Edinburgh Festival Day 18: Scotching the myth: It's the absent details of Daniel Finch's tame landscapes that reveal the most savage chapter in Scottish history. Iain Gale reports

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SCOTLAND, as any American will tell you, is the home of romance; the land of Robbie Burns, Robert the Bruce and Bonnie Prince Charlie. And to those two million tourists who invade the Highlands every year, Scotland is peddled in a box (to be precise 28,000 boxes of Jenner's tartan-wrapped shortbread are sold in Edinburgh annually). Such sentimentality is nothing new. In 1822 George IV put Scotland on the tourist map. Dressed in a garish tartan costume, specially designed by that arch-Romantic Sir Walter Scott, he paraded down the Royal Mile, setting a fashion many were to follow. One such was the Hon Daniel Finch, son of Lord Aylesford, who made two tours of the West Highlands, in 1839, and again in 1858, pictorial records which are now on view at Bourne Fine Art in Edinburgh. Finch's watercolours are more than a holiday diary, however. Quite unintentionally they point the way to the truth behind the myth of the peaceful Highlands.

In Finch's work the noble savagery of the Highlands has been tamed in a style that reflects the influence on him of old masters like Claude and Poussin. His drawings of the Isle of Arran could pass for the Roman Campagna, and his Loch Cluny is more like Lake Como. For all his idealising, Finch painted only an enhanced version of what was actually there. Yet there is something missing from these picturesque views. Where are the kilted Highlanders? Figures, when they do occur, are introduced merely to emphasise the scale of the landscape. The Highlanders were farmers but there are no crofts and no cattle here. So where have all the people gone?

The clue lies not 20 miles away from one of Finch's viewpoints, across Arran, from the Kintyre port of Campbeltown. It was from here, in December 1852, that the ship Hercules set sail for Canada. In her cramped hold lay a human cargo - the entire working population of the isles of Skye and Harris. The Highlanders were being sent into exile, betrayed by chieftains greedy for the new wealth brought by intensive farming. By the time the ship put in for stores dozens had died from smallpox. It was only one tragic episode in what became known as the Highland Clearances. Between 1785 and 1883, at the same time as they were inventing the myth of romantic Scotland, the impoverished clan chiefs, stripped of any real power after the Jacobite rebellions, were clearing their estates across Scotland; deporting men, women and children to the colonies and replacing them with that economic miracle, the Cheviot sheep.

Finch's images of the Highlands, sanitised and safe, bring us horribly close to this reality. The classical harmony and contemplative quality with which he imbues his pictures testify to the lack of a living community. A similar approach can be seen in the charming vistas of his contemporaries, such as Alexander Nasmyth and Horatio McCulloch, which are currently on view at the Malcolm Innes Gallery. While some Victorian artists painted 'scenes from the Clearances', such images were distanced by a mawkish sentimentality, and it was not until 30 years later that a truthful treatment of the subject entered Scottish landscape painting.

William McTaggart, whose paintings can be seen at three Edinburgh galleries, was himself a Highlander and the ghostly figures which haunt the strands of his late Impressionist seascapes attest to a preoccupation with the Clearances most clearly expressed in his Emigration Ship paintings of the 1890s (the Scottish National Gallery has one). The Clearances had created a sense of guilt among the God-fearing Highlanders, whose religious upbringing taught them to believe that they had somehow brought their misery upon themselves, and touched by this, McTaggart, as a Clearances survivor, could only hint at the tragedy. It took another hundred years for an honest artistic examination of the phenomenon, with the work of contemporary artist Will Maclean.

Maclean, currently the subject of a retrospective at the Talbot Rice Art Centre, has always been concerned with the Clearances. They gave the title to his (now lost) first, Diploma work of 1964 and he has returned to the theme time and again. Maclean has produced Highland landscapes with a difference. Although based around a view of Borreraig on Skye, his Beach Allegory of 1973 has as its central focus a rustic sacrificial altar, on which, before curing cattle hides, burns a flame of remembrance. In this and other similar paintings of the early 1970s, Maclean peoples his landscapes with quasi-religious totems, emphasising the mystical nature of the lost tribal culture of the clans. Ever anxious to get closer to his subject, Maclean began to make constructions using found objects, such as gull's skulls from the Highland coastline: such works as Memorial to a Clearance Village of 1974 and his latest work, The Emigration Ship, a homage to McTaggart's 1890s series. In his The Sabbath of the Dead (1978) Maclean marries landscape painting to construction to echo the poem Hallaig, by Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean, in which the ghosts of the deported Highlanders gather again:

'They are still in Hallaig,

Macleans and Macleods . . .

The dead have been seen alive.'

There is no self-pitying sentimentality in the work of Will Maclean but a genuine anger expressed in dark images of an empty homeland. His bitterness is best seen in his horrific Composite Memory of 1987. Were the ghostly Highlanders to descend on Edinburgh today, it is surely this cross-section of a ship's hold, crammed with screaming, contorted figures that they would recognise, rather than the gaudy tartan trinkets of the gift shops or the pretty Highland idylls of Daniel Finch.

Daniel Finch, Bourne Fine Art, 4 Dundas St (031-557 4050) To mid-Sept; William Mctaggart, Forrest Mckay, 38 Howe St (031-226 2589) To 5 Sept; Will Maclean, Talbot Rice Centre, Old College, South Bridge (031-650 2211) To 26 Sept; Malcolm Innes, 67 George St (031-226 4151) To 29 Sept.