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This article sets out to reveal the way that word and image are combined in wholly inventive ways in the work of artist, Will Maclean and poet/historian, Angus Martin. The initial exhibition by Maclean The Ring-Net in 1978, and the publication of Martin’s book The Ring-Net Fishermen in 1981, were their early representations of the world of herring fishing. Their word-image collaborations brought a sensory experience to a new audience: an experience akin, in fact, to the multi-dimensional reality of the ring-net fishermen themselves. The correspondence between the two men during their research period revealed their determination to give absolute priority to the oral testimony of the fishermen above that of any commentators (professional or otherwise) on the industry. The correspondence also signalled the need for the use of both word and image to communicate and transfer information with real accuracy. This article focuses not only on the original Ring-Net research but also on a more recent collaboration where Martin’s poems are set alongside Maclean’s ink drawings in the publication One Time in a Tale of Herring (2010). There are a number of areas of overlap between Maclean’s drawings and the hand-written selection of Martin’s fishing poems. First there is the ‘thingly’ element: the attention above all to nouns and verbs in the poems and the unadorned nature of the drawings; second the phenomenological: the priority given to the sensuous aspects of the fisherman’s experience in the poems and the link to the gestural expressionism of the drawings. Most arresting of all, though, is the way that the image seeks the word and the word seeks the image.

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1The essay addresses two issues: the first concerns the determined efforts of Angus Martin and Will Maclean to research and record as much as was possible of the ring-net herring industry on the west coast of Scotland before its demise; the second concerns the ways that Martin and Maclean chose to represent the industry in word and image. I will argue that in order to represent something of the multi-dimensional reality of that world, Martin and Maclean fused word and image in inventive and expressive ways taking notions of representation beyond the reach of traditional genre conventions. What they demonstrated was the potential of a word-image collaboration to clear away tired and clichéd representations and bring to a new audience a certain sharpness in sensory experience – to present them with an encounter – something akin to the reality of the world of the ring-net fishermen.

2Some idea of the task before them is laid out in the writings of Fredric Jameson:

Cultural production is […] driven back inside a mental space which is no longer that of the old monodic subject but rather that of some degraded collective ‘objective’ spirit: it can no longer gaze directly on some putative real world, at some reconstruction of a past history which was once itself a present; rather, as in Plato’s cave, it must trace our mental images of that past on our confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a ‘realism’ that is meant to derive from the shock of grasping that confinement and of slowly becoming aware of a new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which remains forever out of reach (Jameson 1992: 25).

3Jameson has been one of the most outspoken critics of Postmodernism focused on what he sees as the new depthlessness in the culture of Late Capitalism, the obsession with the image or simulacrum, the relentless concern with commodification and a weakening of the sense of the historical, a condition that he refers to as “historical deafness” (Jameson 1992: xi). He illustrates his comprehensive critique by reference to architecture, film, and literature as well as to visual art. It is difficult to withstand his articulation of this sense of an ever-receding reality, but John Berger suggests that the artist has a significant role to play:

For an animal its natural environment and habitat are a given; for man – despite the faith of the empiricists – it has to be continually sought out, held – I am tempted to say salvaged. One is taught to oppose the real to the imaginary, as though the first were always at hand and the second distant, far away. This opposition is false. Events are always to hand. But the coherence of these events – which is what one means by reality – is an imaginative construction. Reality always lies beyond – and this is as true for materialists as for idealists. For Plato, for Marx. Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés (Berger 1984: 72).

4And the kind of approach that might help to reveal the reality beyond the “screen of clichés” is articulated by Juhani Pallasmaa:

Artistic expression is engaged with pre-verbal meanings of the world, meanings that are incorporated and lived rather than simply intellectually understood. In my view poetry has the capacity of bringing us back to the oral and enveloping world […] Equally the task of art and architecture in general is to reconstruct the experience of an undifferentiated interior world in which we are not mere spectators, but to which we inseparably belong. In artistic works, existential understanding arises from our very encounter with the world and our being in the world – it is not conceptualised or intellectualised (Pallasmaa 2012: 28).

5Pallasmaa refers positively to an “oral and enveloping world” and much of his thesis concerns his opposition to a sight-dominant world in which everything around us is reduced to a set of potential photographs. From the outset, Maclean and Martin made the words of the fishermen themselves their primary source and it was from this sense of the importance of oral culture that their journey began.

The Ring-Net Exhibition

6The collaboration began in February 1974 when Maclean contacted Martin: “I would like to visit the area and meet some of the people involved in the early days of the Ring-Net on the Clyde. My grandfather [Maclean adds] William Reid will be known to anyone who fished the Skye shores” (Argyll Letters, 1974). In 1973 Maclean had been awarded a Scottish International Education Trust Scholarship to conduct his research on the ring-netting, this had also enabled him to spend part of the year at sea. From February 1974, what followed was an intense and sustained period of a pooling together of knowledge and understanding between the two researchers which lasted for seven years (1974-81) and which, as is evidenced in their creative outpourings, can be seen to have resonated throughout their whole working lives. Maclean writes in 1980: “so much work from the first idea we talked about in the car outside the petrol station in Campbeltown at 16.20 on Sunday March 10th, 1974” (Argyll Letters 1980). The resonance is clearly reflected in a recent interview with Maclean:

I can draw a ring net boat with my eyes closed […] The whole process of The Ring Net informed the rest of my work. If I sit down with the sketchbook, I have this kind of reservoir of information that was garnered from the research. It’s that rather than the work being either something separate or something that sits together with the rest […] If I’m stuck for an idea when I’m working in the studio, if I’ve an exhibition coming up or somebody wants something for an auction, I’ll sit down and I’ll draw a landscape and I’ll put a ringer into it and it’s just always there in the back of my mind (Maclean 2022).

7Examples of late works which include a ringer outline are “Voyage of the James Caird Elephant Island” (2011) and “Voyage of the James Caird South Georgia” (2011).

8The initial, early-period collaboration resulted in Maclean’s exhibition The Ring-Net which opened at the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow in 1978 and Martin’s book, The Ring-Net Fishermen published by John Donald (Edinburgh) in 1981, but both productions emerged from the back and forth of correspondence, the recorded and transcribed conversations with fishermen, the archive and registry house note-taking and the drawing up of development areas and circumference of the project in front of them. This all-encompassing pursuit enabled Maclean and Martin to present the viewer/reader with a remarkable sense of the “multi-dimensional reality” of the world of the ring-net fishermen. The exhibition, The Ring-Net amounted to drawings, photographs, printed plans, diagrams and models, numbering more than 340 items. Maclean stipulated that: “it must be professional (the exhibition) no hanging nets and old skin buoys and so on but defined, clean, considered, accurate” (Argyll letters: 84).

Figures 1-3. Items from The Ring-Net: Ring-Net Herring Fishing on the West Coast of Scotland, A Documentary Exhibition by Will Maclean, The Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, 25 January - 4 May 1978.

