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Alexander Moffat

Poets' Pub

  • Poets' Pub
    © Alexander Moffat

About this artwork

Moffat's group portrait is an imaginary vision of the major Scottish poets and writers of the second half of the twentieth century gathered around the central figure of Hugh MacDiarmid. From left to right, they are: Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Edwin Morgan and Robert Garioch. In the foreground is Alan Bold and, on the steps behind, the art critic, John Tonge. The setting is an amalgam of the interiors of their favourite drinking haunts in Edinburgh: Milne's Bar, the Abbotsford and the Café Royal.

Updated before 2020

Alexander Moffat (born 1943) Scottish
Poets' Pub
Oil on canvas
183.00 x 244.00 cm; Framed: 196.00 x 257.00 x 5.00 cm
Object type:
Credit line:
Purchased 1983
Accession number:
PG 2597
Scottish National Portrait Gallery (On Display)
Christopher Murray Grieve Sorley MacLean Norman MacCaig Iain Crichton Smith George Mackay Brown Sydney Goodsir Smith Edwin Morgan Robert Garioch Alan Bold John A. Tonge
Scottish literature Writing and literature Gaelic
Artwork photographed by:
Antonia Reeve

This monumental painting depicts an imaginary gathering of some of Scotland’s most celebrated poets of the twentieth century, grouped around the great national poet of modern Scotland, Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978). The setting is an amalgam of famous Edinburgh literary pubs: the Café Royal, Milne’s Bar and the Abbotsford. From left to right we see Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Edwin Morgan and Robert Garioch. In the foreground is Alan Bold and, on the steps behind, the art critic, John Tonge. At the centre of the composition, wearing a blue suit with a red scarf, is the formidable figure of Hugh MacDiarmid (the pseudonym for Christopher Grieve), arguably the greatest single influence on Scottish culture in the twentieth century. 

A man of vision and explosive passions, MacDiarmid’s output as a poet was phenomenal. He wrote in English and in his own synthetic version of Scots, creating verse that could range from gentle lyricism to the most biting of satire. Perhaps his greatest contribution was to give form and spirit to the notion of a renaissance in Scottish literature. He rejected sentimentality and embraced modernism but was also passionately concerned with encouraging a vigorous Scottish identity. MacDiarmid was notoriously cantankerous and contradictory yet he could also be generous to younger writers and artists. His biographer Alan Bold recalled Saturday drinking sessions in Edinburgh bars: ‘I would come into Milne’s with Sandy Moffat and our mutual friend, the painter John Bellany, and we would make our way towards MacDiarmid. He was most encouraging, insisting that only the uninhibited could make a contribution to the culture of Scotland.’

Moffat’s painting is deceptively gentle. He has a sharp eye for the individual char­acters and avoids any nostalgic re-creation of drink-fuelled camaraderie, opting to collage his figures together in soft, flat colours and clear outlines that lend a synthetic, dreamlike quality to the work. In the background he has added some allegor­ical figures; the semi-naked female figure is clearly based on Delacroix’s famous painting of Liberty Leading the People, 28 July 1830 in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Here, she has swapped her French tricolour for the Scottish flag, signalling the shared ideals and nationalism of the poets. The figure of the falling man with a rifle evokes a well-known photograph by Robert Capa from the Spanish Civil War, while a kissing couple alludes to one of Moffat’s favourite painters, the Norwegian Edvard Munch.

In some respects, Moffat’s imaginary encounter celebrates diversity as much as harmony. These are all very different per­sonalities, writing in different styles across three national languages: Scots, English and Gaelic. What they had in common was a passion for renewal in Scottish art and literature and a confident engagement with the wider world. When Moffat made this painting in 1980, MacDiarmid was already dead; since then the others have all passed on. Their influence, however, still reso­nates strongly in Scottish culture today. As the artist recalls: ‘These poets have played the leading role, both in their verse and prose, in shaping the artistic conscience of this country.’

This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015. 

True colours

Alexander Moffat

Related media

Audio Description | Alexander Moffat, 'Poets' Pub'