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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Why I Took this Picture ….. Mary – by Sophie Gerrard

Mary at home on her farm in Crieff, rural Perthshire from the series Drawn To The Land © Sophie Gerrard 2013, all rights reserved.


Spring 2013 was one of the coldest on record – it almost never really came. Farmers all over Scotland were concerned and anxious that by mid April, there was still no sign of grass,  that’s pretty much unheard of. 15 foot snow drifts on Arran over Easter and -5 degrees recorded in Fort William added to the worry. It was an extremely testing time for farmers as they tried to look after sheep out on the hill giving birth into what should be warmer weather with fresh spring grass to feed on.

As I’ve started to spend more time in the Scottish landscape and take more photographs over the last year or so I’ve found myself drawn to stories of human relationships with the land and the emotional connections. The more I’ve started to engage with issues concerning our Scottish landscape – the more I’ve felt drawn to look at them through the eyes of women- purely because I think its something that’s not often represented. When you look to farming all over the world – women play a hugely important role – in Scotland the same applies.

Mary runs a farm in Perthshire which has been tenanted by her family since the early 1900s. Whilst spending time with her she talked passionately and emotionally about her relationship with the farm and the landscape. The day I made this picture we’d just finished spent going round the farm checking on the pregnant ewes. The ground was frozen solid, there was no fresh grass, Mary had fed everyone by hand and checked all were alright. We’d been blown about, got muddy and dirty, crossed swollen rivers, driven up into the snow for the high fields, and returned back to the house to warm up. I took this picture as we stood at her kitchen window looking over the farm….

“I see myself not as a landowner but as custodian of this beautiful place, I feel I have an moral obligation and responsibility to leave it as good if not better than it was when I came here. I never felt forced into farming. I was told it was here if I wanted it, it’s in my blood. I can’t imagine having done anything else and I think it’d be extremely difficult to do this work otherwise. It’s not an inviting industry for young women to enter into however and the average age of a farmer now is 58. The farm is the most important thing, it’s really the only thing as far as I’m concerned. I want to leave this place in a box, and I’m left with a dilemma now that neither of my daughters are interested in the farm. ”


Sophie’s photograph, and others from her series, ‘Drawn To The Land’, can be seen at Fotospace Gallery, Rothes Halls, Glenrothes, as part of the ‘Seeing Ourselves’ exhibition, which is curated by Document Scotland. The exhibition continues until August 1st 2013.
Document Scotland’s latest newspaper, which accompanies the exhibition, can be bought via our publications page.

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