Category Archives: MACCORMICKS


For the past several years, I have waited expectantly for the first card of the season.
This year I was wondering if an annual event would not be repeated.

But true to form, JOHN HARPER-NELSON, the oldest living member of our family,  came through once more, bless him, with the brief message, ‘still alive.’  

If you would like his address, let me know.


splitrockI think it was in the late 1980s when, with my eldest son, Neil, my mother, Jenny MacCormick,  and my  sister, Morag, we made the multi-part  journey from Gourock to Fionnphort where we would get the ferry to Iona.  We parked the car and strolled by the shore.   My mother pointed to one of the row houses up from the pier  and told me to take young    Neil and knock on the door.   I felt a bit embarrassed because I did not know anyone in the hamlet.  The door opened and an elderly gentleman greeted us. .  It transpired that he was delighted to meet two Neil MacCormicks, namesakes and descendants of a well known local figure.  Over  a cup of tea and some cake, he told us a few tales of  Neil of Tormore of which the most memorable was this one.

He pointed out of his window to the huge rock standing alone on  the shore.  (From my rudimentary knowledge of geology I knew it was termed an ‘erratic’ deposited there during  the melt of the retreating Ice Age.)   “See that split in the rock, well that was  made  by Neil Tormore.’   The villagers wanted to know if the rock could be used as building material and asked Great grandfather Neil to assess that possibility.  The quarrymaster brought some explosives to the site and inserted them in holes he had bored.  Alas, after the test, he declared that the rock had faults in its grain revealed in the split  that would make it unusable for building. 

And so the Split Rock of Fionnphort has remained solitary on the beach,  a curiousity for visitors and one whose origins might not otherwise be known.




(Many of you will already have an audio and/or  transcribed copy of THE GREAT CONVERSATION, as I have named it.   I am indebted to Dr Alistair MacCormick for giving me the cd and transcribed versions.  You may wonder why I  have not earlier included this major piece.  I can only say that every time I read it,  I  had the strange sensation that I was somehow  intruding on  Neil and  Donald, some Celtic shadow –  or more probably Donald’s  interviewing skill and Neil’s undoubted capacity to convey information ) 

THE GREAT CONVERSATION took place in Edinburgh sometime in September, 2008, just seven months before  the untimely death of one of the two participants, Professor Sir Donald Neil MacCormick.  It was only fitting that the other was the highly regarded BBC Newsnight anchor, his cousin, Donald MacCormick.    It is a remarkable document.  I have been told that Neil had notes for the creation  of a family history.    This piece can only give you the tiniest insight into the breadth of his knowledge. 

Donald opens the discussion.

CHAPTER ONE of a conversation between Neil and his cousin Donald recorded in Edinburgh in September 2008.

Q: OK, Neil, the first MacCormicks in the Ross of Mull, who were they and where did they come from?

A: The first ancestor of whom we have a written record is Dugald MacCormick, who is in Iona in 1792 if I remember rightly – one of the earliest of the records of the post-Campbell establishment in Iona after the MacLeans of Duart had been thoroughly rooted out not long after the ’45, and Dugald MacCormick is at the West End of Iona. In those days, Iona was divided into two farms, two collective farms, and the MacCormicks were among the families on the West End farm –I think with MacInneses, Campbells and MacDonalds, that’s certainly the legends I have heard. And so the Mac Inneses, Campbells and MacDonalds and MacCormicks between them shared Culbhuirg, Cul an-t saimh (pronounced “Culdaff”), Machair and Sithean.started off on Iona itself, they didn’t come from somewhere else?

A: That’s what we don’t know, where did they turn up from?…Mairi MacArthur, who wrote a (major) book on Iona, has a theory that just possibly – MacCormick being a Mid-Argyll name as well as a Mull name – that branch of the MacCormicks came in with Campbell tenants…Campbell loyalists…at that period. We don’t know, but it’s certain that at that same time there were already other MacCormicks (or the same MacCormicks, it’s anyone’s guess) on the Ross of Mull itself. And some of the oldest Mull records in the Argyll papers record people like Murdoch MacCormick testifying to a boundary dispute away back in the mid 18th Century as well. (The theory of MacCormicks having come in from Mid-Argyll is perhaps contradicted by Gordon MacCormick, a kinsman of ours on Iona. He has a large and growing website of the MacCormicks, which suggests an ancestor – perhaps Dugald’s father – residing at Saorpheighinn (“Saorphin”) just above Bunessan earlier in the Eighteenth Century.) So there’s no certainty beyond that…Uncle Dugald claimed that…

Q: Just to interrupt for a moment, you’ve already talked about “at some time after the ’45” – Does that mean we’re not sure what part the family played in that matter?

A: I think we can be confident the MacCormick family played no part on either side of it, it was just not involved…Whereas the Glenurquhart MacDonalds were deeply involved, which we’ll come to…I think that Lochbuie kept himself and his people out of the ’45 and the MacCormicks of the Ross of Mull were certainly Lochbuie people…as we know (from the slogan) “Meat and drink to the MacCormicks”. So even if there was a second clan of MacCormicks moving in (from outside), we’ll never know – we just know that they start in Iona in 1792, maybe transported over from the Mull family. Interestingly, one of the MacCormicks at Bogilee (a croft on the Ross of Mull) was known to our fathers as “Uncle James” — though Uncle James was “not a relation”. So did that mean that in the modern sense they were not very close relations, or did that mean that in the most negative sense they were not any relations at all? (At any rate, they were great friends, and very good neighbours.) Wherever that goes, in your line the genealogy goes: Hamish, son of Donald, son of Donald, son of Donald, son of Donald, son of Neil, son of Iain (or John), son of Dugald…and that’s back to Dugald. So that’s, if I was counting rightly on my fingers, seven or eight generations. And of course in Gaelic it’s all (as follows)…s tu Seumas MacDhomnaill ’ic Dhomnaill ’ic Dhomnaill ’ic Dhomnaill ’ic Neill ’ic Iain ’ic Dhughaill.

Uncle Dugald specifically claimed that there were thirty-three generations in which the triplet Dugald, Iain and Neil was repeated. But of course his line was the only one in which it was repeated even twice in recorded history, because Uncle Dugald was son of Neil, son of John, son of Dugald – and his own son was Iain, and Iain’s own son was Neil, whom we’ve met; and I don’t know if they’ve got any further progeny down that line, or not.

Q: Is that the Neil from Canada?

A: No, that’s not the Neil from Canada, that’s the Neil from London, youngish Neil from London, Uncle Dugald’s grandson, who attended the family gathering in Glasgow in 1993. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, it was a big family, there were more than seven sons…eight, I think…and two daughters, in great grandfather Neil’s family. And Neil, great grandfather, is the person about whom we know most. His father, John, was born in Iona and lived for a while as a cottar and shoemaker on Iona – but then came across to the Ross of Mull, and not long after that became the Free Church schoolmaster, which suggests a remarkable level of educational attainment…although he can’t have had any high degree of scholarly training – though my father said that he he could read Homer in Greek while going about work on the croft. But a lot of the books about Mull, including Jo Currie’s recent one, say that the Ross is a bit of a separate territory, because it was never under MacLaine of Lochbuie – or Duart – ownership in the recent past, so that the papers to which the archivists have had access don’t include the Ross. Maybe the Dukes of Argyll directly supplanted the Abbots of Iona at the time of the Reformation. But, according to Currie, there were some interesting families in the Ross, and there was a particularly clever family of MacCormicks. I think the source of the reputation for cleverness is great grandfather Neil, who was the manager of the quarries, whose gravestone we all know on Iona. After all, he worked his way up from being a quarry labourer to become manager – a not very promising prospect, you would think, in the Mull of the mid-Nineteenth Century. He is depicted in one family picture which I’ve never seen, sitting on a wall in a group of young quarry-workers – which is essentially a photograph of Robert Louis Stevenson, who was visiting the quarries with his father in the course of the construction of Dubh Heartach light(house). But he rose to become the manager of the Mull quarries, and did some remarkable things in that capacity – including devising a safety grate for getting heavy loads of granite down nearly vertical inclines, practically cliff-faces. When you think of that in terms of the danger to the men working for him, it was an enormous…

Q: Engineering feat?

A: And piece of safety engineering of an extremely important kind. And he was involved in the good fortune to have very attractive stone that was used in monumental sculpture all round the world.

Q: So what relation was he to the schoolmaster?

A: Son of, yes; and grandson of the Dugald who turns up in Iona in 1792. And all the others are recorded in censuses, we’ve got census records from the whole of the Nineteenth Century, so none of these names have been lost and none of them depend on the Shennachies, or tradition-bearers, passing them down. And of course the great event in Neil MacCormick’s life was when he was asked to go out and visit the porphyry quarries in Egypt, and check if they were workable still – which he reported they were not. They had been worked out, in his opinion. But he was taken into the interior of the Egyptian desert to report on that, and this was a quite considerable thing for someone who’d not actually been outside Scotland before, and I think had not even been on the mainland of Scotland before! Though probably they would have gone to Ayr and places on marketing trips at some time or other. And this was still before the steamships had a regular service – (which wasn’t) until quite near the end of old Neil’s life. He lived to a prodigious age, he was ninety when he died, and his wife was nearly ninety-nine. I think two of the sons, Willie, uncle Willie, and uncle John were Bards of the Mod. Uncle John wrote the first ever Gaelic novel, Dun Allain, he was a very considerable amateur antiquarian, wrote lots of antiquarian literature, a lot of it is not really very long shelf-life stuff; but his book on the Island of Mull, published by MacLaren of Glasgow, is interesting and important. And I think Dun Allain will always be remembered as the first successful attempt to write a prose novel in Gaelic. It was originally reviewed quite unfavourably among the sort of smart, lefty reviewers of the 1960s, when it was re-discovered as part of the Gaelic revival of the 1970s.

Q: I thought you were going to say the smart lefty reviewers of the Oban Times!

A: Not they! But recently a lady whose name I forget has done a new review and discussion of his work and the novel, and gives a much more favourable treatment of it…It’s a book about the Clearances in Mull, in which he evinces really rather an antiquarian rather than a radical mindset – namely, as it were, “If only the good old chiefs would come back”, rather than “If only we got rid of the old system altogether”, which was the sort of Marxist line of Jim Hunter and people like that in the Sixties or Seventies, when this controversy first got under way with the new wave of highland historiography at that time, then quite Marx-influenced.

Our grandfather was a Ship’s Captain, a very good one as far as we’re aware, who ended his life as Marine Superintendent for the Robertson Line of the coastal trade out of Glasgow – freight tramp ships, really.

Q: These were the ones that all had jewels as their names?

A: That’s right, Topaz, Amethyst and all that…I once visited a site in Bilbao that reminded me of a story I was told by Uncle Dugald. My grandfather, he said, had once had a ship there loading iron ore, and the iron ore was being loaded through an automatic hopper, and when the ship was nearly full, the mate would blow one blast on the funnel and when it was to stop loading, he would blow the second blast. But for some reason no one above was paying any attention, so they hopelessly overloaded the ship, and they just had to clear as much of the ore off the deck and out of the hold as they could…And then they just set sail directly over the Bay of Biscay, hit a storm and were very severely damaged but made it, by the grace of God, into the Clyde, where naturally and correctly, grandfather was prosecuted for sailing an overloaded ship. That’s an offence of strict liability, so he was rightly convicted. But he was also congratulated by the Court on having got his ship home safely at all, in the circumstances in which the accident had happened. “Found guilty, without a stain on his character”, you might say.

