I am often asked why the saltire features so much in my work and that question is probably best answered by looking at this painting. The Rowan was painted in 1999 and was the very first of my saltire paintings. I paint the saltire because I’m Scottish and I am profoundly attached to it – I love its shapes and colours. Our flag has always been a beacon for me, and I notice it wherever I go, so I wanted to do something with it as an artist.
At the time I could have been described as apolitical. This painting was certainly not intended to be a political statement. My intention was that it shouldn’t be jingoistic or triumphal or, ironically, flag-waving. It’s intended to be a relatively reflective, solemn but ultimately hopeful procession of people towards some unknown future.
The painting itself is a fairly seminal work for me because it points towards what would become my more mature style in lots of different ways. Using pictorial elements symbolically was to become an important aspect of my work but in The Rowan there are a number of interesting elements which might not be so obvious to start with. First the three ages of man are represented in the girl holding the rowan branch and the boy holding the flag (my son Patrick, who is my future), the adult man and woman, and the old man. Then there is the combination of children and animals – the dog, again a symbol of fidelity and home, and the enigmatic crow. It was also the first time I used graffiti – the Latin word ‘cras’, meaning tomorrow, is scratched on to the wall, echoing the sound made by a crow, which in Pictish times was a symbol of hope and good fortune. But more than anything there’s the saltire occupying about 85% of the canvas.
In 1997 the Scottish people voted for devolution, in 1998 the Scotland Act established Scotland’s parliament and in 1999 construction started on the new parliament building. The word went out that a new national art collection was being put together so I put forward The Rowan. To my surprise, it was rejected because it was deemed to be too nationalistic. And I suppose that was the beginning of my own political awakening, my own political journey. How can we build a new Scottish parliament but decide that the saltire, the national flag, is too nationalistic? I wasn’t too upset. As it turned out, a few years later The Rowan caught the attention of the then first minister Alex Salmond, who, when he learned of the story of its rejection, pledged to bring it to Holyrood. It hung behind his desk for the remainder of his tenure.
Years after The Rowan was painted I began to work with the saltire again; in terms of my own political journey, in the build-up to the 2014 referendum, I immersed myself in the process and came to the conclusion that the only rational solution was for Scotland to be independent. So The Rowan has taken on a specific political association in retrospect. The saltire paintings I have created since are intrinsically bound up in the push for independence, and I believe, given its impact, the appropriate place for The Rowan is in one of the national collections.