This is a long piece. It’s got a lot of images. Most are being published for the first time, but I hope it doesn’t come over as too self-indulgent, and is perhaps more ‘reflective’. I’ve offered critiques of other’s work on duckrabbit often enough and decided it was probably time to show some of my own photographic efforts. I’ve linked to the images at a larger size so if you want a closer view just click them (I’m aware some still need a bit more dust spotting!).
I wrote a piece a year or so ago about Gus Wylie and his documentary photography in Scotland in the 70’s and early 80’s and the significance of his work for me (and for Scotland). I’ve been mulling it over since and several recent (and some current) events have made me go and have a poke about in my own box of negatives taken around the same time. I suppose the main prompt has been the looming vote for independence, but I’ve also been doing some personal work on the issues of land ownership (in the formal sense) but also the notion of individuals being ‘owned’ by the land, in other less obvious ways (but more of that another time).
My own slide into photography was gradual. The images I’ve come across reflect this growing interest, illustrated in the negatives I’ve recently been scrutinizing and scanning. Although I’ve worked professionally as a photographer for thirty years, I made a decision early on to combine it with other work, on a part-time basis. There’s a saying in the West Highlands that “If you only have one job, you’ll often have no job”, and it’s something I’ve heeded. So after a spell as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, I undertook a carpentry apprenticeship in my home town and worked as a carpenter/joiner, ending up in a small rural joiner’s shop just out of town. Across the road a stone’s throw away from our workshop, lived Sandy the shepherd for the nearby Estate. And just up the hill a few hundred feet distant was the blacksmith, Bill, who was the stepfather of my boss John. And John’s stepbrother Ian worked with Sandy on the same Estate. There were many such connections, circles of acquaintance that looped and whirled through the community, and I photographed them on occasion as the mood and opportunity took me.
My joinery work was often in remote areas, miles out of town, on old estate houses, and usually when the (often) absentee owners were away. But I also worked on permanently lived-in rural farms and estate properties, and became good friends with the tenants and owners. Consequently I was acquainted with broad cross-section of the community, and this, combined with the many descendents of several generations of my own family scattered about the district, meant I knew a lot of people. I played shinty for the local team (very successfully I would humbly add – we cleaned up all the major trophies for several years in a row), and was in the local tug-of-war team which meant a bunch of us lads (and lassies) wandered around the county at weekends competing in events at Agricultural Shows and Highland Games, getting in about everything from the hill race to the caber toss, and generally having a ball, with more than a few drams along the way.
These rural events may appear to the casual eye to be aimed at the gawping tourist, eager to encounter and immerse themselves in a scene that is all tartan-clad and quaint, and certainly at some of the more popular events visitors may outnumber locals.
But for the hill farmers and other rural workers such events were (and still are) highlights in the year. These are social opportunities to meet old friends, share stories and news, and as well as show off prized sheep and cattle, have drams and perhaps spend the night jigging and reeling in a marquee tent, the grass floor of which would quickly resemble a ploughed field such was the depth of footchurned soil. Astute ceilidh dancers at these events would wear wellington boots, and the novices or the carefree were (and still are) easily spotted by the daintiness of their footwear.
This might all seem rather splendid, and in many ways it was, but it was not all as idyllic as it might appear.
I came across some images I’d taken of Ewan my joiner colleague with whom I worked for many many years, a gentle and humorous soul, and a skilled carpenter, but a man who struggled with the effects of being made unemployed and who one night walked out the door of his beautifully located loch-side cottage into the familiar dark water opposite, and drowned himself, leaving behind a wife and two girls. Rural suicides, and particularly amongst young people as well as adults (and in particular males) is a problem. It was ‘back then’ and still is increasingly so today, with an increasing incidence amongst the farming community, but this trend also tending to mask its effect in the wider community too. I have lost several friends in such tragic circumstances. (More information here on suicide prevention from NHS Scotland if you are interested in this topic).