9After being shown in Glasgow, the exhibition travelled to Edinburgh, Leeds, Campbeltown, Tarbert (Loch Fyne) and Inverness. The whole installation was eventually bought by the Gallery of Modern Art (Edinburgh) in 1979. Maclean and Martin have collaborated further, on a number of projects since that original period, but the history, imagery and experience of the Ring-Net, as stated above, has reverberated throughout their working lives.

Figure 4: Invitation for The Ring-Net exhibition at the Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh, 1978


10The Ring-Net project was established to cover the entire history of ring-netting from the 1840s to its residual state in the late 1970s. It was concerned not just with the fishermen and their methods of fishing but other associated industries: boatbuilding, engineering, sail-making, net making, curing, gutting and packing. They wanted to know, for example: “the weight of ballast, where the water lines were on the skiffs, the type of paint and varnish, weight of rigging, blocks, discharging methods, positions of men when shotting and hauling in the skiffs” (Argyll letters: 154). Angus Martin’s poem “In Memory of Hugh MacFarlane of Tarbert, Died 3 June 1979” is a tribute to one of the informants who provided him with material that he refers to as “the last gold of my culture”:

You gave me more than stories.

You gave me the making and working and mending

of nets and lines, and the rigging of sails,

and the ways of herring and the predators

on herring; you gave me the hard lives

of the skiff fishers, and you gave me

the old tongue from the mouths of the dead.

(The Larch Plantation 1990: 22-3)

  • 1 Maclean said, in interview: “one of the big compliments that [Martin] had for his book was that non (...)

11The last line of the verse: “the old tongue from the mouths of the dead” lifts the poem beyond the realm of documentary aspiration – the desire to hear the words of the dead encapsulates in the most poignant way the extent of the reach of the researchers.1 Maclean and Martin’s familiarity with the ringers was due to the fact that they had both worked as fishermen at the ring-net – Martin was still working aboard a fishing boat during the research period whereas Maclean worked a ringer during 1968: “I [ …] got a proper job [ …] as the cook on the Misty Isle. By that time they were joined by another boat called the Fortitude and they were worked in conjunction with the Kyle boats, the Catherine and the Mary Anne” (Maclean 2022). This shared experience contributed immeasurably to the effectiveness of the collaboration. They set about the enterprise with an absolute conviction that they could convey to the public a multi-dimensional depiction of the industry.

12The very notion that such an aspiration should underlie what is in its essence an oral history project, reveals the radical nature of the whole enterprise. That something such as the herring fishery on the West coast of Scotland could embody some of the most distinctive and resonant elements of a culture is little short of heresy. In his preface to Billy Kay’s Odyssey Programmes of the 1980s, however, Owen Dudley Edwards writes:

it is from oral history that we get blood, otherwise all that remains to us are dry bones. It is not simply a question of reality, but of multi-dimensional reality being provided by the evidence of those who heard, saw and felt the historical experience with which we are concerned [. . .] It is chapters of Scottish social history. It is the background to folk art and song. It is human drama, and the wellsprings of literature. It is in the last analysis, all of us (Kay 1980: Preface).

13Dudley Edwards concisely summarises the various elements of an oral culture: it is not just that it can encompass art, literature and song but that it can impart to history the phenomenological aspects of experience; it is a “multi-dimensional reality” that a thriving oral culture reaches for.

14The complexity of the research on the ring-net from a number of perspectives is revealed over and over again in the correspondence between Maclean and Martin. The plethora of information that was collected during the investigation required a system or structure. This was achieved by approaching it in sections: there is a section which deals with boat designs, for example, with the variety of ring-net practices, the use of different types of brailers, the development of winch designs, the move from sail to motor power. No detail was seen to be too small, though, as the correspondence between Maclean and Martin indicate, whether it was net needles, aspects of net construction, or the make of the tobacco tins favoured by the fishermen. A letter from Maclean to Martin reveals the preoccupation with documentary accuracy: “Nothing must escape us – from the maker’s names of the stove and cooking pot to the brand of tobacco that the men used in their pipes – were they clay or Briar pipes – did they all have the little metal lids that my grandfather had even as an old man” (Argyll letters: 88). This brings us to the central element of this paper: word and image. Their information was gained primarily by tape recording interviews with fishermen (as established above), and these interviews were to form the basis for Martin’s book and provide Maclean with the raw materials for his drawings and plans, but he would often have additional lists of questions for sketches by the fishermen informants or from Martin, himself, or Martin’s father to ensure that as accurate a representation as possible could be attained.

Figures 5 and 6. Maclean Letters to Martin (Argyll Letters, undated).

Private Collection

Figure 7. Transcript of Interview with Hugh MacFarlane by Angus Martin (Argyll Letters 1976).

Private Collection

15The letters indicate the various word-image configurations that were necessary in the communication process in order to reach an accurate representation of the complexities of the industry. Word-image was used as their favoured working method. Martin, in 1975, speaks of “so much guidance from these sources [the fishermen]” and for his gratitude in respect of “the attention these men unstintingly (most of them) gave to my legions of questions”. The Campbeltown recordings comprised the largest body of material but the Carradale, Tarbert, Skye, and mid-Argyll recordings were also sources at this point, together with the Edinburgh notebooks containing material from West Register House. The ambition was, at the mid-point of their research period, to “get on with another round of follow-up research here in Kintyre to clear up dubious areas of information and also to investigate more deeply certain subjects like sail-work or the role of womenfolk” (Argyll Letters 1975). Martin considers in detail the “two distinct stages (1) sail and oar hauling to the shore (2) motor power = ringing offshore” (Argyll Letters 1975). He summarises his notes as a “rather crude representation of my interpretation of the material we have so far” (Argyll Letters 1975). Martin said that he would work things out “on the page” from the fishermen’s oral testimonies and Maclean would send on diagrams (of nets, for example) and these would be checked against the material Martin was transcribing.

Figure 8. Martin Letter to Maclean (Argyll Letters: undated).

Private Collection

16Many of Maclean’s letters testify to his anxiety regarding this documentary element of his drawings; as an example, one of his letters asks for clarity about developments in the deck design of ring net boats at different periods.

Figure 9: Maclean Letter (Argyll Letters: undated).

Private Collection

17Martin was also insistent that only when sufficiently authenticated information was obtained could “truly representative drawings” be made (Argyll Letters: undated). Despite the difficulties that they faced in the sharing of information, Maclean stated in a letter: “I never cease to be amazed by the amount of information that a drawing can contain when it is combined with some writing” (Argyll Letters: 53). The sketch of a forecastle (‘foc-sle’) (Figure 6, above) showing the sleeping quarters for the fishermen on a very early herring skiff is a good example of the combination of word and image. The letters below also reveal the need for drawn and written information in the search for accuracy and clarity:

Figure 10 and 11: Maclean Letters to Martin (Argyll Letters: undated).

