The glory of Gaelic

17th October 2003 at 01:00
With a Gaelic Language Bill just announced and the Great Book of Gaelic arriving in Edinburgh, it's time to celebrate

Leabhar Mor na G...idhlig: The Great Book of Gaelic. City Art Centre, Edinburgh. October 18-January 24 except December 25-26.

You do not have to speak a single word of Gaelic to be able to appreciate the exhibition of the Leabhar Mor na G...idhlig at the City Art Centre.

It features the 100 works of art that were commissioned from Scottish and Irish artists as a response to a selection of 100 old and new Gaelic poems. Very few of the artists understood the language, so all the poems were translated into English for them.

Getting artists to respond to poetry is not new. What is unusual is bringing calligraphers in as collaborators.

Each artist had to produce their work on a piece of handmade paper measuring approximately 95cm x 60cm. Some used almost all of the space, others just a small area. The artists were told that at least four lines of the poems, in Gaelic, had to feature either in or alongside their artwork.

A team of 10 Irish and Scottish calligraphers, most of them non-Gaelic speakers, worked with the artists on incorporating the writing. In one instance, the artist, calligrapher and poet got together to discuss ideas.

Displayed with each picture is the poem in its original Gaelic and the English translation.

David Quinn has produced a simple but atmospheric painting of a lone love-lorn figure in a landscape for an 18th-century poem by Donal Og. The first few lines are: "You promised me something you knew was a lie; that you'd wait for me by the sheepfold. I whistled and called your name 300 times and got no answer, only the bleat of a lamb."

An etching of a diaphanous petticoat with Gaelic words running across it like lace is Oona Hyland's response to a poem by Christiana Fergusson, a blacksmith's daughter writing about the death of her husband at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

The acclaimed Scottish artist and writer John Byrne has produced a delightful work in watercolour and pencil for a modern poem by Pearce Hutchison which includes the words: "The pair of us bright naked and the bike moving fast."

Byrne and his actress wife Tilda Swinton are easily recognisable in the picture, seated on a motorcycle, stark naked apart from her bright red high-heeled shoes and his brown leather boots. Ms Swinton's long red hair is flowing out behind her and the words of the poem swirl around the back of the bike like exhaust fumes.

Mairi MacLeod, the Great Book project manager for the Gaelic Arts Agency (Proiseact nan Ealan), says: "The effort and ingenuity that went into the production of these works of art is amazing. One artist, for instance, created a photographic effect by dipping light-sensitive paper into the sea during a full moon. Another rolled naked in mud and then pressed herself against a white sheet and a calligrapher made a special pen nib from the metal of a beer can."

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