And in the series of images of christian fundamentalists conducting an open air baptism (which was very popular for a few years in the early 80’s, its popularity causing some consternation in the ‘established’ churches) are familiar faces that I subsequently encountered when I became a Social Worker in Disability Services. One lad had suffered brain damage in a car accident caused by a drunken driver, another developed Multiple Sclerosis and ended up in a wheelchair (MS is more common in the north than the south and affected many people I know). And in other images are several people who succumbed to the Highland curses of depressive illness (often exacerbated by too much alcohol) or alcoholism, or the numerous drugs which were easily available, a consequence of their discrete arrival by boat on our remote and heavily indented coastline (for some perspective, California’s coastline is 800 miles long, Scotland’s is 7,500 miles long.)
But, as if to balance the equation, one of the younger people in one of the images I came across now works as a member of the residential care team looking after my own mother in the local Care Home, another cared for my dad in the last difficult years of his life. Small communities make all these connections possible, and I’d like to think these images reflect that.
But this post is really about photography, about how it shapes us as it documents, but also how important it is for it to look forward as well as back, informing the future as much as reminding us of the past. Unlike Wylie who was ‘an outsider looking in’ (and his images are all the more intimate and magical for that) my offering here is far more personal, portraying people I’ve known from childhood and close proximity, and in places I am familiar with and can move about in easily and relatively unobtrusively, and still do today.
However my work as a carpenter in the building trade was spasmodic, and downturns impacted us hard, but it meant I was able to take the opportunity to travel. The contact sheets are interesting – they not only show my growing interest in photography (and people) but the contrast between different cultures. The first half of one sheet shows a series of images from a winter trip to repair a cottage 50 miles out of town and just barely getting over a snow-blasted pass only to be stranded as the road was blocked by a log truck that had just slid off. The second half of the sheet shows a series of shots of destitute black people in Johannesburg where I ended up two days later shortly after my 18th birthday. Another sheet has images of tartan-clad frolics at an agricultural show, but a few frames after it are shots of the inhabitants of rural West Texas enjoying a small town rodeo (whom I’d met whilst traveling on my bicycle.) As a young man these glimpses into other cultures provided me with useful perspective, and helped shape my feelings about my own ‘place’.
What I like most about small communities are the characters, those hearty souls whose lifestyle moves to the beat of a different drum. Jimmy MacDonald was one such chap. Affectionately known as ‘Jimmy the Tramp’, he lived a few miles out of town at the end of small sea loch, in a patched and tatty old caravan. He meandered into town to the nearest pub on his ancient bicycle. We used to joke that it (or Jimmy) was possessed of ‘anti-gravity’ powers because he never ever pedaled it fast enough for centrifugal force to have any effect! Yet he rarely fell off. And if he did, depending on how many drams he’d consumed, he’d stay off it and simply walk home pushing the bike and using it for support, or if some farmer or crofter he knew was passing he might be be offered a lift, the bike tossed in the back of the pickup.
The old bike was as well-known as Jimmy, and was often spotted lying forlornly where it had been abandoned (which he did do occasionally), and in such situations the correct procedure was followed – check the drains and hedges to see if Jimmy was nearby ‘resting’- and if not, the bike was taken back down the road and dropped off at his caravan. Sometimes little gifts were left too, food, an old but still serviceable waterproof jacket, maybe a pair of boots, or whatever might be useful. Jimmy would layer these items upon his sturdy frame, several pullovers covered by at least two waterproofs to top it all off, and the whole ensemble bound up with string. When he became infirm and no longer able to fend for himself Jimmy was taken into the old folks home in Fort William where he enjoyed a few years in splendid luxury, with three meals a day, hot baths, a dram in the evening, and he remained sparkly eyed and mischievous until he died.
And what of independence for Scotland? Well I’ll be voting yes.
