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Roderick Buchanan, ‘Be True to your School’, 1999

In an essay published in 1999, Ross Sinclair identifies loyalty as a key attribute of Roderick Buchanan’s personality. At the heart of the essay is the relation of an incident in their shared past—a night-time brush with authority—when the bond of loyalty between the pair of artists, who were then in their mid-twenties, was tested. The essay ends with a photograph of Buchanan wearing a white t-shirt bearing the words ‘Be true to your school’.

The school that Buchanan attended before Glasgow School of Art was Thomas Muir High School. Muir was a Glasgow advocate whose promotion of liberal views in respect of parliamentary reform landed him in trouble with the Edinburgh establishment. In 1794, found guilty of sedition, he was sentenced by Lord Braxfield (see portrait page 30) to 14 years’ transportation. Buchanan took the fact that there were no prefects at Thomas Muir High School, when he attended, to be a nod to Muir’s egalitarian principles. A passionate footballer, young Roddy was aware too that the changing rooms he used before and after a game were located in the building that had once been Thomas Muir’s house. The Buchanan boy knew something of Muir’s story by then. In 1796, having rowed out from the shore at Sydney, Muir escaped the penal colony on board an American trader. He transferred to a Spanish supply vessel near Vancouver, was escorted to Mexico City, got slung into jail in Havana, was blown out of the water in the Bay of Cadiz, made it to Paris via Spain, tried to interest Napoleon in an invasion of Scotland, then died lost and lonely in Chantilly. What does it take to engender a life-long loyalty in the breast of a boy? Not much, so Muir’s Indiana Jones story combined with his Robin Hood ethics may have proved irresistible.

Both Roderick Buchanan and Thomas Muir were born in ’65, though 200 years apart. In 1999 the contemporary artist—who had just become a father at the age of 33—began work on the one-time advocate who had died at that same relatively young age. Buchanan’s father had given him a book called Old Reminiscences of Glasgow ‚ written in the mid-19th century by Peter Mackenzie and containing an account of the Thomas Muir story. It was written as a sort of personal recollection, and contained both strange tales and made-up sections to fill the gaps in chronology that were hidden from the author. This sparked a period of targeted reading on Buchanan’s part where he took notes from a number of books in which Muir’s story was told. Never having trained as a historian, Buchanan admits his approach was scattergun, but he started to build a time-line plotting all the different—and at times diverging—accounts of Muir’s story. This activity led to the first version of what is an ongoing work called ‘Skeleton’‚ which presents an objective but artful chronology of Muir’s life.

Banner from 'Thomas Muir Help Desk', Galerie Praz Delavallade, 2003 
Banner from ‘Thomas Muir Help Desk’, Galerie Praz Delavallade, 2003

As Buchanan was doing this work he co-opted a statue that was lying neglected at the Bridgeton end of Glasgow Green. This stone figure, with its head off and glistening with algae, was actually a representation of James Watt, inventor and engineer, but Buchanan started thinking of the faceless one as Thomas Muir. When the statue was removed from its site and placed—with a splendid new Watt head—in the gardens outside the People’s Palace, Buchanan chose to interpret this as ‘Tom’s anti-Midas touch striking again’.

Frustrated with the slow and lonely process of reading around the subject of Muir, Buchanan came up with the Thomas Muir Help Desk for a show with Galerie Praz Delavallade in 2003. He had been reading about the French Revolution and had questions he thought a Parisian audience could help provide answers to. The set up was a cross between the pedagogic (a blackboard with the artist’s questions written in chalk) and the police incident room (a banner announcing the Help Desk). The sort of questions he was posing were ‘Whatever happened to Prussia?’‚ ‘Where did Louis the 15th send his political prisoners?’ and ‘Can anyone sing Ca Ira, Ca Ira for me?’ This last question provided the highlight of the opening night for Buchanan, as a Frenchman—contrary to the expectation of the artist’s très urbane gallerist—did indeed come along and sing the song of the French Revolution, whose lyrics include:

‘Let’s string up the aristocrats on the lampposts!’

‘We will win, we will win, we will win’

At Camden Arts Centre in London, Buchanan pushed on with the project by proposing ‘Number Crunching’‚ the intention of which was to juice the dates from the library he’d built up in his specific area of interest. He set up a light industrial process (actually a handful of readers sitting together in the gallery) to put more meat on Muir’s 1765-1799 ‘Skeleton’, and in particular to think about Muir’s brief visit to London. In retrospect, Buchanan feels that the most important aspect of this activity was devolving some research to others. It didn’t really matter what came out of it, what mattered was getting more people to engage with the project and communicate their findings and feelings to the artist.

