What drew you to Lermontov?
The fact that he is a genius. He is, at this time, very important because of the problems we are having with Russia today. Russia, personified by Lermontov, clearly identified with Scotland. There are many Scots in Russia, including Lermontov’s great ancestor, who was a soldier in the Tsar’s army. Due to his Scottish ancestry, Lermontov had a great desire to experience the land of his ancestors and he expressed through his poetry the cultural links between Scotland and Russia. We should celebrate them and cherish them now! Europe will never be its true self until it includes Mother Russia.
What impact does Lermontov have on modern literature?
Unfortunately, in this country, much less than he should have, mainly because there haven’t been as many translations into English. This recent translation by Peter France has come at the right time. I have done my best by illustrating the world of Scot that Lermontov would have explored, had he come. He wanted to fly like a raven to the land of mists, the land of Ossian.
Do you feel Scotland has an insular view when it comes to art?
Yes, the Empire caused Scots to lose focus of Europe. The Reformation did not help - we considered Roman Catholic Europe untrustworthy. We didn’t benefit from the great cultural heritage that was built in the very stones of our Benedictine abbeys – Melrose, Kelso, Dryburgh. Not even the great abbey of Arbroath, where we signed our treaty of Independence! We, in a way, turned our back on the Great European Dialogue.
You were famously one of the great rebels of the Edinburgh Festival. What do you think should be the purpose of arts festivals today?
It is my belief that modern art should question the very nature of art. For 32 years, I was responsible for the official [Edinburgh] Festival programme of exhibitions - I must have presented over 3000 visual and performing arts events. Disaster struck – the director decided that the visual arts shouldn’t be part of the programme. Not important enough. I disagreed. From then on, my efforts had to be under the egis of the Fringe Festival.
I introduced the idea of a ‘University of the Arts’ that heavily involved literature. This included MacDiarmid, MacCaig, Mackay Brown, MacLean, Tait, Lochhead and Morgan.
Festivals came into being to heal the wounds of war with the language of art – with a resolutely international program.
What are you looking forward to at the Wigtown Book Festival?
Wigtown is a fantastic place to celebrate world literature. That part of Scotland is the land of Celts – you can almost see the coast of Ireland. With Celtic culture, you must take into account Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, Italy, Northern Yugoslavia... My expeditions link to my concept of a ‘University of the Arts’ – I had to take Celtic culture seriously. As seriously as Roman culture. Wigtown, for me, is a perfect setting to consider world literature and take seriously its Celtic dimensions.