I heard Alastair Darling chairman of the ‘Better Together’ campaign (and several others of the political elite pushing for a No vote) promising that (I paraphrase) “….we’ll give Scotland more powers and freedoms if the vote is to maintain the Union….”. Implicit in this rhetoric (and I’ve heard it numerous times from many commentators and it’s gone unchallenged) is the notion of this political elite ‘allowing’ us these ‘freedoms’. It’s this type of nonsense that we want rid of. If I have to vote ‘NO’ to be given ‘freedom’, I’d have to ask what such freedom is actually worth?
I’ll digress for a moment into the historically ‘obscure’ and forgive me for doing so, but it may illuminate this debate somewhat. Dr. James Hunter CBE, academic, historian and writer, wrote (amongst many other titles) ‘The Making of the Crofting Community’, first published in 1976, which is probably THE account of the making of Highland Scotland and the history of land ownership (book review here). Crucially, in so doing he had to challenge the prevailing revisionist history purveyed as fact by many of the political and academic elite of Scotland. Hunter felt the wrath of numerous members of Scotland’s ruling class as a consequence, but produced a literary classic that revealed the shameful treatment of Highland Scots:
“At Aberdeen, I was taught by two historians of Africa, John Hargreaves and Roy Bridges. During the years following the Second World War, Hargreaves and Bridges were among a number of Europeans who – on becoming staff members of the universities then being established in black Africa – became convinced that, if African history was to be rendered meaningful to to people engaged in anti-colonial struggle, it would have to be conceived in novel ways. No longer could the history of Africa consist – as it had consisted in every textbook produced under the British Empire’s aegis – of the doings of white explorers, white missionaries, white administrators. Henceforth, or so African-based historians like Bridges and Hargreaves began to argue, Africa’s history would have to be approached from the perspective of the continent’s black inhabitants – a perspective, it goes almost without saying, the historians of empire had ignored……and…Bridges and Hargreaves made it their business to introduce students to the frequently heated debate surrounding a historiographical revolution in which they had themselves participated.
Among the more reactionary contributors to this debate was Hugh Trevor-Roper (afterwards Lord Dacre), then regius professor of history at the University of Oxford and a man who, in 1965, dismissed African history as nothing more than ‘the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe’. By way of substantiating that remark, Trevor-Roper commented:
“Perhaps in future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.”
Hunter goes on to remark:
“This was, and is, claptrap – highly offensive claptrap at that. But Trevor-Roper’s outburst (in ‘The Rise of Christian Europe’) was nevertheless of great assistance in clarifying my thinking about the Highlands.
…The academic historians of the Highlands, to be sure, were a little less explicitly dismissive of the generality of Highlanders than Trevor-Roper was of black Africa’s population. But their outlook and methodologies were such, I felt, as to produce a strictly analogous outcome…..
….And it seemed imperative to me when I commenced work on The Making of The Crofting Community, that this anti-Highland travesty of Highland history be overthrown in the same spirit – and with the same liberating purpose – as imperialist and Eurocentric interpretations of Africa’s past had already been overthrown. With the overweening self-confidence – not to say arrogance – of youth, I wanted The Making of The Crofting Community, then, to have as innovative an impact in a Highland context as Afrocentric analyses of that continent’s past had had in an African one. My aim, to make the point another way, was to write ordinary Highlanders – my own forebears among them – into nineteenth century Highland history with much the same effect as Africans, during the 1950’s and 1960’s, had begun to be written into the history of Africa.”
And it would be correct to say Hunter’s book did have that impact. And its echo is still heard today, informing the changes in land ownership and management that I see around me, in the renewed pride and confidence in being Scottish that I alluded to in the Gus Wylie post I mentioned earlier.
But as the government’s recently published Land Reform Review Group’s report The Land of Scotland and the Common Good (2012) details: 97% of Scotland’s 80,000k² land area is classified as rural. Of this, 11-12% was publicly owned in 2012, with the rest in private ownership. But 60% of that privately owned rural land held by only 963 landowners. And a recent survey of 228 estates found that on average they had been held by the same owners for 122 years, and 11 estates held by the same families for more than 500 years. Land reform in Scotland has had a significant impact. The old feudal system has been challenged, and in many instances turned on its head fostering a new sense of national pride and identity, with community ownership increasing. I must stress that not all landowners are bad landowners, many I know personally are committed to their soil and vigorous in their support of the communities that live alongside them. But many are not so enlightened, and I’ve experienced their resentment personally.