But they were people of ability, certainly we were always led to believe that…And I suppose in our parents’ generation, the family at Stepps – a doctor, a musician and a teacher, a lawyer and politician – all involved in Scottish politics in one way or another – all able people. You know, it’s a not untypical West Highland family, making good…

Q: At what stage, just to remind us all, did the family move to Glasgow happen?

A: Our grandfather and Uncle John, moved to go to study first of all around 1880, then there was a period of turmoil in the quarrying industry and the quarry went into a period of non-production, and they abandoned night sailing (?)…Uncle John went on training to be a teacher, and did for a time teach in the Outer Hebrides, but I don’t think worked for any length of time as a teacher, and Grandfather went to sea. Then our grandparents got married in 1897 or 98, and Auntie Allie was born in 1900, yes, and your father was 1902 and my father was 1904…and Auntie Anna was 1907. I suppose our grandfather never had a permanent habitation in Glasgow until he got married. But he got married to Grandmother MacDonald after she’d been nursing for some years in the Ross of Mull, so just how long that courtship went on, I’ve never been sure. It must have been fifteen to twenty years!

Q: And presumably it was pursued from afar, to some extent?

A: Yes, at a distance, Grandfather would be home every so often when he got shore leave, I don’t quite know how that worked. But I have heard he would take the steamer to Salen then walk theough Glen Forsa and round the shoulder of Ben More, and so via Kinloch to Fionnphort. And of course Grandma was Queen’s Nurse in the Ross of Mull, at the beginning of that scheme for trying to improve medical facilities in the Highlands and Islands. So if we knew the date when the Queen’s Nursing Service started there, we’ve more or less got the date when she started there…She became very friendly with the old couple at Fionnphort House, and subsequently Achaban, when they moved to Achaban when the quarry finally closed.

Q: Is it true that she owned the first bicycle on Mull?

A: I believe so, well a bicycle was supplied with the job…and nobody could figure out how to get the tyres to inflate, and the Minister was called. Eventually, somebody discovered the bit about the wee tube that joined on the end of the pump to the tyres, and in due course all was well…Probably the doctor helped, though whether there was a resident doctor, I’m not quite certain. But it must have been a lonely and difficult life being a nurse out there.

Q: (Going back to what you said earlier about the Scottish politics side to the family), in your father’s book (Flag in the Wind) our grandmother is quoted as saying, “You should forget all that stuff …(about Home Rule)…that was all finished at Culloden”…

A: What I didn’t realise, when I first read that, was that she had a direct ancestor at Culloden…remarkable family…Do you remember we had a yacht? Dad made a red-painted yacht that he called the “Red Cavalier”…And the “Red Cavalier” was named after Alexander MacDonald, the Red Cavalier, who I believe – according to legend and history – took part in (the battle at) the Pass of Killicrankie, and he was a junior member of the Clanranald family from Castle Tioram in Moidart, who fell out with his family and, as they say, set off over the Strathglass Hills and settled in Glenurquhart, or thereabouts, where he became a cadet, or associate, of the Grant clan, the Grants of Glenmoriston, particularly the branch which was the Grants of Corrymony…And indeed, you can still visit Alexander MacDonald’s grave in Corrymony graveyard, quite close to the grave of the last of the Grants of Corrymony – a line that died out in the late Nineteenth Century, which has some significance for our family. Anyway the Alexander MacDonald of whom I speak was a descendant of the Red Cavalier. The Red Cavalier had two sons, at least, and a daughter, and I believe the Red Cavalier was one of those people who was young enough to have fought at Killiecrankie, and not too old to have fought at Sheriffmuir…His sons, or it may be his grandsons, I can’t just remember, Somerled and Iain, were recruited into Glengarry’s regiment in the ’45 and my brother Iain has a book I once gave him as a present which has a muster roll of Prince Charles’s army – and you’ll find the names of Iain MacDonald and Somerled MacDonald in that muster roll. They are just ordinary soldiers in the Glengarry Regiment. So either as sons or grandsons, these are direct descendants of the Red Cavalier, who himself was of Clanranald in a junior line. This is why both you and my brother Iain have Somerled in your names, because unquestionably if you have a descent from Clanranald you have a descent from Somerled the Great; that’s just one of these clear facts of West Highland genealogy.

Q: Somerled the Great being The Lord of the Isles?

A: The First Lord of the Isles, yes…or the progenitor of the First Lord of the Isles, actually. Yes, that’s of whom we speak…Now, Somerled and Iain MacDonald had a sister who married a man – I can’t remember his first name – a Grant who was also a great Jacobite, and a baby,Charles Grant, was born on the eve of the Forty-five who was baptised under the crossed swords of his uncles and was fed salt into his mouth to spit out the names of the Hanoverians at the time of his baptism, and then all went off to war. After Culloden, Iain and Somerled MacDonald succeeded apparently in making their way back into Glenurquhart, where they learned that the Duke of Cumberland had offered an amnesty to all those who would surrender, and would spare their lives. And Iain decided, according to the historical record which I’ve read, that he would take the Duke at his word and was sent as an indentured servant, in effect a kind of lifetime slave, to the West Indies. Whether this means that Trevor McDonald is a relation of ours, I don’t know! But Somerled decided he would not trust the Duke, and remained in hiding in the woods of Glenurquhart, and didn’t come out of the woods for about fifteen/twenty years, until the general amnesty was finally declared – I suppose around the time of the American War of Independence, when they were recruiting in the Highlands again. Then he came out of hiding and got married and had a family – and his grandson, I think, it might be his great-grandson , was our great grandfather Alexander: father of our grandmother, Marion MacDonald. So it is literally true that when she said something died at Culloden, she was not just thinking of something strange and alien, and that was because of the curious length of families. Her father was very old when he became her father, because it was a second marriage. He was first of all married to a Grant, and then to a Kennedy from Lochaber – Mary Kennedy, who is our great grandmother and a kinswoman of Charlie Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats.

Q: So the man who lived in the forest for fifteen years and then came out and got married, he must have been quite an age by then…

A: Yes, you’ve got long generations…Auntie Allie had, and it’s in my house somewhere, a MacDonald family tree which traced some of the generations – but there’s also a very interesting book called “The Life of the Reverend Kenneth MacDonald”… . He was a Free Church of Scotland missionary in India, who founded the Free Church of India College in Calcutta, which was a going concern in the days when we could afford to have two Presbyterian churches from Scotland conducting overseas missions. And there’s some good family history in that…There’s some also to be found in the life of Sir Charles Grant, who was the boy who was made to spit out the name of Hanover; he eventually became the MP for Inverness and Secretary of the East India Company.

Q: The salt-spitting didn’t really work, then?

A: Well, maybe it did – anyway, it was not a permanent prophylactic! After the death of Charles Edward Stuart, his brother, Henry Stuart, Cardinal of York, acknowledged the legitimacy of the Hanoverian line. This released the traditional Jacobite from what had become a pointless loyalty.

But the MacDonalds produced some pretty bright people in successive generations, and we do have quite a good family tree available somewhere, with all these names on it. And there’s my Mother’s family tree, involving Millers and Grieves and Watsons and Baillies – they were an interesting bunch as well…But for the MacCormicks we only have what is in the parish records and partly in my and other memories, and this is our line of it…and I thought it was all we had. But this turns out to be false, owing to very substantial work by our kinsman Gordon MacCormick of Sithean on Iona.

Of course there are all the other important people, and two were particularly important to me: namely Uncle Neil and Uncle Dugald. Because when I was learning to play the pipes I would go to visit them in Uncle Neil’s house in Elmbank Crescent in Glasgow and that was a kind of curious introduction to an imaginary landscape, because the tunes I was playing , quite a lot of them, were from my grandfather’s book of tunes and were tunes about places on Mull I’d never seen – though of course Neil and Dougie knew them intimately. No sooner would they read the name of the tune than they would start talking about the place, and then tell me some of the stories of the place as well. They were never done telling stories , the way old people do: they tell you more than once, many more than once – which means you remember it, to some extent. So I grew up in my teens with this imaginary landscape, which was only partly imaginary, because we’d been on holiday three times to Bunessan (Ross of Mull) and you knew the lie of the land in a broad sort of way, but little boys have a distorted vision of distance and landscape and so when I was a student in 1960 and working in the summer at the St Columba Hotel on Iona, and was allowed my Wednesday afternoons off to re-explore the Ross of Mull, it was a remarkable sort of re-visiting of a hitherto imaginary landscape and cladding it with thoughts, and people, and..

Q: “A local habitation and a name…”

A: Exactly, well said…So how are we doing, making progress?


Having listened to a playback of Chapter One, Neil felt some things should be added, most of them to do with the distaff side of the family. He observed that families tend to run in the male line because of the way we use surnames in our culture…

A: But both my great grandmother Annabel MacLachlan and my grandmother Marion MacDonald were enormously forceful people in the families they ran. And in the case of Annabel MacLachlan well, her significance is discoverable from the number of Annabels among her descent; she was clearly a very forceful, matriarchal figure in the family. Her family were an interesting family, they descended from the hereditary armourers of the MacLachlans of Strathlachlan in Argyll, and they’re yet another displaced aristocratic family from after the Forty-five. And what happened to the armourer of the MacLachlans after the dispossession of the MacLachlans from Strathlachlan, and the general disruption of the clan system in that part of the world, was that he took to being a smith, instead of being a sword-maker, for domestic equipment. And via smithing, he moved into quarrying and spent a period at least in the quarries round Ballachulish, which is how we created a clan connection with a family of Gillieses, who were also in that area and turned up subsequently in Tayvallich, in Argyll… But who were second or third cousins of ours through the MacLachlan line, just as a matter of chance. And as a further matter of chance it happened that these Gillieses intermarried with MacKellars, who were great friends of ours: John MacKellar and his father Jimmy. And Jimmy’s mother had been a MacCormick, but not a Mull MacCormick, a mid-Argyll MacCormick, and I just thought we would mention that not merely was it the case that, as Mairi MacArthur conjectured (see Chapter One), there were MacCormicks in mid-Argyll in the late Eighteenth Century, there had been MacCormicks there for a very long time. The best source of proof for that is the old churchyard at Kilmory Knap, where there are a lot of MacCormick graves, which are associated with the Campbells of Taynish, interestingly. And of course the church on the opposite point across Loch Sween from Kilmory Knap is the church of Kilcarmaig – i.e. St Cormac’s Church, so Cormac was a cult name in mid-Argyll and it wouldn’t be surprising if people used Cormac as a forename, and then in the way that families got named, and then cadet branches of families would take a sub-name, so that MacCormick would be an obvious and common name in that part of the world, too. Anyway, that was the MacLachlans.

Q: But Cormac being a cult name originally from an Irish input…?

A: Well, Irish, Scottish…it was one language…Yes, St Cormac and the MacCormick Islands (at the mouth of Loch Sween) are all part of the same package. Eilean Mor Mac Ui Charmaig is the Gaelic name of Eilean Mhor, and the MacCormick Islands is the given name in the Ordnance Survey of the little islands at the foot of Loch Sween. And Kilcarmaig (or Cille Mhic Ui Charmaig), or Church of MacCormick, or Cormac’s Church, is Keills Church, or Old Keills Church (on the North side of Loch Sween). So there we are, that’s a digression into the MacCormicks in Mid-Argyll, via the MacLachlans.

