The Hands of My Father

What’s in a picture?

You know the debate – “A picture is worth a thousand words” says one pundit “it’s a universal language…”. Another will tell you “we’re now in a post-photography world” and because of the ease with which images can be manipulated “…we cannot trust what we see in photographs any more”.

Truth is, we could never ever trust what we see in images. Mainly because we have no idea what lay just outside the frame, we see only that which the photographer selects for us to see. Our ‘view’ is always narrow, confined by the boundaries of the image. But that view can be widened by knowledge, by being keen-eyed and reading the picture.

And those “thousand words” – well the story they tell depends on the reader. But actually finding an image that ‘speaks to us’ in the first place? There’s a challenge. Out of all the countless millions of photographs uploaded to social media every day finding one that is in some way meaningful is really a matter of luck.

And yesterday morning I saw that luck in action. On Twitter a comment popped up from a Highland Scottish resident alerting folks to a sheep event being held soon for anyone interested in hill-farming, which I retweeted, and added a few sheep pictures from my files. I followed this with another set, this time including people, with a comment:





And one of these images contained a glimpse of a hand coming in from frame right. Only a glimpse, not enough to know whose hand it is, but sufficient, I thought as a photographer, to hint at the presence of another. It’s the kind of visual ‘device’ I like to use sometimes, just a hint, but deliberate nonetheless:





To my surprise, later that morning I received an email, from Kirsty Leitch whose dad Bert was a well-respected and widely loved hill farmer on the Isle of Mull. I’d met Bert several times over the years, often working with his son Robert, whilst I was wandering around Mull:

Hello John

I notice you posted a photo taken on Oskamull farm, Mull, with Ben More in the background. The hand just visible in the foreground on the right belongs to my father I believe, Bert Leitch, who passed away last year. Do you have any more from this day, it would be very nice for my mum if I could send her pictures of dad that she hasn’t seen before.

Thanks and best wishes

Kirsty Leitch  

I emailed back, surprised and delighted to confirm that yes it was her dad’s hand. I explained about the day and sent the additional images, but asked “how were you so confident it was your dad’s hand?”

Kirsty’s response is pure poetry. As well as providing an eloquent glimpse into the tough but rewarding life of hill farmers, she crafts an elegiac and profoundly moving tribute to her dad.

Hi John

Those are lovely images, thank you very much for sending them, I’ll forward them to mum.

And yes, that’s Robert too which is really nice as he is rarely home from Russia so there are few photos of him and dad.

Dad’s hands are as recognisable and representative to me as his face. Maybe because you see them so much doing farmwork together… reaching to take the horn of a struggling ewe, clutching a dosing gun, on the steering wheel of the pick up (sleeves always rolled up and pick up window down whatever the weather).

His hands seemed impervious to cold or pain – I remember him coming in one day after an incident with the bike casually examining a very squint finger which he thought might be dislocated and experimentally flattening it against the table!

I’d only really notice them consciously though when we had a cow with an engorged udder. I’d have a go at milking and those hill cow teats would be so tough it would take me a long time to just cover the very base of an ice cream tub and the muscles of my hand would be in agony, then dad would take over and effortlessly draw jets hissing and frothing into the tub.

Thanks to the Laggan equal opportunities policy I never felt there was much I couldn’t do, but because of milking I knew his hands were ten times stronger than mine, though I daresay it was also technique.

That photo is so evocative, its easy to imagine being shoulder to shoulder reaching out to jag and dose, I’m very glad I saw it.

Thanks and best wishes


What’s in a picture?

A memory. A childhood. A future shaped by the hands of a father.

Photographs tell stories, beautifully, evocatively, and sometimes secretively, and often they tie us to the destinies we shape for ourselves with our own hands.

Here’s the series of images from that day, Bert and his son Robert and their colleagues working the sheep on the Isle of Mull.

And if you want a fuller picture of this remarkable man here are some of his personal recollections of hill farming on Mull, and this article by Peter Weir,  ‘Rite of Spring’ published in The Scotsman newspaper will make you smile.

I asked Kirsty for permission to quote from her email. Her response should remind all of us of the power of photography. Use that power you possess wisely fellow photographers.


You are welcome to use the photo of dad and my response in your writing. As you say photos remind, but more than that I’ve discovered they can actually transport. The photo with his hand, perhaps because I encountered it unexpectedly and not in the mindset of remembering, and perhaps because of its perspective, looking with not at… in that moment of recognition, there he was, and I beside him and there had been no loss.





Farmers working with sheep, Isle of Mull





















Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (3 Comments)

  1. Wonderful. It is always about the people for they ‘make’ the images in every conceivable way. When I once asked about the history of a Usit croft on social media it was similar folk who rushed to fill the gaps and to breathe life back into what had otherwise been a very brief moment in time punctuated by a question mark.

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