A life lived through creativity and friendship
This timeline has been created by Thomas Caldow and Chris Howat whilst on internships at the Archive and seeks to share the many creative highs and lows of Gray’s working life, firmly rooting them alongside the many people who supported and help shape him.
Birth of Alasdair Gray
Alasdair Gray is born at 11 Findhorn Street, Riddrie, North-East Glasgow to Alexander and Amy Gray. His sister, Mora, followed shortly after in 1936.
Early health issues
Alasdair experiences his first asthma attack, these attacks, alongside his struggle with eczema would go on to have a profound impact on him throughout his childhood and early adulthood and shape many of his creative works.
Gray family move to England
Following the outbreak of war Alexander Gray moved down to Wetherby in Yorkshire to manage a hostel for workers at a munitions factory. In 1942 the rest of the Gray family travelled down to join them. They lived here happily till the war’s end in 1945. Photos from the Wetherby canteen from the time show a series of paintings on the walls. This was Gray’s first exposure to mural artwork.
Miss Jean Irwin’s art classes
Back in Glasgow, his mum enrolled him into Miss Jean Irwin’s art class at Kelvingrove Art Galleries and Museums. These free, weekly sessions, open to all of Glasgow’s children would go on to form some of Alasdair’s earliest artistic foundations. Alasdair was also chosen to read one of the Aesop’s Fables on BBC Radio Scotland.
Alasdair was encouraged to present his essay on the Industrial Revolution to the Whitehill Literary and Debating Society. Accompanying the essay were a collection of drawings depicting events from human history from the prehistoric world to modern times.
The Star was published in Collins Magazine
Death of his mother
After a short battle with cancer Amy Gray dies in 1952.
Early days of art school and Lanark
Despite not having the necessary exam results, Alasdair was accepted into The Glasgow School of Art. Upon finishing his first year of studies Alasdair was allowed to spend his summer writing his book ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Scot’. Though he was not able to complete the work, what he had written would go on to become chapters 12 & 29 of Lanark.
Meets Alan Fletcher. Alan would go on to become one of the great influences on Alasdair’s life and versions of him appear in at least 3 of his works including Aitken Drummond in Lanark. He spent his summer this year travelling Europe.
Selection to Murals and Stained Glass
Alasdair was rejected from the portrait painting course going into his third year of GSA. Instead, he began studying within his second choice, Murals and Stained Glass. Mural making, the temporality of materials and ideas, would have a profound impact on his artistic life. Gray would always describe himself as ‘an artist’s who fell into writing’. GSA Director Percy Bliss commissions Gray to produce his first mural at the Scottish USSR Friendship Society in Glasgow
The Glasgow Group founded
Alasdair, rather reluctantly, finishes the Scottish USSR Friendship Society mural. This, alongside his other work he produced at GSA earns him a prize with distinction as well as the Bellahouston travelling scholarship.
Hospitalisation, and loss of Alan Fletcher
While travelling with his scholarship over the summer of 1958, Alasdair suffers a severe bout of asthma and is hospitalised in Gibraltar. Whilst there his money is stolen following which abruptly ends his travels and sees him returning to Scotland. His friend Alan Fletcher left for his own travels that summer to Italy. However he tragically falls to his death while attempting to climb up to his hostel window. His body is never returned to Glasgow and Gray makes the pilgrimage a few years later to visit his dear friend’s grave.
Greenhead Church of Scotland Mural
Work begins on what Alasdair would go on to describe as his ‘best mural’, designed for the Greenhead Church of Scotland Mural. During this time, he came to meet his lifelong friends Archie and Eleanor Hind who enjoyed watching him work.
Teacher Training College
Enrolled in Jordanhill Teacher Training College. Alasdair would work sporadically as an educator throughout much of the rest of his life.
Meets and marries Inge Sorenson
Meets Inge Sorenson, a Danish nurse, whilst working at the Festival Late in Edinburgh. Shortly after the festival finishes, they are married. Gray paints the Story of Jonah mural for George and Rosemary Singleton. The covering of this mural and its restoration are covered in the 2002 documentary Unlikely Murals, Mostly by Kevin Cameron
Birth of his son
Andrew Gray is born in September.
Cowcaddens and Under the Helmet
Following years of planning Alasdair completes perhaps his most famous painting, Cowcaddens Street Scape in the Fifties. This would go on to become the cover of 1985 Harcourt Brace paperback edition of Lanark. Alasdair is the subject of the BBC documentary Under the Helmet. Directed by his friend Bob Kitts, the documentary was an interesting and in-depth study of Gray’s art (while also implying that Alasdair was in fact dead!). Book one of Lanark, then titled ‘Thaw’, is rejected by Curtis Brown Literacy Agency.
