Today, in the little harbour in Hornbaek, there’s a high-pitched moaning of the wind through the rigging, It’s a kind of soundtrack to a painting I once saw as a very young child at the Art Galleries in Glasgow.
The painting, of a windswept seascape in northern France, was by the impressionist Boudin. I say seascape but it’s just as much a skyscape. Obviously, back then, I knew nothing about Boudin but I remembered this work of art. The windswept pier was rather Scottish. And up here on the flat north coast, it’s like a Boudin painting today, as a big Baltic sky seems to overwhelm the land and sea.
I’d only been in Copenhagen a few years when I re-discovered this long-forgotten ‘cultural memory’ from primary school. In one of the poster shops, once so popular on the long pedestrian street called Stroeget, I found a large poster of Boudin’s ‘Jetty at Trouville’. I believe it was somewhere between busty Samantha Fox and avant garde German art. I was convinced that I’d seen this painting before so I read the small text. Right enough, it was reproduced with permission of Glasgow’s museums.
You see, at primary school there was a time when a large double decker would park outside our school at the top of Armadale Street. Every few weeks it would drive us all off to the Art Galleries. This happened over a period of several months I believe. Why we did this was never explained to me, but it was a highlight of the six years at Ally Parade.
“Oor wee school’s
The best wee school
The best wee school in Glesga,
The ainly thing that’s wrang wi it
Is the baldy-heided maister.
He drinks in the pub oan Saturday night,
And goes tae the church oan Sunday,
He prays tae god tae gie him strength,
Tae belt the waines oan Monday”
Singing on the bus was also part of the experience.
Upon arrival, we were herded into a large, high-ceilinged room. After the skylight windows were blacked out, by the kind of automatic shutters you only saw in Bond movies, there was formal teaching with on-screen slides by an older employee. One of my witty classmates asked out loud, “Who’s that auld relic?” Another remarked, ‘Whaur did they dig up thon auld fossil’. But he seemed to know a great deal about ancient Egypt and the mummies that Kelvingrove had on display. The best part of the visit, though, was the 45-60 minutes we got to wander around on our own.
Young minds are receptive to this kind of education. It certainly made an impression on me. Another painting that I’d seen at Kelvingrove at that time, and long forgotten, was re-awakened in my mind’s eye many years later as I stood on an oddly familiar high field of alpine flowers in Austria. I think the painting was called something about summer or springtime in Tyrol. I’ve never been able to trace that one, but it’s imprinted on the wee grey cells. Good old Kelvingrove.
For reasons best known to the education authorities, parts of the local history of Glasgow were left buried, quite literally.
For example, I only learned of the Calton Weavers many decades after moving to the other side of the North Sea. And it wasn’t as though I was unaware of Abercromby Street, where those protesting Weavers who were shot lie buried. Ma maw used to take me to visit relatives at nearby Bridgeton Cross, which, as it turns out, is next door to the Abercromby Street memorial to these Scottish heroes of 1787. And yet it was as though the hugely significant events involving the Weavers were an irrelevance in my locality, and essentially erased from history.
“A detachment of the 39th Regiment marched, and a pitched battle occurred at Parkhouse, in Duke Street. The Riot Act was read, and a volley of musket fire killed three of the weavers and injured others.” (George MacGregor (1881). The History of Glasgow)
I was born on Duke Street and spent my early years there. How could I not know about this?
The entire story of Scotland’s first ‘working class martyrs’ played out in my small part of Glasgow. Hugely significant events in Scotland’s social and political history, and I was unaware of them. Can’t have the great unwashed getting ideas, I suppose?
As you’re no doubt aware, the 1787 event was not a one-off. There was social unrest throughout the first decades of the nineteenth century.
I sometimes wonder what effect the modern Calton Heritage Trail would have had on our primary class. If we’d been taken to the sites of the unrest, the shootings, the burials. And perhaps to the places where the events around the 1820 Rising took place. Duke Street, Gallowgate, the High Street, Castle Street and Saltmarket all get a mention in, “The Radical Rising: The Scottish Insurrection of 1820”. A rising that was thoroughly subverted by agents of the British Crown, and ended with the horrific executions of those who led the uprising. To add insult to injury and vindictive punishments, the post-rising trials were themselves a violation of the Act of Union. Perfidious Albion.
If anyone could have understood the 1820 slogan, ‘Scotland Free or a Desert’, it was bairns like us who lived in the industrial decay of the East End. After all, we were clearly not free and in many respects our country was a national desert. A hollow excuse for a once proud nation.
