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Souls shaped by the land

IT was a foolish person indeed, thought Hugh MacDiarmid, who could look on a Scottish hillside and see only heather.

We know because MacDiarmid tells us, in verse which peers beyond what the fool sees to list the things he doesn't: the "sage-green leaves" of the bog-myrtle, the milkworts "blue as summer skies", the sphagnum moss in "pastel shades" sitting "in neglected peat-hags, not worked/Within living memory". MacDiarmid sees all this and more, and in response asks the famous question which gives one of his poems its title: "Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?"

Hoping to provide an answer of sorts is Infinite Scotland, a multimedia project which launches tomorrow. Part of The Year Of Natural Scotland 2013, this partnership between bodies including Creative Scotland and Scottish National Heritage aims to celebrate Scotland's natural beauty, and to underscore MacDiarmid's central point: that Scotland is a land of teeming variety, and that in that variety lie contradictions, strengths and influences which can't help but affect the life and culture of its people.

"We've used the metaphor of the national DNA, trying to find what it is that's distinctive about the country," explains Bryan Beattie, Infinite Scotland's producer and the man behind last year's Celtic Connections hit The Boy And The Bunnet. "The two strands are the natural and the cultural sides of the country. But we're also interested in where they connect. How has the one influenced the other?"

For the live show, which opens in Inverness tomorrow, Beattie has enlisted composer David Allison, singer Maeve Mackinnon and actress Blythe Duff. The show also features short films featuring adventurer Mark Beaumont, broadcaster Muriel Gray and award-winning architect Malcolm Fraser, among others.

Gray, for example, talks about the yew tree, its long association with human spirituality and the intertwining of that mythology with Scottish history both ancient and modern. Did you know that stone circles are thought by some to have been an attempt to mimic the physical shape of the yew tree? Or that Britain's oldest living thing is the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, which is thought to be between 2000 and 5000 years old? Legend has it Pontius Pilate played in its shadow as a boy. Fast forward a millennium and a half and we learn that John Knox's favoured spot was also a yew tree, this one near the East Lothian village of Ormiston. His was used as a makeshift Reformation pulpit rather than an outdoor Roman playground, of course.

"When an ecologist goes into the field they throw down a metre square shape called a quadrat at random and then count the species," says Beattie. "So we're throwing a metaphorical quadrat over six areas of Scotland and looking at the cultural and environmental aspects of them and making connections between them."

Those areas are Orkney, Lothian, Cairngorm, the south-west, the Trossachs and the Small Isles of Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna. Their landscape and culture is evoked through a sonic collage of music and archive recordings, many of which are included in the Infinite Scotland CD, given away free with today's Sunday Herald. We hear a snippet of a song about a shipwreck in the Solway Firth, recorded in 1965 by folklorist Hamish Henderson; a 1961 recording of a traditional Orkney riddle, recited by the wonderfully named Henrietta Groundwater; an account from 1956 of a Saturday night rumble on Edinburgh's High Street; a Gaelic song hymning the remoteness and solitude of Eigg. Tomorrow, an Infinite Scotland website and mobile phone app will also be launched.

For architect Malcolm Fraser, the connection between Scotland's people and its environment is deep-rooted. "Scotland has a lot of landscape, a lot of geology. It has been much folded and interrupted by volcanoes and it's not difficult to see that Scottish culture has been bound to interact with that," he says. "We have a culture whose extremes and whose challenges reflect the extremes and challenges in our landscape itself. It's not that the landscape is a metaphor, it's a determinant behind our existence."

Fraser's architectural practice is in Edinburgh's Old Town, the craggy part of the capital Robert Louis Stevenson once described as the "precipitous city". It's a built environment shaped more by geology and topography than by design. The result, says Fraser, was a city where people literally lived on top of each other. "That interaction between classes, professions and all sorts of people perhaps underlay the Enlightenment as much as Scotland's egalitarian education system."

Of course, all peoples are influenced by their environments. But is there something about the Scots that makes the bond between place and culture particularly tight?

Bryan Beattie says: "Because up until the last century the bulk of the population was rural, it was almost inevitable that something as basic as the rhythm of the seasons meant there was a symbiotic relationship with the environment." That began to change with industrialisation though even today, he notes, the Gaelic influence in Glasgow is strong. "But there's not a city in Scotland where you can't be out of the urban environment and into somewhere pretty green and special in about 20 minutes."

Fraser, meanwhile, recalls his time working on the construction of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh in 1999. Key phrases from around 1000 Scottish poems had been chosen to be etched into the fabric of the building and he was surprised to learn that half of them concerned landscape. As far as Scotland's bards were concerned, there was certainly something underfoot worth writing about and musing upon.

