Rachel Maclean: Myth, National Identity and Power

Rachel Maclean

‘When I’m affected by an artwork, it can often be shifting your perception of reality just in an even very minute way. So, I hope that my work gives you a slightly different perspective, maybe on ways we talk about contemporary politics…. and the power that comes with that.’ – Rachel Maclean

Learn how Scottish video artist Rachel Maclean uses satire, and techniques borrowed from performance art, to deconstruct some of the myths behind national identity and expose absurdities in contemporary politics. She explores these themes through her works The Lion and the Unicorn (2012) and VR piece I’m Terribly Sorry (2018).

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All my work is interested in power. And there is a power in comedy. I think you are always laughing at somebody or at something, there’s a target.

[The Lion in the voice of David Cameron]

The Saltire is the flag of a proud nation, not the symbol of one political party. [clapping]

I look a lot at political caricature.

[The Lion in the voice of David Cameron]

Leaders of the pro-United Kingdom parties were anti-Scottish… What planet are these people on?

So, historically, Hogarth and Rowlandson… as well as popular comedy on TV, and y’know, The League of Gentlemen, and kind of these characters that are presented as heightened and grotesque.

I’m showing my film The Lion and the Unicorn in the National Gallery, in London. The film was commissioned by Edinburgh Printmakers in response to the then upcoming referendum on Scottish Independence in 2014. It’s exciting for me to see it again, and to see it having so much, with so much having changed politically in the last few years.

[The Lion in the voice of Jeremy Paxman]

We’ve got a trillion pounds worth…

The three characters in the film are the Lion, the Unicorn and the Queen, all played by me. The characters are based on the heraldic symbol for the United Kingdom, with the Lion signifying England, and the Unicorn signifying Scotland.

I was interested in taking these quite absurd symbols: lions are non-native animals to England and the unicorn’s a fantastical, fairytale creature.

[The Lion in the voice of Jeremy Paxman]

But the birth right of any citizen of an independent Scotland would be about £16,000 worth of debt, or would it be more than that…?

[The Unicorn in the voice of Alex Salmond]

Well, the assets would be much greater…

And setting them into a narrative which is about contemporary politics. So, there’s this kind of juxtaposition of absurdism and fantasy with pragmatism.

The Queen is a little bit Mary Queen of Scots mashed up with some sort-of Union Jack tourist tat. And I speak entirely miming to the voice of the current Queen, so, with her so various Christmas messages.

[The Queen in the voice of Queen Elizabeth II]

But I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom, of Great Britain, and Northern Ireland…

They’re in this historic house, Traquair House, and you see them eating slices of Union Jack cake and drinking North Sea oil.I was interested in how that plays into the debates around Scottish Independence and the currency that it has.

So, there’s this sort of mix-up of references to Jacobite history and kind-of popular Scottish history and mythology.

The unicorn has the voice of Alex Salmond.

[The Unicorn in the voice of Alex Salmond]

We’d take our share of that because we’re part of the United Kingdom. We can’t do anything about the mistakes of previous Chancellors of the Exchequer…

And the lion has the voice of Jeremy Paxman and sometimes David Cameron.

[The Lion in the voice of David Cameron]

And when I hear the Scottish Nationalists who are so keen to leave the United Kingdom, yet so anxious about having a referendum, perhaps they should remember Burns’ words, in which he referred to the ‘Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie, O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!’

For me, there’s something quite cheeky about taking the voice of a powerful figure and using that to talk about their power, or to explore the problems of the way that kind of power is manifest.

[The Lion in the voice of Jeremy Paxman]

There’s about 310 tonnes of gold that the Bank of England’s looking after. What share of that do you want?

When I’m looking for found audio to use in my films, I like the slightly more surreal examples that you can find…

[The Lion in the voice of Jeremy Paxman]

So, you want about 8% of the 300 tonnes of gold?

[The Unicorn in the voice of Alex Salmond]

That would be the normal way… a country’s resources – we’ve gone past the mercantile period – country’s resources aren’t backed by gold…

[The Lion in the voice of Jeremy Paxman]

How would you get it North? … What’s there going to be, some armoured train or something?

[The Unicorn in the voice of Alex Salmond]

[laughing] I can’t believe you said that!

I thought there was something nice about that being a slightly kind of ridiculous argument, and a lot of my work is satirical at the level of absurdity.

[The Queen in the voice of Queen Elizabeth II]

We need the kind of courage that can withstand the subtle corruption of the cynics, so that we can show the world that we are not afraid of the future.

I think I started playing the characters in my work, I think coming from an almost like performance art-type perspective, where I was interested in performance artists who use themselves in their work. But I think very quickly I became aware that I wasn’t really interested in me as in like a self-portrait, I was more interested in how easy it seemed to be to become other people on screen and exploring the ways in which identity can kind of split out, and the ways in which identity is a construction.

