It takes a poet to know a poet. A few days after attending the opening of an exhibition inspired by Scottish painter Alexander Moffat’s portraits of Scottish poets, BBC Scotland’s current poet-in-residence, Stuart Paterson, was on Janice Forsyth’s afternoon radio programme talking about his response to the work on show.

If ever a scriever was required at an exhibition, then Landmarks: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland at the Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie is the very one. Landmarks is a major survey which presents portraits of major mid-20th century Scottish poets by Moffat as well as paintings and drawings of the landscapes associated with them by Ruth Nicol. A new suite of poems responding to the artworks, by writer and academic Alan Riach, is also writ large on the walls.

On air, Paterson read out a brand new poem called Except for Iain (after Sandy Moffat’s Poets’ Pub painting and poets’ portraits). In it, Paterson zeroes in on the poets’ eyes as portrayed by Moffat.

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“Even in pastel, charcoal, their eyes speak differently,” he noted. Paterson ended the poem by singling out

Lewis-born writer Iain Crichton Smith, who “looks both found and lost, already haunted by his own baffled ghost”.

This observation is bang on the money. In Moffat’s Poets’ Pub, a big busy bruiser of a picture which pulls your eye hither and thither as the figures jostle for your attention, Crichton Smith is oddly out of place. The setting is a mythical pub in 1960s Edinburgh, an amalgam of the interiors of the poets’ favourite drinking howffs in Edinburgh: Milne’s Bar, the Abbotsford and the Café Royal.

In front of Crichton Smith, the daddy of them all, poet and agitator Hugh MacDiarmid is holding court, pipe in hand and crimson scarf around his neck. He’s talking to writers, Orcadian George Mackay Brown and Sydney Goodsir Smith, a major figure in the so-called Scottish Renaissance of the mid-20th century. Both lean in towards the older man. Around this tight nucleus, Norman MacCaig, master of the lyrical

short-form poem, and Sorley MacLean, Gaelic bard and creator of the mighty Hallaig, stand behind like sentinels. Off to the right of the canvas sits a

boyish-looking Edwin Morgan beside Edinburgh-born poet Robert Garioch. While MacCaig, MacLean, Morgan and Garioch all appear to be looking at something, Crichton Smith is adrift, for all the world staring out at viewers, as in Paterson’s words, we “gladly walk the landscapes of his personal hereafter”.

If you would like to walk the landscapes of these poets (all men – the great female poets of Scotland were waiting in the wings), then make your way to Milngavie now as Landmarks ends a week on Thursday. If you are unsure how to get there, jump on a train in Glasgow and it will take you almost to the front door. The credit for making the exhibition happen has to go to landscape painter Ruth Nicol, who studied Poets’ Pub in detail as she prepared for an exhibition in 2014-15 called Three Rivers Meet. Before embarking on a series of huge landscapes informed by the land from which Moffat’s poets all sprung, she looked at the seven individual portraits of the poets he created before Poets’ Pub. Moffat’s original poets’ portraits were displayed in a landmark exhibition in Glasgow’s old Third Eye Centre in 1981 called Seven Poets which went on to tour the UK.

Once Three Rivers Meet was over, Nicol pushed at many doors open to make Landmarks happen. Several of Moffat’s poet portraits and Poets’ Pub are in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland in permanent storage. Others are scattered around collections in Scotland. The George Mackay Brown portrait has been berthed at Stromness Academy in his native Orkney, suffering the slings and arrows of a leaky roof which has caused water damage. The artist plans to restore the portrait himself, he says.

I’d like to say a personal thank you to Nicol. Not only has she created some knockout landscape paintings as a response to Moffat’s poet portraits, she has helped liberate these portraits for a new audience to enjoy. Norman MacCaig presides over the main gallery in the Lillie, hand nonchalantly tucked in his pocket. There’s something about the definite outlines and flat colour of Moffat’s work which hooks you in as he chisels a cheekbone or defines the turn of a knee.

Nicol’s work sits alongside Moffat’s companionably, offering up a setting and a context for the poets’ verse. She is at her best when working on a large scale, mixing up paint in an abstract fury for foregrounds or sky, while creating leading lines out of the sides of rivers of high-rise blocks.

The work on display at the Lillie ranges in size from small exquisite study portraits by Moffat and pencil sketches by Nicol of places such as The People’s Palace in Glasgow to her huge landscapes of MacDiarmid’s childhood in Langholm and Crichton Smith’s native Lewis.

There’s also a new big kid on the block too in the shape of Scotland’s Voices, Moffat’s recently-unveiled companion piece to Poets’ Pub. This vivid work, which glows with the citrus tang of colours more at home in Mexico than Scotland, celebrates the oral tradition in Scottish culture. The painting is hung opposite Poets’ Pub and takes viewers back to the 1950s.

At its centre, portable tape-recorder in hand, sits the poet and intellectual Hamish Henderson, who collected folk songs the length and breadth of Scotland, discovering “stars” such as Belle Stewart and Jeannie Robertson. He and MacDiarmid once famously ‘flyted” (argued in a controlled, intellectual way) in the letters pages of The Scotsman newspaper over the importance of the oral tradition.

In Moffat’s painting, Henderson is surrounded by singers, musicians, archivists and recorders, poets and thinkers committed to the folk tradition. Major figures in the folk tradition scene such as Robertson, Stewart, Jean Redpath, Dolina Maclellan and Aly Bain gather around Henderson. As a nod to Poets’ Pub, MacDiarmid is tucked away in the top right-hand corner, debating with Italian Marxist thinker Antionio Gramsci, a huge influence on Henderson’s thinking about the importance of the oral tradition.

Words, of course, lie at the heart of this visual compendium. Interspersed between the artwork of Moffat and Nicol, you’ll find Alan Riach’s quiet rumination on Scotland’s voices. Deirdre’s Farewell, written about Crichton Smith, is a wee jewel of a poem. “Our years here are all past in an instant,” he writes.

In this exhibition, the artists and writers who made a huge contribution to the resurgence of Scotland cultural confidence are brought back to glorious life.

Landmarks: Poets, Portraits and Landscapes of Modern Scotland, Lillie Art Gallery, Station Road, Milngavie, Glasgow, G62 8BZ, 0141 956 5536, edlc.co.uk/heritage-arts/exhibitions/lillie-art-gallery-exhibitions. Until Feb 8, Tue-Sat, 10am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm. Free