Private Collection

18Alongside the multitude of drawings, and along with the actual objects such as net needles and buoys, and the boat models and the taped conversations, are all the plans and designs of gear from boatyards and factories. Each of these very different elements conveys the same sort of objective; the pursuit of the indexical link to a source rather than either a symbolic relationship (in descriptive ‘professional’ language) or an iconic one such as a sketch or artistic impression (although some drawings and watercolours were included in the exhibition).

19One of the points to be noted is that this research was carried out in the 1970s before oral testimony had been accepted as valid historical source material. In fact, Maclean and Martin would often check published sources against the memories, logbooks or diaries of fishermen who knew the field better than those who would have been regarded as the professional experts. The idea of a working-class history or a history of the subjugated could certainly be seen in the works of people like E.P. Thomson in the 1960s but the notion of a ‘history from below’ was by no means part of any kind of orthodoxy when Maclean and Martin were working on the ring-net. The Making of the Crofting Community by renowned Highland historian James Hunter was published in 1976 and even in the Preface to the most recent edition (2000), Hunter refers to his own sense of dismay at the reaction to his book and his historical methods within the community of professional historians. Having discussed the dismissive attitudes of Scottish professional academic historians towards his publication, Hunter discusses historian Eric Richards’ lack of belief in the idea of a ‘history from below’. The justification for Hunter’s research method is extremely well defended in relation to the kind of material available (Gaelic song and poetry, testimony given at royal commissions and tribunals, in newspaper accounts of crofter’s meetings and in police reports, for example). He writes that “what Richards calls history from below, then, is certainly feasible in a Highland context, and I make no apology for having attempted it” (Hunter 2000: 17). In the preface to his book, Hunter makes it clear just how far removed he was from the mainstream approach of professional academic historians in Scotland.

  • 2 Cairns Craig uses the term ‘the folk voice’ in “Dialect and Dialectics”, The Modern Scottish Novel: (...)

20Whilst there is a PhD thesis by Patricia Allerston on the Ring-Net exhibition, the significance of the project has largely escaped the attention of the academic community (Allerston 1990). Before turning attention to this point directly, it is worth dwelling upon the academic community’s interest (or lack of interest) in oral culture or the ‘folk voice’.2 The subject of oral culture is given little attention in Michael Gardiner’s insightful reading of Scottish culture in From Trocchi To Trainspotting: Scottish Critical Theory Since 1960 (Gardiner 2006: 2-3). Absolutely central to his thesis, however, is the need for resistance to hegemonic powers which assert a narrow ascendent canon. He looks in his analysis at the way that knowledge has come to be organised in universities in contemporary Scotland and regards the destruction of the generalist strain in Scottish education as fatal to the development of Scotland’s own cultural integrity. The key term for the survival of Scottish Literature according to Gardiner is genre. He insists that it is through imaginative and diverse ways of organising texts that Scottish culture can resist a narrow ascendent canon. Only by increased flexibility in the re-thinking of typologies can Scottish literature radically assert its own independent cultural integrity. Whilst there is much to admire in Gardiner’s thesis, he has limited interest in oral culture. The notion of ‘the folk’ has only two references in his whole thesis and whilst he makes a positive nod in the direction of Hamish Henderson, he clearly regards the question of oral history as marginal to serious cultural enquiry. Cairns Craig’s far-reaching The Wealth of The Nation (2018) begins with a discussion of Scotland’s folk tradition but in the great sweep of his thesis, the question of oral culture is not reprised – he finishes by a focus on the different tropes used by individual writers to escape the bounds of either tradition or the constraints of a narrow narrative realism in a vein of what he calls “nostophobia” (fear of home). It remains, for all its theoretical complexities, a peculiarly individual-centred text. Craig could have chosen a completely different set of texts from contemporary Scottish literature to foreground the distinctive sense of ‘heteroglossia’ to be found in much of Scottish writing. There is no sense that the more recent The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature (2012) is any more sympathetic to the “folk voice”. There have been isolated essays within literary publications which have shown sympathy for the “folk voice”: in the early days of Cencrastus magazine (1979-2006) there were articles by folklorist Hamish Henderson, and articles about the folk music of the Northeast of Scotland and the folk tradition in a wider sense. Ian Olsen wrote an insightful chapter on the Greig/Duncan folksong collection in The History of Scottish Literature, vol 4, Twentieth Century 1987. In recent times, there have been innovative essays published in Highland Scotland-Brittany collaborations (Manfredi and Byrne 2017). The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Traditional Literatures (2013) pays serious attention to the “folk voice” but it achieves this by separating it out and away from ‘literature’ proper.

  • 3 This is not to deny the invaluable work in the field of oral culture carried out by The School of S (...)

21In Scottish Art of the 20th Century 1980-2001 (1994) Duncan MacMillan describes The Ring-Net as a significant step in Maclean’s move away from painting towards documentary record but he does not mention either oral history or the collaborative nature of the project. Murdo Macdonald in Rethinking Highland Art: The Visual Significance of Gaelic Culture (2013) acknowledges the significance of The Ring-Net project in its re-definition of the function of the artist in Scottish society: “the development of the role of the artist as an explorer of the material culture of the Gàidhealtachd” (MacDonald 2013: 106). Craig Richardson’s Scottish Art Since 1960: Historical Reflections and Contemporary Overviews – despite its Glasgow-centred orientation – ignores The Ring-Net installation altogether. Here, we are reminded of Billy Kay’s statement in the conclusion to his Odyssey series when he describes oral history as “the spectre which haunts the corridors of the academy” (Kay 1980: Introduction to The Second Collection). The Ring-Net project was original in concept and radical in its form and even today academia chooses not to engage with its combative stance.3 Maclean himself says: “in terms of an art project […] it was something that was, at that time, completely different. I went to art school and for four years I studied painting and there was no notion, going through an art school in the sixties, that something like The Ring Net could have been considered as part of the visual arts” (Maclean 2022).

Word-Image and Image-Word: Poems and Ink Drawings

22The opening paragraph of Martin’s conclusion to The Ring-Net Fishermen reads as follows:

The journey from Glasgow to my home in Campbeltown, along the road that loops the bays of the western shore of Lochfyne, unfailingly saddens me, as though I were travelling through a country peopled by ghosts. Abandoned cottages have succumbed to ruination or, more ignominiously, surrendered their history to summer occupants; fishermen’s stores overflow with weeds and litter; the stumps of net-poles stand rotting in the ebb; the croft-lands, for centuries tilled and harvested, have reverted to wildness; and with all that unhuman dissolution has receded the Gaelic people and their language, an unreturning tide (Martin 1981: 242).

  • 4 Cairns Craig’s discussion of haecceitas in relation to the poetry of Kenneth White is a reprisal of (...)

