‘Inside The Fort’

(I first posted this article here in 2011, and promised that I would update it at some point with more images and better scans. Well I managed it at last so I’m reposting it! Images will appear larger if you click them.)




Inside The Fort

Photography, cameras, (dis)ability and empowerment.



Length of this post: long. Words: a lot. Pictures: a significant number. Apologies for that: none.

Almost 40 years ago, in 1987, I undertook a photography project with two men with ‘learning disabilities’ in the small West Highland town of Fort wiliam where I was born.


Malcolm (left) and Tommy (right) with a photo board of their work on display in the day centre as they practised © John MacPherson/Inside The Fort


Tommy, a man with Down Syndrome, was moving into community living after more than 20 years in an institution. The other man, Malcolm, had suffered meningitis when young and it had caused brain damage. Malcolm was regarded locally as ‘the village idiot’ because of his rather unorthodox behaviour, not helped by his epileptic seizures and somewhat dishevelled appearance. But he was well respected by many and at least one prominent local businessman quietly ensured Malcolm had a decent new winter coat every few years (one of the benefits of living in a small community). He was a man I’d known since I was a child as he’d lived with his parents in a tiny wooden cottage in the glen close to where I lived. I’d regularly see him coming and going when I was out playing and he’d always talk and gently, humorously, tease my friends and me. He was very fond of my parents especially my mum, and they reciprocated, joining in his fun, and they often had hilarious interactions.

However Malcolm’s shabby exterior masked an astonishing brain and his abilities, rather ironically I think, were known only to a certain sector of the community – those who frequented the betting shop where Malcolm ‘worked’ off and on as a bookie’s clerk.  Malcolm could calculate incredibly complicated odds, involving each way bets, multiple odds and roll-ups ALL in his head, and do so spectacularly quickly. He was never wrong. This ability spilled over into crossword solving and car number plate recall. Malcolm could breeze through most cryptic crosswords with ease no matter how complex, and recall the car numbers of everyone he’d ever met. Whatever damage the meningitis had caused to some parts of his cortex, it had triggered neural activity in others that was remarkable. Including a well-developed and infectiously impish sense of humour.

A busker plays his guitar in the pedestrian underpass and a wvy line drawn by a vandal with a black felt pens goes along the wall and passes through the busker's eyes like a melody line.

Busker in Fort William underpass ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


And so one year we three set out on our photographic project. Both men attended a Social Work Day Centre I was employed in and this was my final year project submission for my Social Work Qualification.  The idea I’d come up with was simple – to enable Tommy to meet the community he would live in, through photographing the various people who provide the day to day support we all rely on – the bin man, the doctor, the minister, the bus driver, the shopkeeper etc. The idea was that this ‘exploration of community’ would allow Tommy to interact with these various people through the medium of an ‘intellectual’ activity, photography, and do so on the basis of his abilities rather than any perceived disabilities.

For Malcolm it was all about something he loved doing: getting out and about, meeting people, talking, interacting, laughing, basically ‘getting the craic’, and maybe doing some artistic stuff into the bargain. Differing aims for each man, but through a common activity, photography. My role was to oversee their endeavours, provide guidance on gaining community access, teaching camera handling skills etc and maintaining a diary of activity for my college submission.

A steam train driver stands in front of a huge steam train wheel the curve of it in perfect symmetry with his own curved stomach.

Steam train driver. Man and machine in perfect symmetry. © Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


We started by engaging in a process of learning how to use cameras (a Nikon slr and a Ricoh compact, both using HP5), playing with controls and basic techniques for handling and focusing, and writing and sending out letters to try to gain access to various private situations such as factories, distilleries, railway yards etc. Slowly over a few weeks permissions for access started to flow in, and we realised this might work, and so the two men began actually photographing, in ‘private’ work locations and quite often in public, in shops, supermarket etc

My initial thoughts had been that this was a social skills project, but as the two men laboured on, learning camera skills and starting to produce images, I was astonished at what I was witnessing. Every night after an outing I’d process their film and make contact sheets, often printing out a few of the images for them to share, and next day we’d review the contacts and think about the process.  But with each passing day, each darkroom session, I could see the resulting work was utterly remarkable. It was insightful, often infused with humour, sometimes capturing easily-overlooked details, and I started to realise these two men were capturing a huge slice of ‘community’ – one they had been born into, and for various reasons partly excluded from, but here were being received with generosity and warmth simply through the act of creating with cameras.

