April Salon Event – Skye!

To mark the end of our exhibition at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery, The Ties That Bind – we are off on the road again to present our work and work by photographers we admire to new audiences in Scotland. April 27th will see us in Skye – at the wonderful ATLAS Arts – if you’re nearby please do come along and join us.

The event is free – as ever – and all are welcome – see more information here

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See ATLAS Arts website at www.atlasarts.org.uk

Thank you to Creative Scotland and The University of St Andrews Special Collections for funding this Document Scotland Salon event.

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A’ Fàgail na Dachaigh: Leaving Home

Bed Springs, Lewis, 2012, © Ian Paterson

 

Ian Paterson and John Maher are two photographers who found themselves covering the same subject matter in the Hebrides and decided it would be best to join forces and present their work as a joint exhibition and potential book. Document Scotland, a great believer in photographers finding common cause and pooling resources, wanted to find out more about their inspiring and very different take on the social history of  the Western Isles.

Paterson and Maher’s exhibition, “‘A’ Fàgail na Dachaigh: Leaving Home’”, has just opened at An Lanntair,in Stornoway. This choice of venue is supremely apt as the photography concentrates on the interiors of abandoned croft houses strewn across the Western Hebrides. Rusty cars, dissolving into peaty landscapes are well known in this part of the world, but less well known are the scores of stony croft houses which fell into disrepair when owners vacated them in the post-war movement of Islanders to towns and cities elsewhere in Scotland, but also abroad.

John Maher, an Englishman, who used to be in the band The Buzzcocks, moved to Harris several years ago and became a photographer. Paterson is from Fife and has been making regular visits to the Hebrides to try and capture the sense of sadness and loss that pervades these ruins. Document Scotland caught up with Ian recently and got him to explain his fascination with the abandoned croft homes of the Western Isles.

Absent, North Uist, 2012  (c) Ian Paterson

Absent, North Uist, 2012 © Ian Paterson

 

It’s difficult to remember my first visit since it was many years ago, in the 1980’s, and I very much regarded these homes as a normal part of the Hebridean landscape. I’ve always been aware of them but only relatively recently decided to take photographs. It is always an incredibly emotive experience going into a house for the very first time. I usually spend a good 20-30 minutes just taking things in before the camera comes out. It is impossible to be in these sorts of locations without stopping and thinking about the family that used to live there. I’ve described the experience before as ‘Marie-Celestial’, if you’ll allow me to invent a phrase.

The houses we have photographed have been empty anytime from the 1960’s to within the last decade. Houses that have been empty for longer than this tend to have very little left in the way of evidence of habitation.The reasons for leaving vary but are often economic in nature. The general depopulation of the islands throughout the last century (mainly on account of a lack of economic opportunity in comparison with the mainland) has to be the principal cause. There is also the more local situation whereby a family would find it cheaper and easier to create a ‘new build’ house on a more suitable part of the croft rather than renovate the existing property. Many of the original houses were built before the road system, near the water’s edge, with boat being the main method of transportation. There is no intended political message about land management and/or ownership. We are purely interested in documenting these wonderful spaces for what they represent to the people of the islands. It is not an area we are ignorant of though, being acutely aware of the various community buyout programs that have taken place and are presently under negotiation. Our sole purpose is to preserve a visual record, with accompanying memoirs, of a small proportion of the houses that now lie empty up and down the Western Isles.

Table and Chairs, Lewis, 2013  (c) Ian Paterson

Table and Chairs, Lewis, 2013 ©  Ian Paterson

 

Clock and Mirror, Harris, 2012  (c) Ian Paterson

Clock and Mirror, Harris, 2012 © Ian Paterson

We’ve actually had fantastic support from both locals, and previous tenants, on seeing the photographs online. To be honest we were expecting some negative feedback too, with the subject matter being of such a sensitive nature. After all, not everyone will have only happy memories and there are some who may not want to be reminded of harder times at all. Several previous occupants of houses (some whose families still own the crofts) have been in touch having seen them on Facebook or our exhibition website. We cannot thank these individuals enough for taking the time to get in touch and we’re hoping to meet some of them at the opening this weekend. We’ve also received very emotional messages from people who left the islands for the New World 30-40 years ago and for whom the images represent a trip down memory lane. I’m sure there will also be people who do not like the idea of what the project embodies, and this is completely understandable too. We have tried incredibly hard to talk with family members and locals at every step of the process, and to be honest without their support we probably would not have been able to put together the exhibition at An Lanntair.