23That sense of the visual in Martin’s expression: “the road that loops the bays of the western shore”, the “cottages”, “stores”, “stumps of net poles” is strongly evident here in this melancholic meditation on the demise of the ring-net. This sense of the visual pervades all of Martin’s subsequent work and it is almost as though it all goes back to the word-image source material of The Ring-Net exhibition. Whether in his other books on herring fishing, his historical essays on Kintyre, his essays and occasional pieces on his summer wanderings, his collections of dialect words from Campbeltown, Carradale or Tarbert, or in his collections of poems, he seems always to be concerned to make word into image and thereby achieve a certain ‘thingness’. This is very much akin to the Modernist dictum of William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things” (Williams Selected Poems [1944] 1976: 133).4 One of the finest of Martin’s early poems refers to an evening walk by the old quay at Dalintober in Campbeltown where he would meet the ghosts of fishermen he would recognize from old photographs. The final section of the poem returns him from his ‘vision’ to observable phenomena:

They’d shuffle and turn their eyes from me

uneasy with ancient debts

to times vacated

and I would leave them then

to wander back alone

glimpsing heredity, small

in the eye of ruin:

sea-walls with mooring-rings intact;

the stumps of net-poles

rotting in the ebb;

boot-sculpted slabs descending into water;

street corners where they’d gather

in the lee of weather,

notching out an edge of stone

honing knives.

(The Larch Plantation 38)

24The abstract terms, “heredity” and “ruin” stand out against the concrete nouns which dominate the verse. Certainly, for Martin it is in the ‘thingly’ that ideas reside.

25When we turn to Maclean we find the counterpoint – he is searching always for the resonance of the word. Speaking in conversation of the influence of Somhairlie Mac Gill-eain’s poem “Hallaig” upon his work, he says: “here was a blueprint, a visual essay encompassing aspects of tradition, narrative, surrealism and the vernacular” (Maclean 2011: 56). When he makes a list of the seminal influences upon his work, he begins not with artists but with folklorists. Maclean’s collaborations with well-known Scottish writers through his career testify to his belief in the meaningful affinity of word and image but I intend to focus here on one, more recent, collaboration – again between Maclean and Martin, again on the ring-net – in the publication One Time in a Tale of Herring (2010).

One Time In A Tale of Herring (2010), Will Maclean and Angus Martin

One Time In A Tale of Herring (2010), Will Maclean and Angus Martin

Figure 12: Book Cover

One Time In A Tale of Herring, 2010.

  • 5 The terms of the debate on the relationship between word and image are articulated in Blair 2022: 2 (...)
  • 6 The term ‘thingly’ is one used by Martin Heiddeger in “The Origin of a Work of Art” [1956] in Cazea (...)

26This collaboration combines Maclean’s ink drawings alongside a selection of Martin’s poems.5 One of the fascinating aspects of the publication is the crossover between the tactile and aural aspects of the images (see discussion below) and the visual or ‘thingly’ aspects of the words.6 Martin testifies to the power of the visual in an essay describing his early enchantment with the ring-netters:

Leaving Carradale harbour on a summer evening in 1973 and heading south into a heavy bound, I was lying on the foredeck and watching the Harvest Queen off to port on a parallel course, lifting so that her lower hull was bared before she fell over and lifted again. I was glimpsing then the timeless grace of a boat in rhythmic motion, and I have never forgotten it. (Martin Green Waters 1998: 78)

27It is the visual image and the sense of rhythmic motion that has remained with him. It should be noted that the textual analysis of the poems and paintings which follows will concentrate on the effect of word-image combinations as a means of representing reality. I will address the diverse ways that words and images coalesce to create a distinctive sense of the “thingly” or “thingness”; how they evoke the phenomenological aspects of the fisherman’s experience; and how words and images reach at times beyond the phenomenological towards a sense of the noumenal.

28The poem “Sea Stories” communicates the distinctive sense of community amongst the fisher people of Campbeltown, but Martin deliberately focuses his attention on the “thingly” in order to bring out the psychological resonance of the encounter. The poem recounts a bar-room incident which reveals the author’s relationship with other fishermen of the town:

Figure 13: Angus Martin and Will Maclean, “Sea Stories”.

One Time in a Tale of Herring, 2010

29Martin’s poems operate characteristically in the concrete and the particular by bringing the reader up close to a specific moment in a specific place. Certainly, there are a number of moments of genuine illumination when he strikes upon an image which stirs a symbolic echo but the image has to be seen as ‘thing’ first before it becomes a sign – mythic or otherwise. Thus, in this poem, it is from the single syllable nouns – “pub”, “man”, “place”, “tales”, “table”, “sea”, “land”, “masks” – that the poem is made. If you do not actually see the “whisky-gilded table” then you are hardly reading the poem at all.

Figure 14: Angus Martin and Will Maclean, “Herring Scales”, One Time in a Tale of Herring, 2010.

30Likewise, in the poem “Herring Scales”, if the sense of the scales stuck to the various surfaces is not invoked you are hardly engaging in the reading experience that the poem expects of you. Martin expresses his thoughts in a distinctive diction which is essentially the “folk voice”, speaking out of the vernacular. That is, it works most effectively when it is free of abstractions, when the words themselves are mainly single syllables, and when he works predominantly with nouns and verbs rather than with adverbs or adjectives. This gives the language elements of the visual, the oral and the tangible. It is from “boats”, “hooks”, “nets”, “masts”, “scales”, “tables”, “herrings”, “tides”, “knives”, “reefs”, “lamps”, “skiffs”, “pipes”, “gannets”, “whales” and “sea-boots” that his poetry is made.

The “Oral and Enveloping World”

31To the visual/thingly element is added something else which augments the sense of “a multi-dimensional reality”, that is, a sense of the phenomenological. Billy Kay comments on the recordings made by Martin for the radio broadcast, The Fishermen of Kintyre:

The old ring-net fishermen’s description of the way they absorbed all the natural signs around them to detect herring is beautifully recalled; colours and textures, the smells and sounds of the sea all woven in words which gives to the listener or reader an almost uncanny physical sense of being there (Kay 1980).

32Kay identifies the phenomenological, the “oral and enveloping world” that Pallasmaa (2012) suggests has largely disappeared. Another fishing poem of Martin’s entitled “Who among Common Men of their Time” reinforces the point about the relationship between the fishermen and the “enveloping world”:

Who among common men of their time

could claim such freedom? They had their boats

and could catch a wind to hell and back

and spit in the storm’s black eye

from a lee of their ancestry.

(The Song of the Quern 1998:45)

33The poem commends the seamanship skills possessed by fishermen which enable them to embrace the challenging conditions that beset them in their working lives: they are in a sense at home in the midst of a storm. The men are “common” in one sense in that they are not wealthy or famous but in another sense they are remarkable. They are remarkable in that they attained a certain freedom, as Martin explains, in the ownership of their own boats, in the human qualities which they epitomise in their skills and endurance in the face of hardship and danger, and in the understanding of nature that the effective practice of their occupation required of them. Their understanding of nature is one which Martin emphasises in his introduction to the book:

The fishermen were hunters and herring were their prey. The principle remains true today but with an immense distinction – fishermen now rely entirely on electronic aids to locate herring and on mechanical power to catch them. Their bond with nature has been broken and the lore of the hunt – which embraced everything from plankton to whales – has been consigned to the pages of books (Martin 2010: introduction).