Kelvin Drive mural
Stairwell at 10 Kelvin Drive mural painted for George and Rosemary Singleton. The mural still exists to this day inside this west end family home.
The Fall of Kelvin Walker, Mavis Belfrage and A History Maker
During a brief separation from Inge, Alasdair produced a great volume of work. Much of what was written during this time would go on to be reworked later in Alasdair’s life: notably The Fall of Kelvin Walker, Agnes (later Mavis) Belfrage, and an early version of A History Maker.
Kirkfield Bank mural
Kirkfieldbank ‘Falls of Falloch’ Mural painted. After falling into disrepair, it was restored by Alasdair in 2010. Gray and Sorensen separate, he rents a flat close by so he can regularly visit and help with caring for their son.
A fraught decade
This was a decade fraught with emotional and financial strain for Alasdair. He would see what he described as his ‘best mural’ at the Greenhead Church of Scotland destroyed, as well as suffering important losses in his personal life. However, the 70s would also include some of the key moments in Gray’s development as an artist. It was during this time that he would take on Francis Head as his agent. Francis managed to ensure commissions for Alasdair and to sell many of his previously rejected scripts. Most important perhaps was his meeting with Philip Hobsbaum who would invite him to join his writing group. The introduction to Aonghas MacNeacail, Catriona Montgomery, Chris Boyce as well as his close-friends Tom Leonard and James Kelman would have a significant impact on his style as an author. His relationship with Kelman would lead him to join the Print Studio Press Cooperative through which he would publish his first work. After 9 years of marriage Alasdair and Inge divorce.
Meets Liz Lochhead
After a chance meeting on a train to Edinburgh Alasdair became fast friends with the future Scottish Makar Liz Lochhead. They would collaborate on the Now and Then film project which aimed to marry Alasdair’s illustrations with Lochhead’s poetry. Though never fully completed, the beautiful writing and imagery of the two artists still exist and were brought together by Sorcha Dallas in 2008 for The Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art.
Death of his father
On the 4th of March Alexander Gray dies, however he would go on to make many appearances in Alasdair’s texts and images throughout his life. Gray begins work on the on the Greenbank Church of Scotland Book of Ruth Mural. His friend and landlord at the time, Gordon Lennox, assisted Gray in painting parts and many friends including Gordon, his wife Pat and Liz Lochhead appear as the faces of the biblical characters.
The Scottish Wildlife Mural is painted at Palaceriggs nature reserve. The mural was commissioned by naturalist, writer and journalist David Stephen, who was closely involved in the planning of Palacerigg Country Park and Visitor Centre and its emphasis on wildlife conservation and education. Gray lived on site with Stephen and his family at the Warden’s house while painting the mural, which is now among Gray’s earliest surviving public artworks. In 2001, Alasdair Gray and his assistant Robert Salmon carried out restoration work to the mural after it suffered water damage.
Meets Agnes Owens
Alasdair meets Agnes Owens, he would champion her throughout her life and they would send each other their transcripts to edit, there’s was a supportive and nurturing friendship. Gray was commissioned to design the artwork for Carl MacDougall’s A Shape of Water. This was his first experience of total control of a text’s design and would go on to spark an obsession with the design and presentation of all his future works.
Death of Francis Head
Removes his name from his script for Beloved produced for Granada TV due to unauthorized tampering with the script. Gray believed this the reason for his stunted drama career. Francis Head dies. His death was a serious blow both privately and professionally.
Ubiquitous Chip, City Recorder and Writer in Residence
Alasdair paints the Ubiquitous Chip. Without the support of Head to sell his plays Gray found himself in financial difficulties. Due to this and his friendship with the restaurant’s owner, Colin Clydesdale, Gray offered to paint a series of murals for the establishment in exchange for free meals. Begins working as City Recorder for the People’s Palace. Hired by Elspeth King to document a rapidly changing Glasgow, Alasdair would go on to describe this as ‘the pleasantest steady job of my life’. The now complete manuscript for Lanark is rejected. It is deemed to be ‘too long’. Alasdair begins in his role as Writer in Residence at the University of Glasgow.
The Comedy of the White Dog is published by the Print Studio Press Cooperative. Also featuring The Crank that Started the Revolution, both of which would appear in Unlikely Stories, Mostly, The Comedy of the White Dog would sell poorly, and Alasdair would destroy most of the remaining copies.
