Martin Fowler’s Graphic History of Scotland

The Royal Bank of Scotland - Martin Fowler

The Royal Bank of Scotland – Martin Fowler

Compiling 500 years of Scottish history is by no means an easy feat. Countless pages of history books burst at the seams with tales of battles, inventions, kings and queens, acts of law, migration, song – it’s hard enough to even pick where to begin. However, Scottish artist Martin Fowler has done just that, compiling his picks from the last 500 years in an astute new exhibition that serves as a catalyst to examine Scottish identity through history. Entitled Scotland the Brave – A Graphic History of Scotland 1513-2013, the exhibition features ink drawings that document the ‘warts and all’ side of Scotland’s story.

Works in the exhibition currently on show at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh range from monumental events such as the battles of Culloden, Bannockburn and Flodden, to more recent events such as the near collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Housing Act of 1980, Edinburgh’s tram debacle and the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1998. The Relegation of Rangers FC and the comical disaster of the 1978 World Cup campaign also make an appearance – after all, it wouldn’t be a history of Scotland without the mention of football. The series also explores darker and often overlooked issues such as the arrival of the AIDS epidemic in Edinburgh in the 80s, Scottish self-hatred (a term coined by writer Irvine Welsh) and issues within the prison system where Fowler once worked with prisoners as an art teacher.

A Concise History of North Sea Oil - Martin Fowler

A Concise History of North Sea Oil – Martin Fowler

The exhibition serves as an aide-mémoire to Fowler, who said the drawings act as a way to understand and remember events from history. Fowler comes from a generation of Scottish children who were taught a distinctly English history at school, rather than the history of the country in which they were born and raised, saying: “At school there were no references to the Scottish Enlightenment, even though I grew up and went to school in Edinburgh where it happened. I didn’t even have an opinion on it.” Cynicism and satire are employed within some works as a way to critique the madness, as seen in A Concise History of North Sea Oil. Fowler said this piece attempts to address the lies and falsehoods surrounding the use of Scotland’s oil reserves, especially during the Thatcher years.

The Highland and Lowland Clearances - Martin Fowler

The Highland and Lowland Clearances – Martin Fowler

Fowler chose events based on those he had emotional engagement with, providing an alternative history and another way of looking at events that have often had a prescribed ‘John Prebble’ treatment. In his piece on the Highland Clearances, Fowler references the often overlooked role that women played in resisting landowners moves to clear land. This often resulted in heavy handed police brutality, riots and even deaths. He told me a story about the women of Coigach, where in 1853 attempts were made to clear families from the lands around Coigach in Wester Ross. The women defied orders to leave, and proceeded to strip the Sherrif in command of his clothes, destroying the summons he came bearing. He was then put into a boat, returning to Coigach absolutely nude and humiliated. Martin said the events surrounding the clearances are one of the events in the exhibition that have had the most impact on national identity, saying a sense of loss still exists in the Highlands to this day – something that is vitally important to Scotland’s sense of self.

Another piece in the exhibition looks at the Darien Venture in which Scotland unsuccessfully attempted to become a world trading nation by establishing the colony of Caledonia in Panama around 1690. Fowler said he didn’t know anything about the venture before he began this project, discovering the resulting economic and social situation in Scotland lead to one of the most important parliamentary acts being passed. The venture sucked half of the wealth out of Scotland, weakening the country’s resistance to the Act of the Union which was passed in 1707.

Detail - The Massacre of the MacDonalds of Glencoe

Detail – The Massacre of the MacDonalds of Glencoe

Fowler’s style has similarities with that of comic-book journalist Joe Sacco, saying he was influenced by the political and social satires of English caricaturist James Gillray. Fowler is currently living in Carlisle where he is a Senior Lecturer in Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Cumbria.

As Scotland looks towards the future in 2014, perhaps it’s useful to look back in time to see how Scotland’s identity has been shaped by the past. Not only has Fowler created an accessible collection of work but also one that shows a comprehensive appreciation of Scotland’s deep and rich history of the last 500 years.

You can see Scotland the Brave at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile until the 28th of July 2013. Fowler will also be giving a talk about the exhibition on Saturday 20th July at 1pm where he will discuss how the collection came about and offer an insight into the practical and technical aspects of his work. All pieces in the exhibition are for sale and you can view more of his work here.


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