‘I photographed things as I found them. There are no attempts to create postcard images, no specialist filters, no long exposures of the incoming tide at Luskentyre, no misguided attempts to create anthropological studies of the islanders. There is only the available light, and the colours as my eyes experienced them.’
Extract from Isle of Rust: A Portrait of Lewis & Harris
By Alex Boyd
Published by Luath Press
There are many names for the island known as Lewis and Harris (Leòdhas agus na Hearadh), from the poetic the Heather Isle (Eilean an Fhraoich) to the more prosaic the Long Island (an t-Eilean Fada). A few islanders – no doubt affectionately – refer to the third largest island in the British Isles as The Rock. It is a name that does this most diverse of landscapes and habitats something of a disservice, as it so much more than just an outcrop of metamorphic gneiss, granite, basalt and sandstone on the Atlantic edge of Europe.
To my mind, no sobriquet is more apt than that given over a decade ago by Jonathan Meades, who provided us with the title Isle of Rust in his landmark BBC film of the same name. This name, of course, not only refers to the countless corroding tractors, weaving sheds and other visible signs of human settlement but also to the colours of the land: the reds of deergrass and the purple moor grass which make up so much of the moorland. It is a place of great contrast in both light and land, from the largely flat peatlands of Lewis, where the majority of islanders make their home, to the mountains of Harris that rise abruptly in the south, marking out the rocky landscapes so different to the north of the island. It is in settlements nestled in bays and natural harbours or stretched out along seemingly endless coastal roads that Scotland’s largest concentration of Gaelic speakers can be found. It is a place where old traditions such as peat cutting, weaving and crofting sit alongside the modern demands of island life.
I grew up in the Lowlands of Scotland and until I went there, I thought of the Outer Hebrides as being on the edge of the periphery, a place of barren windswept landscapes, of fishing fleets riding high seas, of croft houses and pristine white beaches – a place which had very little in common with the ordered and picturesque farmlands of my native Ayrshire and the once thriving but now rapidly declining coastal towns of the west of Scotland. The opportunity to visit the islands of the northwest would largely elude me until 2013, when I was offered the role of Artist-in-Residence with the Royal Scottish Academy on the Isle of Skye. Based in a studio at the University of the Highlands and Islands at Sabhal Mór Ostaig, I got my first glimpses of the Outer Hebrides while climbing along the Trotternish Ridge in the north of the island, looking west and observing a long archipelago skirting the horizon.
It was a commission to make artwork about the peatlands of Lewis that summer which finally provided me with the chance to experience first-hand the islands I had come to know largely through the eyes of photographers such as Werner Kissling, Margaret Fay Shaw, Gus Wylie and Paul Strand. I had also recently seen Jonathan Meades’ beautiful and bleak Isle of Rust. His vision of Lewis and Harris provided the inspiration for a new series of work which would combine an antique camera, chemicals and rust collected from the land. Leaving Skye to cross the calm waters of the Minch, that great sense of the unknown was further enhanced by Leaving Skye to cross the calm waters of the Minch, that great sense of the unknown was further enhanced by the play of the light – crepuscular rays of light breaking through black clouds and illuminating the Shiant islands to the north. Home to dramatic volcanic columns which bring to mind Staffa or the Giant’s Causeway, they rose from the depths like broken teeth.
Arriving in the harbour at Tarbert on Harris, I drove south, gaining my first impressions of the island as I climbed high over the pass dominated by the Clisham, the highest mountain in the archipelago and part of the range which separates Harris from Lewis. Before the introduction of the road which winds its way over hills and around boulders and lochs, this was once a journey made by sea, explaining why this single landmass has two separate and distinct communities. As I passed Loch Seaforth and the communities of South Lochs, and onward through the village of Ballalan, the rocky terrain gradually gave way to the wider moorland expanses of Lewis and it wasn’t long before I arrived in the harbour town of Stornoway where I would stay for the night.
The next morning began with an early start. I made my way across the winding moorland road to the village of Bragar, where I met local artist and archeologist Anne Campbell. We drove on together to Ness and my first introduction to the Lewis peatlands. We were joined by Anne’s enthusiastic border collie, Bran, who ran ahead of us, stopping only to dig in the mud and occasionally bark at his own reflection in the many pools of water which made up this unfamiliar landscape. In the distance, we observed only a few lonely figures out gathering peat. As we made our way deeper into the moor, with the clouds low and dark above and a featureless horizon beyond, I started to feel a slight sense of oppression, peculiar in such an open landscape. Perhaps it was partly to do with being disorientated, the damp and humid conditions or my first encounter with Lewis’s many insects that flew curiously around us, occasionally biting.
