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.
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.
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.
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.