Lanark is published. After decades of writing and many rejections Gray’s magnum opus is eventually published by Canongate. An instant critical and commercial success, Alasdair’s debut is now considered to be a classic of Scottish and postmodern fiction.
Tickly Mince review
Following the breakout success of Lanark Alasdair joined with Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard to perform a review for the Edinburgh Fringe. A huge success, the show would be followed in later years by The Pie of Damocles which would add James Kelman to the lineup. Lanark wins the Frederick Niven Award. The prize money was substantial, but Alasdair donated all of it to the miners’ strike.
Unlikely Stories, Mostly published
After writing Lanark for 30 years, Gray’s next few works would be released in rapid succession. The first of these was his collection of short stories which he had written throughout his life accompanied by a vast array of his immediately recognisable illustrations. The collection would go on to win a number of awards, a rare achievement for a short story collection at the time.
1982, Janine published
Considered by Gray to be his finest, it was also his most critically divisive. Drawing inspiration from Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Talks to the Thistle, 1982, Janine has itself gone on to become a staple of the Scottish canon. Gray’s work would in turn inspire later generations due to its bold approach to form and subject matter. Following criticism for publishing Janine through the London based publishers Jonathon Cape, Alasdair decided to alternate between Scottish and English publishers for each subsequent release.
The Fall of Kelvin Walker and Lean Tales published
The first of his older screenplays to be updated for prose, The Fall of Kelvin Walker was yet again well received by critics though commercially it was not as successful as his previous works. Lean Tales published. Running short on ideas for a collection of short stories, Alasdair enlisted the help of James Kelman and Agnes Owens, each contributing equally to the project.
5 Artists Retrospective Show
This exhibition featured the work of the original members of the Glasgow Group: Alasdair Gray, Alan Fletcher, John Connelly, Carole Gibbons, and Alasdair Taylor. The show had enormous emotional significance to Alasdair, particularly due to Alan Fletcher’s posthumous inclusion. Gray self funded the show and was frustrated by the lack of coverage in the Scottish press and zero sales.
Old Negatives published
This was his first collection of poetry, which was pulled together from works produced over the course of Alasdair’s life. It features, amongst others, Not Striving a poem he wrote whilst lodging at his friend’s Gordon Lennox.
Something Leather and Mcgrotty and Ludmilla published, Dog and Bone Press is launched
This is the only one of Gray’s works to receive a truly negative reception. Alasdair always defended the work however, believing that a change in name would have improved the response. Dog and Bone Press is launched. Alongside Angela and Chris Boyce, and with the help of the still-new-for-the-time personal word processor, Alasdair worked to set up the independent Glasgow-based publisher. Alasdair would take on the role of creative director for the press. Mcgrotty and Ludmilla published. This was the first release from Dog and Bone. They would have difficulty getting the books into shops and in part due to this as well as staff shortages, the Press ceased operation after a year and a half. They published eight books, all of them designed by Alasdair.
Meets and marries Morag MacAlpine
Alasdair Gray marries Morag Nimmo McAlpine. As Morag noted when reflecting on their marriage years later, “I think we probably had quite lonely times before we met. And we now know the value of being together.”
Poor Things published
Considered the third of Alasdair’s three masterpieces (Lanark and 1982, Janine being the other two) Poor Things was an immediate critical success winning both the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Book of the Year. It was also the biggest commercial success of Gray’s career. The story was adapted in 2023 by Yorgos Lanthimos into a major motion picture.
Ten Tales Tall and True published
There were in fact thirteen tales in the collection. All of them tall, rather fewer true.
A History Maker published
This was the first of Gray’s novels since Lanark to return to a sci-fi narrative. He also completes a ceiling mural called ‘The Tree of Dunfermline History’ in the Long Gallery that depicts the significant events and people of the town. He was assisted on it by his friend and artist Robert Salmon.
Mavis Belfrage published
Was originally called Agnes Belfrage, Gray sent it to his friend and fellow writer Agnes Owens who suggested a name change!
Why Scots Should Rule Scotland published
Originally written in 1992, Gray reworked the text in order to publish it in conjunction with the 1997 General election where devolution had become a central promise of the Labour campaign. He would go on to write, How We Should Rule Ourselves (2005) and Independence: An Argument (2014)
Working Legs produced and performed
Written specifically for the production’s disabled cast, the play was commissioned by the Birds of Paradise Theatre Company
The Book of Prefaces published
A work almost as long in the making as Lanark, Gray’s Prefaces were an immediate critical success. Inge Sorenson dies. Alasdair was there to comfort her during her final days.
