Will Maclean

Three minutes of sculptor Will MacLean talking about one of his works

Some time ago, a gossip columnist who likes to present herself as a film reviewer tried to have me apologise for criticising the BBC radio presenter Janice Forsyth. (There are film promoters who talk from press releases, film reviewers and film critics. Only the latter are cinema literate.) My dislike of the Janice Forsyth Show is not what she does, promote gigs by Scottish talent and visiting talent – she does that rather well – but what she does not do. We have no one conducting a serious arts forum on the cultural scene. That is not her brief. Her job is to be a celebrity host chatting in a light-hearted manner with other celebrities. And yet the debates about a film industry, the role of television in the arts, rural output, folk art, the music scene, video, artists, and the repercussions of the loss of the internationally regarded Mackintosh school in two fires, are never subjects for illumination. The list of ignored topics is almost endless.

There are lots of questions on Scottish arts and events and developments that demand debate, discussion, analysis and critique. BBC Scotland ignores them, except for bits of the Edinburgh’s International Festival of Arts. There is prefers to invite visiting stand-up comedians to tell their latest jokes on radio, a cheap five minutes, presented by none other than Janice Forsyth.

BBC Scotland is the only broadcaster that engages a respected professor, Duncan Macmillan, to distil his book on a history of Scottish painters for a series of televised programmes and then dismiss the idea of him as presenter and instead have Billy Connolly front the programmes. No insight, only jokes and ‘I like that, and I don’t like that’ remarks. Moreover, there are no documentaries on Scotland’s art subjects or people in the arts news. News of a Batman film shot in Glasgow, that’s wall-to-wall coverage.

Even on the academic side of fine art there are glaring deficits: non-Scottish tutors in art colleagues with no knowledge of Scotland, its history or its culture. What do they teach? How to paint pictures like Constable as if living in Suffolk? Did Edinburgh University or St Andrews replace retired Scottish art historians Duncan and Tom Normand with Scottish Art chairs? They did not. Our culture is everywhere diminished and denuded.

Why do I mentioning this? Because it will comes as a surprise to readers to learn that Scotland is one of the few nations that does not have a gallery devoted to indigenous art – a gallery of Scottish Modern Art. It has galleries that include some Scottish painters, but mostly scattered among European, English or American artists and not necessarily contemporary artists. Those galleries will tend to mount an exhibition on the work of a dead European artist than a living Scottish artist. Had there existed a gallery devoted to Scottish art, the work of Will MacLean would loom large in its inventory.

To discover Edinburgh’s City Arts Centre is showing the outstanding original sculpture of Will Maclean, a quiet, industrious artist in the autumn of his life, is heartening if rather late in the day but better late than never. Maclean works mostly with assemblage, that is, he scours beaches for articles washed ashore, flotsam and jetsam that could be used in his sculpture and fashions them into something meaningful and often very beautiful. I have a Will Maclean. It was given to my wife, so I am not sure if it’s mine, but I love having it in my home.

Will’s themes and motif are wholly concerned with Scottish culture and people, particularly fishing and the sea, and yet have universal application, the duty of any fine artist. In the main, his work is categorised as assemblage, but he has been responsible from memorable public installations too such as three memorial cairns on the Isle of Lewis.

A brief biography: Will was born in Inverness in 1941. Like me, he left school at 16 years of age. He trained as a merchant seaman and worked on the Blue Funnel Line. Fascinated with the sea and the souls that lived and died on it, he was attracted by ways of expressing the precariousness of existence and so attended Gray’s School of Art. Like most artists early in their career, he took to school teaching as a way to pay the bills. Clearly gifted, he was eventually given a post in the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, back then in 1981, an independent art school.

He became Professor of Fine Art in 1994 and is an elected member of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art. (His wife Marian Leven is a painter, and his son filmmaker-musician John Maclean wrote and directed the acclaimed western ‘Slow West‘.) Nowadays Will is festooned with academic art awards and titles, too many to list here, but not the international recognition he deserves. Then again, he is not the self-promoting type, and Scotland relies too much on London for its artistic promotion.

Will Maclean’s art is magnetic. His City Art Centre exhibition Points of Departure requires a visit, one of the best gathering of his output you are likely to see in your lifetime.

I recommend readers to take time to see his work before the exhibition closes on 2nd of October. And and I leave you with an ironic gesture, in the capable hands of Duncan MacMillan, the same writer and art critic mentioned earlier, to tell you more of his work.


by Duncan Macmillan

The fairies of old Caledonia, the sidh or sith, did not have sparkly wands and twinkly wings. They were often dark and sinister and always capricious. They seem to have personified the unpredictable forces governing the precariousness of life and the arbitrary cruelty of fate in the difficult lands of the north and on the dark, stormy waters of the northern seas.

One thing that struck me seeing Will Maclean: Points of Departure, the beautifully laid out retrospective of his work in Edinburgh City Art Centre, was the sense that these dark spirits and the shadowy realms beyond our immediate consciousness that they inhabited are never far away and that precariousness is also central concern of his work.

In works like the Night of Islands prints – an outstanding achievement in any story of printmaking – and others too with references to the Clearances and to the Highland emigrations to Canada, when whole communities were made homeless and banished, the precariousness of Highland life is starkly manifest.

These same concerns seem also to be echoed in works about fishermen and fishing in dangerous waters like the The Drowning for instance, or the magnificent Skye Fisherman in Memoriam. In other works like Northwest Passage – Arctic Route, or Ice Log, he reflects on how the Arctic explorers braved ice and darkness in unknown waters.

Here, as well as his manifest admiration for their courage, the ominous difficulties of the unknown geographically seem to stand for the difficulty of the unknown mentally.

