Secret Knowledge: The Art Of Witchcraft

Tuesday 10 September 2013, 12:00

Lachlan Goudie Lachlan Goudie Artist and Presenter

My father Alexander Goudie (1933-2004) was an artist. He was well known for his paintings of landscapes, still lifes and portraits (which included Billy Connolly and the Queen).

However, the subject that fascinated him most was the character of a witch who features prominently in Robert Burns’ poem Tam o’Shanter.

My father had loved the poem since childhood and in the last 20 years of his life he concentrated on painting pictures that illustrated the tale and particularly its witch Nannie Dee.

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‘It was so extreme even we thought he was mad’ Lachlan on his father’s obsession with Nannie Dee

I’m presenting The Art Of Witchcraft, part of BBC Four’s Secret Knowledge series. The programme tells the story of my father’s strange fascination but it also reveals how, for centuries, artists have regularly painted witches.

In many ways they are responsible for the image of a wrinkly old hag with a hooked nose and terrible warts which we are all familiar with today.

As a child I was always thrilled by my father’s depictions of Nannie on canvas. His enthusiasm for his subject was infectious. He would often recite the poem as he painted and play classical music loudly on the stereo to get himself into the mood.

Coming home from school I was always excited to see what he would have created that day.

Occasionally we would go on research trips at the weekend into Ayrshire where the poem is set. We would hardly have left the driveway before my father would start to describe our route along the notorious A77, an apparently devastating stretch of tarmac stained with the blood of countless accidents.

Once in character he would employ the windshield like some great cinema screen of inspiration, looking left and right but rarely straight ahead!

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Examining how representations of the witch shifted from the political to the theatrical in the 18th Century

On one Saturday afternoon jaunt we stopped to visit an old friend of my father’s in his new cottage. The light was fading, the ‘wizard hour’, and I remember climbing the stairs to the bedroom by torchlight so we could inspect the shotgun pellets embedded in the ceiling – the mark of the previous occupant’s suicide.

This grim experience highlights something important about my father’s relationship with Nannie.

Although he enjoyed creating dramatic paintings he also wanted to terrify his audience with images of horror. As a child the poem had scared him and he wanted to communicate that essential part of Tam o’Shanter’s power to the viewer.

He used every trick he could from corpses swinging in the trees to stewed babies piled up in a cauldron. He would often test out his paintings on his family to see if they had the desired, shocking effect!

It has been emotional revisiting my father’s Tam o’Shanter legacy. His paintings and sketchbooks seem to bring him back to life for me.

I can still visualise him on one of those many trips to Ayrshire, clambering up to the windows of a ruined church with all the energy of an excited child and peering in. He was always searching for ideas and inspiration!

It is this same enthusiasm for the subject that I wanted to recapture in The Art Of Witchcraft: bringing witches to life with the help of some of history’s greatest artists!

Lachlan Goudie is the presenter of Secret Knowledge: The Art Of Witchcraft.

Secret Knowledge: The Art Of Witchcraft is on Wednesday, 11 September at 10pm on BBC Four. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

More on The Art Of Witchcraft
BBC News Scotland: In pictures - Witches and wicked bodies

BBC Arts: Alexander Goudie and the witch from Robert Burns' poem

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Briiliant programme.Just aquured a picture by S.Palmer , it explains tge picture a lot.Studying History and Comminications at Liverpool University and already active in a Pagan Community seperately.Wantbto write this has so inspired me. THANKS

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Many thanks margy20. Delighted you enjoyed the programme. Palmer's prints are magnificent; visionary and powerful!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Thank you - I loved this programme. Fascinated me to see how witches, and women, have been depicted through the ages. Does it come down to how we prefer to view our demons? Ugly old hags (but still harlots full of sexual energy) or beautiful temptresses? Or does it simply mirror societies view of women at the same time? As women were largely powerless in real life during much of this time, it is amazing how much power being a witch gives them - and therefore an excuse for men to disrespect women's sexuality and excuse their own ..i.e it wasn't my fault I slept with her, she made me! Loads to think on ...thanks

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    great programme very intersting, i always enjoy the art shows on bbc4 , does any one know what the music is at about 6 min in, is very dramatic have heard before and have often wondered who the composer is? i would really apreciate if so one knows to let me know thanks

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Mikeyh - Not sure if it's the music at 6 minutes, but Philip Glass's Facades was playing a few times during the programme. Interesting show.


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