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New exhibition captures historic residency at Stirling Castle

The remarkable success of Historic Scotland’s artist-in-residence project is being celebrated with a new exhibition at Stirling Castle, where works inspired by the iconic landmark will capture the site’s turbulent history and outstanding built heritage.

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Iona Leishman artist in residence Stirling Castle

Iona Leishman’s colourful mix of real and imagined subject material stretches to around 80 canvases, many inspired by the dramatic physical outlines and sheer power of the castle’s crag-top location.

Her portfolio also conjures historical moments inspired by the Royal court at Stirling, where the machinations of kings and queens ultimately forged the political legacy of modern Scotland.

The potential of this rich source material has allowed Iona to develop a huge body of work that has attracted interest from thousands of castle visitors. Her talents have also helped schools and community groups develop their own creativity and skills.

The project reflects Historic Scotland’s aim to make imaginative use of the nation’s built heritage through an extensive and varied educational programme.

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Iona (48), originally from Perth, has used her broad range of styles to appeal to a wide range of tastes and ages.

“As well as the celebration of the built heritage and history,” she explained, “I’ve create a third category, crossing point, which forms a bridge between the castle and imagination.”

Based in a workshop in the Nether Bailey, an outlying building previously adapted as a powder magazine, Iona has produced paintings that range from lush naturalistic impressions of the castle to dreamy washes of colour haunted by ethereal figures.

“Capturing the castle has been fairly straightforward,” she said. “I’ve painted at different times day, to capture the contrasts as the light moves around the castle. But when I’m painting figures, I’m trying to bring something out from inside, using impressions I’ve gained of the castle and what I know of its history.

“These paintings create themselves. A good example would be the ‘Fleeting Imaginings’ series, which portrays the young Mary Queen of Scots’ secret escape from Stirling, a fireside portrait of James V, and a painting called ‘Dancing for Herself’, which reverses the traditional male energy associated with castles to show a more feminine reaction – the female influence that would have kept the castle going and given it life.”

Dawn Over the North Gate Stirling Castle: Image-Iona Leishman

Many of Iona’s paintings are imbued with a dream-like quality, and the artist admits that dreams play an important role in the creation of some of her works.

“The hidden meanings sometimes associated with dreams are reflected in my paintings,” she explained.

“I like to layer paint and then rub parts away to reveal the colours underneath, which can create surprises and add just the qualities I’m looking for.”

The fruits of her residency are now being mounted in a retrospective exhibition at the castle, “Sense of Place”, which is being launched on December 2nd.

The show is free to all visitors at Stirling Castle, and can be found in Exhibition Room within the Nether Bailey complex, between the central castle buildings and the western ramparts.

All paintings are for sale, and an exhibition catalogue has been published at £6.95.

A special series of greetings cards and prints based on a selection of Iona’s work is available in the castle gift shop and at the Clan and Craft shop on the esplanade.

Iona’s residency has proved so successful that Historic Scotland is now preparing to expand the programme to include other sites.

“This has been an exceptionally productive project, well received not only by visitors and education groups but also by our staff ,” said Historic Scotland’s Head of Learning Services, Sue Mitchell.

“Interest, both internally and externally, in what Iona has achieved has stimulated an expansion of the artist in residence scheme, and work is now underway to create new programmes at Huntingtower Castle near Perth and Jedburgh Abbey in the Scottish Borders.”

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 8,000 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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