But in the days of the granite quarrying, the “Red Smith”, Donald MacLachlan the Red Smith, moved into the Ross of Mull and set up a smithy there and did work with quarrying. And that’s how the connection between great grandfather Neil and Annabel MacLachlan came about, that’s how there was an Annabel MacLachlan for Neil MacCormick to fall in love with and marry – which they did around 1853, I think, and all our ancestors come from that union…but an important line of people, and interesting people, and had a great family binding influence. Incidentally, for a while in her young days Annabel MacLachlan acted as I suppose a kind of housemaid and companion to old Colin MacLiver, who was the father of General Sir Colin Campbell, Lord Clyde, and was a kinsman, in some degree, of the MacLachlans. So there was a kindred between old General Campbell, who adopted the name Campbell on joining the Army, whose name was MacLiver, and when you think of it, the name MacLiver, which came from Islay, is actually the same name as Gulliver, mispronounced as “son of Ivar” (in Gaelic)…However these are little by-notes of history…

The second by-note I wanted to put in is about our own grandmother (Marion MacDonald), which is a particularly sad chapter of Scottish history…As we said, her father, Alexander MacDonald, was a tenant of the Grants of Corrimony and had a big croft or a small farm, I’m not sure, above the village of Balnain in Glenurquhart, which is where our grandmother went to school. The Grants of Corrimony died out, the last of the line died a bachelor and childless, and senior member of the faculty of advocates in Edinburgh – after which the estate fell into distant hands and was taken over by an agricultural improver, whereupon the MacDonalds were evicted from their croft, which, as was then done, was burnt on their leaving it, because in these fairly sparsely wooded parts of the world, not so much Glenurquhart as farther north, if you could take the roof tree off a house and burn it, there was no serious prospect of its being resumed as a habitation. ..Whereupon the MacDonalds moved down to Milton, in Glencoe, and worked at wool-milling – though the old man must have been very very old by this time. And eventually he died, and later, about the age of eight my grandmother and her mother, and some of the siblings of the second family, set off to emigrate to Canada. But they never got that far: the great port of migration at that time for that part of the Highlands was Campbeltown, because you could access it via the Caledonian Canal and the Crinan Canal – so small boats took people from Temple Pier on Loch Ness down through the canal and down into Campbeltown. However , in Campbeltown they found relations who were of the first family, who possibly had made the same trip at some earlier time, and the Watsons and other families who were relations in the half-blood, and still living in Campbeltown. So old Mary Kennedy/ MacDonald and Marion and others of the family set up in Campbeltown, and Grandmother attended secondary school there, from which she went to study as a nurse in Leith; why she went to Leith General Hospital I have no idea, but that is what she did. Well there are two stories about that…she was bilingual by this time in Gaelic and English – or Gaelic and broad Scots, because of course Campbeltown was much more broad Scots-spoken than standard-English-spoken – so when she was studying to be a nurse in an important place like Edinburgh, she had to try to forget her Gaelic and her Scots, and apparently on one occasion, or rather the great occasion when she left, she got on to the train to go up to Glasgow and then on to Edinburgh, and the gentleman sitting opposite her said, “Excuse me, miss, do you mind if I close the window?”. To which she is said to have replied, “No, I don’t remember”. There’s another story which my father told me which I think must be well grounded in truth, which is that when she was training to be a nurse the surgeon in the hospital decided he wanted to perform an appendistomy – which was a new operation at the time, and the first one he had performed. And he was actually a Gaelic-speaking Highlander himself, although well-masked. But in the course of the operation he became agitato and started requesting implements and things in Gaelic, and the only other person in the room who could help – who was the most junior person present – was my Grandmother, and instead of being congratulated afterwards she was subsequently treated as something of a black sheep, for knowing this rather impossible, barbarous language. Anyway, however that turned out, she turned out as a nurse and we pick up her story again as the first Queen’s Nurse in the Ross of Mull.

Q: Just to interrupt briefly, what sort of position was that of Queen’s Nurse…just a facet of the system at that time?

A: Yes, I don’t exactly know – it was Queen Victoria who was the patron of this scheme. I think it was a general scheme, for what became District Nurses country-wide. I believe there was a period in which the conditions of health and well-being in the Highlands and Islands became such a matter of concern that special schemes were set up to improve medical recruitment; but I think that probably came later, I think it was just a general…I don’t exactly know the detail, I just know she was the first (Queen’s) Nurse there – whether they started there or somewhere else, I don’t know. I think that covers all that early period of family history where I have anything special to impart. There is, as I said, a book about the history of Glenurquhart and Glenmoriston which has some little bits about the MacDonald history. And there’s the Life of Charles Grant, and the Life of the Rev Kenneth MacDonald. The other important document to put on the record at this point is the journal that my great-grandfather kept when he went to Egypt – it was transcribed and typed up by Uncle John. His daughter Annabel has the original typescript, she gave me copies of it and I copied it on to numbers of people, I’m not sure all to whom. I still have a copy myself, in the house in 19 Pentland Terrace somewhere, but I’m afraid my papers are not very well ordered at the moment, I hope I’ll still have time to order them a bit. But I think if that could be rescued and published, for example through Birlinn Books, it’s the kind of historical record that’s now of interest to people, about the Highlands of that period. It’s a travelogue, really, by an old man of totally Highland background going to Egypt in the late Nineteenth Century – not the most usual eventuality. I also wrote a little note at one point for a talk in Oban called “Memories of the Ross of Mull: Tales My Great-uncles Told Me”, so if I can ever put my hands on that manuscript, that would add a little bit to this, perhaps in itself not very important – but a wee bit of the imaginary landscape re-discovered.

CHAPTER THREE As Neil prepared to move forward and explore the modern history of the clan, it seemed appropriate to ask him first about the former family home of Achaban in the Ross of Mull. He has already referred to it in Chapter One, but more importantly, for present generations of MacCormicks taking the road from Bunessan to Fionnphort, Achaban is perhaps the first and most recognisable sign that you are in home territory…

A: Achaban is from the point of view of our family visiting Mull a very significant landmark, partly because when we were young our Great Aunt Bella – Annabel Harper-Nelson – was there, and her remarkable family of interesting people, too… But more because it was the retirement home to which Neil and Annabel MacCormick moved when they left the quarry-house – the old Fionnphort House, in actual Fionnphort village. So it’s a kind of landmark of arrival in our part of the Ross of Mull, and that leads over to Iona. There’s an interesting story which you probably know, or may have forgotten, that after the quarries closed Fionnphort House was taken over as the ferryman’s house. Then sometime in the mid-1950s, it burned down and became a ruin, just at the time when they were making rapid progress in restoring Iona Abbey. And the stones were in fact collected from the old Fionnphort House and taken over to be built into the Abbey buildings in Iona – whereupon various people, including Uncle Dugald, and I think Johnny Ruanaich, remarked that the old man had always predicted that he would be buried in Iona, and that the stones of his house would follow him there. So there we are…

Q: It came to pass!

A: Yes it came to pass…Anyway, that was the story of the moving of the stones to Iona. But everyone who goes to the Ross should, if they can possibly manage it, go and visit Old Tormor Pier down on the Bull Hole, and walk down that cliffway staircase, which was the old route of the quarry railway that transported the pink huge blocks of granite, which are no longer there to be seen but were until recently quite a landmark in themselves.

Q: And that was the cliff where Neil designed that system…(See Chapter One.)

A: Yes, that’s important…Of all the things that are monuments to the times the MacCormicks worked the quarries I think Tormor Pier is the most moving and impressive. The other interesting thing about that family is its musical prowess. Old Neil, Neil himself, was the choirmaster of a choir which combined – in an astonishingly ecumenical way for the period – a choir of the Established Church, the Free Church and the Baptist Church, each of which flourished in the Ross of Mull at the time. And he was presented at the end of it all with a clock, which is still in the possession, I think, of Fiona Eden-Bushell, because it went down through that line of the family. But I was given by Annabel this past summer – Annabel Macinnes Culbhuirg, Annabel MacCormick Macinnes Culbhuirg – our clan chief, I suppose! – a psalter which was owned by Neil MacCormick, which has got the old, you know, divided pages, with the sheet music on the top leaf and the words on the bottom, so you could combine different tunes with different words. So this was obviously a valued possession of his, and he was clearly a musician of some prowess, you know, he managed a choir, and of his sons at least four were more than competent pipers, very good pipers. Our Grandfather never played the full pipes, he only played the chanter, but he also played the fiddle with great accomplishment, I’m told, and you may remember there was a fiddle in the garden shed at Stepps when we were little which had been his fiddle, which we made various ineffectual attempts to make music with…

Q: Stockhausen-like noises!

A: Yes, the only musical talent the four of us revealed at that period of our lives was at the mouth organ…with that very interesting mouth organ band! Also, music then descended into the next generation, particularly though not only through Auntie Anna, and all our Sundays and all our family gatherings included recitations on the piano of Kishmul’s Galley and other Kennedy Fraser tunes, together with Chopin’s preludes and nocturnes and so on…So we lived in a musical environ, and other branches of Neil’s family were very much similar, I mean Uncle Neil’s family were hugely musical and Uncle Neil himself wrote many books of pipe music, and was a fine piper himself in his day. Uncle Lachie was a pipe-major in the First World War, Johnny Ruanaich was a pipe-corporal in the First World War, Neil – alias “Fili” – who is the father of Big Neil who lives in New York, conducted a church choir and was very engaged with music in his life, and was a piper in the First World War for a while, too. So there’s a great deal of piping and music and the old traditional music of the islands there. Uncle Dugald has got some of it recorded at the School of Scottish Studies, and I have a tape of some of the things he recorded in the house. I know that myself – and I think I’m probably the last person to have sung any of them – and I will try and make some of the written record of things…Our grandfather left three very good books of pipe tunes; unfortunately Auntie Anna lent two of them to a band in Helensburgh, which proceeded to lose them, which was a terrible shame and not Auntie Anna’s fault at all, but we’ve just got one of the books left, which contains all his best tunes – except the great tune, “The Lads that Will Return No More”, which was the tune played at the opening of the Glasgow Cenotaph. I think there was a competition to submit a tune for that and according to my Father, and I see no reason to doubt it, “The Lads that Will Return No More” was the, or one of the, tunes played to open that Cenotaph. It’s a very beautiful tune, I think, and if I don’t write it down soon, it will not exist in written form anywhere because it was lost; but I remember it, and only I can. (Since then, Neil has written the tune down, and in due course a copy will be made available.)

Q: And where did you first hear it, that particular tune?

A: Well I heard it by playing it off the sheet music, then played it to Uncle Neil and Uncle Dugald, who could then say, “Well this is how it really sounds…”, you know they would sing it back to me. It’s a very interactive thing, learning a pipe tune. And of course when we had Uncle Dugald staying with us for four years at Park Quadrant in Glasgow, often two or three nights a week I would go in with the chanter and we would play tunes and talk, so I learned an awful lot…It’s from there that all the notes from the imaginary landscape descend quite a bit.