Creative Writing tutor at Glasgow University
Takes the post of Creative Writing Chair along with James Kelman and Tom Leonard. Liz Lochhead and Janice Galloway would also go on to take part time jobs with the department.
Meets Sorcha Dallas
Gray meets Sorcha Dallas, a curator and gallerist. Dallas was responsible for the renewed interest and opportunities in regard to his visual practice that happened subsequently. He later commented how pleased he was to finally have some recognition for his visual work, even if it happened later than hoped. The Ends of our Tethers published.
Oran Mor mural begins
Work begins on the Oran Mor mural. This would go on to become the largest work of public art in Scotland and remains incomplete. Gray had many assistant who helped on it most notably Richard Todd, Robert Salmon and Nichol Wheatley. A Life in Progress documentary released directed by Kevin Cameron who had previously directed the Unlikely Murals, Mostly documentary.
Philip Hobsbaum dies and Old Men in Love published
Notoriously reluctant to finish his paintings, Alasdair gives Hobsbaum’s wife, Rosemary, the completed Symposium at Nightmare Alley, which he had initially intended as a wedding present, thirty years earlier. Old Men in Love published. Gray’s final novel is as sprawling as any of his other works, jumping between four different narratives and eras.
Goodbye Jimmy performed
This was the first of Alasdair’s plays to be staged in ten years. Its initial performance at the Oran Mor, through the Play, Pint & Pie series was followed by a week long run in Edinburgh. He followed Goodbye Jimmy up with Midgie Burgers in 2007, again at the Oran Mor.
A Gray Playbook published
This would become the first of a series of anthologies which would collect works from the various mediums Alasdair worked in throughout his life.
A Life in Pictures published
The long promised pictorial autobiography shone a light on his development as an artist and a man. Collected Verse published. Alasdair was often disappointed by the comparative lack of attention received by his poetry, this collection however gives the perfect opportunity to discover his work, written throughout the course of his life. The Alasdair Gray Foundation is established, set up by Gray and Dallas, it captured what Gray wanted to happen to the work posthumously and what drives The Alasdair Gray Archive now. Completes his May Hooper series of portraits of his friend and neighbour which he began almost 20 years before.
SPT Hillhead Subway Mural unveiled
Every Short Story 1951-2012 published. As well as all previously published works, Every Short Story also featured new stories, written for the collection’s publication. The Hillhead Subway Mural is unveiled. At the heart of the Glasgow west-end where Alasdair spent much of his life, this is perhaps one of his best known artworks. It was installed and technically produced by Gray’s friend and collaborator Nichol Wheatley.
Retrospective and Morag dies
The Alasdair Gray Season was delivered across Glasgow Museums. Devised and curated by Sorcha Dallas it featured the largest retrospective of Gray’s work, From The Personal to the Universal at Kelvingrove Art Galleries and Museums. After twenty-three years of marriage Morag died after a short illness. As Alasdair said goodbye he read ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’ by W.B. Yeats.
Of Me and Others: An Autobiography published. This collection of essays and reflections was re-released in 2019 following Alasdair’s passing.
Life changing accident
Alasdair suffered a life changing accident which saw him confined to a wheelchair. Working on artworks at any scale were abandoned (including a commission he’d been working on for Glasgow Museums). He continued to work at speed on his interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a project he began before his accident, which provided a focus for his recovery.
Hell is published
The first part of a trilogy of translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Hell, is published it was followed Purgatory (2019) and Paradise (2020).
Awarded the inaugural Saltire Society Lifetime Achievement. Twenty-eight years previously Alasdair had received the Saltire Society’s first ever Scottish Book of the Year Award for Lanark. Alasdair Gray died on 29th December 2019 at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, Glasgow, one day after his 85th birthday. He left behind a vast artistic and cultural legacy and remains an inspiration for successive generations of Scottish artists.
The Alasdair Gray Archive is established
After Alasdair died Sorcha Dallas (his friend & former gallerist) was responsible for packing up his flat. There was a strict three month deadline for clearing the property, so her focus was on working quickly to secure Gray’s legacy. From this she established The Alasdair Gray Archive, now a Scottish Charity which is dedicated to preserving Gray’s work, creating opportunities to engage with the collection, commissioning creative responses to it as well as telling the stories of the many folks connected to Gray who helped support him throughout his life. It is a free, public resource and is open to all.