SCOTTISH art is not blessed with a bulging bibliography.

There are, of course, any number of indispensable books and catalogues concerning individual artists and movements but with one or two notable and invaluable exceptions - Duncan Macmillan's Scottish Art, 1460-2000 and Murdo Macdonald's Scottish Art spring to mind - there is little to set the critical pulse throbbing.

Perhaps this was what emboldened Timothy Clifford, in his role as Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, to dismiss Scottish art as "inferior".

At the time, the early 1990s, his remarks were seen as incendiary, even ignorant, and there were calls for their utterer to be removed from his fastness on Edinburgh's Mound and for him to be hung, drawn and quartered on the castle ramparts.

In hindsight, however, Clifford did the nation and its art scene a timeous favour, insisting that we take a good, hard, unsentimental look at ourselves and begin to sort the wheat from the chaff. There is no doubt, for example, that in comparison to what was being produced in Italy during the Renaissance, Scottish art - if such it may be called - was barely worthy of remark.

We had no-one of the ilk of the legendary masters, nor, indeed, did we have anyone fit to clean their brushes.

But as the centuries marched on matters improved. In the eighteenth century Ramsay and Raeburn were in no way inferior to other portraitists. And so it has continued.

In the late nineteenth century the dozen or so Glasgow Boys made the kind of international impact that connoisseurs normally reserve for the progeny of Rome and Florence, Holland and France.

On top of which there was Charles Rennie Mackintosh, arguably the greatest artist Scotland has ever produced and, until relatively recently, the most underrated and neglected.

JD Fergusson's place in the pantheon is likewise in need of revaluation. As the artist Alexander Moffat and the literary academic and poet Alan Riach are at pains to point out in this overdue new edition of his Modern Scottish Painting, first published in 1943, Fergusson was unusual, not least because his approach to art was embedded in political philosophy.

He was a nationalist and implacably convinced of the need for independence. He was also a wonderfully gifted painter whose work at its best draws on and embellishes that of his predecessors and peers, such as Matisse and Degas, Poussin and Picasso.

Here, too, mention must be made of his wife and collaborator, Margaret Morris, a dancer and choreographer whose influence on ballet in Scotland after the Second World was transformative and who undoubtedly contributed hugely to her husband's career.

Though Fergusson is routinely described as a Colourist, he was also a Modernist. Les Eus, which perhaps exemplifies his finest work, is a case in point.

It is of its time but it harks back to a more primitive age when nudity was not regarded as an affront, still less pornographic. For Fergusson, the nude lay at the heart of his art, and he painted it repeatedly, as if cocking a snook at presbyterianism and the buttoned up society from which he was so keen to escape.

Born in Leith in 1874, he was educated at the Royal High School and encouraged to draw by his mother. Both his parents were Gaelic speakers from Perthshire where his father had farmed.

"He must have been impressed," write Moffat and Riach, "from an early age by the contrast between the austerities of Calvinism, Kirk elders dressed in black, and the colour of the port of Leith."

It was to Paris, though, that Fergusson was drawn like so many other Scottish artists of the day, such as Samuel Peploe, Francis Campbell and Boileau Cadell. Among the many books missing from Scottish art historiography is one on the impact that the French capital had on our painters.

For Fergusson, its appeal was obvious and various. It was a place of light, freedom, intellectual challenge, learning and research. Mediocrity was not tolerated, nor were fools suffered. Above all, Fergusson wrote as war engulfed Europe and Nazis paraded down the Champs-Élysées , "It allowed me to be Scots as I understand it, and has made me so Scots that I am leaving it and coming home."

Modern Scottish Painting is thus a result of experience and exile, and of close connection with the many geniuses who flocked to Paris when the going was good and the living was cheap.

It is the kind of manifesto one would like to see political parties attempt in relation to culture rather than the mealy-mouthed banalities that they and agencies like Creative Scotland offer in lieu of policy. "Scotland should have an independent art,"

Fergusson opens one chapter, in which he goes on to query why "the Glasgow School" faded out. "Was it Scotland's feeling of inferiority? Was it the lack of sympathy or financial support from the Glasgow people?"

Fergusson was good at asking questions, rather less good at coming up with viable solutions. Ultimately his book is a cri de coeur for artistic freedom.

In expressing this he was not always lucid and could be bombastic, repetitive and woolly. But he is always passionate and often talks sense. Then as now, there was what Moffat and Riach call "the tyranny of academic authority in taste, practice and artistic social priorities".

There was also the need for artists to conform if they wanted to be embraced by the kind of organisations and institutions who view art as the conduit to boosting the economy and encouraging an ever-growing influx of tourists.

What's needed now, as it was in Fergusson's day, is a recognition that art begins with artists, especially those artists who are prepared to challenge assumptions and take a sledgehammer to totems.

Modern Scottish Painting, by J D Fergusson, is published by Luath Press, priced £10