Q: And now your nephew Kyle is shaping up as a possible piper…?

A: He, attending Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, will have a very good opportunity to learn them, if he can – if he chooses – which would be very nice. Otherwise I would be the last of the line, in the piping way. But people can be musical in all sorts of other ways. So I think that one of the things about our family, looking back at it, was that it was a family very much engaged with music and taken up in interesting ways with the traditional music, but not only the traditional music – also classical music: Auntie Anna and the other MacCormick girls at Elmbank Crescent.

And of course the other thing we were all inured to, and educated to, during these many family summer holidays, was the sea, was being competent boat people, which I think was terribly important. And we weren’t yachtsmen, we weren’t sailors of “Dragon” yachts (except when I crewed for Billy Mann and things like that) but we were handy people in a rowing boat, all of us, and we knew how to conduct ourselves well. And that was part of our inheritance from our grandfather, I suppose. And your father and my father…there are lots of pictures of them at Crinan and places rowing away…

They were also very busy in the National Party – I discovered some letters of father to my mother, when Marion and I were tidying papers… you have said you don’t have many personal memories of your father, but he was very involved in the SNP in its early days, the National Party of Scotland, and was convener of a thing called, I think, the Nationalist Graduates Association and sort of organised the ex-Glasgow and ex-Edinburgh University graduates who were in it. So they were very involved and worked together as a family…It was a shame that Uncle Donny, your father, died so young that we all have relatively slim memories of him, whereas my father was a very dominant figure, particularly in his high period in the late 1940s and early 50s, when the (Scottish) Covenant was at its full swing and he was the man in the news all over Scotland. But he was always also quite a family man and I remember enjoyable evenings – especially at Tayvallich in the evenings – sitting chatting, and he would be making jokes and keeping us thinking about the way the world was going. Also it must be remembered…

Q: I remember that he used to sit in that cottage in Tayvallich which your family used to occupy, and he was writing his book, The Flag in the Wind, in jotters – and in pencil!

A: Yes, I still have the pencil drafts, that’s right…and then he wrote it in ink, in other jotters, and we still have all these jotters with the original manuscript in them. But we were a matriarchal family, really. Your mother, and my mother, I now realise looking back, were women of extraordinary fortitude and intelligence, and wisdom, and they were backed up by our joint two aunts, Auntie Anna and Auntie Allie, who was the financial power-house of that family, I mean she kept us all going with subsidies that none of us really knew of until long after…

Q: A sort of Marshall Aid for the family…

A: Yes, here was this maiden lady, working a quite lonely life in an infectious diseases hospital in Derby, near Derby, Derwent Hospital, and living a very frugal personal life, making I suppose a consultant’s salary on the National Health and spending it, effectively, maintaining her nephews and nieces with their education and other help that she gave us all. Meanwhile Auntie Anna was a guide, philosopher and friend and permanent backup, because your mother and my mother were often in demand and busy for other reasons with their own work and things – and Auntie Anna was always somehow available to come and hold the fort or have us out to stay at the old family home in Stepps. And in our family Aunt Elizabeth, my mother’s sister, after she stopped running the huge garden at Westwood – which was my grandmother’s house in Bothwell, where we could all run wild, as the four of Iain, Marion and Elspeth and me spent Augusts there entirely, and you and Alistair came to visit us occasionally and we would smoke Woodbines up the trees furtively, and…

Q: With very little pleasure!

A: With no pleasure whatever – and we would pick plums and raspberries and strawberries and just lived the life of wild children, it was wonderful. And Auntie Libby maintained that garden until my grandmother died, and then she moved on and had several smallholdings of various kinds, ending up as schoolteacher in Kippen with a very big garden adjacent to Kippen School, which Iain and Marion and Elspeth and I used sometimes. I did my swotting for my Finals there, or part of it, and then my own daughters used to visit when they were little – although by that time Aunt Libby was getting old, and a bit wandered. So we lived a life which was very surrounded by very caring and devoted aunts, you know whom it’s easy to write out of scripts; somehow men are more glamorous figures in family history, but without these aunts our lives would have been totally different than they were, and they were enormously important figures. So I was very glad that we were able last year to put up a little memorial at the family grave at Bedlay, at Moodiesburn just outside a Stepps, where grandfather, grandmother and your father are all buried, and my Dad is there and my mother is now there also…her ashes…and there’s a plaque commemorating Auntie Anna and Auntie Allie, which is how it should be. We’ve still to do something for Aunt Elizabeth, but Marion has that in hand. So there we are, we think this was a family in which music was very significant, and in which the sea played a role in our collective legend – but of course above all it was also a terribly Scottish family, tied up with concern in Scottish history and Scottish politics, and I suppose we all had, in different forms, a kind of bias which runs through our whole way of looking at the world – which is not, I think, a merely parochial, narrow, little-Scotlandist view, but it’s a view of the world as a world that starts from, and as it were flows in concentric lines from Scotland, and that our engagement with the world is an engagement as very incurably Scottish people, and hence intensely interested in things like this family history and the more general history of our country…These would be the important features of it, and certainly ones that were transmitted very strongly by all the people we’ve mentioned – in particular by my father and by Auntie Anna but also, to an increasing extent, by my own mother; particularly in her retirement years, she took lots of courses in history and got more and more engaged with it. Also your mother did her very important, unsung work with educationally challenged children, in what were then called Special Schools; and my mother, before and after her marriage, spent about thirty years in all working with disadvantaged adults through the City of Glasgow Society of Social Service, and then finally in the Gorbals at the Guild of Aid – of which she was finally Warden, in the years between 1970 and 1974, when she retired, and there she did a lot of work with old people in the Gorbals at a time when the Gorbals was being taken to pieces, and the old way of life was difficult for elderly people to sustain…So I think she did much good there, but, again, these are unsung heroes who deserve a mention in any discussion of this kind.

Q: Just a further question about one of the “sung” heroes – your father, when his political career came to an end, he was actually a Liberal. So how did that come about, what does that say about his wider fame, still, now, as a Scottish Nationalist?

A: I tried to answer this in a way, though slightly obliquely, in the introduction I’ve just written to The Flag in the Wind (Second Edition) – which now contains a fascinating new appendix which includes something Marion and I discovered – a thesis written to Miss Margaret Isobel Miller in, it must be, 1928. In it, my father says why he thinks that the National Party of Scotland is the necessary vehicle for progress in Scotland. It’s very passionate, and he’s coming out of the Labour Party at the time, he’s coming out of the ILP, and he’s saying that although Labour believe good things, he doesn’t think they can actually achieve them – because parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster will always mean that when they’re in a position to do something (about Home Rule), they won’t do it because they would lose their UK majority through the removal of Scottish Labour MPs to a separate Scottish Parliament. And when they’re not in a position to do something, they’ll just say they’ll do it. This was really quite prescient, I think: it shows how the National Party was founded, but Dad was always a man with a sense of being in a hurry to get places. Another group of a more establishment kind, called the Scottish Party, formed in 1932, and some of the figures in it, were rather leading figures in Scottish Society, such as the Duke of Montrose and people. Dad thought it was very important to get back on track with people of that kind, who’d been involved in early discussions about the National Party; so the Scottish National Party was formed in 1934, in circumstances of some controversy because some of the “ultras” – the old NPS – refused to go along with it and were expelled in the process. So it was quite hard work, harsh work, establishing the SNP in 1934. And then they soldiered through the desperately difficult 1930s – including the 1935 General Election – and came to the beginning of the War. Partly because of the “War to end Wars” sentiment, and partly for constitutionalist reasons which I’ve never understood – in spite of being a constitutionalist myself – there was a body of opinion, led by Douglas Young, which said that the Westminster Parliament under the Treaty of Union had no power to conscript Scots to serve abroad, and Douglas Young went to jail rather than be enlisted for the War. And he was then elected Chairman of the SNP, which Father took to be a repudiation of all the efforts he had been making in a more moderate direction, which had seemed to bear fruit in the 1940 by-election in Argyll, where William Power came a very close second to the Government candidate. He might well have won, but the Phoney War had just come to an end. Interestingly, the next person to contest Argyll for the SNP was my brother Iain MacCormick, which he did in 1970. He was not elected but in 1974 he was elected twice, so the promise of 1940 in Argyll was finally redeemed thirty-four years later, at the beginning of the first big upswing in SNP fortunes…A very big upswing, though there had been the earlier moments at Hamilton and in the Western Isles with Winnie Ewing and Donald Stewart.

But the upshot of the split of 1942 over the War issue was that Father and his more moderate faction, if you would call it that, set up a thing called the Scottish Convention and proceeded to try to get going an idea which had already been mooted within the SNP before – namely a Covenant, an umbrella appeal to all Scots to commit themselves to the idea of a Parliament on the basis that the Covenant was an all-party and no-party organisation; it was not in the pocket of any party, but (in elections to Westminster) its members were free to support whichever party they thought was most appropriate to the purposes to which they were committed. So in that context my Father became a Liberal and fought the 1945 General Election as a Liberal in Inverness, which he had previously fought as an SNP candidate. Then he fought a by-election in Paisley in 1947 under the label “National Candidate”, which was a kind of all-party support other than Labour. So it was a kind of direct challenge to Labour in Paisley; he came quite a close second, but didn’t win. Then finally, in 1959, he had one last throw and fought Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles as Liberal candidate and came a good second – teeing up the ball for the young David Steel, who won a by-election there in the next succeeding Parliament. So he had an unsuccessful electoral political career and you could argue that he made a mistake in having left the SNP, founded the Covenant, had huge success in gathering signatures, and not himself remaining aloof from all parties, but he didn’t ever win a parliamentary election. However, I argue this, that in the end of the day both the strategies he pursued turned out to be complementary and necessary: without the Covenant tendency, as you might call it, there would not have been the Scottish Constitutional Convention – that whole bringing together of different parties to put up a scheme for devolution – which in point of fact replicated very much the same scheme for devolution which the Covenant had unveiled in the 1940s…Of course it improved it and made it more governmentally workable and all that, but essentially, that was history repeating itself.

However that would not itself have worked, I don’t think, if there hadn’t been pressure from the other side – and pressure from the other side was constantly coming from the SNP. And undoubtedly the Referendum in 1997 would not have achieved the massive majority that it effectively required, and actually got, but for the coming together of the SNP under Alex Salmond, the Liberal Democrats and Labour and all the civic organisations. So I think you can say that both the initiatives that he took in the end bore fruit, although of course they bore fruit through different hands than his, and I think it remains true that if you ask how Scotland has changed over the last half of the Twentieth Century, you couldn’t say it all changed because of what John MacCormick did – but you could say many of the changes would be less intelligible but for what John MacCormick did, and how that fed into subsequent developments. So he was a great man of his time and made a real impact on our country.

Q: And just a last word, maybe, for the time being, about your good self…the internationally eminent level of scholarship and distinction to which you have risen in your career…Where did all that come from? How did it come about? Who do you thank for all that?

A: When I went to university and started studying philosophy I realised this was what fascinated me most of all. Why did it fascinate me? Well Dad was always interested in philosophy and the talk round our fireplace was, in a kind of a way philosophical, and my mother was of course also very clever and although she didn’t go in for as much speculation as Dad did, the atmosphere in our house was clearly fertile for philosophical ideas, and also there was an interest in law, obviously…

Q: And disputation?