Lining the sides of the road I noticed the many peat banks stretching out towards the water’s edge, the marks of the shovels still apparent. Above them, small stacks of peat awaited collection, laid out in herringbone patterns or scattered around the landscape in rows. Further up the track, we examined peat cut by machine, which, instead of having a pleasing briquette form, was heaped up in piles of cracked and broken cylinders due to being bored from the land. Having seen the industrial-scale destruction that such machines have wrought on the moors of Ireland, Anne and I remarked that they should be banned entirely from the moor. As we began to gain height, we could see the peat road dropping below to reveal a small valley dotted with an eclectic range of buildings: the shieling village of Cuidhsiadar, our destination.
Cuidhsiadar is the site of a practice once integral to island life: transhumance. Islanders would take animals out to graze on the moorland in summer, living there and collecting produce such as milk and butter, which would then help sustain them through the harsh winter months. Structures used to house people here over hundreds of years are now reduced to piles of stones. Around them are scattered a selection of much more contemporary huts, several constructed from tin and some simple wooden dwellings in various states of disrepair. In the far distance, we could see a much older turf-covered structure on the moor, but it was a modern shieling in front of us which drew the most attention. From beneath wooden panels, the vague form of one of the tour buses which used to cross the island could be discerned, gutted and then converted into a makeshift home on the moor. Open to the elements, we headed inside it for shelter and between the upholstery we noticed beds, as well as bags of peat still to be processed. The ingenuity of islanders to re-use and re-purpose items which would long since have been consigned to the scrapheap elsewhere is something I would see again and again.
Following a few days of exploring the island, visiting familiar tourist landmarks such as the standing stones of Callanish, the Broch at Dun Carloway and many journeys back and forward over the Pentland moor road, I started to get a better idea of the landscape that I was working within. Staying in a small post-war croft house in Anne’s home village of Bragar, I began to appreciate the vastness of the moor, the complete absence of trees. Visible from my kitchen window, the North Atlantic stretching uninterrupted to the west. It is an environment where individuals are quietly reminded of their place; of their own smallness in comparison to the sheer vastness of the natural world around them. It is a feeling often lost in towns and cities.
My own experience of moorland had previously been limited to my own wanderings around the south-west of Scotland and my work as a photographer on the vastness of Rannoch Moor, an area claimed to be one of the last true wild places by writers such as Robert Macfarlane, who Anne had guided across the moors of Lewis. Anne had recently published a beautiful collection called Rathad an Isein (The Bird’s Road), a moorland glossary which she had collected along with her sister Catriona, Finlay Macleod and Donald Morrisson. It gives a unique insight into how the moorland is viewed in the Gaelic imagination and experience and includes terms used by those who have worked and cut peat on the moors for many generations. Her offer to accompany me on a walk across the Lewis peatland and to spend a night in her family shieling at the heart of the island was one I immediately agreed to. In the days leading up to the walk, the weather shifted from sunny and pleasant to increasingly cloudy conditions. A change was in the air. As is not unusual on these islands, weather and storm warnings became the main topic of conversation but we decided that we would make the trip out onto the moor regardless. We could only hope that the wind and rain would stay away long enough for us to reach the shieling on the slopes of Beinn a’ Chanaich Mhoir, by the waters of Loch nan Leac.
Looking at an os map our destination seemed remarkably close – only five or six miles away – but with the ground waterlogged and marshy, every step promised to be a torturous effort. The next morning, with a heavy rucksack laden with a camera, food and camping equipment and the prospect of terrible weather and harsh terrain, I still felt energised and enthusiastic about the challenge to come. Leaving the car at the end of the track, I joined Anne and Bran, and we began to make our way along the drowned peat road towards the moor. Our path would follow along the course of the Abhainn Arnol, a shallow river which runs the length of Glen Bragar. To our right loomed Beinn Choinnich (the Hill of Kenneth) while in the distance, the distinctive pyramid form of Stacashal kept my eyes fixed on the horizon.
Passing men loading dry peat into the back of tractors, my eye was caught by something small, box-like and metallic at the edge of the riverbank. On closer inspection, Anne informed me that it was a trap for mink, which, along with hedgehogs, were introduced to the island in the 1950s and ’60s. The mink caused widespread damage to the birds of the moorland and it is only now that many of them are beginning to return in number to the moor. The story emphasises the fragile balance which often exists in such places. Our next pause on the moor was signalled by an excited bark from Bran, who started digging furiously into the peat. Anne explained that we had arrived at her own peat field and that Bran was simply imitating the actions of Anne and her sister, who still dig peat to warm their homes. It was on this site that Anne, whilst digging into a peat bank, found a wooden bowl, the earth giving it up after holding on to it for over a millennium. It was one of undoubtedly many thousands of objects that the moor has held onto, waiting for an archaeologist such as Anne to uncover it and learn something of the people who once made their home there.