Working as a photography guide and tutor for nearly two decades I’ve been accosted by landowners or their representatives and, not asked, but told to “GET OFF MY LAND!” on numerous occasions, and rarely politely. This is usually witnessed by my (mostly English) guests whose jaws drop in astonishment. Bizarrely this has happened more often since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act enshrined in legislation my legal right of access and recreation on Scottish land. Three times I’ve actually had to threaten land owners that if they did not back off and leave us alone I would call the Police and have them arrested, pointing out that my right to be there was protected by law, and their verbal assault and threats constituted an arrestable offence. Sadly this behaviour still continues today, and a high profile example exists close to my home, on Ledgowan Estate which is a notorious example of the owner attempting to maintain a feudal stranglehold on the land and those who wish to exercise their right to simply walk upon it.
To understand the Scots ‘connection’ with their land, and the passion that fuels the YES/NO debate, you must first understand at least some of this complex history of Highland Scotland, and the broken promises and willful disregard that was once shown for its inhabitants. My fear of a successful NO vote is not that we will fail to be independent, but that we may have demonstrated by our reluctance to embrace self-determination, a need for dependence. And what history (as accurately told by James Hunter) tells us, is that a country that finds itself at the mercy of its more powerful neighbour, will receive very little.
Do we have enough oil and gas reserves to bolster our economy? I have no idea. Could we survive on tourism? It’s a big earner, but not enough by itself. Is our hi-tech engineering, biomedical and world-leading gaming industry sufficient to make a difference? Time will tell. Is hydro power and other renewable energy, such as wind and wave, really that reliable? Some would say so, some would say not. Or education, what about our old and venerated Universities, do they contribute to our net worth? Or our business and financial sector: is it to be trusted or not? And what of salmon fishing and deer stalking, and raising cattle and sheep, and pelagic fishing, and fish-farming, and our skills at producing food, and of course whisky? Well depending on who you listen to it’s enough, or it’s far from enough. But what is crucial is that we actually HAVE all these things. If you take a southern British perspective on Scotland (depending on the political alignment of who offers it) it’s regarded as too far north and distant from the main markets, it’s bleak and inhospitable. But a Scandinavian perspective – as I was offered by a Norwegian Rural Development expert I spoke with in Assynt – is that Scotland is quite far south, relatively balmy and with lots of fertile soil, and has great potential. It’s really all about perspective.
Community land-ownership in Scotland will increase but the skills to wrestle incomes from it sufficient to support small communities may not be so easily available. But more young people are choosing careers in rural development in Scotland, looking to Norway for guidance, and this can only be of benefit to us in the longer term.
But this was not intended to be a political diatribe. This is a post about Scotland’s biggest asset, and hitherto, it’s main export: people. Modern Scotland is as much ‘Trainspotting’ as it is ‘Braveheart’, it can offer you misty-eyed ‘Brigadoon’ moments of tartan frenzy, or shock you awake with a sudden jolt of global terrorism. But at the heart of all of that are people. Despite, or perhaps even because of its contested past, and uncertain future, Scotland still remains a land of brim-full of poets and patriots. We are a small country with a big heart, and that heart is firmly in the land.
But don’t just take my word for that, come and see for yourself. If you’ve not been before you may be surprised to find there already exists considerable differences from England, that we already have Scottish bank notes, we have our own legal system, there are fundamental differences in our education and health systems, we even speak different languages up here.
Much has changed since I took these pictures almost 35 years ago, but a great deal more has stayed the same, and at the forefront of the latter is a desire to control and shape our own destiny. But, whatever the outcome of the vote on the 18th September we will remain ‘another country’.