see the big glass doors and the name of the building itself emblazoned on its front wall: this is Fire Station Creative. Sandy, what is this gallery and how was it established?

Alexander Moffat: It’s an arts charity housed in the old Dunfermline fire station. The building was designed by a local architect, James Shearer, and completed in 1934. Shearer was the uncle of the acclaimed ballerina and film star Moira Shearer, who also lived in Dunfermline.

The arts charity was formed by a local organisation whose aim was to find a permanent home for its cultural activities. After hearing that the iconic Art Deco building was due to be vacated by the fire service in 2010, they appealed to Fife Council to let them use it for the community.

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Alan: When you walk through the doors, it’s an eye-opening space …

Sandy: The vision was finally realised when the charity opened its doors to the public in 2015. It provides 21 studios for 30 people working in the creative industries.

There have been more than 100 exhibitions in the gallery (which was originally the fire engine room). attracting internationally recognised artists as well as those at the start of their careers. Live music is performed each weekend within the busy cafe and bar.

The gallery’s director, Ian Moir, led a long campaign to establish the fire station as a cultural centre and now balances his own work as an artist in one of the upstairs studios with managing the collective operations and the cafe-restaurant in the spirit of ongoing public engagement.

Alan: When you’re there having a coffee or a hot chocolate with friends, the portraits and paintings around you are part of the company too. And right now, there’s an exhibition entitled Alexander Moffat at 80 – but Sandy, all the works on the walls are new!

Or at least, painted within the last 10 years or so. And some, the portraits of John Bellany, the self-portrait, are very recent – it’s almost as if the paint’s still wet! And then there are the big group portraits of The Border Guards: artist William Johnstone; poet Hugh MacDiarmid; composer FG Scott; and another triple portrait of Ronald Stevenson, Dimitri Shostakovich and MacDiarmid again.

The National:

But the main centrepiece of the whole space is Scotland’s Voices, with Hamish Henderson (painting above) orbited by musicians, singers – Aly Bain on fiddle, Allan MacDonald on pipes, Jeannie Robertson, Dolina MacLennan, and others.

All in all, when you walk into the gallery, it’s an immediate space of uplifting colour and conviviality …

Sandy: In planning this exhibition, I immediately thought of showing “Scotland’s Voices”, mainly as a homage to the Dunfermline Folk Club of the early 1960s where most, if not all, of the leading folk singers and musicians in Scotland performed. As the Fire Station holds the archive of the folk club, it seemed essential that “Scotland’s Voices” should form the centrepiece of the exhibition.

Alan: And there’s a particular history to the painting, isn’t there? I see in the north-east corner there’s a double portrait of MacDiarmid having a conversation with Antonio Gramsci …

Sandy: One of the great “battles” of my student years was fought out in the letters column of The Scotsman newspaper by Hamish Henderson and Hugh MacDiarmid on the subject of folk music. At the time, I sided with MacDiarmid but there was no doubting Hamish’s stature as a war poet, a folklorist and a great fighter for humanity.

Fast forward to 2015 when my old friend the film-maker Douglas Eadie (who sadly died last year) got in touch to suggest I make a large painting of Hamish surrounded by the musicians and singers he “discovered” as he toured Scotland with his motorbike and tape recorder in the late 1940s and 50s.

I wavered to begin with as this was a huge undertaking, but when Douglas insisted MacDiarmid, Gramsci and the great German poet Heinrich Heine, one of Hamish’s favourite poets, must all be in the painting I began to think that this was something I just had to do.

I asked Douglas to explain exactly what he had in mind and it’s worth quoting from his letter of July 2015: “You asked me to put into writing my thoughts on a folk revival painting that would be a kind of companion piece to your Scottish poets. Here goes. The first of it was when I came across Tim Neat in his Hamish Henderson biography taking you to task for not including HH in your Milne’s Bar gallimaufry.

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"Tim is wrong on two counts: 1) Hamish was never a Milne’s Bar man and 2) by the early 1960s he had, very deliberately, stopped thinking of himself as a poet having discovered his true metier as a folk collector/animateur (and occasional songwriter).”

Alan: So how did this “battle” – or “flyting” – come about?

Sandy: There was something of a schism between the poets and the folkies, most notably in The Scotsman spat, in this correspondence between MacDiarmid and Hamish.

I think it was really just the two wings of the one movement though neither quite saw it that way at the time and the debate has by now been healthily enough resolved.

But the element of schism does vindicate the idea of a folk revival companion piece. A better setting for a folk revival piece – which would have to have Hamish at its centre – would maybe be not a pub but a campfire. For whatever reason – he never knew his father (perhaps the Duke of Atholl?) and his mother died when he was just 14 so there must have been a big element of personal search.

His discoveries seem to have been predominantly women. So maybe with Hamish around the fire and his tape recorder you could have Jeannie Robertson, Jean Redpath and Dolina MacLennan.

Alan: So this is a companion piece painting, a counterpoint maybe, to Poets’ Pub, which is one of the iconic treasures of the National Portrait Galleries in Edinburgh …

Sandy: And therefore echoing Douglas Eadie’s point that there are two wings of the one movement. Both Poets’ Pub and Scotland’s Voices might be seen as a coming together of the literary and the oral traditions, both complementing each other, a truly Gramscian conclusion of which MacDiarmid and Henderson would surely have approved.

Alan: Could you tell us a little about the new portraits in the exhibition? 