They laboured diligently through a year and produced a remarkable body of work. It was picked up (as a Social Work social skills/art project) by leading UK social care magazines, and then the wider local and national press and went on to be toured nationally winning the two men a major arts award into the bargain.

But what surprised me and taught me a huge lesson (amongst many other lessons) was the reaction from people when they were confronted by the camera. One specific situation was in a shop when the assistant, who knew Malcolm really well and had put him out of the shop several times previously over many years for trying to kiss her – an old trick of his – said “What are you doing with a camera Malcolm!” and Malcolm explained about the project whilst I hung back behind a shelf aisle out of sight and listened.  “There’s no film in that” she went on laughing. “Away with you, you rascal“. And Malcolm calmly did as I’d suggested which was to get the subject to move to a suitable background by politely asking and directing gently, and as the woman did as she was asked, she continued to say “Ha ha there’s no film in that camera!“. But she did as she was told! And both Malcolm and Tommy took her photograph.

A woman shopkeeper places cigarettes onto a shelf behind her and smiles to the photographer.

Shop assistant. © Malcolm McPhee/Inside The Fort

And I was astonished. Normally Malcolm without a camera giving directions to someone would be ignored, but here now holding a Nikon he was empowered in some rather delightful way. The camera had somehow legitimized his intrusion into the ‘normal’ world in a way that I found remarkable.


WOrkers smile as they remove paper from a conveyer belt in a factory.

Workers in paper mill. © Malcolm McPhee/Inside The Fort


This happened several times subsequently, and each time reinforced my growing awareness of the totemic value of cameras. When we returned to the same shop a week later to present a nice 10×8 b&w print (which we did often) the woman was both delighted  and bemused “So there was film in that camera! I thought you were kidding me Malcolm!

An elderly lady sits in soft light coming through a window in a care home for the elderly.

Elderly resident in care home. © Malcolm McPhee/Inside The Fort


These two men had the launch of their nationally toured exhibition in Edinburgh, in a big venue, with lots of people and in the visitors book was left the following comment:

Despite the fact I’ve been earning a living with cameras for 30  years, having viewed this exhibition, I now realize I cannot call myself a photographer“.

 Manager of Care Home for the elderly sits staring at an empty chair. Malcolm explained this image having an empty chair included because he felt it symbolized the ‘absent friends’, the elderly residents who have passed away.

Manager of Care Home for the elderly. Malcolm explained this image having an empty chair included because he felt it symbolized the ‘absent friends’, the elderly residents who have passed away. © Malcolm McPhee/Inside The Fort

We went to an Edinburgh pub in late afternoon following their Edinburgh exhibition, to have a meal before the long drive home to the Highlands. Tommy and I sat with the drinks I’d bought us whilst Malcolm went to check out the food menu on the wall behind the bar. I watched him wander over, doing his usual shuffle, several daily papers stuffed into his pockets, and talking to himself “hmm pie ‘n chips, no , hm, maybe fish pie, ha fish! Well maybe steak and kidney pie?” and so on. Next thing I see is the barman shouting at Malcolm to get out. And what followed was shameful, and an insight into the prejudiced ignorance that people with any form of disability have to contend with. The contrast with our earlier exhibition experience with these two artists being celebrated will live with me forever. As will my anger.

I confronted the barman and the two giggling customers he was standing with and showing off to, and asked him what the problem was, pointing out that the two men were award-winning photographers who’d just been at their own exhibition launch. He ignored me and aggressively said “He’s drunk, he can get out”. I replied “No he’s not drunk, the only person here’s who’s not in control of himself is you.“  To which he retorted “Ok all of you out I’m not serving you, he’s drunk“.  I went back to the seat with Malcolm to where Tommy was sitting agitated and on the verge of tears, and he asked me “John why is that man throwing us out, Malcolm’s not been drinking he’s not done anything wrong?”  A good question I thought so I turned to the barman who’d followed us to ensure we actually left, and asked him to explain to Tommy why he was throwing us out.