A: Disputation, yes…perpetual disputation…there was always an argument going on of some kind round the fireplace. Also I think my father always thought that to any question there was a reasonable answer, if you just worked away hard enough you would find out what it was. So it was an anti-dogmatic household, in which it was good to try out ideas…and of course Iain tried them to the limit by becoming a Catholic…And did, and was accepted, and was encouraged to pursue his line of belief if that was what it was…So I think that was very important – and then just the education I got at Glasgow University, and, following it, at Balliol, and then the good luck of being elected a Fellow at Balliol when I was twenty-seven – set me on a course which was both enormously enjoyable and, as all these things are at the time, sort of accidental…You know, one invitation leads to another, one task that you do leads on to another; and I gradually became involved in an international circus of legal philosophers which made me so many friendships – I’ve got friends in every continent and former students in every continent who keep in touch. That was a wonderfully lucky set of breaks in life, and yet I was also able to maintain my Scottish political involvement at the same time, and in a curious way it all came together when by a rather odd chapter of accidents I was elected to the European Parliament and turned up in Europe as already a sort of reputed expert – namely, a philosopher of law and a student of European constitutionalism – and then here I am in the Parliament and then at the Constitutional Convention. I must be one of the few people who have taken part in writing two constitutions which were not in force: the European Constitution and the Scottish Constitution. Maybe both will be; actually, the European Constitution is going to come into force under the main Treaty of Lisbon, which is just a fix…And as for the Scottish Constitution, well, there’s a lot of work going on via the “National Conversation”. But, actually, all the big ideas we had in 1977 (at the Scottish National Party Conference where Neil and Dr Robert McIntyre won acceptance for constitutional principles which have been the bedrock of SNP policy ever since) are already incorporated in the Scotland Act of 1998: proportional representation, an elected Cabinet, elected First Minister, and a Bill of Rights based on the European Convention. All these aspects of more democratic government that I think we have via Holyrood than we get via Westminster, are ideas that we put forward in 1977 and were gradually absorbed into the mainstream of general ideas about constitutionalism in Scotland.

So it was an exciting life – and curiously the bits of it fitted together better than you’d think they might have…

Q: Yes the story as it emerged was greater than the sum of its parts…But, stop me if this is wrong, you talked of the original Neil with his music and his skills, and how his father became a teacher apparently on the back of nothing, but is it right that your mother was more from the scientific side of the alleged “Two Cultures” in her own background? And if so, is it possible that that input blasted you off in a way that wouldn’t have happened if your background had been purely on the humanities side?

A: Yes, very interesting…My mother was one of these omni-competent people, her actual degree is M.A., BSc.(an MA and a BSc), and you were supposed to take five years if you wanted to do that, but for one reason or another she managed to get all the exams passed in four years, so she went and said, “I want to graduate now”, but they said, “No, you can’t, you must be matriculated for five years before you can graduate with two degrees”. So at that point she took a diploma in what we would now call Social Work, it was a Certificate of Social Administration, that’s what it was called, which took her on to social work in the East End of Glasgow at a very hard time. And she worked in the Calton district of Glasgow between 1931 and 1938, helping families in what must have been extreme states of destitution…So, yes, she had both science and maths and languages in her portfolio – but I think you’re right, I think that the major bent of her undergraduate education was into the life sciences and the natural sciences, so, yes , that kind of essential rigour must have made its own very particular contribution to us all.

Q: Just lastly, you’ve talked a lot about your academic career in terms of luck and having been in the right place at the right time, but underlying that must be the reality, surely, that you were very proud of you own accomplishments, and bloody competitive, too? Discuss!

A: Competitive in the sense that…if you think something is not true, or not deep, or not accurate, or not the whole story, what you read other people writing – that’s a challenge to write better, you know, to correct the record. But of course all philosophical work of that kind is therefore very dialectical, because presumably when I think I’ve said the last word on something, one of my colleagues says: “Aha!, MacCormick has left something else out!”, and so it goes on and on. There’s a big dialectic that takes place from generation to generation and of course…

Q: And competition is part of that?

A: Yes, but it’s not…sometimes academics deal with each other in a very bitter and vitriolic way, but I’ve never done that. I think I’ve always been an emollient person, you know seeing the good in other people’s writing rather than the bad in it, but casting it in a different light somewhat…But towards the end of my working career, I got the chance of this Leverhulme Fellowship and decided I would write four books that brought it all together – and I’ve just finished the fourth, which I think is quite good – so that I have had the chance, which not many people get, to put down the whole testament of my views, and on others which I focused on during my working life. But what’s still probably my most famous book is the first one I wrote, “Legal Reasoning and Legal Theory”, which was a young man’s book, brash and in a hurry, here’s how it really is, folks, and it made quite a stir in its time and it’s still in print. But I hope that my mature work will be remembered; one has to remember that in any generation very, very few of the books that get written survive beyond that generation. They’re read, they’re discussed, they’re looked at by students, and then they recede into the musty back areas of libraries – eventually to be rediscovered by historians of ideas, sometimes – so what will become of my work, I don’t know, nobody knows what will become of anybody’s work, but I would like to think that…In this latest book, I make a bold attempt to reconcile the thought of Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, in a way that abolishes a famous differentiation in moral philosophy between Sentimentalism and Rationalism – what stands to reason against what we feel about things – and I think there is a middle way – I always look for middle ways in my work – and I think I’ve found it in this book; so if that is received, it might be quite a landmark book. But if it’s not received, it will just be regarded as another interesting by-way – and we just have to wait and see…

Q: A middle by-way…

A: A middle by-way, a by-middle-way, yes…Nice!













I turn now  to my own line, perhaps the only one among THE MACCORMICKS with a professional artist/painter.  My cousin, Neil, son of Iain and Nan and grandson of NEIL LAMONT  AND CLEMENTINE MACCORMICK, has made painting his life work.  I recall many years ago while visiting Uncle Iain and Aunt Nan in Toronto,  Neil being persuaded to show us his works of that early period.  They were very accomplished and attractive (forgive my unprofessional critic’s vocabulary).  He has carried forward a talent which was displayed by both his father and mine.  I believe that its source may been through Granny MacCormick’s  mother –  the Grant family.  .  In any event, his parents must be given great credit for encouraging and supporting his growth as an artist.  As you will read below, Neil is entirely self-taught – no art school can claim him as their product.

BORN 1958, Toronto, Ontario

RESIDES Toronto, Ontario

EDUCATION No formal art education

In 1993 I began using photos as source imagery for my paintings to apply a level of objectivity to an inherently subjective process. By adhering strictly to the information presented in a photograph, by restricting my palette (two reds, two blues, yellow and black), the size of the paintings (5.5 X 8″) and by using a single brush (an inexpensive #6 gold sable) I further eliminated many subjective decisions from my process.

I’ve spent decades sporadically roaming city streets with my camera, subconsciously searching for subjects that reflected my core feelings of invisibility. Whether trailers, decrepit neon signs or derelict commercial buildings, each had attained the kind of invisibility within its surroundings that often heralds transformation, renovation or destruction. I’m interested in the existential question of being: If it’s ‘invisible’ to everyone, does it exist?

I’ve begun to see my rigorous, rigid painting process as ‘performance ritual’. Monday to Friday I work at an old office desk from 9 am to 5 pm. I begin the day by removing the paints from a drawer on my left and placing them on the desk. I remove the painting from a box behind my desk. At noon I break for lunch and record my morning’s hours on an index card or ‘time sheet’ that I keep in a drawer on my right. At 12:30 pm I resume working until 5 pm when I record the afternoon’s hours on the sheet.

This ritual is an integral part of my practice and a necessary element in the production of a much fetishised image on board: the average 5.5 X 8″ painting requiring up to 300 hours or more to complete.

Through the restrictions I’ve imposed on my process, I’ve acheived a level of detachment from my subject and the physical object of the completed painting but I realise that in my attempts to eliminate the identifiable marks and gestures I made as an artist, I’ve somehow run headlong into myself through my work.

Neil MacCormick

January, 2013

BORN 1958, Toronto, Ontario

RESIDES Toronto, Ontario

EDUCATION No formal art education


2012 Winchester Galleries Modern, Victoria, B.C.
2008 O.K. Harris Works of Art, New York, N.Y.
2004 O.K. Harris Works of Art, New York, N.Y.
2003 Bau-Xi Gallery, Toronto, Ont.
2001 Bau-Xi Gallery, Toronto, Ont.
1999 Bau-Xi Gallery, Toronto, Ont.
1998 Bau-Xi Gallery, Vancouver, B.C.


2016 Size Matters, Bernarducci Meisel Gallery, New York, N.Y.
2016 A Historical Overview of Photorealist Cityscapes, Bernarducci Meisel Gallery, New York, N.Y.
2014 The Winter Exhibition, Winchester Galleries, Victoria, B.C.
2014 20/20 A Celebratory Exhibition, Winchester Galleries Modern, Victoria, B.C.
2014 Precision, Galerie de Bellefeuille, Montreal, QC.
2012 Beyond Realism, Galerie de Bellefeuille, Montreal, QC.
2012 Collector’s Choice, Winchester Galleries Modern, Victoria, B.C.
2012 Hyperrealism: A Moment in Time, Mark Gallery, Englewood, N.J.
2010 National Contemporary Realism 2010, M. A. Doran Gallery, Tulsa, OK.
2005 Temple Arts Festival, Nashville, TN.
1999 Myth, City, Saga, Art Gallery of Mississauga, Mississauga, Ont.
1993 Christmas Show, Barton Leier Gallery, Victoria, B.C.
1992 Christmas Show, Barton Leier Gallery, Victoria, B.C.
1989 Neil MacCormick and Marty Hunt: Acrylic Paintings, K. Griffin Gallery, Toronto, Ont.


20/20 A Celebratory Exhibition, 2014, (ISBN 978-0-9781328-6-6) pgs. 15, 80.
Precision, Galerie de Bellefeuille, 2014 (ISBN 978-2-923814-61-2) pgs. 24, 25.
Au Delà Du Réel – Beyond Realism, Galerie de Bellefeuille, 2012 (ISBN 978-2-923814-40-7) p. 54.

Times-Colonist, ( Victoria, B.C.), ‘On Art’, Robert Amos, Jan. 27, 2005, p. D9.
Times-Colonist, ( Victoria, B.C.), “On Art: ‘Exacting Work Pays Off’”, Robert Amos, Dec. 16, 2004, p. D10.
Eye Weekly, ( Toronto, Ont.), “eye Candy: ‘Brush with Trickery’”, David Balzer, Apr. 03, 2003, p. 35.
Toronto Star, ‘Art by Numbers’, Judy Stoffman, Mar. 31, 2001, p.J20.
NOW Magazine, ( Toronto, Ont.), ‘Neon is Illuminating for Neil MacCormick’, Si Si Penalosa, Feb. 25, 1999, p. 75.

CityTv, ( Toronto, Ont.), CityPulse News, Mar. 10, 2001.
CityTv, ( Toronto, Ont.), CityPulse News, Feb. 27, 1999.
Bravo!, ( Canada), Bravo! News, week of Mar. 5, 1999.
CityTv, ( Toronto, Ont.), CityPulse News, Mar. 31, 1989.

CBC Radio One, ( Canada), ‘North by Northwest’, interview, David Grierson, Jun. 7, 1998.