It is unfortunate that, unlike the well-excavated and fascinating Céide Fields in the north-west of the Republic of Ireland, little archaeological research has gone into the north of Lewis, an area obviously rich in potential finds. It was this frustration which led Anne to return to university to study archaeology. As part of her Masters dissertation, she walked the land and recorded finds. What she uncovered added hugely to existing knowledge, yet there is still more work to be done. Whatever lies beneath the many levels of sphagnum moss is no doubt well-preserved from the elements, dating from a time when the island was warmer and more densely populated. The villages of the west side suffered worst during the Clearances, a legacy that rings in the phrase ‘Mìorun Mór nan Gall’ – ‘the great ill will of the Lowlander’ – and one I came to understand more deeply in the years to come, as I returned to Lewis to explore township after abandoned township. On a bend in the river, Anne showed me the remains of Thulachan, five grass-covered mounds which were once part of a settlement. Slowly, the river had changed course and begun to erode the site, causing one of the mounds to collapse, spilling its contents into the fast-flowing water. Anne and I explored what was left, finding only charred wood, and then continued on our way, fording the brown, peat-coloured water.
Once across, the landscape stretched out with small undulations to the far hills, with every step across the peat made carefully. I was reminded by Anne that what appears as solid ground on the moor is often treacherous terrain. At one point, my walking pole slid effortlessly down into the bog, disappearing almost completely. The fear of a misplaced step into earth which could swallow me whole helped focus my mind and I followed Anne’s barefoot steps intently. Other dangers included hidden river courses, holes and, of course, being exposed to the elements. Anne told me that on her last trip out, a lightning storm had made its way over the moor and, having known a good friend to have been struck while undertaking a similar expedition (the photographer Finn Ó Súilleabháin), my mind became intent on reaching shelter. We had been walking and exploring now for the best part of an hour. With the weather closing in, wind and rain moving visibly toward us across the open moor, we took shelter and ate a quick snack in the ruins of a shieling with no roof. Sheltering against the high walls and waiting for the rain to pass, Anne commented that this type of easterly weather is known as a ‘Red Wind’ (Gaoth an ear-dheas – Dhearg) in Gaelic. As we listened to the low wind howling around us, I occupied myself by exploring the walls of the shieling, finding rusted pots and an old kettle amongst the long grass. With a break in the rain, we pushed on, at times following the footprints left by Anne from a previous journey made a week before, her tracks still perfectly preserved in the peat.
Passing a picturesque loch ringed by sundews, we stopped by the shieling once used by Anne’s father before making our way onto the final hurdle, going over the top of Beinn Thùlagabhal. Having made it up the muddy flanks, we sat exhausted on the grassy top. Observing the wind and clouds moving quickly over the scene, I saw her family shieling for the first time. Thankfully, it was now close by and I couldn’t wait to get there and find some shelter from the elements. It wasn’t long before we had skirted the edges of Loch nan Leac and were finally sitting inside the shieling, the wind howling relentlessly around us. Having come this far, we decided to erect an improvised roof over the shieling, something Anne had done many times before. Using nothing but plastic piping it wasn’t long before she had created a rigid, skeleton-like frame, which we moved into position on the top of the structure. Standing a few metres above the ground, we teetered on the edge of the building as the wind blew us around, trying to anchor the ribs of the frame using rocks and the heaviest stones we could find. After several failed efforts we finally secured it, something which proved much easier than attaching the roof covering!
The wind caught the canvas roof like a sail, the material whipping around violently as we tried to anchor it. We both danced around the edge of the shieling trying to keep it down, the wind billowing up from the open doors below. After a long struggle – and collecting a few additional rocks – it was finally in place, yet threatened to blow off any time. The rain was now driving hard and the wind getting stronger. Bran refused to come inside the shieling, as he was terrified by the horrendous noise made by the sheets flapping and cracking violently in the wind. It sounded as if a freight train was passing overhead and, although there was only a few feet between us, Anne and I had to shout our conversation to each other. Amidst the chaos of the storm, Anne lit a fire using dried peat and boiled water that she had collected from the loch. After two cups of warm Darjeeling tea, we reached the decision that staying out on the moor in this weather was probably not advisable.