  • 7 Martin dedicates a chapter, entitled “Appearances: The Natural Lore”, to articulate just how close (...)

34Martin emphasises the element of the phenomenological in the way that the fishermen relied upon their senses.7 There was between them and the world that they embraced no third force (technology) to act as an interface – they were ‘of the world’ that they inhabited in a sense that is almost unthinkable in most walks of life today. Pallasmaa amplifies the point and its implications: “The gradually growing hegemony of the eye seems to be parallel with the development of Western ego-consciousness and the gradually increased separation of the self and the world; vision separated us from the world whereas the other senses unite us with it” (Pallasmaa 2012: 28). The phenomenological element of the fisherman’s experience is apparent in the poems (“Grandfather”, “Bait-gathering”, “The Mast”, Dancers”, “Tonight the Fleet”, “In Memory of Hugh Macfarlane”, “One Thousand Hooks”, The Captains”, “Shores”, for example) and in the drawings on the pages of the book. In the most successful drawings (detailed discussion to follow), we ‘hear’ the sounds of the seas, of the waves breaking against the prow of the boat, the screeching of the gulls, we sense ‘the feel’ of the net. Maclean speaks, himself, in interview with the author of “the enveloping world”:

  • 8 This story is also told in a more recent interview, Maclean with Rigby 2022 although the words used (...)

ring-netting, it’s an ancient hunting method. Hunting for fishing was a visual thing that would have been done for thousands of years before eco-sounding came in […] We were looking for herring and listening, smelling and watching for birds and watching for whales. The fishermen would take the old guys on board and put them up on the foredeck. We’d be pounding along on a bad night and they would just chap the anchor and say ‘right, they’re here boys’ and down went the net (Maclean 2011).8

Voices “of the folk” in the poems of Angus Martin

35The other element to focus upon in the poems by Martin is the emphasis upon the voices of the fishermen themselves. Martin refers to these voices in the poem, mentioned earlier, dedicated to the memory of Hugh MacFarlane (“the old tongue from the mouths of the dead”). In “Tonight the Fleets”, another of Martin’s early fishing poems, he refers specifically to the particular voices that interested him:

the Gaelic of the buried men

of Minard, Tarbert, Carradale,

and the guttural Scots of Campbeltown.

(The Larch Plantation 1990: 24)

36The poem, “The Hird’s Hoose”, is an example of the distinctive use that Martin could make of the Scots of South Kintyre:

Yon nicht, steeved wi a sleever

rowlin roon the Cock,

her forefut fa’in canny,

buffin seas tae smok,

A saw a licht in the hird’s hoose

cam winkin throu the mirk

and thocht o him an his tappie doags

trachled fae thir work.

He’s streetched afore a greeshach

wi the pipe sleck in his mooth

doverin in contentment

as the gale draws tae the sooth,

but A winnae hae his hirsel,

A winna tramp his hill

gie me a lee on a boundin sea

an a toom howld tae fill.

(The Song of the Quern, 1998: 51)

37The elements of the ballad are there: the narrative, the focus on detail, the rhyme in the second and fourth lines, the strong sense of ‘voice’ but most of all what Yeats would refer to as an echo of the regularised rhythm of the folk song behind a more natural conversational idiom (Yeats in Scully 1971). The words themselves are distinctive – the tightly packed sibilants, plosives and fricatives of the Scots are used to dynamic effect when combined with carefully chosen assonantal echoes to drive the poem forward. And yet, for all the artistry of the arrangement, these are the words of “the folk”.

38Alongside his history books and his poems, Martin has also collected and published lists of words and phrases from the different fishing communities of Kintyre: Tarbert, Carradale and Campbeltown. These words and phrases represent a living idiom. They were collected from informants in the locations themselves bearing witness to colloquial linguistic forms amalgamating Gaelic, Scots and English. The word “greeshach” in the third verse of the poem above derives from the Gaelic “grìosach” – a fire of embers.9

39Seamus Heaney’s essay “John Clare’s Prog” emphasises the words “of the folk” in John Clare’s poetry (Heaney 2002: 275-92). He begins his essay by discussing Clare’s unself-conscious use of the word “prog” in place of the more standard “prod” or “poke”. Where he sees Clare’s verses at times imitating a kind of Augustan correctness, Heaney responds most to poems of a different kind. As well as drawing attention to Clare’s dexterous handling of the ballad form, he finds the distinctive strength of Clare’s verse to lie within its “deep-lodged, hydraulic locatedness within the district” (Heaney 2002: 279). Such a “locatedness” echoes equally strongly with Martin’s poems.

Drawing the Phenomenological: Maclean’s Ink Drawings and Watercolour

40In Maclean’s drawings, we find that it is through the allowing of the blotting and the scraping away and the thicker, blotchier lines to remain amongst the defter touches that a particular modulation is achieved. It is almost as though Martin’s nouns and verbs have become unadorned forms within Maclean’s drawings – any over-refinement would suggest the adjective or the adverb. The outlines and the forms themselves retain that sense of the hand – the indexical mark. The signifiers are not refined or smoothed out in any way – they are set down with expressive force thereby creating a sense of the impact of first-hand experience.

Figure 15: Angus Martin and Will Maclean, “Lament for the Herring”, One Time in a Tale of Herring, 2010.

Figure 16: Angus Martin and Will Maclean, “Lament for the Herring 2”, One Time in a Tale of Herring, 2010.


41The indexical characteristics of Maclean’s drawings recall the stylistic features of William McTaggart’s mature paintings – those painted from the 1870s to the time of his death in 1910. McTaggart’s mature work was much criticised for what was seen as its lack of ‘finish’. Whilst McTaggart’s Edinburgh dealer, MacOrmish Dott, retaliated in defence of McTaggart, the paintings were still seen as rough and improvisational; the human figures became an especial source of consternation amongst reviewers and patrons (Errington 1989: 97-8). Set against the foaming seas of the Atlantic, the wraith-like images flicker on the canvases as though about to vanish away altogether; but it is this evanescent quality, of course, that makes the images so resonant. Lindsay Errington has a particularly fine insight into the style of McTaggart’s very latest paintings: she sees him creating for the viewer “a sense of living movement in space. The brush and hand touching the picture surface, marking it and lifting off, have left a record of their own lightness or weight, their own energy, velocity or rhythm, which might approach abstraction except that it is always related to the mood and nature of the subject” (Errington 1989, 124). These are indexical elements symptomatic, above all, of the expressionist gesture. Then, there is something else, also: when you look upon the paintings of McTaggart, you feel that you want to hear them – you want to hear the sound of the sea and the human voices at the edge and the songs which attempt to bring them together. And sometimes he will use titles to suggest aural attributes (“And All the Choral Waters Sang”, “The Wind on the Heath”, “A Westerley Gale”, “The White Calm – Ailsa Craig from Port an Righ”, “The Preaching of Saint Columba”, “The Murmur of the Shell”) which have drawn him again and again to the shores of Kintyre.