Blue Bedroom, South Uist, 2012  (c) Ian Paterson

Blue Bedroom, South Uist, 2012 © Ian Paterson

We don’t open cupboards or move furniture around so we only see what lies in front of us but the two most common items that we come across seem to be old shoes and dead sheep! In fact my young son Cameron asked me why they didn’t just make the houses out of the stuff the old shoes are made from since then they would last forever. Old black and white photographs were present in several of the houses with many depicting naval scenes, many of the menfolk from these crofting families after WWII would have gone off to the Merchant Navy. A house I photographed a few years ago on South Uist had a copy of a Burlingtons fashion catalogue dated 1962 lying on the bed in a wee back room. The pages were bone dry and the colours in the magazine were as if they’d been printed yesterday. Other items we’ve come across include an old cine film projector, TV sets, outboard motors, Gaelic bibles and old telephones.

There was one situation last year when I’d been in a house for about an hour photographing a room, trying to get different compositions and playing around with perspective. Out of nowhere there was the sound of someone crashing down the stairs in the centre of the house. I panicked and shouted out my name and purpose by way of an introduction – to be completely ignored by the Scottish Blackface ewe that tore passed me!

‘Leaving Home’ will run from Saturday 9th November until 31st of December at An Lanntair, Stornoway.
 

Bedroom, Harris, 2012  (c) Ian Paterson

Bedroom, Harris, 2012 © Ian Paterson

 

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As You Are in North Ronaldsay

On a brilliantly bright, icy cold, winter Sunday afternoon recently I caught up with Giulietta Verdon Roe  over coffee and cake.

I knew that Giulietta had made several visits to the remote Scottish island of North Ronaldsay over a number of years to create a documentary photographic project of the population and character of the island. I was really interested to hear how her photographic project As You Are had begun and why, and what it had been like making the work. The relationships she established with the island inhabitants over time culminated in a body of work which has been exhibited in numerous locations in the UK including The Manse House on the island itself. In an ex-Royal Mail van, Giulietta drove the exhibition from London to Orkney and, due to a storm preventing the ferry taking her work to the island from the mainland, had to freight plane the entire show to the island.

With freezing hands that afternoon we looked through her box of prints and chatted about what had attracted her to the project in the first place.

John O ' Westness, Bay of Ryasgeo, North Ronaldsay 2008

John O ‘ Westness, The only fisherman on North Ronaldsay, doesn’t have a working boat, Bay of Ryasgeo, North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2008 all rights reserved.

 

GVR: “I’d been living and working in New York for three years and in 2007 I found myself unexpectedly back in the UK. Maps have always fascinated me, I’ve always been drawn to the romance of far away places and after living in NYC I’d found myself looking, this time, to those out of the way places which were a little closer to home.

It appealed to me that for this project I would be constrained to a specific location when making the work. I began researching remote places in the UK and my attention was drawn again and again to Orkney and to North Ronaldsay in particular. Being the furthest most northernly island in the UK, it was its isolation which first fascinated me, that and the fact that it is home to both to the tallest land based lighthouse in the UK and had unique seaweed eating sheep. I bought a tent and booked my flight.

In 2008 I set off. Arriving on the island alone, I didn’t know what to expect.  the first thing that struck me was that island life is utterly dependent on the weather. By the time I’d pitched my tent that first night in North Ronaldsay in September it was cold, windy and dark and I was wondering what on earth I was doing…

I’d romanticised the idea perhaps, an island adventure, far away. My photographic process took quite a few days to begin, and it was almost 2 weeks before I made any pictures, I was interested in the stories and so I walked, and I met people and I talked to them, eventually borrowing an old bike to get around.

