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.
Two Parallel Universes
It is almost impossible here, on the Isle of Lewis and Harris, not to take beautiful images of landscape. The scale and elemental nature of the landscape, coupled with the wide open fetch of ocean to the west, bringing dramatic weather and light, make picture ‘taking’ easy.
Reading, On The Other Side of Sorrow, Nature and People in the Scottish Highlands by James Hunter, I was struck by this simple quote:
…if you want to understand the Highlands - instead of simply looking at them - you have to start by accepting that very little hereabouts is as nature intended. And this can be unsettling.
Is it possible to simply look, with nothing informing how we look? And what, if anything, informs how we look at the Highlands?
In Photographers of The Western Isles, Martin Padget uses a neat phrase, something along the lines of ‘viewing the Highlands through the lens of Sir Walter Scott’s writing’.
Seeing, through language - seeing, through literature - seeing, through history.
The iconic images of the Highlands of Scotland that we hold in our collective imagination, are shaped by Scott, his predecessor James MacPherson and others of the Celtic twilight movement. Images infused with romance. Images skirting history, politics and ecology.
As the Highlands transitioned abruptly from feudalism to landlordism, the instrumental market in wool, and the later fashion for sporting estates replete with the Disney-esque fantasy of living like a Highland Chieftain, has resulted over the last 200 years, in depopulation and in some areas, deforestation and soil erosion.
That stark, unpopulated Highland image that we know, is infact, screaming its history.
But reception is key.
‘…it was all too easy for people to visualise the Highlands not as the Highlands actually were but as MacPherson had imagined them to be. When, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, therefore, their homeland became the setting for poems and romances even more successful than MacPherson’s, Highlanders found themselves condemned to live simultaneously, as it were, in two parallel universes. One of these universes was the genuinely matter of fact Highlands which was characterised by clearance, poverty and growing social dislocation. In the alternative Highlands, on the other hand, these things did not impinge. Their history, if it had not exactly ended, had become stuck firmly in an era which, if a bit more recent than the Ossianic one, was equally escapist.’
The reality of the Highlands and the Outer Hebrides, Highlander and Gael, is much more complex and deserves more than an image of romanticised landscape and quasi-mystical people.
In 1822, when Sir Walter Scott invented Scotland for George IV, when many elements of suppressed Highland culture were appropriated, to stand in for and represent all of Scotland and Scottishness, another phenomena was sweeping the West of Scotland and The Western Isles, The Year of the Swooning.
A kind of hysteria was sweeping Scottish Gaeldom, riding on the back of Christian Evangelism.
Are the two phenomenon unrelated? Was this hysteria the psychic expression of a cultural wound?
While Edinburgh literati donned faux Highland dress, the Highlands were decimated by ‘clearance, poverty and growing social dislocation.’.
‘…nothing did more to ensure the commercial success of James MacPherson’s Highlanders than the fact that their same Highlanders were safely dead and buried. You cannot very well romanticise a people who might be about to endanger your existence.’.
Cut to now.
I’m living and working on the Isle of Harris. It’s early spring. The weather is ferocious. The ferry service is cancelled on an unusually regular basis, leading to murmured fears that the Harris service might be cut back; heavy investment has recently been made in the Stornoway to Ullapool route.
I work alongside mainly itinerant workers, some from mainland Scotland, some from Eastern Europe and a handful of locals. I have my second taxi driving test to take in the next month, which I will, but realistically I’m not sure how possible it is to live here on minimum wage, with rent, food and bills to pay.
Still, it’s a pretty photo I took, eh.