Fonn ’s Dùthchas: Land and Legacy
Until June 10; Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Since Fonn ’s Dùthchas opened in Inverness in January, I have been looking forward to catching the exhibition on its tour of Scotland. Drawn from Scotland’s national collections as well as those of highland museums, the show promises to celebrate the history, culture, music, language, geology and geography of the highlands and islands. A well-funded cornerstone of the Highland 2007 festival, it should be a major feast for the senses and a source of enlightenment.

Still nursing this illusion, I head for the Kelvingrove with every expectation that its lofty gilded arches will guide visitors through the vast treasure trove that is Fonn ’s Dùthchas. Instead, I’m directed down the stairs to the converted store-room that is the Kelvingrove’s new temporary exhibition space. I wonder, on arrival, whether I have made a mistake; whether the show is still in storage limbo. Clusters of display cases stand like abandoned surplus, propped up by a jumbled clutter of interpretation boards.

The low ceilings press down on you and the only positive features of this cellar – its low, whitewashed arches – are partially boarded up to provide extra hanging room. When this exhibition space was launched last year with Once, it worked reasonably well; video screens lined the walls and music filled the air; there was no struggle to squeeze objects into the body of the kirk.

Now this problematic space has become home to a badly designed exhibition. There are more interpretation boards than exhibits, and these are buckling under the weight of their texts. Like pages of an over-designed book, chopped up and stuck back together by a pseudo-Constructivist, they include maps and illustrations hidden in nooks and crannies, or lurking at knee-height, complete with unreadable captions.

Objects and their texts are often confusingly divorced from each other, and in this kaleidoscope of angles and hinges, some exhibits sink inevitably into shadow. If these were corporate display stands, temporarily stored here before being shipped off to some conference fringe event, it would all make perfect sense.

So much for the presentation; unfortunately the content is little better. Despite the bombardment of text, and the involvement of experts I greatly respect, there is very little to learn from this show. Its attempted range is so disparate, covering everything from geology to poetry, that it succeeds only in skimming over dozens of surfaces. Fonn ’s Dùthchas somehow succeeds in becoming less than the sum of its parts.

Much of the show examines the fantasies which the outside world has nurtured about the highlands, but little time is taken to explore the realities which lie underneath. In the section about clothes, for example, a bright Vivienne Westwood ensemble stands next to a 17th century oil painting of Lord Mungo Murray in his deer-hunting gear. The pairing, in its way, is inspired; both being fancy dress takes on the highlandman’s traditional garb.

Nowhere do we see what the ordinary highlander would actually wear – how it differs from the gold-embroidered tunic of Lord Mungo, or Westwood’s 20th century skirt-suit. We are further regaled with the highland exploits of the royal family, the literary and artistic fantasies of lowlanders, and the rise of the huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ habits of the aristocracy.

Perhaps because our national collections are the creation of the lowland ruling classes, both in terms of their content and their accumulation, this exhibition’s view of the highlands reflects that of an outsider. Real insights are few and far between, and as if to acknowledge this, there is an emphasis on the myth-making which has clouded history’s view of the area and its peoples.

From a fabulously kitschy 1980s Broadway poster for Brigadoon, we are led to Calum Colvin’s Blind Ossian I, his image already a modern icon for the contested riddle of highland identity.

Eventually, the show does make some forays into the real lives of highland people, with cabinets of sea-faring and agricultural artefacts which at last offer a true connection with reality. And the star of Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway shines bright in this show: the beautiful smithy’s door, branded with the unique initials of the area’s inhabitants, reeks with local history. A note of clearances on the Estate of Sutherland in 1819, listing the names and numbers of tenants removed, also delivers a knock-out blow.

Just when I’ve given up hope of reaching farther back in history than the Jacobite rebellions, the exhibition crams all its most precious objects into the last two cabinets. The magnificent Iona Psalter shares space with an impressive 8th century brooch. Bronze age armlets sit next to Pictish chains and the unsurpassable wolf stone of Ardross. An ogham stone rubs shoulders with a Viking carving, a Lewis chessman, and a whale-bone casket carved with intricate celtic knotwork.

Finally the complex pre-Jacobite history of the highlands is revealed: the area has been home to a plethora of highly advanced cultures, feeding into the rich identity of the highlands and islands today. These last two cabinets could have made a rich exhibition in their own right, giving each object the space to tell its story properly. Instead, Fonn ’s Dùthchas is a seriously wasted opportunity.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 22.04.07