The Alasdair Gray Archive – Interview

Alasdair Gray was a prolific writer and artist from Riddrie, Glasgow, known for Lanark and his distinctive artistic style, seen in his murals in Hillhead subway station, Òran Mór and The Ubiquitous Chip. He was writer-in-residence at University of Glasgow 1977 to 1979. He died in 2019, leaving behind a vast collection of work, a cult following and Sorcha Dallas, his dealer and now archivist. I interviewed Sorcha at The Alasdair Gray Archive.

Hannah Wylie: In his obituary, The Guardian called Alasdair a Clydeside Michelangelo. What do you make of that?

Sorcha Dallas: Oh, and I think that’s pretty accurate in some way. I think it’s bringing the visual to the fore, isn’t it, and making his written work accessible. He would always describe himself as an artist who fell into writing, studying at Glasgow School of Art in the mural and stained-glass department. So, I can really trace the origin back to the visual. If you’re referencing Michelangelo, that seems quite a good fit. Being born in 1934, between the first and second world war, and the idea of free healthcare and social equity, he formed those socialist ideas at an early age and kept them. It’s very hard to live fully by your principles, isn’t it?  Most people have got dependents, or a mortgage, but there’s such an honesty about what he’s trying to do in the work, and it’s backed up with who he was as a person, too. By no means was he infallible either, he was a human, making mistakes, not always getting things right. That’s what we’re interested in here in the archive. It’s not taking a narrative and buffering the edges of it and making a sanitised version of what that person has. It’s being truthful about it. And also, being truthful by the fact that he isn’t a lone genius working in isolation, all his work has been made with this interest and creatively responding to things that have existed already. So that’s very exciting to think, how can this resource then be used as a source of inspiration for others, other creatives in particular to respond to.

HW: How do you think his work would have differed if he was from a wealthy background, or if he was educated differently?

SD: Oh, my gosh, it would have been completely different. And it wouldn’t have had the honesty and integrity that it had. He was a kind of communal maker, you know, this web of influence that he’s responding to, you see it in Poor Things [Gray’s 1992 novel]. Certainly, it’s responding to Frankenstein, extracting from different sources, but it’s also playing around narrative and a perceived truth, especially as we move out of this kind of analogue way of making into the digital age having computers. He couldn’t operate a computer. He needed secretaries for that. There’s some great stories of him, one of the secretaries going off to the toilet, coming back, and Alasdair trying to Tipex a correction on the screen. He needed to embrace technology, but he also recognized that he wasn’t able, and he needed others to help him. He always paid people at the same rate at which he paid himself, and then any money left over he gave away to charity. In many ways, he lived in an elected form of poverty, and that was because he was driven to make, not driven by any financial remuneration or any kind of accolades. So if he came from a different background, he would be a completely different artist.

I often think that if he started with drawing and painting, he would have been a totally different artist. Because when painting, before you’ve made a mark on the canvas, you spent a month building the frame, stretching it, priming it. So maybe there’s a sort of tentativeness before you’ve even started. Whereas if you’re coming from mural making, there’s always that acceptance of using what’s around you. Almost anything can be an artwork, it’s always temporary and in flux, so can be painted over, it can be improved.That interest in temporality, and improvement is a constant thing within his work. And so I think he would be radically, radically different and not the artist he was. 

HW: Originally from a Gauguin painting, Alasdair used the phrase

Where are we from? What are we? Where are we going?’ in his Òran Mór mural. Where do you think this fascination with the future of humankind came from?

SD: I think his work being a collage of things that have happened before and responding to that. Nothing’s made in a vacuum, all creative outputs are interconnected. It’s those kind of fundamental questions of humankind that iterates generations, people are concerned with those ideas. There’s a lot of biblical references within his work. And he wasn’t religious. But he would always say, if you took Bible stories and God from those, they’re just fantastical stories. And they were. Those fundamental questions are a universal concern, for every kind of human. And I think that’s something that connects us no matter what our physical, cultural background or position, those are universal concerns that connect us as, as a race on a much broader term.

HW: What was his disposition like, on a day-to-day basis?

SD: People would say, Oh, he’s eccentric. I don’t know if I would call him an eccentric. I think he was very honest. Not childlike, he was just unfiltered. He would often laugh really loudly, this kind of hoot that would come out of him. He wasn’t aware of a kind of public persona. He was just who he was. And he was incredibly kind, incredibly generous, and very well read.

