A guest post by Donald Urquhart
In May 1991 I was painting in my studio in Glasgow when there was a knock at the door. It was Andrew Nairn of the Third Eye Centre (later the CCA) with an invitation to an opportunity he was the UK selector for. Would I go to Yugoslavia in October for four weeks to join a colony of international artists making art on the Adriatic, all expenses paid?
Not the toughest decision to make, so before long I was put in contact with the organiser, Matjaz Gruden. I found out the area I was going to was the northwest bit of Yugoslavia called Slovenia. I fully admit to having had only a basic knowledge of Yugoslavia at the time; Tito, Dynamo Zagreb, and that was about it.
In a bit of basic research I found out a wee bit more about Slovenia, through which I saw some parallels to Scotland emerge …
They were 2 million of 22 million.
Whilst historically a nation, Slovenia was considered a region of Yugoslavia
The distance from them to the capital of Yugolslavia, Belgrade, was about 500 miles.
They contributed more to the overall economy than they got back.
They had preserved their own language and had a very strong sense of self, expressed through a dynamic cultural scene.
They wanted their independence.
They were not very good at football.
I began to look forward to my forthcoming visit in the knowledge that it seemed the sort of place I could fit in. In fact it seemed to have something of the familiar to it.
Now, for reasons known to herself and not directly pertinent to this narrative, a friend’s girlfriend broke up with him. This sad event happened on the 25th June 1991. My friend called me the next morning wondering if he could call round, as I’d not left for my studio … Well what are friends for?
And so it came to pass that I spent the 26th of June in my flat with my morose friend. I despatched whisky and sage advice (.. there’s plenty more wrinkles on the prune etc. etc. ) in repeat doses. Five hours of counselling later I was running out of both cliches and whisky. “To the bar,” I announced, “… problems are smaller in bars.”
It was late when I got home, I vaguely remember bouncing off the wall on my way home, as I congratulated myself on sending my friend home, marginally less suicidal than he had been earlier in the day.
It was then I got the fax from Matjaz in Slovenia…
“Friends, this is the darkest day in the history of Slovenia” it read, “We are a peace loving country and are under attack from the Yugoslav army. Support us in your hearts and minds. We are at war.”
The next morning, I woke up extremely hungover and with a vague recollection that I’d done something stupid the night before. The something stupid turned out to be a seventeen page reply faxed to Matjaz.
I will spare you the details, but my reply was not short of emotion, being as it was like a cross between the Gettysburg address and Braveheart, the movie. Burns was in there, as was the Declaration of Arbroath, even a reference to St Johnstone.
More troubling were the lines, “I will come to Slovenia, no matter the situation. Even if I have to, I’ll make art under fire. The invitation to a Scot by a Slovene has nothing to do with Belgrade. I will join you in your struggle.”
At once I understood the role of strong drink in engendering a false sense of bravery. As my ‘whisky fuelled’ fax was arriving with Matjaz, the other artists were contacting him to decline their acceptance to visit Slovenia, but I was not to know that until later.
The war in Slovenia was short, and mercifully not too horrendous, lasting only twelve days. Since then Slovenia has been an independent state within the European Union.
It was, therefore, almost three months after the war that I arrived at Brnick Airport in Ljubljana. I noticed the small reception committee as I exited customs and assumed a minor Slovene celebrity had been on the flight. It turned out to be for me. A band struck up, handshakes and a guy in a suit pinned a medal on my lapel. Drink was offered by a lady in national costume. I’d been awarded the Badge of Honour for Services to Slovenian Independence. It sits, to this day, on my mantelpiece.
You see, my fax had struck a chord. When most Slovenes had thought nobody in Europe had heard of them or cared for their struggle, my fax was read on the radio. I was told, “You seemed to understand our need for freedom.” I decided at this point not to confess to the utter lack of sobriety at the time of writing.
I stayed in Slovenia for six weeks in the beautiful coastal town of Piran. It was a fascinating time, the post independence euphoria co-existing with despair at the ongoing situation and war in neighbouring Croatia.
At the end of my stay my work was exhibited in Gallerija Ars in Ljubljana. As we walked towards the gallery for the opening I thought I heard bagpipes away in the distance. The closer we got to the gallery the clearer and louder the pipes appeared. Matjaz had organized a piper, David Grant. I never found out if David got a Badge of Honour for Services to Slovenian Independence but he certainly deserved one.
In early 1991 David set off with his family from Orkney to be the first to circumnavigate the globe by horse drawn caravan.
They got to the north of Slovenia where their horse contracted Hepatitis C, and had to recuperate for a few months in a horse clinic near Maribor. On the outbreak of war on the 26th June David took his family over the border into Austria, but returned to Maribor with his pipes. During some of the clashes with military planes overhead, David played his pipes to keep morale up. He was interviewed on Slovene TV, making similar points to my fax, only more succinctly and soberly.
After the war David and his family were given teaching work and housing by the Council in Maribor until their horse recovered. It was through the police that he was contacted and asked to pipe at my opening.
Through this initial contact with Slovenia I met many friends who, today, are like a second family to me. I return regularly and have lost count of the number of times I’ve been there. I can assure you that the views purporting to come from Slovenia that reach you via the comments in certain newspapers are in no way typical. I have had many wishes of support for Scottish independence from Slovenia. The only question I get is why it’s taking us so long.
Whilst it has had its problems, most notably since the economic crisis, Slovenia is a model for a successful small country. It has flourished in the twenty three years since gaining its independence , with a high standard of living and an excellent and improving infrastructure. Life expectancy and literacy are higher there than in Scotland.
With a population and area about 40% of Scotland’s it seems to be doing just fine. Economically, in 2013, Die Welt ranked Slovenia among the three least vulnerable European countries topped only by Germany and Estonia.
I was last there at New Year. A plane, with propellers, flew overhead and my friend Gorazd asked rhetorically if I knew what it was. “That,” he said, “is one third of the Slovenian Air Force.”
Despite its history in 1991, contemporary Slovenia sees no need to spend vast amounts of its GDP on weaponry. It holds no capability to invade anywhere.
It is a shame that Slovenia cannot be held up to Scotland as a shining example. It was of course on the 26th of June 1991 that, simultaneously, Slovenia and Croatia began a process that became the Balkan Conflict. That horror over shadows everything that Slovenia has achieved and makes it a difficult exemplar.
I have never heard a single voice in Slovenia against democratic nation states determining their own destiny.