Canada Council for the Arts, Visual Arts Section, Creation / Production Grant, 2004.
Canada Council for the Arts, Visual Arts Section, Travel Grant, 2001.


A. J. Diamond Associates, Toronto, ON
Aldo Group, Montreal, QC
Fleishman Hillard, San Francisco, CA
Mr. and Mrs. Ivan C. Karp, New York, NY
Marty Z. Margulies, Key Biscayne, FL
McCarthy Tetrault, Toronto, ON
SJM Partners, Potomac, MD
360 Networks, Toronto, ON

copyright 2007 Neil MacCormick

Friday, March 11, 2016

A Largely Insignificant Day

One Day at Rest, Untitled 19 (10:30 pm) 2015 5.5×8″ acrylic on board
I completed my project ‘One Day at Rest’ on December 31st, 2015. It began on July 2nd, 2011 when four GoPro cameras recorded more than 7200 digital image files of a day in our life. Twenty of those files were used to compose ten paintings and ten drawings, illustrating the events of that day.
I spent four and a half years immersed in the minutiae of a single, largely insignificant day while the tumult of the present pressed on. I wanted to confront and contain the impermanence of an average day of an average weekend at a particularly unremarkable time in our lives, to arrest the relentless trudging towards the unknowable future.
While I painted and drew, the planet we inhabit completed more than four revolutions of our sun. It rotated on its axis 1643 times. I broke my arm, I lost a tooth. My mother died, my dog died. I lost a gallery in New York and gained two in Canada. I participated in six group shows and had one solo show. I sold one painting. We moved 550 kilometres down the road from Montreal to Toronto, my sixth move in nine years. I began to make peace with the ghosts of my hometown after twenty six years away.
One Day at Rest, Untitled 17 (9:26 pm) 2014 5.5×8″ acrylic on board
With the project completed, I emerge from a kind of mental exile, reengaging with my art world brain, with what happens after the work is done. What to do with this body of work? Do I want to sell it off piecemeal? Do I want to sell it at all? Would anyone buy it? Do I even want to share it with anyone?
I’m conflicted about what I want from my life as an artist. More so after thirty years than at any time before. Perhaps it’s just the confident ignorance of youth petering away, diluted by the disillusioning realities of the art world or my own warring desires of notoriety and obscurity.
Working for so long in isolation, I alter between states of grandiosity: ‘This is the best work I’ve ever done, no one is doing work like this!’ and hopelessness: ‘I’ve wasted my life, no one will care about any of this, I don’t even care about it!’. In the end comes ambivalence: neither, nor. Any remnant desire I might have had for some unspecific personal transformation slowly evaporates with the completion of the project.
In times of stress, an image often floats into my mind of myself as a child. It feels like loss. I’m in the basement of our house in Toronto. It’s summer, and in the cool relief of that crudely appointed space I quietly assemble a model car. It’s an image from the seemingly endless solitude of an afternoon in July or August. I imagine that I’m aware neither of the past, nor of the future. I’m content to hide from the sun, from my peers, from the neighbours. I will always be in this moment and I will live forever.
One Day at Rest, Untitled 18 (9:06 pm) 3×3″ coloured pencil on board
I’ve spent much of my life trying not to participate. Trying not to be noticed, hoping to be left alone. So much of my childhood was spent trying to cope with the insidious, if intermittent turmoil of the family around me. I coped by retreating in to myself, by assembling models, by drawing, by watching television, by removing myself as much as possible from the physical world outside our doors.
I never wanted to leave the house. I created an unchanging landscape of days that made solid a ground that always seemed to be in threat of shifting, of altering for the worse in some irreparable way.
I’ve lived most of my life not far from this self-protective shell. I seek comfort in routine and greet change with reluctance and suspicion. Despite knowing that the only constant in life is the endless, shifting cycle of decay and renewal, and despite having the dark knowledge of my own inevitable demise, I subconsciously believe that my routines will make me immortal: If you can make one day much like the next, then surely this chain of days can push endlessly ahead, slowing time to a crawl.
In my late fifties, I’m more aware than ever of the ticking of the clock, of the pages flying from the calendar as in an old movie. I continue to impose routines on my life, sometimes to the detriment of my relationships and never to any great effect.
For the last four and a half years, the child in the basement stopped time. He made a day in 2011 last until the final hours of 2015. Whatever the outcome of my reengagement with the present, I can say at least in that regard, that the project was a success.
One Day at Rest, Untitled 20 (10:04 pm) 3×3″ coloured pencil on board

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Big Picture

Waiting eight hours in a packed emergency room with one’s swollen arm in a sling makes one reassess how life was before one’s elbow slammed into a sidewalk. I write this as I recuperate from surgery for a broken ulna which has left my arm looking and feeling like it was beaten with a mallet until the person beating it became bored with the project. 

Lesson in mortality – January 23, 2015
In my seven years here, I’ve found Montreal’s winters to be a difficult, endless misery and this year’s version has been particularly challenging. As we prepare for a spring move to the slightly less ice-gripped and snow addled city of Toronto, this parting gift from Montreal’s icy sidewalks has given me pause to think over the dispiriting events of the last year and allowed me to place them into a larger life context.
Whenever I’m on the highway, and it cuts through a section of sedimentary rock, I wonder if anyone else imagines how our own bodies will one day be part of that same geological process. We seem to believe that all of the earths ancient systems, like the depositing of mineral or biological matter that comprise these sediments, have somehow paused for our benefit.
I’ve read that if the age of the planet we inhabit was expressed as a twenty four hour clock, human beings come into existence just over one minute to midnight. I remind myself of this every time I’m unnecessarily obsessing over some minute aspect or other of my life. Specifically, the kind of thoughts one has about legacy.
As a kind of balm, I used to think to myself that if no one cared about what I was making as an artist while I was alive, that perhaps when I was dead it would all make sense to someone and my work would achieve some measure of notoriety or at least become a footnote in the discussion of the art of my time.
It’s a pretty harmless way to maintain some momentum. It’s hard to convince yourself to produce work when you feel no one will ever care. Life is about fooling ourselves into believing something matters aside from our inevitable, out of control run down a hill that ends in the ultimate face-plant. Hence our devotion to religion, children, the perfect lawn, a new car, achieving representation at a blue chip gallery or having a painting find its way into a museum collection. 
One Day at Rest, Untitled 13 (6:48 pm) 8X5.5″ acrylic on board
Which is not to say that I find no meaning in life. Through my paintings, I find it in the expression of the feelings and thoughts that are the accumulation of my life. I find it in my involvement with my partner Hayley and her own creative work in her company, Birds of North America. I find it in the daily struggle to maintain some personal dignity in the face of the void.
The exhibition of my ‘One Day at Rest’ series has been derailed by the combined ambivalence of gallery and artist, and the final two pieces that need to be completed suddenly feel like an exercise in futility. Yet another period of reassessment begins.
Perhaps reassessment is a constant state that comes in and out of my conscious brain because I know that life is fluid and ever changing, but I also know that I sometimes beat this thought down in order to maintain some illusion of order amidst the chaos of the universe.
It’s hard to maintain the screw-you-I’ll-do-what-I-want attitude when you also have to deal with the realities and appetites of commercial gallery spaces, but I feel more strongly than ever that I need to be the one in charge. I don’t want to ‘paint to a deadline’ or waste my time on a commission in order to please someone else’s ego.
The whole point of withstanding the mental anguish of a life in the arts is to have some measure of control over one’s life and art. I refuse to relinquish that control to anyone. If this means that all of my life’s efforts in art amount only to a fraction of a layer of sediment on a planet orbiting a dying star, that’s okay. That’s all it will ever amount to anyway. In the big picture, that much is clear.
One Day at Rest, Untitled 15 (9:09 pm) 8X5.5″ acrylic on board

Monday, June 17, 2013



A  friend in Montreal,  Dahn D’Lion, produces a line of printed t-shirts as part of his inclusive initiative ‘We Live Here Too’, a kind of ‘best friends’ club for the disenfranchised of the world. In his own words: ‘Youth, Queers, Vegans, Punks, Artists, DJs, Ballerinas, folks with disabilities, folks with hyper-abilities, and any combination thereof’. I don’t buy many printed t-shirts but this spring, after seeing his inspiring and intelligent video about the meaning behind his shirt ‘Unemployable’, I was moved to make a purchase.

I saw images of the shirt some time before I saw the video and I had developed my own take on the ‘Unemployable’ reference. It seemed to mesh around thoughts I’d been having about the idea of ‘letting go’. Letting go of the stricture of expectations. Letting go of distant, hazy goals, of defining myself today by aiming my efforts at some imaginary, wonderful art-world future. Letting go of even wanting to understand the fickle art market, the often incomprehensible success of other contemporary artists.

One Day at Rest, Untitled 11 (4:34 pm) 2013
8 X 5.5″ acrylic on board

It’s difficult not to be lulled into the warm bath of a ‘thing’ that works. In my case, it was centred-subject portrait paintings of forlorn, forgotten industrial buildings and storefronts. I knew that I had to create a cohesive, identifiable body of work to get where I wanted to go (a particular gallery, O.K. Harris Works of Art in New York) and my enthusiasm for that pursuit sustained me for years. I even achieved my goal. 
Success is a drug. It feels good. People buying your paintings feels good. The money  feels good. The prestige of being represented in New York feels good. This is the warm bath: make a painting, send a jpeg, sell a painting, ship a painting, receive a cheque. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. 
Pretend that you fit in. Stop thinking about why you paint. Stop wondering if what you paint is saying what you want it to say. Ignore that most people don’t seem to get what you’re trying to do. Ignore the pit of your stomach feeling that these building portraits no longer mean anything to you and that finding subjects for these paintings is becoming a pain in the ass. Forget that you used to tell yourself that being an artist wasn’t about making money.
Art world goals tend to involve someone or something outside of the artist. The goal tends to be some form of acceptance by peers or collectors or galleries or media or academia or granting organisations. I’ve decided, though not for the first time, that if I have a goal, it’s to produce work that I feel needs to be done, regardless of what anyone else thinks. 

One Day at Rest, Untitled 9 (3:42 pm) 2012

5.5 X 8″ acrylic on board

To me, art is a middle finger aimed at convention, not a cry for acceptance. Too often, the most financially successful artists play the old role of the ‘licensed fool’ in a Renaissance court, having been given bemused permission to behave badly by the reigning art world royalty of blue chip galleries and big city critics. 
My ‘unemployable’ is a statement. You will NOT employ me to further your needs as a curator, gallery owner or director, collector or arts organisation. You CANNOT employ me. I am unemployable.

One Day at Rest, Untitled 7 (1:06 pm) 2012
8 X 5.5″ acrylic on board


Monday, June 11, 2012

Fetishising the Negative


One Day at Rest, Untitled 5 (12:37 pm) 2012
8 X 5.5″ acrylic on board

Montreal has finally slipped the shackles of winter. Only the scars on boulevard trees and the bent iron railings of gates too near the sidewalk to avoid the reckless destruction of countless, clattering mini plows remind us of what has passed.

Winter lingers in my mind until the long days of daylight savings time drive out the darkness. I very easily slide into a dark place in those winter months. The space I reserve in my mind for negative thoughts becomes so easily accessed.