He could be so focused and determined, often quite frustrating for people working around him. He was always hopeful of the next encounter and of the next person. And I think that’s a really kind of inspiring and remarkable way to be. One of his friends said Alasdair thought everyone was worth meeting. And when he’d met them, he thought they were worth knowing. That’s real beauty and wonder. It’s a very human way to be, isn’t it?

HW: What was your personal relationship like with Alasdair?

SD: So I started working with him in 2007, I was running a commercial gallery. But prior to that, I’d gone to Glasgow School of Art, so you know, the kind of Rites of Passage and that any art school student does, reading Lanark and studying in the Macintosh building and walking in the footsteps of Thor and of Alasdair and it was just a really incredible experience, and seeing the city through his vision. I’d seen his books in John Smith’s Bookshop on Byres Road, and glimpsed his murals in The Ubiquitous Chip, Oran Mor, outside of Starry Starry Night. His work felt very embedded in the West End where I was living and working, and we had a mutual friend in common. I was running a gallery, and it was largely a kind of new generation of artists. Alasdair had been quite a seminal influence on many of them. I thought I’d really love to do something with him, and this friend suggested I write a letter to him, which I did. And he sort of told me to come up one evening in October in 2007. I was very nervous. But he opened the door in his pyjamas, which made it a lot more relaxed, and then walked into the front room. This space in the archive is a part recreation of it. It really took my breath away entering a space like that. We had a really free-flowing conversation. And as I was building up to ask him to maybe want to work on something, he kind of interjected and said, Would you like to be my dealer? Would you like to work together?, which we did. I closed my gallery in early 2012 but continue to work with him. We worked on the retrospective to Kelvingrove in 2014-5. It was very much about his visual work, rather than his literary work. Most people would be happy just to have made Lanark, right. But when you look at the various murals or artworks, the world building that he was doing across multiple forms, I think it really solidified him as a maker. And maybe, you know, he always had a sort of resistance throughout his life of needing to be one thing or the other. His earliest encounters as a child were opening a picture book where there was an image and a story. And of course, that made absolute sense to him. It’s, it’s two different ways of describing, describing a story. It’s all about storytelling. And it’s all about world-building. When we started to work together, I was very much aware of legacy – he was in his early 70s. We set up a foundation during that time to really map what he would like to happen posthumously which is what the archive is based on.

HW: What projects are you working on with the archive?


There have been lots going on. Alasdair died late 2019. Didn’t own his flat, didn’t leave a lot of money in the bank. And it was a three-month window to pack up a life’s work. That was my priority after he died, getting some money from the government and from Creative Scotland to be able to safely remove the work to be reinstated in the archive. We’ve been testing things out over the last year. We work quite closely with universities and art schools where students can come to research and study and to learn here on different kinds of projects. We’re also working on a collaborative doctoral award for Strathclyde Uni, but also it’s really important at school level to build an embed, not just Alistair, but the network of influences and collaborators around him too. We do a lot of projects and events like Gray Day, which is coming up in a few weeks, which is an annual celebration of Alasdair’s work. We started that in 2020. And the date we chose was the 40th anniversary of the publication of Lanark. The first one was in the midst of lockdown and was all digital. Last year, we managed to do a live event or more we’re doing that again this year. And you know, last year we looked at his last body of work The Divine Comedy. This year, we’re looking at Poor Things because there’s a major motion picture adaptation of it coming out and me. He’s left so much behind it will take years and years and years and years, several thousand Gray days before we get through all, but that’s exciting too.

We have been working closely with the Agnes Owens family on developing an Agnes Owens archive within this one. And we want to extend that for other people. Agnes is a really great writer, very overlooked and marginalised, because she was a working-class woman who didn’t have the traditional route into that kind of literary world, but Alasdair and many of his peers really took her under their wing and supported her. But it wasn’t one sided. You know, we see evidence in the material here, of him sending her versions of his books and her editing and him taking on board her feedback. So it’s a very reciprocal friendship and relationship. And it feels really right. To not just single him out, but to build it back into this kind of web of connections and influences.

HW: Do you have a favourite artefact that you could show me?

SD: Oh, my God. Yes.

HW: I’m sure it’s very difficult to decide just one.

