Ruth Nicol and ‘Three Rivers Meet’

Ruth Nicol
Ruth Nicol

During 2014, the Scottish artist Ruth Nicol embarked on a personal and political journey that paralleled the referendum. As Scotland pondered her destiny, Ruth was completing an art project inspired by some of our greatest poets.

‘Three Rivers Meet’, inspired by the Alexander Moffat painting ‘Poets’ Pub’, investigates the landscapes of seven great Scottish poets: Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan, Norman MacCaig, Sorley Maclean, George MacKay Brown, Ian Crichton Smith, and Robert Garioch.

In a special Newsnet Radio interview, Ruth describes her experiences to Derek Bateman. The discussion becomes intensely personal as the artist recalls what the referendum experience meant to her. In a special article below, Ruth adds her own reflections.


Me, The Referendum and ‘Three Rivers Meet’

By Ruth Nicol

My aim was to capture the vast and varied landscapes of the seven great Scottish poets as I journeyed the length and breadth of Scotland with my family.

We travelled to Langholm, Biggar, and Whalsay in Shetland for MacDiarmid; to Glasgow for Morgan; to Lochinver, Assynt and Edinburgh for MacCaig; to Plockton, Rasaay, Skye, and Mull for MacLean; to Orkney for MacKay Brown;   to Oban, and Bable in Lewis, for Ian Crichton Smith; and to Edinburgh for Robert Garioch.

I left the Edinburgh landscapes for Garioch till last, not through planning, just luck: nothing more, and nothing less.  Serendipity meant I tackled them during the height of the referendum debate. Timescales were tight and I had to meet my photography deadline for the catalogue.

Garioch attended the Royal High School, and my intent was to capture its surroundings.  A significant addition since his time was our new parliament building. As he delighted in the detailed happenings of the capital, Garioch would surely have had something to say about it.

Holyrood sketchFor the final painting I moved up onto Arthur’s Seat. Dynamic Earth and Holyrood Palace flank either side of the parliament. Calton Hill and the High School are high on the horizon. I could not fail to notice the new campus for the world’s media being erected in preparation for the vote on September 18.

The daily routine of painting all day and every day was beginning to take its toll on me.

The sheer physicality of it was draining, but this was the last push.  Nothing else for it but to keep painting, hour after hour, layer after layer: keep going, keep painting, keep going, keep painting. Years of effort, not just mine, but my family and my friends who had all offered support and guidance.

Keep going, keep painting, keep going, keep painting

The political tensions were ubiquitous and truly palpable. I was running on empty, not enough sleep and unable to concentrate, just like everyone else I’m sure.

The project never had a political agenda, I am very clear on that.  However I hadn’t anticipated the impact the independence referendum would have on me.

I awoke early on the 18th and joined the queue to vote at 7 o’clock in the morning and then on to the studio. Keep going, keep painting, keep going, keep painting.  It was hard to paint with a shaking hand and a fluttering tummy.

That night I took my girls to the streets to share the moment with them.  I hope they will remember. I know I will.

A day had passed since I stood in line to vote.  The result was clear.

It was hard to paint through tears, it’s hard to write this even now through tears.

It was hard to paint through tears, it’s hard to write this even now through tears.

When The First Minister resigned it hurt, it really hurt, and I stopped.

In the run up to the Referendum vote I had said that I would find a positive way of contributing no matter what happened, but I struggled to live up to that promise. From the first day I identified myself as a member of the 45%.

On Saturday the 20th my photographer arrived. He is a dear friend and we talked and he listened well.  He waited for me to finish painting and gently removed the brush from my hand. ‘Parliament from Arthur’s Seat’ was finished.

Jamie saved me that day. He helped me find my way back to the 100%, where I will always stay.

I am active now and participating, it’s not enough just to vote at elections anymore and I am committed to doing more.

Here’s to all of us.

Ruth Nicol
December 2014.

Ruth art 2The ‘Three Rivers Meet’ exhibition takes place at Line Gallery Linlithgow (January 31 to February 24) and Park Gallery, Falkirk (January 31 to April 18).

The exhibition earned plaudits at previous showings in Edinburgh, Banff and Glasgow during autumn 2014.

 Its title was inspired by the poet MacDiarmid, who said he could identify the three rivers that meet in his native Langholm – the Esk, the Wauchope and the Ewes – by their sound alone.