Symbols of Survival (1976) Fleming Collection

In a work like Bard McIntyre’s Box, too, we look directly into the shadows where the Caledonian fairies once lurked. The shamans or priests of the forgotten religions of prehistory who sought to mediate with the spirits that seemed to govern fate are here too. Alignment Receiver Calanais is a box of imagined instruments for the builders of the mighty and mysterious stones of Calanais.

Not that Maclean’s work is all dark and sinister. Abigail’s Apron from 1980, for instance, a touching memorial to a Highland aunt, is simply poetic, but already Symbols of Survival, a key work from 1976 inspired by a US wartime survival kit, suggests voyages into danger, while a figure with black butterflies for eyes and mouth in Window Visitation North Uist, again from 1980, suggests the nearness of the uncanny. That word literally means the unkent, or unknown.

Maclean enjoys the unknown and not always for any sinister implications he may draw from it. One of the most intriguing works here is Time Wheel Library from 2008. Characteristically it is built around a found object, in this case a corroded bronze wheel embossed with enigmatic symbols.

Quite inscrutable but evocative, it looks like a fairground fortune-telling wheel looking into the past, not the future. Riffing on the idea of museums, objects of unknown use like this, representing a kind of inscrutable memory, are a frequent motif in his work.

In the early hours of 1 January 1919, the naval yacht Iolaire was carrying home hundreds of sailors after the end of World War One, when the vessel was wrecked on a reef called the Beasts of Holm close to Stornoway harbour.
Commissioned by An Lanntair Arts Centre, this significant and much called for commemorative sculpture and its open air setting was designed by Will Malcean, Marian Leven and Arthur Watson. Installed in Holm looking out to where the Iolaire sank, the sculpture bears the names of those lost and the communities they came from. 

Memory merges with the precariousness of life in Atlantic Messengers, a group of three works inspired by St Kilda. Perched on rocks in the middle of the ocean, no community was more precarious. Its people scaled the islands’ immense cliffs to glean a perilous harvest from seabirds nesting there. Cut off from the wider world, they sent messages into the unknown in little boats. Incorporating gannets’ eggs from St Kilda cast in resin that looks like amber, these Atlantic Messengers commemorate that slender link, not only as it was then, but also also as a metaphor for art itself carrying messages like flies in amber.

With the Clearances, greedy landlords became a devastating new factor in the precariousness of Highland life. In Lewis, however, people fought back. One of Will Maclean’s most notable achievements is the group of monumental cairns to commemorate this heroic rebellion, collaborative projects that he led, all documented here.


Will Maclean (b.1941) is one of the outstanding artists of his generation. His work is anchored in the history, archaeology, and literature of the Scottish Highlands and the Highland people, as well as his family background and personal associations with the sea. Perhaps best known for his wall constructions, this major retrospective will span almost fifty years of work and embrace every facet of his practice – his constructions, drawings, prints, sculptures, artistic collaborations, video productions and outdoor installations. Combining exquisitely hand-made pieces with found or (on occasions) mass produced objects, his work balances between simplicity and complexity and invites the viewer to linger, to admire and to ponder the universal themes which he explores.

Accompanied by a new publication, the exhibition will be drawn from public and private collections, with many of the exhibits going on public display for the first time. The exhibition promises to be a rich visual feast for anyone with an interest in Scottish art and history.

Alongside Will Maclean at ECAC, there is a show selected from the Scottish Modern Arts Association collection, National Treasure, which quietly but eloquently tells a scandalous story. The SMA was set up in 1907 by a group of public spirited individuals to acquire and preserve for the nation the best of contemporary art, principally but not exclusively Scottish. The works in the show demonstrate how the association did this with skill and discernment. There are outstanding works by FCB Cadell, William McTaggart, Alexander Roche, Ian Fleming, Robert Burns, James Cadenhead, DY Cameron, including from an earlier age Kaatherine Cameron, Mary Cameron, Anne Redpath, Winifred McKenzie Perpetua Pope.


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4 Responses to Will Maclean

  1. Will taught at the school I attended and although I have absolute no artistic capabilities – my brother got these genes – Will Macleans’s sartorial elegance added to the colour and style of the art department and to corridors during lunch breaks etc. He was also massively influential on my friends who studied art some of whom went on to be successful. He was also a welcome relief from the head of the department, whose attitudes remained somewhat old fashioned and put off many talented folks.

    I reiterate your opinion that investigating Will’s work is something everybody should do. It tells stories in many ways – from tiny little panels of carefully arranged sea flotsam to much larger triptyches.

  2. diabloandco says:

    Loved that – ashamed to say that I had not come across this gentleman before and judging by Duncan’s comment that was my loss.

    Good to know your wife uses the same technique as me – see something you like and buy it for your other half as a present.

  3. James Page says:

    I rarely, if ever, comment on any of the blog articles I read but felt compelled to do so having read this piece on Will Maclean. I visited the City Art Centre earlier this week but did not see his exhibition as…..ahem… , I’m ashamed to say, I would have to have paid. Having said that, I still have another 3 months to rectify the matter.
    Actually, the primary objective of my visit was to see the works selected from the collection of the Scottish Modern Arts Association and a splendid choice it was, including The Colourists, Glasgow Boys and many others.
    Unfortunately, the association folded in the 1960s when it offered its collection of over 300 works to the Scottish National Galleries who turned down the offer on the cringeworthy basis that it was “too Scottish” and not international enough.
    I well remember these days when the scottish cringe was in full swing and, sadly, I fear we still have a bit to go.

  4. Grouse Beater says:

    Yes, it was an outrageous policy, that the Scottish National (which nation?) Gallery of Modern Art had a director who ‘hated’ Scottish art and refused to exhibit or purchase any. He was embarrassed by his native culture and sought preferment in what he considered superior cultures. That he survived in his post until retirement was an act of local servility.

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