Seamus Heaney: Place-Paint. by Murdo Macdonald
I first saw someone who looked very like Seamus Heaney walking down the paved street in Stromness in Orkney during the St Magnus Festival of 1994. Later the same man turned up at a lecture I was giving in the Pier Arts Centre. It was indeed Seamus. My talk was on themes in Scottish art and one of the images I showed was of a work by William Johnstone, a very abstract landscape in which the only real hint of the land itself lies in an implied horizon. It’s a beautiful work and I tried to explain that it was a work deeply concerned with the nature of place and also with the nature of painting itself. Not that I really had to, because the image spoke for itself. But at the end Seamus made a comment: ‘I liked what you were saying about that artist’s place-paint’. And of course that is what I’d been trying to say: ‘place-paint’. And place-paint whether the meaning that one takes from the phrase is the painting of place or the placing of paint.
Some years later, in 2003, I had the good fortune to give the address for Seamus when he accepted an honorary degree from the University of Dundee. Two things remain with me about that day: first was Seamus’ keen hope that there would be a pipe band – and being Dundee, of course there was. Secondly was his description of Sorley MacLean’s poetry as evoking ‘the political and the visionary … near allied’, a phrase that I adopted in my address to describe Seamus himself. But however many honours were bestowed on Seamus, for me he will always be the poet who sat at the back of my lecture and came up with the beautiful notion of ‘place-paint’.
13 July 2014
This piece first appeared in the special Heaney Edition of Irish Pages.