Tommy stood looking expectantly at the barman, and put on the spot by it, the barman stammered in response, pointing to Tommy but directing his gaze to me “Well he can stay, but he’s out“, and indicated towards Malcolm.  Anyway, briefly, I got very very angry and made my feelings quite clear about ignorance, intelligence, serving the public, human rights and a lot more, and we left, with no food and with a real damper put on the end of what should have been a wonderfully celebratory day. I have to confess we left because I was on the verge of committing an assault.  It was another insight for me into the ways that people with ‘hidden disabilities’ can be discriminated against, publicly, blatantly and with complete disregard for their feelings.


Petrol pump attendant sits in hos booth with the telephone behind him on the wall which appears to be sitting on his head.

Petrol pump attendant with telephone on his head. © Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Sadly Malcolm passed away far too soon, several years later. He’d suffered a major and prolonged seizure which caused further brain damage leaving him unable to talk or walk, and with eating difficulties, but thankfully with his sense of humour still intact. Sadly his health deteriorated and he succumbed to further seizures which prematurely ended his life. Tommy continued to enjoy independent living in the community for several years, exploring far wider horizons than he’d ever imagined in the institution, until his untimely death.

However the work the two individuals produced delighted, astonished and educated me and many others, their exhibition had a bit of a life in the years afterwards and was enjoyed by many people. Today their work still attracts attention, whenever I post images on Social Media it reaffirms for viewers the vital role of art, the value of community, and the importance of documentary photography.  As time has passed these images have taken on a different meaning, crucially showing a pivotal period in West Highland economic history as industry such as the Corpach Paper Mill closed, overlapping with the rise of marine aquaculture.

The two men’s ‘local’ status also meant they were familiar to many of the subjects of their photographs, in fact several of those photographed were old school pals of Malcolm, some were drinking buddies, others frequenters of the betting shop Malcolm occasionally worked in, allowing some wonderful friendly interactions as they teased him gently about his new career as an artist! As a consequence the two men have created a record of ordinary working people who make up a community, and done so with a degree of insight that I doubt any ‘outside’ photographer could have achieved.

These two men have produced a significant body of work and the least I can do is scan more of it, post it, celebrate our small community, and celebrate also their photographic endeavours. The project title I chose 40 years ago was “Inside The Fort” a play on words describing ‘The Fort’, the affectionate name we locals call Fort William, and ‘Inside’ because in many ways these two men, simply by accident of birth, had in some ways been excluded. I felt that through undertaking this work they might be able to more easily be “Inside The Fort”.  And I think they succeeded. In showing us ‘their’ community as they saw it, they simply showed us our community.


Railway office woman staff member clowns around squashing her face and agasint the window glass and grinning at the photographer who is outside.

Railway office staff clowning around. © Malcolm McPhee/Inside The Fort

I’ve said it before and offer no apologies for saying it again: Photography is a remarkable activity. Cameras can open doors into new areas of experience that would otherwise be closed to you. But the process of becoming a photographer, and the act of doing photography, can change you in ways you cannot even imagine. These two men were chosen pretty much at random, and had no previous experience of photography, yet with modest support to explore their creativity they produced some remarkably perceptive work, and grew considerably as a result. How many other similar individuals, dismissed as having a ‘disability’, are denied this opportunity, and how much poorer are we as a society as a consequence?

Prejudice builds on the very few differences that separate us. Creativity can unite us on the basis of the far greater amount we have in common.

Creativity is more than just an indulgence, it’s a vital part of being alive.