While a quick meal cooked over the peat fire, filling the shieling with smoke, I examined the walls and noticed the carvings for the first time. The oldest – from 1821 – marked the date that the shieling was rebuilt from an earlier structure and another from 1921 commemorated this date. Anne was hopeful that she might add 2021 to the walls of the shieling, which were otherwise bare, save for a carving of a deer and the initials of those who had come before, including the much-loved Gaelic poet, Peter Campbell. Looking out through the open door facing out of the wind, I gazed out onto the moor while slowly starting to warm up. Time seemed briefly to have stopped. With our meal over, we knew that there were only a few hours of light left and that if we didn’t leave soon, we would be forced to walk across the land in darkness, a prospect that could prove dangerous. Still exhausted from our exertions, we packed the roofing materials away and began our long journey back. In my tiredness, I fell into a hollow, my body sinking into a hidden river, a caochan, up to my waist. Completely unexpected, it forced me to focus. Recovering quickly, we forded a succession of rivers and made our way towards the coastline and the village of Bragar beyond. In our tired state, we still managed to make good time.
The light turned from blue to grey to black and as we finally left the moor I had to make use of a torch to see the path in front of me, very thankful that I had Anne as a guide over the unfamiliar terrain. For days after I would be reminded of the journey, as the smell of peat smoke rose again from my belongings; but the memory of experiencing the moor in all weathers I will carry with me for years to come. A few years would pass before I returned to Lewis and Harris, this time with my wife, Jessica. We were on the island to visit friends, to travel out to St Kilda where I was making images for a book, and to spend some time in Stornoway where I’d been offered an interview for a new role at An Lanntair Arts Centre as a curator and help/mentor working with artists from across the Outer Hebrides.
To my great shock, I was offered the job and it wasn’t long before we’d moved our possessions to the village of Bragar, setting up our home in that same croft house from my first visit. We would spend two years on the island, experiencing its stunning summer mornings, with mist hanging above the mirror lochs, through to its harsh winters, where wind and driving rain force you round the fire and keep you indoors for months on end. We slowly began to meet friends, mostly ‘incomers’ like ourselves who had moved to the Hebrides to experience a different way of living. We spent our time with people who had come from across the world to set up homes on Lewis and Harris and received such warmth and kindness during times of both happiness and hardship.
It is the collision of both old and new that makes the Isle of Rust so fascinating to outsiders such as myself and also provides many of the tensions for its inhabitants. It is undeniable that life on the island is changing. The gradual erosion of the influence of the Free Church of Scotland (and Free Church of Scotland Continuing) is accompanied by problems with an ever-ageing population and the greatest issue facing the Outer Hebrides today: that of depopulation, which is far above the uk average. Tourism helps to revitalise island life during the summer months but brings with it many problems, from overcrowded single track roads, to the shortage of housing brought on by second homes and holiday lets, depriving local people of places in which to raise their families. While large parts of Lewis and Harris remain in private hands as sprawling sporting estates, thankfully communities are now taking back control, most notably in Galson in Lewis and the North and West Harris Trusts.
This book then is a collection of photographic sketches I made while living on Lewis, not as a touristic guide, more as a diary made over several years and seasons. It is a visual response to Jonathan’s essay of the same name, which I often had in mind as I explored the themes of ‘Isle of Rust’ in mountains, moors and lochs. Jonathan’s writing has been highly influential on me throughout my life; his essay ‘Death to the Picturesque’ having been a particularly formative influence on my early photographic approach. I’m greatly honoured by the opportunity to include his work within this book and I have tried my best not to deviate from his direction to ‘Emphasise the contrast between natural grandeur and scrap squalor’.
The Outer Hebrides have of course long attracted photographers. However, I have chosen not to follow in the footsteps of Paul Strand, Werner Kissling, Fay Godwin, Gus Wylie and Robert Moyes Adams, who captured the island in stark monochrome, opting instead for colour. I took a truly Calvinistic approach to making images and limited myself to minimal equipment, in this case a camera and two lenses which I could carry across moors or up mountainsides. I photographed things as I found them. There are no attempts to create postcard images, no specialist filters, no long exposures of the incoming tide at Luskentyre, no misguided attempts to create anthropological studies of the islanders. There is only the available light, and the colours as my eyes experienced them. The beauty of the Hebridean landscape and light speak clearly enough without my interventions. This approach does come with its own limitations, the most challenging of which is to communicate the endless changeability of light, the sheer variety of landscape and the complex, multifaceted nature of the place.
It would, as poet Norman MacCaig once said in ‘By the Graveyard, Luskentyre’, take a volume ‘thick as the height of the Clisham’ and ‘big as the whole of Harris’ to even begin to scratch the surface of gneiss, peat and lochan.
Isle of Rust: A Portrait of Lewis & Harris by Alex Boyd is published by Luath Press, priced £20.00.