The wind is blowing steadily on this blue-sky September day here in Hornbaek as England is burying its Queen. She drove past our primary school once and waved from her opulence. I was supposed to be impressed or something. Naw, wisnae. Those people never understood that flaunting their obscene inherited wealth in front of the poor didnae exactly endear thaim tae us. But as ma auld maw always said of the recently departed, ‘God rest her soul’.
On days like this, the Swedish coast is so clear you can almost touch it. There are white tops on the Kattegat, not unlike those of Boudin’s Glasgow memory.
A few years ago, I posted a photo on Twitter of an old wooden ship that was passing the north coast on its way into the Sound and the Baltic. Suddenly, Billy Kay responded with a quote from a Scottish poet, also unknown to me.
“Oh, it’s fine alang the tideway
The loupin’ waters rin
When the wind is frae the Baltic wi’ the brigs comin’ in.”
Billy was quoting from, ‘The Wind Frae the Baltic’ by Violet Jacob. And yet most of us only ever learn about the ploughman poet from Ayrshire.
There are so many missing pieces in my Scottish cultural jigsaw as to be embarrassing. How can we Scots grow up learning so little of our history, language and heritage? Professor Alf Baird suggests the “British ‘one-nation’ Anglophone culture and language” imposed on us in the Union, is part of the reason. In other words, what he defines as “cultural and linguistic imperialism” that has attempted to eradicate our national identity. A kind of ethnocide.
As I walk my bike through the harbour area towards the long stone jetty, I pass a small board with some local history. It includes a historic image of a windy Hornbaek morning as the fishermen come in. During the 1870s, this little fishing village was a magnet for painters and writers. Sea, sky and light. The image was a small reproduction of an 1870s painting by the celebrated Danish artist, PS Kroeyer, painted at this harbour. The artist is otherwise known for paintings of his stunningly beautiful wife, Marie, a fellow Danish artist in her own right. She was the subject of a 2012 Danish movie. You see, unlike we Scots, Danes don’t get the language and culture of their large southern neighbour foist upon them, they promote their own history and culture. Neither is their government stuffed with civil servants from another country. In fact, the constitution states that only Danish citizens are permitted to become civil servants. A bit different from the Anglo-centric British colonial administration in Scotland.
They say that if history does not repeat itself it certainly rhymes.
Some years ago, as a teacher, I was preparing a visit for my class to a small art museum just north of Copenhagen. I suppose that Glasgow double-decker to Kelvingrove must have had a far deeper affect upon me than I’d imagined. The museum has works by Danish ‘Guldalder’ (Golden Age) artists and a number of works by French impressionists.
I made my way round Ordrupgaard Museum creating a question sheet. The idea was that the students were to search for stuff among the paintings, thus learning without realising it. Anyway, in the middle of all this, I suddenly found myself staring at a work by Eugène Boudin. Aye, there in front of me was a dramatic seascape and huge sky. This time it was ‘The Pier at Trouville’. Deja vu.
As you leave or enter the harbour area in Hornbaek, there’s a memorial stone to another artist and painter, Holger Drachmann, “poet of fishermen and the sea”. The inscription reads:
“I travelled plenty,
Wandered in many foreign land
And the best I learned there
Was to long for my native strand”
It’s difficult not to learn something about this country as you just walk around.
The love of motherland runs through everything as a golden thread. Considering it’s a relatively small European nation (with only 2/3 the landmass of Scotland) the sense of national identity is remarkably strong. Emphasising and teaching their own national story is fundamental to that.
The old colonial possessions in the North Atlantic are either gone (Iceland) or free to leave from their, already existing, substantial self-governance. In fact, Scotland is some way behind both Greenland and the Faroes when it comes to autonomy. That’s probably because our colonial media, and London’s appointed imperial servants, are happy to collaborate with a power that has occupied Scotland and stolen our resources for 300 years. David Mundell’s oft repeated lie that, “Scotland will have one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world”, is hardly even challenged by the ruling party meant to secure our liberation.
Whether Danish independence will survive the increasingly belligerent and bossy EU of Borrell and von der Leyen remains to be seen. Danes are rather Euro-sceptic by nature, and allergic to the idea of a European superstate. This is in spite of their eager-to-please Europhile politicians, being ever keen to score brownie points in Brussels.
Having their unique way of life undermined by NuEU directives, or their foreign policy dictated by the whim of Washington, may not go down well, though, long term. After all, Danish independence is sacrosanct and fundamental to the constitution. But for the time being the common phrase, ‘Ude godt, hjemme bedst’, still applies – the sentiment expressed is that it’s good to travel abroad, but home is still the best place to be. Aye, my hosts love thair ain wee bit o’ hill an glen – and you can certainly see why on a windy, blue-sky day in Hornbaek