But what does this mean for the national character? Fraser points to a section in Lewis Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair where heroine Chris Guthrie tries to understand the tension between the people's love of the landscape and their hatred of the work required to wrest a living from it. "I think that's as acute an observation as the MacDiarmid quote," he says. There is, he says, a "strange dichotomy", which allows the Scots to be friendly and bolshie at the same time. This ability to entertain two irreconcilable opposites is also a characteristic of our native architecture. "The entrance to a gracious Georgian New Town house has this wonderful, inviting stair bridge," says Fraser. "But it's surrounded by spearheaded railings, the basement is a moat and the stonework on the back, technically called rock-faced ashlar, is trying to be an impassable castle."

For a less poetic example of this same contradictory impulse, let's revisit the scene from Danny Boyle's 1996 film Trainspotting in which Renton, Tommy, Spud and Sick Boy visit the Highlands. "Doesn't it make you proud to be Scottish?" says Tommy, gesturing across Rannoch Moor to the majestic scenery beyond. "It's shite being Scottish," counters Renton, "- and all the fresh air in the world won't make any f***ing difference."

That point about Scottish duality isn't lost on Turner Prize-winning sculptor Martin Boyce, whose work makes rich use of urban and suburban landscapes. "There's always a tension," he admits. "I think it's quite a Scottish characteristic, the pride and self-loathing that go together simultaneously, where in the course of a day you can absolutely hate the city you're in and love it. The same goes for the countryside. We've all been on holiday and spent the whole week being miserable in cagoules and wellies and then there's a moment when it's like nowhere else in the world. It doesn't let you get complacent about how you feel about it."

Born and raised in Hamilton, Boyce is a graduate of Glasgow School of Art (GSA) and one of an extraordinary generation of artists who have made the city a world centre for sculpture and conceptual art. Interestingly, many of those same artists studied on GSA's celebrated environmental art course, initiated in the late 1980s by the now-retired David Harding.

Context has always been crucial to the department's work. "It wasn't about producing autonomous art projects," recalls Boyce. "It was always about asking 'Where are those things going to be shown? Will a place you discover influence the work itself or even be the starting point for the work?' So place and the work were always intertwined. They went hand in hand and there was a very specific joining of the two." Sound familiar?

In an echo of Bryan Beattie's ecologist metaphor, some of Boyce's works have seen him throw an imaginary quadrat over the suburban play parks of his own childhood, what he calls "the in-between spaces that you could map out for yourself".

In the past he has made angled, stylised recreations of the municipal rubbish bins that would have peppered these places. He has recreated whole parks (some critics describe them as "menacing" and "post-apocalyptic"; he calls them "romantic") and for No Reflections, his 2009 solo show at the Venice Biennale, he found his mind returning once more to that childhood environment.

"Our estate was surrounded by woods and forest and there was this spot we called The Golden Steps because there were stepping stones across the gully," he says. The stepping stones were actually just bags of cement that someone had dumped in the river. The cement had hardened and the paper bags had washed away. "But for the Venice show I found myself unconsciously making this sequence of concrete stepping stones that you walked on to cross the room."

Boyce has journeyed from the suburbs to the city and found inspiration in both places. Musician Johnny Lynch, on the other hand, has moved in the opposite direction but been no less inspired. Raised in Edinburgh, he runs Fife's acclaimed Fence Records imprint, home to fellow singer-songwriters King Creosote (real name Kenny Anderson) and James Yorkston, and records under the moniker The Pictish Trail. After years living in Cellardyke, Lynch recently moved to Eigg and says the creation of his new album, Secret Soundz Vol 2, was affected both by the island's difficulties and its advantages.

"Eigg definitely shaped the fact that the album exists in the way it does," he says. "Recording in a studio, you're up against the clock and it's an expensive business. On Eigg we had the freedom to set up our own equipment and it was a very DIY operation. We recorded in my cottage and in a caravan and we could make as much noise as we wanted. Small things like that give you freedom and when I hear the record it has the most cohesive sound of any of my albums."

With just one shop on the island, which shuts at 3pm, mundane things like what you eat and when have to be thought about very carefully. "It sounds quite trivial but it affects your day-to-day life," says Lynch. "But also, if that's what you have to worry about the most, it also makes your life a lot less complicated."

The success of the Fence Collective artists and the label's annual Anstruther-based festival The Home Game demonstrate to Lynch that what he calls "music on the fringes" has the ability to resonate even with young, urban Scots. It's as if, at some deep level, there is still an unspoken belief in the connection between our environment and our culture, and an acceptance that "rural cool" is not a contradiction in terms.

"If we were singer-songwriters living in cities I don't think there would be as much interest," says Lynch. "There's a context there that shapes how people view the music. But I'm sure it also shapes how the music is written – Kenny writes about things that happen in Crail and James's music brings in aspects of the East Neuk landscape a lot of the time."

Yorkston himself is equivocal about the extent to which his surroundings directly influence his music, despite album titles like When The Haar Rolls In. But, he says: "I do believe that any artist has to be influenced by their surroundings, their landscape, culture, class – their experiences – as that is what art is, for me at least: trying to make sense of all that's going on around my ears and eyes."

Like the Scotland of MacDiarmid's verse, that is a place of infinite possibilities.

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