The conversations were what came first, with the photographs coming relatively late in the process. I was interested in understanding the everyday life of the island, of understanding how things worked there, I wanted to explore the past, present and future of the island and its community. The locals were used to ornithologists visiting, but not so used to people like me, someone who wanted to know about them and the land. It took time for a mutual understanding and confidence to start to become established.”

Heading towards Bridesness, North Ronaldsay, 2010.

Heading towards Bridesness, North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

 

GVR: “Island life is all about the weather. You are at the mercy of it. I felt very aware of my size in relation to the elements, the vulnerability of everything. I felt that I couldn’t make portraits without shooting the elements. The people are so much part of the landscape, it meant that I didn’t want to photograph the people without photographing the land.”

Jennie O' Scottigar, The oldest lady on the island when this was taken, bringing in her washing, 2008, North Ronaldsay.

Jennie O’ Scottigar, The oldest lady on the island when this was taken, bringing in her washing, North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

 

GVR “One interesting aspect of community life on North Ronaldsay is that people adopt the names of their houses, as a way to refer to each other. Jenny’s house was O’Scottigar, and that was how she became known. We spent a lot of time talking, We talked about the war, she remembers walking to school with her gas mask in her hand and how heavy it was. She was born on the island and didn’t leave its shores until she was in her very late teens.”

Point of Twingness, Seaweed eating sheep, North Ronaldsay. 2010

Point of Twingness, Seaweed eating sheep, North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

 

GVR “The seaweed eating sheep are unique to North Ronaldsay, they are kept out to shore by a 12 mile long dry stone dyke that surrounds the island. There are about 3000 of them and they’re quite beautiful and wild, nearly everyone has some sheep of their own. Twice a year, there is an event that I have yet to see, it’s called Punding and its one of the oldest forms of communal farming still practised today. The whole community help round up the sheep into pens known as ‘punds’, once a year to separate the pregnant ewes from the flock to keep them on the land for lambing and at another time of year to sheer their coats and give them their injections.”

(Heather O' Twingness), Nouster Bay, North Ronaldsay.

(Heather O’ Twingness), Nouster Bay, North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

 

GVR “Heather was the youngest female on the island when I photographed her in 2010. She is the daughter of the island doctor and the owner of the islands Bird Observatory. Heather commutes to mainland Orkney to go to school.”

The population of North Ronaldsay when I first arrived in 2008 was 63, just 2 years later in 2010 when I re-visited the project the population had dropped to 50. In a small community like this, this was a big change and the school was left temporarily without any children to teach despite being kept open. The orkney island council built two new houses on the island in response to the situation and launched a promotion to select two new families to move to the island, which was a great boost to the community and resulted in putting children back into the school.”

(The Manse), North Ronaldsay.

(The Manse), North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

 

“I exhibited the ‘As You Are’ exhibition in this house in 2010. At that time it was un-lived in and had been empty for 40 years, but since then the islands school teacher has moved in and there is now new life in the building, it’s been brought back into habitation again. There’s been so much change. It’s also an important place for me as the exhibition was shown here. By seeing the exhibition, I’d hoped the islanders could really understand the project. It’s one thing to see the work online or as small images but to see yourself in a 30″x30″ print is a very different thing.”

(Jimmie O'Lochend). On his roof of Lochend, fixing his chimney. North Ronaldsay.

Jimmie O’Lochend on his roof of Lochend, fixing his chimney. North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

Gavin O'Twingness). The youngest islander when this was taken, pictured here in a bird catching cage in order to ring and monitor birds. He has just put out some North Ronadlsay Mutton Bones down to attract the birds. 2010.

Gavin O’Twingness). The youngest islander when this was taken, in a bird catching cage in order to ring and monitor birds.
He has just put out some North Ronadlsay Mutton Bones down to attract the birds.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

Lighthouse and Moon, the UK's Tallest Land Based Lighthouse. North Ronaldsay. Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2008 all rights reserved.

