Debating the debatable land

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An epic work of referendum art, which explores Scottish identity before Scots vote on independence, goes on show at Traquair House next Saturday.

The Debatable Land is a painting by the artist Peter Sacks. The work is a 7ft high, 12ft wide ‘map’ of Scottish and Borders history, complete with ‘rivers’ of words and ‘layers’ of pictures, which viewers can zoom into like Google Earth.

“This is a stunning painting for a nation facing its biggest decision in 300 years,” explains the curator who commissioned it, Mark Muller Stuart QC, husband of Traquair’s Lady Laird Catherine Maxwell Stuart, and director of Beyond Borders Scotland: an Edinburgh-based NGO working in cultural diplomacy.

“Sacks’ triptych invites Scots to examine their national identity, by exploring and excavating Scottish history,” he added, “and it does so in Scotland’s oldest inhabited house, just as the Scottish people decide their future. There could not be a more timely summer exhibition to visit.”

Mr Muller Stuart continued: “Standing from afar, it looks like a monumental abstract painting, but stand a little closer, and it teems with intimate detail.”

Closer up, viewers can tour contours of text and textiles, drawn from Scotland and the Borders by South African Sacks: a Harvard University English professor, and prizewinning poet-turned-painter.

Mark elaborated: “These wandering lines of Border ballads, translated Gaelic poetry, the Declaration of Arbroath and the Acts of Union, Bannockurn battleplans, and clan crests – manually typed, burnt, buried or otherwise obscured on ancient and modern fabrics – interweave on the divided landscape, to create different narratives of union and fragmentation.

“Viewers are then pulled even closer to ‘dig’ beneath the surface, down through intricately layered icons of Scottish culture, sedimented by history and myth over the centuries, as if to unearth the bedrock of today’s national identity.”

Stepping back again, Sacks hopes, Scots can see the bigger picture – what unites and divides Scotland and England – and so debate and decide who they are in The Debatable Land.

The collage’s effect is to travel beyond borders: the aim of Beyond Borders, and its International Festival of Literature and Thought at Traquair every August, which, Sacks explained, inspired his idea for The Debatable Land when he spoke at last year’s event about his love of Border ballads.

“This whole project started at the Beyond Borders festival at Traquair,” he said: “recognizing how this place drew people from way beyond Scotland to contemplate what cultures had in common, what conflicts occurred between them, and what kinds of understandings could be forged.”

The programme and box office for Beyond Borders’ 2014 festival, at Traquair on August 23 and 24, is now online at Themes for 
this year’s talks, walks and bike rides include secrecy, the Commonwealth, Ukraine, Syria, food, and Scotland’s referendum – featuring a Yes or No debate, plus Peter Sacks’ will bring his painting to life in one of the new 
lunchtime Tête-à-Tête sessions.

The exhibition, which is being presented by Edinburgh Printmakers, with support from Creative Scotland, opens on Saturday, July 26 and runs until Sunday, October 5. Tickets are free with entry to the house and grounds: adults £8.50, children £4.25. For more information call 01896 830323 or visit