SD: Yes, but I’ve got to show you the ledger. He always kept loads of notebooks and diaries, and he would often doodle and sketch in them, but they’re largely text based. What’s different about the ledger is that the two things are intertwined, but it’s also showing a process. So it’s showing how he’s using source material: photographs, existing newspaper articles, but also recycling and repurposing stuff. It kind of embodies what we’ve talking about in one object, which is quite rare. If I turn the first few pages over, you can see the original entry from the accountancy firm who had it in 1957. The blue ink and the very neat cursive writing, already existing on it when he found it. He found it in a skip. These shelves are old floorboards, the desk he found on the side of the street. It’s that canniness of looking around and what people think of as rubbish, he would reuse as a background for a painting. He started writing in the ledger in 1963. There’s passages where he’s working on versions of Lanark.

In the Special Collections section in Glasgow Uni, the Lanark notebooks and diaries and drafts of that book are altogether there. We also see very sort of normal diary entries, portraits of family and neighbours. He typed and designed his own books as well. He created his own font. He didn’t just hand over the text to a publisher – he thought of a book as an object and considered how the viewer encounters and reads it. In these entries, he’s working around what’s already there and positioning his words around that, like in his murals. These are some beautiful portraits of his first wife Inge. And I love how he’s almost using the entries as a kind of tonal aspect within this drawing of her laying on the bed with her cat. But then the ledger becomes a way of mapping and recording the city around him, for Lanark but also for multiple artworks, like his largest one, Cowcaddens, a painting about three metres in length, It is almost like a chunk of a mural. So you see him photographing the city around him, this is up near the art school. This is pre-motorway. And so it becomes a fascinating way of mapping and recording a city that is obviously in flux and about to change. We see direct sketches for Cowcaddens, he’s thinking about this kind of multiple perspective and multiple viewpoints and drawing the city in that way. But he’s also thinking about the city being an emotional place that is occupied by people. So there’s swans flying over here, there’s a bit of the factory girls, there’s children playing.

You can see him taking source material history figures from a newspaper, and then he incorporates the figures walking down the road here in Cowcaddens. If we go over another page, we see the building that we’re in here today at The Whisky Bond, which used to be a primary school. The ledger is amazing.  It does everything you kind of want it to do in one object, which is hard because his work is so expansive. It would definitely be my favourite object. What I love about Alistair’s work is his interest in processes. And I think it really reflects the idea of the processes where the learning happens, really. Sixteen years after first meeting him, I’m still learning so much. Connections start to reveal themselves. So in terms of a body of work, it is constantly sort of revealing different aspects of itself.

HW: Do you think he was ever frustrated by his whole process becoming obsolete?

SD: I don’t know if he was frustrated with it. I think he was accepting of progress in some way. I think he recognised that technology would help his processes. He could be pedantic, he could take ages working on something, change it, and then revert back to what he’d done before. He had a fourty year relationship with Glasgow Print Studio, and it was a game changer when they could start to digitally work with him, it made the editing process easier. It did cut down on a lot of waste of printing things. But then equally, what we’re seeing here is his interests and making and processes. And if this was all made digitally, you wouldn’t have to map or record – we’d only see a final draft, and you wouldn’t see the multiple tapes, written ones where he’s annotating and correcting and tipexing. Maybe would have with the visual because he wouldn’t have digitised all of his artworks, But I think there would be a lot lost in terms of understanding his approach to writing. Alasdair and Agnes, sending each other different versions and drafts. His book Mavis Belfrage was originally called Agnes Belfrage, and he sent it to her, and she changed parts of it. So you can directly see the impact that she’s had on that book. Whereas if we just got the final, if we didn’t have that old digitally and there was one final draft, we wouldn’t know anything to do with that. So these are all things to think about, in terms of the digital and analog and how they coexist. And I wonder if that’s something other artists or writers are thinking about, if they’re creating drafts, if they’re still writing things by hand and recording, because it feels really important, you know, to be able to look at that process, what is left in what remains. What was the process to getting to that point? That’s so insightful. It shouldn’t be all about outcomes.

Alasdair is one  of the most interesting, and original Scottish writers and artists of the 20th Century, and is sorely missed by his family, friends, contemporaries, and cult following. His impact on contemporary Scottish fiction revitalised the genre in the late twentieth century with the brilliantly inventive Lanark.  Gray Day, marking the anniversary of the publication of Lanark, will be celebrated at Òran Mór on Saturday 25th February at 7pm.


But I do enjoy words—some words for their own sake! Words like river, and dawn, and daylight, and time. These words seem much richer than our experiences of the things they represent—” – Alasdair Gray, Lanark

[Hannah Wylie – she/her – @hannwylie]


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