My Documenting Britain project will be a series of portraits of native Gaelic speakers living on the Isle of Lewis and Harris. During the period of the project, I will live on the island and work as a taxi driver.
Last February I undertook a rushed journey from the South of France to the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. My uncle had died.
John Norman Macleod was one of six siblings, and of those six, he was also one of three who were born deaf. Visits to my grandmother’s home involved rapid shifts between English, Gaelic and sign language. Unlike his other two siblings who had attended a school for the deaf in Edinburgh, John did not have formal sign language but instead used what is called in d/Deaf culture, ‘home sign’, a language which is particular to a family.
By the time my uncle was old enough to attend school in Edinburgh, the Second World War had broken out; children were being evacuated from the bigger cities, not being sent to them. When the war ended and the education officer came to fetch my uncle, he simply refused to go.
During those years when he should have been in education, he spent his days out on the hill, often by himself, or with one of the working dogs from the croft for company. I’ve often wondered how it must have been for him, growing up without formal language to structure his thought.
John was a quick witted man whose passion was fishing, and he was good at it. Fishing on Harris was not simply a leisure pastime, it was woven into day to day life. I wondered how his way of being affected the immediacy of his perception and the massive role that observation played in his learning.
My uncle has always represented for me instinct, rebelliousness and the capacity for unfettered intelligence to thrive. I cannot deny the challenges that he faced, his status as an outsider, the loneliness he experienced, the opportunities that were never available to him. But it is with John in mind that I begin new work in Lewis and Harris, hoping that I might bring with me some of his determined spirit, and hoping that I might find something of him in the places that he loved to be.