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Secret Knowledge: The Art Of Witchcraft

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.

‘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!

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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