The images below are by Tommy Sutherland, then Malcolm’s are further down. There are far more images by Tommy than by Malcolm. Tommy used a small Ricoh AF compact which proved a great success, enabling far more images in focus and correctly exposed. The Auto Focus function  removed the focus difficulties and enabled more spontaneous image-making. Malcolm used a Miranda SLR on occasion initially but most often used a Nikon FM2 with a wideangle lens, and whilst this wide lens provided better depth-of-field in some circumstances, in others the need to manually focus quickly proved of lesser interest to Malcolm than having an animated blether with people! Consequently although Malcolm had a great social interaction experiences on each outing, his in-focus success rate was a bit lower. There were also occasions when due to his somewhat erratic lifestyle he might not show up when expected and so I would only have Tommy for certain visits. However the quantity of images the two men made is really not important, what matters is the experience they had, the social and creative rewards they earned, and the sheer quality of the images they produced.



Chemist ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Supermarket assistant ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Kebab shop owner ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Fishmonger ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Camera shop assistant ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Distillers, Ben Nevis Distillery ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Distillers, Ben Nevis Distillery ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


The Excise Man monitors the distillers, Ben Nevis Distillery ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Distillery worker, Ben Nevis Distillery ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort



Car salesman, Macrae & Dick ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort



Scotrail staff ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Local Council solicitor ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Hydro Electric shop assistant ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Swimming pool lifeguard ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Process worker, Corpach Paper Mill ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Process worker, Corpach Paper Mill ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Process worker, Corpach Paper Mill ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Process worker, Corpach Paper Mill ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Process worker, Corpach Paper Mill ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Process worker, Corpach Paper Mill ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Marine Harvest fish processing plant ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Ferryman, Corran Ferry ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Ferryman, Corran Ferry ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Dentist ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Process worker, Corpach Paper Mill ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Process worker, Corpach Paper Mill ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Scotrail train driver ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Knitwear shop assistants ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Gift shop assistant ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Builder ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Petrol pump attendant ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Scottish Ambulance Service manager ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Scottish Ambulance Service manager ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Fellow workers admire Social Services minibus driver ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Swimming pool attendant ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Travel agent ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Fellow workers admire Librarians ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Hair & beauty shop assistant ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Chemist shop assistant ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Fish processor, Marine Harvest ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort


Forestry Commission tree feller ©Tommy Sutherland/Inside The Fort




The images below are all by Malcolm MacPhee.


Ferryman, Corran Ferry ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Minister ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Policeman ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Forestry Commission worker ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Forestry Commission office staff ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Forestry Commission mechanic ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Process worker, Corpach paper mill ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Process worker, Corpach paper mill ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Process worker, Corpach paper mill ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Fish processor, Marine Harvest ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Marine Harvest hatchery staff ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Mechanic (this is Malcolm’s brother Neil) ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Librarian ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Cook in care home for the elderly ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


Area Hydro Electric Senior engineer & JP ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


GP in local practice ©Malcolm MacPhee/Inside The Fort


To give you some insight into the process, here’s some images I took of the two men at work with their cameras. The sheer fun they had should be obvious!


Tommy at the Marine Harvest processing facility © John MacPherson/Inside The Fort


Malcolm at the Marine Harvest processing facility © John MacPherson/Inside The Fort


Malcolm joking with Kate at the Marine Harvest facility © John MacPherson/Inside The Fort


Tommy photographing the busker in Fort William underpass © John MacPherson/Inside The Fort


Tommy photographing at Scotrail goods yard © John MacPherson/Inside The Fort


Tommy and Malcolm photographing at Scotrail offices © John MacPherson/Inside The Fort


Tommy photographing at Scotrail offices © John MacPherson/Inside The Fort


Malcolm photographing at Marine Harvest © John MacPherson/Inside The Fort


Malcolm getting teased about his love of whisky at Ben Nevis Distillery with distillery staff and the Excise Man © John MacPherson/Inside The Fort

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 (2 Comments)

  1. Shelley says:

    This is, without doubt, the most important, beautiful article I’ve read in a long time. Please let me know if you can buy any of the photography. Tommy and Malcolm’s work is just wonderful.
    I work with homeless guys in the North East. People can often misjudge and assume. I have always found our guys to be the warmest, most thoughtful of humans. Golden, aware, kind.

    • Hi Shelley – thats very kind of you! It’s quite remarkable how enduring this work has been and the attention it’s gathered. I just wish we (society) would give more marginalised people the opportunity to be creative.
      Keep doing what you’re doing, it matters and makes a difference!

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