[The Lion]

Never again will the presumptuous Stuarts lay claim to the British throne. Their escapade is over. They have dared, and they have lost.

I’m excited to be showing my work which is in lots of ways about the Romanticism around Scottish identity alongside Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen.

It’s really interesting for me to see the Landseer painting in real life. I looked at it quite a long time today, to think about it actually being a deer, because the meaning of it has gone so far beyond that, that it is almost the ultimate representation of the way that a sort of certain kind of idea of Scotland, or a certain romantic picture of Scotland has been commoditised. It’s really a symbol to me of branding of an idea of Scottishness, which I think Scotland have been very successful at!

I think to me it’s quite important that as an audience you come a little bit into the films. I want my work to feel immersive, and I want people to lose themselves a little bit in it, and not to feel too self-aware.

My recent VR piece I’m Terribly Sorry was really exciting to make, and I’d wanted to make out a VR for ages. I like that aspect of VR where it’s so immersive and you’re dropped into an environment. You get an immediate response from what almost feels like a real space experientially, which I think is more difficult with film.

You put on a headset and you arrive in this kind of dystopian British city, but instead of buildings there’s enlarged pieces of tourist tat that loom over you; tacky signifiers of British identity. There’s a sense that you’re alone and in this quite cold kind-of abrasive environment.

[Suited Man character]

Excuse me, I’m terribly sorry to bother you, my phone died and I’m lost…

After a moment, characters start approaching you and trying to illicit money from you with quite convoluted stories.

[Suited Man character]

No, no, not a flat – a flat white. I need to buy a flat white.

You don’t have the ability to give them money, you only have the ability to take a photograph of them.

[Gym-goer character]

And they said like join now and you’ll get 15% off… and now I’m paying like full price for a gym that doesn’t even have a decent fucking pilates class…

Gradually, this situation becomes darker…

[Gym-goer character]

Excuse me…

[Backpack character]

Take my photo! Take my fucking photo! Take it!

I hope with the work that you leave as a viewer with some sense that you’ve had some influence over the experience and in some way you’re complicit for how the story’s played out.

[Backpack character]

Are you okay? Please don’t give handouts to the natives it only encourages them…

And I like that sense in VR that you can maybe make your audience feel guilty, or feel responsible, in a way that with cinema it’s slightly more distant.

[Suited man and Gym-goer characters]

[gasping] Oh no, this is awful.

I think I’m troubled by British identity and the extent to which I think as a nation we’ve not really confronted our history.

[Gym-goer character]

It’s criminal. I mean, I know what you’re going to say, like ‘hashtag first world problems’, but you have no idea what I’ve been through…

And there’s still a sense of Britishness abstractly tied to the British Empire…

[Gym-goer character]

I spent two hours on the phone to some guy in India and he’s like, ‘read the small print’, and I’m like, you read the small print you [expletive]! Sorry, …

And abstractly tied to this idea of Britain’s superior place in the world, and the sense that Britain can go it alone and exist in some kind of glorious isolation. I think a lot of that mythology of British identity lead to the vote on Brexit.

I’m interested in nationhood depending upon myths to sustain this idea that we feel like we all have something in common, and it’s what those myths are and who they serve and how history is politicised to serve a particular current situation.

When I’m affected by an artwork, it can often be shifting your perception of reality just in an even very minute way. So, I hope that my work gives you a slightly different perspective, maybe on ways we talk about contemporary politics…. and the power that comes with that.

With thanks to

Rachel Maclean Studio

The National Gallery

National Galleries of Scotland

Zabludowicz Collection



Alamy Stock Photo

The Metropolitan Museum






The Lion and The Unicorn

Rachel Maclean, 2012

12-minute digital video

Commissioned by The Edinburgh Printmakers for Year of Creative Scotland


The Election Entertainment

Plate I: Four Prints of an Election

William Hogarth, 1755

The Metropolitan Museum

(CC0 1.0)


State Butchers

Thomas Rowlandson, 1789

The Metropolitan Museum

(CC0 1.0)


The Monarch of the Glen

Sir Edwin Landseer, c.1851

Purchased by the National Galleries of Scotland as a part gift from Diageo Scotland Ltd, with contributions from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Dunard Fund, the Art Fund, the William Jacob Bequest, the Tam O’ Shanter Trust, the Turtleton Trust, and the K. T. Wiedemann Foundation, Inc. and through public appeal 2017


I’m Terribly Sorry

Rachel Maclean, 2018

Produced in collaboration with Werkflow

Commissioned by Zabludowicz Collection in partnership with Arsenal Contemporary



League of Gentlemen, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, 1999

Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo


Steve Pemberton as Tubbs Tattsyrup 

IconicPix / Alamy Stock Photo


League of Gentlemen, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, 1999

©BBC America / Courtesy Everett Collection / Alamy Stock Photo


Glenfiddich 12 year old scotch whisky bottle

ACORN 1 / Alamy Stock Photo

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