On that note I want to contribute something myself. Buchanan has identified that Walter Scott was working in an administrative capacity in the Edinburgh courts when Thomas Muir’s trial took place. Moreover, as a recently enrolled advocate himself, Scott would have played his part in the unanimous vote to expel Muir from the roll of advocates in March, 1793. I’ve now had a look through Scott’s published letters, and although I can’t find anything specific about the Muir trial, Scott shows his colours in the subsequent and related trial of Rob Watt, a fanatical supporter of the revolutionary cause. Scott was so interested in this trial that, fortified with cold meat and a bottle of wine, he was in court as an observer from 7am one morning to 2am the next (according to his letter dated 5 September, 1794). Following the guilty verdict, Scott made sure he witnessed the execution of Watt whose ‘pusillanimity’ did not impress him (per Scott’s letter written in October or November, 1794). I’ve been as specific as I can about the dates of these letters, because in ‘Skeleton’, the information is laid out over the three columns of the tricolour. The blue column lists facts in chronological order, where day, month and year have all been specified in the source material (that would be the appropriate place for the detail from Scott’s letter concerning the trial of Watt). The white column lists facts specified to the month (the right place, if any, for Scott’s grossly unsympathetic observation concerning the execution of Watt). And the red column lists facts specified only to the year. It’s a methodology that brings attention to the subjectivity of the study of history. Do you teach the subject using dates and places which acknowledge some kind of continuum in time and space? Do you zero in on significant episodes and paint a full picture of an epoch, such as the Scottish Enlightenment? Or do you come up with an alternative, composite, or even arbitrary approach?

'Skeleton', ongoing since 2003 
‘Skeleton’, ongoing since 2003

But let’s get back to the so-called Enlightenment. After the hanging of Rob Watt, political unrest continued and Scott volunteered as a special constable, for which duties he was issued with a baton. By 1797, with the threat of a French invasion adding to the British upper-middle class’s sense of unease, Scott played an enthusiastic part in the formation of a troop of mounted volunteers. Apparently, Scott at this stage in his life epitomised the zealous, military patriot. Not an attractive image. So what does the revelation do to my loyalty to the author of the Waverley novels? Well, let’s see. In 1793, when the 22-year-old Scott was voting against Thomas Muir, he was only being true to his particular school, the one that had raised him with kindness and respect. In 1814 when he embarked on the series of humane, imaginative and politically sophisticated books that were to constitute his life’s real work and his permanent legacy to the world, he was a mature 43-year-old, whose sympathies had widened enormously. Who amongst us would like to be judged on the basis of their 22-year-old self? If 29 is too young to be found guilty of something as subjective as political loyalty, then 22 is far too young an age for anyone to be written off for much the same thing.

At some stage these biographical investigations have a tendency to get personal, and so they should. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that in Buchanan’s forthcoming solo show at Glasgow’s GoMA, Muir’s journey will be tied to Buchanan’s own family history. One of his brothers emigrated to Australia (where Muir had been transported to) in 1995, while another brother had qualified as an advocate in Edinburgh (the faculty that Muir had been a member of). With these coincidences in mind, Buchanan started to wonder whether his family might have been in the right place, at the right time, to be part of the establishment that Muir was accused of agitating amongst. I’m glad the artist put it that way in an e-mail to me recently, rather than assuming that if his ancestors had been in Edinburgh in those days then they would have been supporters of the ‘Society of Friends of the People’. That’s the organisation that Muir was prominent in and which did have a lot of street level support in both the Glasgow and Edinburgh of the day.

‘From Paul Revere to Here’ is a genealogical drawing that’s also been growing in the artist’s studio since 2003. (Revere being a well-known engraver cum hero of the American Revolution). Roderick Buchanan actually began this search in order to identify the last person in his family to arrive into Glasgow. That was Peter Morrison, who came in about 1910 from Cork. He then turned his attention to who was the first of his direct ancestors to arrive in Glasgow. He’s traced back to around Thomas Muir’s date of birth. Of the 128 direct ancestors from seven generations back, he’s managed to find 12, and of these, only two—William and Janet Harvie, a pair running a pub—were located in Glasgow. The other filled-in boxes on that level of his family tree were resident in Easter Ross, Ireland, Falkirk and Paisley. By the time of Thomas Muir’s death at the end of the 18th century, about a third of Buchanan’s traced family were in Glasgow, living in a triangular area marked out by the Saltmarket, the Gorbals and Parkhead. As the 19th century got underway, one branch of the family came in from the Highlands and many more fed in from Ireland. The name Harvie has been joined by a variety of others —from Corbett to Cummings, McKenna to Munro—and the places of origin continue to expand as the boxes in the family tree continue to be filled. There has been no incoming traffic from England or Edinburgh discovered as yet.

However, with so many gaps remaining in the record, I think it is too soon for Roddy Buchanan to conclude that his family’s ignorance of these districts runs in the blood. If the 41-year-old artist, whose work has taken him all round the world in the last decade, digs down deep enough, then the proud name ‘Scott’ will surely come up in his family tree. For aren’t we all Jock Scott’s bairns?

Duncan McLaren is a writer