  • 10 Maclean often speaks of his admiration for McTaggart’s paintings, for example: “When I look at Will (...)

42The elements of a gestural expressionism are evident in Maclean’s drawings also but, as in McTaggart’s paintings, it is an expressionism tied to its subject matter – it is not abstract – it is the interaction between ‘self’ and ‘world’ that the artwork reflects.10 The strokes of the brush, the scraping of the paper, the flooding of the wash are themselves emotive. They signify the emotions of the artist in response to the subject. We read within the image the gestural marks left by the hand. Each image is particular: it focuses on a moment, a single moment as part of the narrative, just like the moments in the narrative of the ballad. They are not the refined embellished productions of the illustrator. They heave and surge and sigh with the life of the sea and they are not hidden behind technique. There is something in them of the watercolours of Emil Nolde – not the same kind of emotion, obviously, but there is a freedom of expressive gesture which is atypical of Maclean’s work. The technique here invests them with a dramatic and powerful energy and life. Besides the pen and ink drawings that he made in 2010, Maclean went on to complete a series of ink and watercolour pieces on handmade paper in 2011 which all relate back to the ring-net. These share the same aesthetic as the pen and ink pieces: they have a fluidity and an improvised quality which suggest an imagery which has only grown stronger and more intense within the memory. In these pieces he uses a limited palette to evoke the night-time drama of the herring fisherman’s world. The pieces are sombre and at times threatening but the dominant Prussian blues, red ochres and blacks are lightened by flashes of white or the palest of blue or yellow. Through the heightened colour palette, the little world represented becomes something of a vision of wonder. Instead of optical reflections, the images are refracted through the memory to become metaphors for a vanished industry and the people who worked at it.

Figure 17: Will Maclean, “Herring Fleet at Sea”, 2011, ink/watercolour series on handmade paper.

Edinburgh Museum

43In “Herring Fleet at Sea” the image is dominated by a spreading shadowy darkness covering almost the whole water area; the pink/grey hills are boldly outlined in a dark red; flashes of a pale green are visible in the sky and reflected in the forefront of the sea but the actual herring fleet itself is barely scratched in. That which is so materially present in much of Maclean’s work (the boats and gear of the herring fishing industry) is made subservient here to the vast and mysterious forces of nature.

Figure 18: Will Maclean, “Harbour Shore”, 2011, ink/watercolour series on handmade paper.

44Much the same technique and palette are used in “Harbour Shore” where patches of illuminated blue and green gleam out from behind dark shapes of boat and shore. The image of the boat is broadly washed in, and the harbour line is but a smudge on the horizon. These are not mimetic representations primarily, but expressionist evocations distilled in the memory.

The “Folk Voice” as Counter-Narrative

45What the images reveal paradoxically is a profound sense of mystery – they are direct and simple and replete with a kind of awe at the immensity of life. There is no sense in which they suggest that ‘representation’ can somehow ‘master’ that life. Somhairlie Mac Gill-eain in some of his finest critical prose writings sets out his own analysis of the link between realism and poetry:

I often wonder whether anyone making poetry in the Germanic dialects now spoken in the British Isles has equalled in real poetic greatness the old Lowland Scots Ballads, and similarly I wonder whether anyone making poetry now in the Celtic dialects has equalled those anonymous or obscurely authored Gaelic songs of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. (Mac Gill-eain 1985: 76)

46Mac Gill-eain goes on to specify aspects of this “greatness”: “an exquisite visual as well as auditory sensuousness” allied to “vivid precise touches of description” and he contrasts these qualities with the typical attributes of the conventional Celtic Twilight notions:

Again and again the notes of love, pride, and desolation are heard, sometimes in an enumeration of ‘prosaic’ details very different from the conventional Twilight ideas (Mac Gill-eain 1985: 78).

47According to Mac Gill-eain, it is in these “’prosaic’ details” that the strength of so many of the ballads is to be found. I have already emphasised the attention to detail in the research that Maclean and Martin carried out in their collaboration on the ring-net back in the 1970s and it is this sense of respect for the authentic behind the representation that has sustained the relationship between them. Maclean’s studio is full of the actual things connected with fishing, whaling and seafaring that he has amassed throughout his working life. These items of equipment have provided him with a kind of exotics of the known: his studio consists of a museum of material objects and equipment making up a vocabulary of forms which find their final manifestation in his various box constructions, sculptural pieces and installations. Likewise, it is in the attention to the “’prosaic’ details” that we find the distinctive strengths in so many of Martin’s lyrics – the names of boats, the words of fishermen, the Gaelic names of places, the pieces of equipment, the reference to the senses, the very ‘thingness’ of the poems – this kind of precision is very much their strength – and it is partly this which connects them to folksong, to ballad, to the Gaelic tradition. In the finest of the poems, this is combined with a strong sense of a music. They reflect the human voice as it is spoken rather than as it is accumulated in books – even the Gaelic words are the names of places as they are still used.

48On the question of style, Mac Gill-eain writes:

The modern pseudo-Celticist may weave cloudy, elaborate regrets for outworn mythologies, but the authentic Gael is realist, recording simple human joy or sorrow. To the old Gaelic song realism is the raison d’être, the very breath of life. (Mac Gill-eain 1985: 32)

49This may seem to be all by way of diversion, but it is actually a way to tie these pieces of Maclean and Martin to something of a counter-tradition or counter-narrative in both the grand narrative of the Scottish painting tradition and the grand narrative of the Scottish literary tradition. They require to be read in relation not just to the Gaelic songs and Lowland Ballads referred to by Mac Gill-eain but to the voices of community typified, amongst others, by Robin Jenkins’ Lunderston Tales, the Orkney stories and poems of George Mackay Brown, Robert McLellan’s Linmill Stories, William MacIlvanney’s Walking Wounded, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novels and stories set in the North-East of Scotland and, more recently in the novels of James Robertson and Matthew Fitt. This is the “folk voice”, referred to previously, which Cairns Craig defends in his critique of contemporary Scottish fiction (Craig 1999).

Beyond the Phenomenological in Martin’s Poems and Maclean’s Drawings

50Besides the elements of the ‘thingly’, or the phenomenological and/or even than the “folk voice”, there is something else in the drawings and the poems which contributes to the sense of a multi-dimensional reality. It is a sense that behind the lining of the visible world there is another world beyond. While I have emphasised the ‘visual/thingly’ aspect of the poems, there is something equally strong within Martin’s poems – and within Maclean’s artworks – which comes from somewhere else. It may be regarded as related to the notion of Da Shealladh or Second Sight, a sense of the spiritual, or, within philosophical terms, it might be referred to as the noumenal. It is the sense that ‘reality’ is not something which is communicated to us solely through the five senses – that would only be equivalent to the phenomenological.