Lighthouse and Moon, the UK’s Tallest Land Based Lighthouse. North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2008 all rights reserved.

Jen in the Wool Mill.

Jen in the Wool Mill processing some of the islands native sheep wool. Many islanders have multiple jobs, Jen worked at the Bird Observatory, was an ornithologist and also work part-time at the islands yarn mill. North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

Byre, North Ronaldsay, 2010. A native North Ronaldsay sheep whose lamb has died 'not taking' to a non-native orphaned lamb. North Ronaldsay. Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

Byre, North Ronaldsay, 2010. A native North Ronaldsay sheep whose lamb has died ‘not taking’ to a non-native orphaned lamb. North Ronaldsay.
Photograph © Giulietta Verdon-Roe 2010 all rights reserved.

 

GVR: “Whenever I met people they would always ask where I wanted to take their portrait and if they should get dressed up or how they should be posed. So in a way the project named itself as I always explained I want to photograph you the way you are, just as you are.

I loved working in Scotland, it really became a huge part of my life and one that was important to me. It has meant that I have gone on to do other projects in other areas of Scotland and I am also planning future ones too. I now for example cannot watch a weather forecast without looking at Orkney. Just as the environment is so wild and changeable, so can my feelings and emotions be when I am there. Sometimes I loved it, and sometimes I just couldn’t place what on earth I was doing, but more importantly I’ve been left with a powerful relationship with the area.”

 

Many thanks Giulietta for talking to Document Scotland about this project. To see more of Giulietta Verdon-Roe’s photography visit http://www.giuliettaverdon-roe.com/#/home

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Easdale’s World Stone Skimming Championships

Last week, the island of Easdale was in the news about a threat to a world-class sporting event held on its square mile of craggy slate anchored off the Argyll coast. Apparently the island’s owner wanted to cancel the island’s premier sporting event of the season, the World Stone Skimming Championships, for not providing a large sum of money to indemnify him against any claims leading from the event. Thankfully a  last-minute deal was brokered and so  I decided to go along and see what these elite athletes from the stone skimming world were up to.

Easdale Island image © Stephen McLaren 2012 all rights reserved.

 

The World Stone Skimming Championships began in earnest in 1997 and were founded by the Eilean Eisdeal (The Easdale Island Community Development Group) as a fundraising event. The island’s now-abandoned slate quarry makes it the obvious place to hold a world championship in this field and after some canny marketing and healthy PR, contestants now hail from around the world and the event attracts over 300 participants.

Easdale Island image © Stephen McLaren 2012 all rights reserved.

Easdale Island image © Stephen McLaren 2012 all rights reserved.

The rules of the World Stone Skimming Championships are rigourous. Stones must be no more than 3 inches in diameter and formed of Easdale slate. The stone must bounce no less than 3 times and skims are judged on the distance thrown rather than the number of bounces.

The competition is split into Ladies, Men, Junior Boys and Girls and Under 10s Boys and Girls categories. There is also the Old Tosser section for senior stone skimmers.

Easdale Island image © Stephen McLaren 2012 all rights reserved.

Easdale Island image © Stephen McLaren 2012 all rights reserved.

This year’s event seemed to benefit from the news attention it received in the preceding week and the cliffs surrounding the quarry were jammed full of participants, their supporters and curious punters like myself. The quarry’s walls resounded with throaty cheers and the bellowing of stern officials. It got me thinking that odd, and faintly ridiculous events like these, are a clever way for small Scottish communities to open their arms to tourists and raise a few bob from a new generation of outdoor sporting trials. The world’s first crazy golf tournament, set in some entrepreneurial Scottish seaside town, must surely be on the horizon.

Easdale Island image © Stephen McLaren 2012 all rights reserved.

Easdale Island image © Stephen McLaren 2012 all rights reserved.

Easdale Island image © Stephen McLaren 2012 all rights reserved.

Easdale Island image © Stephen McLaren 2012 all rights reserved.

 

 

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