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Significant Scots
James Pittendrigh Macgillivray


How many MacGillivrays passing through Edinburgh on their way to attend the third quinquennial International Gathering of their Clan, will spare even a fleeting glance in the direction of the masterly memorial to William Ewart Gladstone, noted 19th century British statesman and Prime Minister, which stands in Coates Crescent Gardens, just beyond the West End of Princes Street? Presumably, very few! A great pity. If they were to look closely at the rear they might just spot the fading incription PITTENDRIGH MACGILLIVRAY which indicates that the sculptor was one of their kinsmen.

James Pittendrigh Macgillivray, or Pittendrigh, as he preferred to be called, came from the north east of Scotland. He was born in 1856 just outside the royal burgh of Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, the son of a local sculptor named William Macgillivray. Shortly after his death in 1938 his friend C R Cammell wrote in an essay "The genius of Pittendrigh Macgillivray, daring yet disciplined, was of the highest order. He stood indubitably in the front rank of British sculptors of all time. His personality was commanding. Poet, orator, essayist and philosopher; a painter and a musician, he could have excelled at anything and everything. The orations and more than one of the Scots lyrics and English sonnets will assuredly survive along with the sculpture of this man who was for over half a century a power in the Northern kingdom." Such was the esteem in which this clansman came to be held.

Yet Pittendrigh had no training in schools of art whose system of education he always condemned. Instead he learnt by observation and practice while his genius and talent expanded freely. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a sculptor in Edinburgh and later, in Glasgow, to James Steel. In Glasgow, Pittendrigh carried out most of the classical decorations for the theatre later known as the Metropole. Elected an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1892 he soon came into prominence with his first colossus, the statue of Burns at Irvine in Ayrshire. Before the turn of the century he moved to Edinburgh where the studio he designed and built at Ravelston became a place of pilgrimage for those dedicated to art, culture and learning. He visited the continent where Vanderstappen and Dillen were his friends and where his ability was recognised and acknowledged.

At home he was elected to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1901, was conferred with the degree of LL.D in 1909 and, in 1921, he was appointed King’s Sculptor in Ordinary for Scotland, an office which had been in abeyance for some years. During his life he produced many fine works including the statues of the Marquis of Bute at Cardiff, Lord Byron at Aberdeen, the bronze of John Knox at St. Giles in Edinburgh and Tanew, Mother of St Kentigern. His talents continue to be recognised and exhibitions of his works have been held in recent years in art galleries in Scotland, notably in Aberdeen where he is revered as a local figure.

His masterpiece and first large scale achievement was the Gladstone Memorial. Its siting did however cause much controversy at the time. Originally designed for its present location, the owners of the gardens objected and, after being stored for some years, it was eventually unveiled in St Andrew Square where it was a striking feature. Eventually the needs of modern traffic necessitated its removal and this time it was accepted where it had been originally envisaged. And there it stands as testimony to his genius.

Pittendrigh was intensely Scottish and spoke in the vernacular of the Lowland Scot. He was deeply interested in all things pertaining to his native land and he had an unrivalled knowledge of tartans of which he made a special study and accumulated a remarkable collection. He wrote much poetry and left a number of published works, some of the publications themselves being masterpieces of typography and now collectors’ pieces. He wrote songs, played on a violin made by his own hands, conversed freely and loved intellectual conversation. An idealist, he believed very firmly in a national revival. Undoubtedly, he was a genius - and his work worth much more than a fleeting glance.

R.McG


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