Figure 19: Will Maclean, “Two Sights of the Sea”, 1982, Pencil

Private Collection.

51One of Maclean’s early pieces “Two Sights of the Sea” (1982) alludes directly to second sight. We see the image of the upturned boat on the bottom right – the old man sitting at the window has been given a bird’s head. Birds, like angels, are symbols of thought, of imagination and of the swiftness of spiritual processes and relationships (Cirlot 1978: 28). Maclean may be suggesting that the old man at the window can move freely into the world beyond. The window (taken from MacGill-Eain’s “Hallaig” perhaps) is a common metaphor within Maclean’s work – looking through to another world – we have here a literal window onto the world and the old man who can see the drowning in the mind’s eye. In “Diviner’s Wall” (1996) a bone circle is crafted from a deer’s antlers and in the inner section a small dial is set and an outsized scapular: “In Highland culture they take a scapular, a sheep’s usually, and hold it up. For women, the next person they saw would be their husband” (Maclean 2011). The scapular reappears in a work made fifteen years later, a smaller piece entitled “Hunter’s Dreams and Omens” (2011). Like the earlier works it focuses on the Highlanders’ inclination towards prophesy, omens and second sight to steer the course of their lives. Maclean’s boxed artworks, drawings and assemblages from an early stage reveal his fascination with signs and symbols, premonition and second sight – this notion that there is another kind of knowledge of the world typically preserved within the oral tradition has run through Maclean’s thinking from the outset – it is a part of his entwinement with the fishing communities.

52So, I want to link this idea of second sight to the noumenal. The noumenal refers to “things in themselves” which cannot be directly ‘known’ but which may be intuited. Contemporary philosopher Graham Harman writes persuasively in his Object-Oriented Ontology on an understanding of things in themselves (Harman). He does not think that direct knowledge is possible, but he does think it is possible to reach more into the life of things than can be gleaned from either the scientist’s collection of molecules or David Hume’s assortment of sense impressions. He turns in a most unexpected way to the use of metaphor as the only way to ‘reach’ into a reality beyond ourselves. One of Seamus Heaney’s essays locates just such a quality in Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” (Heaney 2002: 188). Heaney traces the listing of detail – the listing of the prosaic implements and surfaces and facts which set the context for the poem in the most exact terms and then goes on to unravel the final section which reaches out to somewhere else altogether in terms of the human perception of experience from the line “if you should dip your hand in”:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:

dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,

drawn from the cold hard mouth

of the world

53Heaney only suggests something of the change in the ‘reach’ of the poem at this moment: having created the absolute ‘reality’ of the world of sense impressions, the poet ‘reaches’ out to another kind of understanding altogether. Heaney says “A poet becomes then an antenna capturing the voices of the world, a medium expressing his own subconscious and collective subconscious” (Heaney 2002:189). He writes that the lines do “what poetry most essentially does: they fortify our inclination to credit promptings of our intuitive being” (Heaney 2002: 188). This quality is evident, also, in so many of Martin’s poems; it is like an undercurrent which runs through most of them, a sense that the past is always present waiting to be acknowledged. Many of the fishing poems – “Tonight the Fleets”, “Grandfather”, “I saw Swift Sails”, “Shores”, “Always Boats and Men”, “The Captains” – owe their distinctive strengths to the author’s conviction that the old fishermen are real, immanent presences.

Receiving the captains into my home

Required no preparation; they came

With the gait of men accustomed

To straddling water on the thin

Comfort of drunken planking,

And rolled themselves politely through the door.

There was whisky for one hand and cake

For the other, and a window beyond

The clockface and the hanging light,

And they gathered there before the glass

Seeing themselves reflected, and remembering

The outer space of wind and sea.

(The Song of the Quern 1998:19)

54The details are there (“whisky”, “cake”, “clockface”) and a curious domestic setting, but it gives way to something else – something which Maclean had earlier suggested as a blueprint for him in the poems of Sorley MacLean: “aspects of tradition, narrative, surrealism and the vernacular”. All of these elements are present in this poem of Martin’s, but the “surrealist” quality is evident also in so many others – in “Erradil”, “Empty Places”, “Ancestors”, “Peat”, “Grass” or “One Thousand Hooks”. It is the sense that the past is not so much always there, but always here.


55This essay began with Jameson, Berger and Pallasmaa positing a number of ways that reality might be accessed in Western society at the present time. From their different backgrounds, cultures and disciplines these writers manifest something akin to despair at the spectacle of a world in which reality recedes further and further behind a screen made up of endless forms of commodification. Art, also, of course especially in its traditional guise as mimesis is easily commodified and an endless round of accepted masterworks circulates relentlessly in postcard, poster or digitised simulacra. There is something here, though, which questions all of this. The Ring-Net exhibition with its subject matter of the fishing industry, with its fishing community informants, with the intense scrutiny and engagement of its participant observer researchers and with its word-image configurations forces its audience into an encounter. Beyond the documentary intentions of their original collaboration on the ring-net, Maclean and Martin have gone on to explore internal elements of the ring-net experience and from this they have forged strange and intense poetic image, word-image combinations which threaten genre continuities. The images stray far from the meticulous technical drawings of The Ring-Net exhibition just as the poems stray far from the historian’s voice in The Ring-Net Fishermen.

56We have looked at the way that poetic technique – diction and phrasing – are modulated to reflect the “handleability” of the fisherman’s experience, of the phenomenological elements of that world as well as something beyond the phenomenological that might be conceptualised as the noumenal. We have looked at the way that the images are allowed to break free from the control of the hand or the paint to allow accidental effects and unexpected contrasts to shine through. But it is in the combination of word and image that we are forced into the encounter. We cannot easily recognize or assimilate the relationship.

57Finally, returning to the theme of resistance to the narrow ascendant canon, it is not just that unorthodox word-image combinations threaten the terms of genre continuity – they represent something of what Jameson would call a “utopian impulse”. Jameson makes certain slightly cryptic comments on the role of “folk” forms seeing them as easily commodified within a pluralistic culture of Postmodernism – that is unless they be seen as representative of a different vision which defies the status quo. This radical impulse is seen here in the foregrounding of the voices of the fishermen, the rapt attention to the boats and gear and lore connected to a way of life, and in the way that the forms of representation themselves seem to be breaking apart as the word seeks the image and the image seeks the voice in order to do justice to the subject. It is there in the way that the “folk voice” subject threatens the domain of High Art, it is a questioning of narrow ascendant forms and canons and traditions, it asks searching questions not just about what culture is but of the role that culture must play in enabling us to ‘see’ reality at all. The radical impulse asks: do we wish to have our understanding of the world ‘framed’ for us by a narrow, elite form sponsored by the cultural corridors of power? Do we not, in fact, deserve to see representations of the world which enable us to experience the sense of a “multi-dimensional reality”?