Sandy: In recent years I’ve revisited some of my earlier themes with a new version of Milne’s Bar, a memoir of my student days in the Rose Street pubs. In some ways this is another counterpoint to Scotland’s Voices. The cast now includes not only MacDiarmid but also his wife Valda, not only George Mackay Brown but also the film-maker and poet Margaret Tait, as well as George Campbell Hay, Sydney Goodsir Smith and, occupying a central position, Norman MacCaig.

Alan: Then there’s a painting of another group of people who I’m certain not everyone would associate as companions, or compatriots in art, two composers and a poet …

Sandy: In 1962, when the great Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich visited the Edinburgh Festival, Ronald Stevenson presented him with the score of his mighty work for solo piano, the Passacaglia on DSCH. Stevenson was a great friend and mentor and this was something I’d thought about painting for many years.

The Passacaglia has become a much admired and recognised masterwork and a recent recording by the outstanding Russian/German pianist Igor Levit has won several awards.

Alan: It’s an astonishing recording, that: Igor Levitt, On DSCH (Sony Classical 194398092112), a three-CD set, the first two CDs taking in Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues and the third CD comprising the whole of the Passacaglia, 85 minutes and 23 seconds of white-hot intensity, covering the geopolitical realities of the whole world as far as Stevenson could encompass them, and all grounded, or earthed, in the recurring theme-motif of DSCH.

Sandy: Completing this series of history paintings is a version of The Border Guards depicting the three men who launched the Scottish Renaissance in the early 1920s – Johnstone, MacDiarmid and the composer, Francis George Scott.

All three hailed from the Borders – Scott was MacDiarmid’s schoolteacher in Langholm, while Scott and Johnstone were cousins.

Alan: Johnstone describes the three of them in his autobiography, Points in Time (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1980): “Nervous, highly strung, tautly sensitive with quick reactions, [Scott] had a powerful brain and was fortunate in that he needed little sleep so that he could work a 24-hour day, showing not the slightest sign of fatigue.

“Francis taught me with enthusiasm. He became greatly excited by what he saw as the possibility of a splendid revival, a Scottish Renaissance of the arts. We three were to be the core of this Renaissance.

"He felt that if we all pulled together and tried, Christopher with his poetry, I with my painting and Francis with his music, all having a revolutionary point of view, we could raise the standard of the arts right from the gutter into something that would be really important. He thought that it was a great coincidence that there were three of us, all from the Borders, interested in a great resurgence of art in Scotland”.

And there are the CDs of Scott’s music, which is wonderful: Moonstruck: Songs of FG Scott”, with Lisa Milne, soprano, Roderick Williams, baritone and Iain Burnside, piano (Signum Classics, SIGCD096, 2007); and Complete Music for Solo Piano, with Christopher Guild, piano (Toccata Classics: TOCC 0547, 2021).

So the exhibition opens the doors to further riches. And then there’s another new sequence, commemorating Munch… 

Sandy: In 1931, the first exhibition of Edvard Munch’s paintings in the UK took place in Edinburgh, organised by the Society of Scottish Artists. Munch sent 12 paintings but only 11 were on display. Afterwards, he told his friends “The puritanical Scots refused to show my nude!”.

My Munch series makes reference to this.

Alan: And closer to you personally are the portraits of friends …

Sandy: Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the death of my great friend John Bellany and that prompted a series of paintings of him as a young man in his favourite place, the harbour at Port Seton.

The National:

There are also studies for portraits of Tom Nairn and Alasdair Gray (above), both sadly, no longer with us. It’s always important who we choose to remember.

Finally, it seemed appropriate to include a small portrait I made of my grandfather, Alexander Lawson in his home in Townhill Road, Dunfermline, on New Year’s Day 1963.

Alan: In one sense, that portrait of your grandfather gives the entire exhibition a great historical presence, an authority of connection across distance in time, and you still paint with some his brushes …

Sandy: Yes, his old brushes are still capable of priming a canvas!

Alan: Could you tell us a little about him?

Sandy: My grandfather ran a small painting and decorating business, and it was in his workshops that I first experienced the smell of oil paint.

He taught me quite a bit about house painting – varnishing, stippling, wood graining, and so on – and my relationship with Dunfermline mainly centres around visits and holidays spent at his home. That formed a pattern that continued throughout my childhood and up until his death when I was 21.

It was a formative period and I can safely say Dunfermline was where I gained my sense of history and identity.

Alan: This exhibition is a kind of homecoming for you, Sandy, and one of the most striking paintings here is a recent self-portrait. While you’re very highly regarded as a portrait painter, there are fewer self-portraits in your portfolio.

Why is that, do you think? Is self-portraiture a significant tradition in the history of art?

Sandy: I painted a few self-portraits when I was a student and that was that. I left those to John Bellany and he must have made hundreds of them, often assuming various animal or bird-like disguises as he strove to express his inner self. His body of self-portraits, from his early years right up to his death, remains unique in modern Scottish art.

But recently a number of friends have suggested a return to self-portraiture showing an older self and I began to think seriously about it.

One big question remained: how do you depict yourself? Many artists adopt the self-important route, but I’ve no intention of going there – let’s tell the truth for goodness’ sake!

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Alan: So how did you work towards it?

Sandy: I started by looking at artists who made self-portraits when they were older, Bonnard, for example, captured the fragility he must have felt at that stage in his life, and similarly Edvard Munch, and also the wonderful Finnish painter Helene Schjerfbeck, who made a number of unflinching self-portraits as she approached her 80th year.

There’s Cezanne too, who strangely enough always looked old but remains of crucial importance in terms of the modern portrait.

They all provided the necessary inspiration and in January I filled a sketch book with drawings of myself. It was a much more enjoyable experience than I had anticipated!

The self-portrait has all of a sudden become a new challenge. So let’s just see what happens next.