We often carry the effects of negative comments and actions that have been directed at us through our lives. Like a favoured collection I revisit them, as though opening a jewel case, sorting through the scars, running a finger along the edges of damaged tissue.

Of all the myriad unpleasant experiences I could mull over, one seemingly insignificant episode inexplicably rises to my consciousness with some frequency: the nine year old me, making my way home from school, uses a penetrating, newly learned whistle to call to friends a block ahead of me. A class mate, a girl whom I don’t know well, scolds me from across the street: ‘You think you’re so cool!’

The sense of deflation I felt from this remark was probably more extreme than warranted but it must have pierced a particularly sensitive part of my psyche. Was it wrong to stand out? Will people hate me if I do?

I was a precocious, confident child. In the sixties, precocious, confident children were placed in accelerated programs and completed three years of schooling in two years. I was one of six kids in my grade two class who were placed in this program.

By grade five, at age nine, I was already struggling to cope with the social displacement that comes from being younger than one’s group of peers. A late summer birthday meant that some of my classmates, with later birthdays, were almost two years older.

It didn’t take long to fall out of touch with my former classmates in the lower grade. A year with the older students in grade five made them seem impossibly young.

Anxieties always find a way out. The subconscious, internal battles we wage often manifest in debilitating thoughts or actions. The feeling of displacement I had at school, combined with the stress of familial complications made manifest in me mild versions of agoraphobia and body dysmorphia. 

The agoraphobia, from which I occasionally still suffer, is classic ‘fear of the marketplace’, a kind of discomfort or even panic when faced with the chaotic crowds one finds at malls or markets or simply the chaos of the urban environment. Body dysmorphia, simply put, is a condition wherein a person has a preoccupation with perceived shortcomings in their physical being. It’s one in an arsenal of psychological maladies brought about, in part, by depression, anxiety and social withdrawal.

The anxiety of these things can be so strong that I have sometimes developed a limp while walking alone in public. In my mind there are vestigial, critical voices commenting on how I stand, how I walk. My debilitating, self critical analysis interfering with the simplest mechanical systems of my body.

As an offshoot of this, I now have what I jokingly refer to as body-of-work dysmorphia. This is an inability to see one’s work objectively. I constantly struggle to understand where I fit in the art world, to see my work as having value. A finished painting is a new opportunity to question one’s career decisions, one’s worth to society. A chance to revisit the old wounds of rejection.

One Day at Rest, Untitled 6 (7:18 am) 2012
3 X 3″ coloured pencil on board

Society reveres iconoclasts, putting their faces on T-shirts and mugs, quoting them endlessly in print or on the web while simultaneously deriding unusual behaviour in individuals, discouraging any deviation from the norm with the kind of Victorian moralising that ensures we all just become cogs in society’s machine.

I’ve always had a conflicting desire to stand out from the crowd while being wholly fearful of drawing attention to myself. The precocious, confident child still exists in my psyche in remnant form. I’m trying to let it out a little more often now while knowing that anything I do that is unusual or challenging is an invitation to the world to pick it apart.

In that place which is more than just ‘the blues’ but also just shy of despair, I compulsively turn over the accumulation of rejection in my mind. In a strange way, the delicate box that contains my collection of negative thoughts acts as a way of grounding me. Prodding the source of pain is a way of remembering who I am.


Saturday, February 11, 2012



One Day at Rest, Untitled 3 (9:17 am) 2012
5.5 X 8″ acrylic on boardI spent the last month weaning myself off facebook. I went to my home page, checked for messages or notifications, looked at the first couple of posts and left. Do I really need to see what other artists are doing? Is it helpful?Most of my art life has involved selective ignorance. Long before home computers, in the hazy days of my youth, finding out about anything was a chore that involved leaving the house and I rarely left the house for anything but school or street hockey. The few art books that made their way to my consciousness came from my sister who worked at a bookstore. I had undeveloped interests and it pleased her to feed them: Diners, by John Baeder; New Techniques in Egg Tempera, by Robert Vickrey; Ken Danby, by Paul Duval; High Realism in Canada, also by Paul Duval. I didn’t buy or look at art magazines, didn’t know any artists and got most of my visual education through popular sources like newspapers, television and high-end greeting cards.I’ve always drawn or painted: at the kitchen table with the radio blaring while my mother cooked or baked; at the dining room table with my sister, copying the pictures she made for her homework assignments; at the coffee table in the living room with the television blaring. I drew what was at hand: a cigarette lighter; a newspaper masthead; the radio. I incessantly drew hot-rods and other vehicles. We were a car free family in North America and cars were an exotic ‘other’ for me.

One Day at Rest, Untitled 2 (8:15 am) 2011
3 X 3″ Coloured pencils on boardI also spent a lot of time looking out the window, watching planes on their descent to Toronto’s Malton airport or people and traffic going by on our quiet street. The world has always seemed to be something apart from me and I’ve always taken measures, mostly unconscious ones, to protect my mental and physical space in it.Partly in an effort to develop and protect my own system of thinking, I’ve never read artist’s biographies. In my early twenties I bought and began to read a book on Edward Hopper but I didn’t get far. Many of the things he was saying were already in my head and I didn’t want to associate those thoughts and ideas with Hopper, I wanted them to be my own.Although my life as an adult is a little more open to the world, my exposure to art continues to be guarded. What began as a way of protecting my embryonic thoughts from a barrage of challenges has become a kind of identity. In all my trips to New York City, I’ve never been to the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney or the Frick. I’m still not exactly sure what or where the Frick is and I have no real desire to know. There have been no art school ‘crits’ and until facebook, no obsessing over other people’s work.

One Day at Rest, Untitled 4 (7:19 am) 2012
3 X 3″ Coloured pencils on boardThe internet should be a boon to someone who doesn’t like to leave the house but I find it a mixed blessing. My weekly coffee and conversation with artist Randall Anderson has convinced me that some art world discussion is a good thing and can fundamentally change how one perceives one’s own work but the internet’s unlimited access to thousands of other peoples’ career decisions can be confusing.Facebook is my new ‘peering from the window’. Only now, instead of a quiet suburban street, it’s the busiest possible downtown intersection. Logging out of facebook is the equivalent of closing the blinds, leaving me to the comfort of my own thoughts. Even if those same thoughts are in the minds of my peers and have been in the minds of generations of artists before me.A Note on the Drawings:I’ve used a limited palette of colours in the drawings, similar to that of my paintings. Two reds, two blues, yellow and, instead of the mars black of the paintings, a very dark brown.


Friday, October 28, 2011

One Day at Rest, Painting 1


One Day at Rest, Untitled 1 (7:51 am), 2011
8 X 5.5″ acrylic on illustration board

Now that the first painting for ‘One Day at Rest’ is finished, I’m pondering which images from that day will become drawings or etchings, figuring out a handmade book that I might make. I suddenly feel like an artist again instead of a machine for producing photorealist paintings.

I used all manner of materials when I was younger, the different media transforming the ideas I brought to them. What happened? Perhaps I was too eager to define myself. I’ve been so intently focused on producing a cohesive body of work in the last couple of decades, refining the definition of what I do, that I forgot to take time to experiment. The commercial gallery world, where I felt inclined to belong, likes to define things, needs to define things. The simpler the definition, the easier the sale.

Painting is exhausting. It consumes every ounce of concentration I can generate. For me, the end of the day means the end of thinking about art. I need to get away from my desk, blank out, go for a walk, watch television. Late in the evening I’ll think about the day of work I have ahead. In my mind, I go over the areas I’ll be tackling in the morning like a marathon runner crossing the country. Tomorrow, I’ll try to get to Calgary.

I’m excited enough about my new project that it’s dislodged decades of walls I’ve built around what it means for me to be an artist. During the several months that I work on a painting, I’m not sure I can do other things like drawings or prints, but the time between paintings, when I’m usually feeling unsettled, distracted, or guilty about not painting, suddenly seems like the perfect opportunity to experiment.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Way Forward


Digital photo ‘One Day at Rest’ (7:08 am) 02/07/2011.On July second, 2011, I took more than 7,200 photos of a typical summer Saturday in our condo studio in Montreal. Four cameras, covering virtually every square inch of living space, recorded our existence from our waking at 7 am to lights out at 10:30 pm. The digital cameras were mounted surveillance style from the ceiling and at an interval of seven or eight seconds, one of the four cameras would silently record an image. I also carried a voice activated digital sound recorder throughout the day and recorded over eight hours of audio.I plan to produce ten paintings, some drawings, etchings, an audio/video piece and anything else that strikes me as a necessary part of the project. I hope to present it all in the Jim Kempner Fine Art Underground space in New York while I finish off the last painting at my desk in the gallery, performing my daily painting ritual, for the entire run of the show. Any number of things could go wrong with this plan over the next couple of years but at least I have a way forward.‘One Day at Rest’ is an attempt to further explore my perception of honesty, its nature and role in my work, and a more direct attempt at portraying my physical and psychological existence without the distorting filter that results from turning the camera outwards.I’ve spent decades sporadically roaming the streets with my camera, subconsciously searching for subjects that reflected my mental state, my unease with the world. Every subject I painted spoke to me in this way, whether trailers, neon signs or derelict commercial buildings. It took several years to consciously understand that I was searching for a way to reflect my damaged self, except I’d found a way to expose myself to the world without truly giving anything away. I hadn’t intended to perform this psychological dance of the seven veils, I thought at the time I was being pretty direct. I certainly felt the anxiety of the exposed, but a growing awareness of how people perceived my paintings made me realise I was on the wrong track.In a gallery setting, my paintings look vaguely like photographs. Admittedly, like ink-jet photographs printed on cheap paper in fast draft mode. I’ve often explained to someone hustling past the images at an opening ‘By the way, these are paintings, not photographs!’ People would often do a double take and look a little closer but I began to feel that most were saying to themselves, ‘That could be a photo or it could possibly be a painting but I’m not interested enough to care.’ The current dogma of contemporary art appreciation doesn’t seem to allow for a small photo based painting. Ironic, given the preponderance and apparent popularity of rather dull photographs of abstract collages, photographs of paintings and photographs of photographs. I’m puzzled that people don’t seem to ‘get’ the work but I think they’ve been taught that there’s nothing to get.When what I do no longer works for me, it’s time for a change. Art is communication and I feel that my message could do with a little reworking. It’s just an old building, how can I expect anyone to get that it represents my tortured soul, that it speaks of impermanence, mortality, alienation, the nature of and value we place on the production of culture? I’ve been hiding behind a facade, sometimes a literal facade, strangely, and it’s time to change how I show myself to the world.Seventy two hundred photographs of me doing very personal things somehow didn’t make me feel any more exposed than my paintings of buildings or signs. For me, they are the same thing. I hope for the viewer they are something quite different.


Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sea Change


ABC United Trading Corp. 2011 5.5 X 8″ Acrylic on illustration board.ABC United Trading Corp. will likely be my last storefront for awhile. The changes I’ve made to get my paintings into a different realm in New York have had unexpected consequences. This ongoing process of recontextualisation has led me to a surprising revelation: It appears I’ve driven a car into the desert and run out of gas.I’m not sure when, exactly, I ran out of gas. It may well have been long before I made it to New York for my first show at O.K.Harris in 2004. The twenty year drive to show my work at a good gallery in New York City somehow kept me from knowing that I was no longer inspired by what I painted.The little ringing voices of truth that I imagine occupy a space just above and behind my head are most easily ignored when life is complicated. The more entanglements my life or career has, the more I ignore them. The blessed silence afforded by the odd confluence of a dying American economy, the strange weightlessness of an unsure venture with a new gallery, and my aching disinterest in my own work has finally allowed the voices to be heard above the din of self delusion.Art is self exploration. This fact doesn’t always mesh well with a world that prefers to see culture entwined with commerce. The artist’s understandable preoccupation with the financial insanity of this kind of pursuit and the accompanying deviation from the purity of one’s truth is no longer an option for me. The pressure we place on ourselves, or allow others to place on us, to proceed along a predetermined path to ‘success’ has the effect of eliminating from our lives the insignificant seeming non sequitur, the chance encounter which changes one’s entire direction. I think I know now that there isn’t a goal. Only a direction to take and reevaluate when necessary. This is a journey whose length is indeterminate and unknowable and ends only when we ourselves end.I can choose to find some gas and continue on or I can leave the car in the desert and find another road out. The immense relief I feel as I walk away in another direction is the answer to the question ‘Have I done the right thing?’


Monday, April 4, 2011

Living in Exile


Petemar Enterprises 2011, 5.5 X 8″ acrylic on illustration board.I’ve made two significant geographical moves in my life. The first, in 1989, from Toronto, Ontario to Victoria, B.C. (3397 kilometres). The second, in 2008, from Victoria back east to Montreal, Quebec (3733 km). Both moves gave me a sense of living in exile in one way or another. Both were largely financially driven but each also had an element of escape. The first, escape from the fold of family, old patterns of expectation, the ‘didn’t I know you in high school?’ encounter. The second, a licking of mid-life wounds, an almost random stab at the map for a new place to start again.Perhaps the urge to move on is an inherited trait. My parents became postwar, economic exiles of Scotland when they made the difficult decision to move to Canada in 1950. Canada was a place of employment opportunities and where one could buy a dozen eggs if one wanted. The latter was no small consideration for a young family living in postwar food-rationed Glasgow. My father never fully committed his heart to Canada despite spending a large majority of his life here. ‘Home’ for him was more than 5,000 kilometres from the house he shared with us. In a way, he never fully committed to the idea of a home with a wife and three children either. He once remarked to me as we stood looking at the backyard of the house I grew up in, ‘This would be good place to raise a family.’ I thought, ‘Actually, it was. Where the hell were you?’Sometimes the moving on comes before one is actually ready to leave. Over the last year or two I’ve struggled to understand my place in the art world and tried to sort out why I don’t feel particularly comfortable with the ‘photorealist’ label, despite the obvious connection my work has to the genre. I know that I’ve moved on but I’ve had trouble falling into step with my new surroundings. Exile is the removal of oneself from the realm of interest that so possesses the person in exile. The removal, which can heighten one’s desire to engage the mind with what was left behind can also, over time, allow for a dampening of the passions. So it is with my dying interest in photorealism.Montreal isn’t home yet but it probably will be before long. ‘Moving on’ is more of a psychological transformation than a change in one’s address. It’s easy to pack a truck and move oneself physically but the ties one has to a place aren’t so easy to shake from the mind.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

New Painting: ‘House on Marconi’


House on Marconi 2010, 5.5 X 8″ acrylic on illustration board.It’s an odd sensation painting something that one walks by everyday. The subject of ‘House on Marconi’ sits only a few yards from our front door. Over the last few months, during the daily dog walk, I’ve occasionally been tempted to check out details that were unclear in the source photograph but I mostly avoided looking too hard. There’s an awkward creepiness in paying so much furtive attention to someone else’s house. It’s not unlike developing an obsessive crush on the person who makes your soy latte every morning. Not that I would know anything about that.Being so deeply immersed in a subject, as one is when spending three months painting it, is an unusual experience. All the more unusual given the prosaic nature of the subject. No one in the ‘real’ world ever spends that much time considering such a quotidian scene. I have a complicated, subconscious response to my subjects that feels almost physical. It may be the sense of desolation or the inherent, sad beauty of the unremarkable facades but I get a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach when confronted by the scenes that become paintings. They act as clues to some long buried personal mystery, each one giving a sense of bringing me closer to resolution but never delivering a result.As I sort through my slides looking for the subject of my next painting, I have to constantly remind myself that it’s the pit-of-my-stomach, anxiety-disorder, existential aloneness that I’m painting, not old houses, storefronts, or my neighbourhood. Certain examples of these things can trigger in me the feeling I’m wanting to explore but aren’t, in and of themselves, a reason to paint.





This story appeared last Friday.

Copyright of The Herald, 19 August 2016

“New discoveries rewrite history of holy Iona

Iona Abbey.

Iona Abbey.

2 days ago / Jody Harrison, Reporter /

“IT has long been regarded as the cradle of Christianity in Scotland, where the earliest missionaries gathered before spreading the Word of the Lord across the land.

“But now archaeologists have uncovered fascinating new evidence of those who lived on the island of Iona long before St Columba set foot on its shores during preparatory work for the building of an extension to the small school.

“The Hebridean Isle is home to a religious community, with an abbey founded in 563 by St Columba and 12 companions who had been exiled from his native Ireland.

“Yet when they arrived they would have already found an existing population with a recent dig revealing traces of buildings which take the island’s history back 2,500 years.

“And it seems as though they lived in decidedly un-Christian times with the remains of a two-metre defensive wall found among other remnants of Iona’s long vanished past.

“Excavations have also revealed pottery, flints and other prehistoric material, indicating a prehistoric village.

“Archaeologist Hugh McBrien, of the West of Scotland Archaeology Service, an umbrella organisation providing expertise to 13 local authorities, described the finds as “exciting”.

He said: “When finds like this come along it allows the past to speak to us. There are no written records, of course, so all we have to go on is what is in the ground.

“When we find something unexpected, as in this case, we have to stop and reconsider what we previously understood about the site.

“What is becoming clear is that when the ice sheets rolled back off Scotland some 1012,000 years ago the Mesolithic hunter gatherers moved onto the islands and followed the retreating ice.

“What we now have on Iona is evidence that people lived on the island, created boundaries and set up communities long before the lands were ‘discovered’ by St Columba.”

“The archaeological work was carried out by Dr Clare Ellis of Campbeltown-based professional archaeology company Argyll Archaeology Ltd.”

When I read this and a similar article in The Times, I was immediately reminded of Granduncle Dugald and the stories he would tell us young ones (me and my sisters Morag and Fiona) at our Grannie and Grandpa MacCormick’s flat at 25 Elmbank Crescent in Glasgow in the 1940s.    You can get a real sense of his style in the link to his letter to Fiona provided in my first entry in this MACCORMICK series dated 4 January 2015, reachable by scrolling forever backwards  on this site.

One of the most vivid images he described for us back then was the scene on the Iona  beach when Columba  landed.

According to Uncle Dugald, there was a MacCormick standing there, holding a sign reading “WELCOME TO IONA.”.

“Och Uncle Dugald, we may have looked a wee bit sceptical but we really believed your story” say Neil and Morag in 2016!

[The Times article includes a photograph of the school where I am aware Ewan MacCormick and Annabel [MacCormick] MacInness once taught.]


Neil Edin Pipe Tune 2.13.2013

I posted this bagpipe tune score on the Viper Piper site at Part of the tune’s provenance is covered in an earlier blog here re. my Cornell Sketches pieces and is further explained in the Viper Piper entry. . I know I am giving readers a challenge by scattering tales of the piece here and there. Well I will compound that fault by offering two more stories about it.

A number of years ago, my cousin Neil and his wife Flora were staying for a few days at Cornell University where he was a Visiting Lecturer at the Law School. My wife Kristina and I decided to get together with them there. While walking across the campus I dragged them into a basement practice room of the Music Department and forced them to listen to my seven part Cornell Sketches. When I finished playing the “Bagpipe Tune to Accompany the Climb Up the Libe Slope,” I turned and asked with some trepidation, “Neil, do you think that’s an original melody?” To my great relief and pleasure he agreed that it was indeed. Phew!

Later, when I learned of Neil’s terminal cancer, I decided that I should formalize the bagpipe score of the piece and name it for him and I wrote him as follows.

March 12 2009
Dear Neil and Flora,
Well, does audacity have no bounds?
As you have already noticed, I have named a pipe tune after you, Neil. It is a tune you and Flora once heard in a basement room of the Cornell Department of Music more than a few years ago. I captured an audience (you two) and asked you Neil, if you thought the tune was an original. You assured me it was. Well, I was fiddling around recently with my newly dusted-off music software, revisiting my pile of unscored music. I had thought of doing a pipe tune for you and kept coming back to this one which is, immodestly speaking, a nice one. So I decided to extract the tune from its original home, Five Cornell Sketches, which have been languishing unscored in my back-again box. (In any event I have always believed in the recycling of musical ideas. A composer’s license?) I had a handwritten score of the tune prepared by a local piper for a Cornell reunion bash ten years ago so that I had something to base this score on. It was a welcome challenge to get everything lined up (oh them-there damned grace notes). Unfortunately, I have had not had an opportunity to have it test-driven, so to speak. My computer seems intent on playing it back in a minor key which is not what is intended. I have put that down to the nine note scale of the Great Highland bagpipe. If I find a piper to play the score and it needs tweaking, I will send you a revised version.
Anyway, I have always admired the Scottish tradition of naming tunes after people and events. And a better use of this air I cannot imagine.
I will say no more.
With great affection, admiration and sadness,


Neil replied  shortly before he died:  Typescript follows.




Dear Neil, Thanks for tunes! And sorry for delay in writing. I’ve had a difficult patch lately that prevented me from writing.

I specially like the first of the two tunes, and am much honored by it. Today’s tune seems (forgive me!) over-adorned with non-standard grace notes, but will be none the worse for that if played with suitable instrumentation.Please note e-mail address above. This is now the only mailbox I can access.

All the best and thanks.







macfam5a             macfam4 001macfam3a 001 Apologies for the poor scans. For those, like me, without the Gaelic,  the script translates as Food and Drink to the MacCormicks, from an inscription on the entrance to Moy Castle on Mull. This outstanding event was made possible thanks to the enterprise and hard work of: Professor (later Sir) Donald Neil MacCormick His brother, Iain MacCormick John Harper-Nelson and the multi-talented Treasurer and soloist, Iain MacKinnon Over one hundred descendants of NEIL AND ANNABEL MACCORMICK  attended the gathering.  Unfortunately, I do not have a list of the participants.  Perhaps others may be able to fill this gap. From memory, I believe eight of the  nine married  NEIL AND ANNABEL children  were represented at the gathering. Happily, a radio program was recorded which enables us to recall or vicariously join in the proceedings.

In approximate “order of appearance:

Iain MacCormick (DONALD)

Donald Neil MacCormick on bagpipes (DONALD)

Iain MacCormick (DONALD)

Iain MacKinnon (MARGARET)

Eileen MacCormick (?)

Donald MacCormick (DONALD)

Neil MacCormick (NEIL)

Iain MacCormick (DONALD)

Ann MacLean singing

Iain MacCormick (DONALD)

Donald Neil MacCormick on bagpipes (DONALD)

Iain, Donald Neil, Neil and assembly

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