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Allerston, Patricia. The Ring Net: ring net herring fishing on the west coast of Scotland; a documentary exhibition by Will Maclean. St Andrews: University of St Andrews (unpublished PhD), 1990.

Blair, Lindsay and Donald. “Where Words and Images Collide: Will Maclean’s Intertextual Collaborations”. Scottish Writing After Devolution: Edges of the New. Eds. Marie-Odile Pittin-Hédon, Camille Manfredi and Scott Hames. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2022. 257-81.

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Dunnigan, Sarah and Suzanne Gilbert (eds.). The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Traditional Literatures. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2013.

Errington, Lindsay. William McTaggart 1835-1910. Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 1989.

Fenton, Alexander and Margaret A. Mackay (eds.). Scottish Life and Society Volume 1: An Introduction to Scottish Ethnology (A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology). Edinburgh: John Donald, 2013.

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Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso, 1991.

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Mac Gill-eain, Somhairle. “Hallaig”. In Nua-Bhardachd Ghaidhlig, Modern Scottish Gaelic Poems. Edinburgh: Canongate, [1976] 1987. 85-9.

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Maclean, Will. Interview with Blair, Lindsay. Tayport, 2011.

Maclean, Will. Interview with Rigby, 2022.

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1 Maclean said, in interview: “one of the big compliments that [Martin] had for his book was that none of the fishermen could find fault in it. And that was to him, the highest accolade he could possibly have” (Maclean 2022).

2 Cairns Craig uses the term ‘the folk voice’ in “Dialect and Dialectics”, The Modern Scottish Novel: Narrative and The National Imagination (1999).

3 This is not to deny the invaluable work in the field of oral culture carried out by The School of Scottish Studies (the digitised database Tobar an Dualchais nor the study of folklore and oral history by ethnologists notably Scottish Life and Society: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology (fourteen volumes whose overall aim is to examine the linked strands of history, language and traditional culture and their contribution to the making of a national identity). The central point in this section of the essay is that The Ring-Net Project was so original because it took the components of an industry (ring-net herring fishing) and made these components (including the oral history elements) representative of a culture – a culture of national and international significance.

4 Cairns Craig’s discussion of haecceitas in relation to the poetry of Kenneth White is a reprisal of the concept of ‘thingness’ in contemporary poetic diction: “the achievement of this experience depends on being able to come close to the thingness of the world, its thisness – what Duns Scotus called its haecceitas” (Craig 2018: 235).

5 The terms of the debate on the relationship between word and image are articulated in Blair 2022: 257-63.

6 The term ‘thingly’ is one used by Martin Heiddeger in “The Origin of a Work of Art” [1956] in Cazeaux (2000): 79-120. Heiddeger states that the “thingly” is characterized by retaining a connection with “the earth” which is “unconcealed” in the work of art.

7 Martin dedicates a chapter, entitled “Appearances: The Natural Lore”, to articulate just how close the ring-net fishermen were to the natural world. They relied on their senses for instance in the “listening for herring”, and the spotting of the ‘fire in the water”. See The Ring-Net Fishermen (1981), 163-80.

8 This story is also told in a more recent interview, Maclean with Rigby 2022 although the words used vary.

9 See

10 Maclean often speaks of his admiration for McTaggart’s paintings, for example: “When I look at William McTaggart – a boat that William McTaggart draws – I know that McTaggart knew about these boats. You could go to sea in a McTaggart boat” (Maclean 2022).

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List of illustrations

Caption Figures 1-3. Items from The Ring-Net: Ring-Net Herring Fishing on the West Coast of Scotland, A Documentary Exhibition by Will Maclean, The Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, 25 January - 4 May 1978.
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Caption Figure 4: Invitation for The Ring-Net exhibition at the Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh, 1978
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Caption Figures 5 and 6. Maclean Letters to Martin (Argyll Letters, undated).
Credits Private Collection
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Caption Figure 7. Transcript of Interview with Hugh MacFarlane by Angus Martin (Argyll Letters 1976).
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Caption Figure 8. Martin Letter to Maclean (Argyll Letters: undated).
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Caption Figure 9: Maclean Letter (Argyll Letters: undated).
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Caption Figure 10 and 11: Maclean Letters to Martin (Argyll Letters: undated).
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Title One Time In A Tale of Herring (2010), Will Maclean and Angus Martin
Caption Figure 12: Book Cover
Credits One Time In A Tale of Herring, 2010.
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Caption Figure 13: Angus Martin and Will Maclean, “Sea Stories”.
Credits One Time in a Tale of Herring, 2010
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Caption Figure 14: Angus Martin and Will Maclean, “Herring Scales”, One Time in a Tale of Herring, 2010.
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Caption Figure 15: Angus Martin and Will Maclean, “Lament for the Herring”, One Time in a Tale of Herring, 2010.
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Caption Figure 16: Angus Martin and Will Maclean, “Lament for the Herring 2”, One Time in a Tale of Herring, 2010.
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Caption Figure 17: Will Maclean, “Herring Fleet at Sea”, 2011, ink/watercolour series on handmade paper.
Credits Edinburgh Museum
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Caption Figure 18: Will Maclean, “Harbour Shore”, 2011, ink/watercolour series on handmade paper.
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Caption Figure 19: Will Maclean, “Two Sights of the Sea”, 1982, Pencil
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Electronic reference

Lindsay Blair, Representing the Ring-Net in Word and ImageAngles [Online], 17 | 2024, Online since 24 May 2024, connection on 18 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Lindsay Blair

Lindsay Blair is Associate Professor of Visual Studies and Cultural Theory at the University of the Highlands and Islands. She is the Principal Investigator of the “Hands Across the Sea” project ( Blair’s previous work on word-image and the film poem resulted in a monograph on the American Surrealist, Joseph Cornell, entitled Joseph Cornell’s Vision of Spiritual Order. Blair was then engaged by the BBC as Associate Producer for an Omnibus Documentary, Joseph Cornell: Worlds in a Box. Her recent research which has focused on word and image has been described as “a re- assessment of the tired narratives of Highland visual culture, shifting understanding to more international and contemporary discourses”. Examples of published outputs include: “Dalriada, the Lordship of the Isles and the Northern Rim: De-centralising the Visual Culture of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland”, Narratives Unfolding: National Art Histories in an Unfinished World (2017), ‘”Mutations from Below”: The Land Raiders of Reef and An Suileachan by Will Maclean and Marian Leven’, Northern Scotland (2020) and “The Photographs of A.B. Ovenstone and the Re-Invention of the Scottish Amateur Tradition”, The Journal of Victorian Culture (2023). Contact:

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