By Alex Boyd
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 writer 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 cover so much of the land. 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 to the islands, I wrongly 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 north-west 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 firsthand the islands I had come to know largely through the eyes of photographers such as Werner Kissling, Margaret Fay Shaw, Robert Moyes Adams, 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, chemistry and rust collected from the land. The place would leave a deep impression on me. I would become a convert to the Outer Hebrides, for a while describing them in the same breathless way which has become so familiar when others talk about them.
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 and 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 part of the curatorial team there. 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 I stayed in during 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 what feels like 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. It 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.
I did not intend to make a book on island life, or to comment on how things are done on the there: instead I kept a visual diary of my time. The book which has resulted is a collection of photographic sketches I made while living on Lewis, not as a touristic guide, but more as a journal 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 its mountains, moors and lochs. The island as palimpsest. From ancient settlements, to cleared townships, to more contemporary structures which reflect the detritus of the Anthropocene.
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 and thinking. I’m greatly honoured by the opportunity to include his words alongside my images, and I have tried my best not to deviate from his direction to ‘Emphasise the contrast between natural grandeur and scrap squalor’. Images of the Callanish Stones stand beside rusting car springs, sweeping bays alongside inverted cars, abandoned croft houses complimented by the hills of Lewis. My only consideration of Instagram audiences for this project was to omit images of fragile places on the islands - of beehive shielings for example. The negative consequences of social media and mass tourism are well known, which made me question which places should not feature among the pages of Isle of Rust. Some places should only be slowly revealed, others should be protected.
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 are some portraits of friends among the landscapes - those who have moved to the place, all 'incomers' but now thoroughly adopted by the local community.
In these photographs 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 of a local fisherman 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.
Excerpt taken from the introductory essay of Alex Boyd’s new book The Isle of Rust, published by Luath Press.
Readers of The Island Review can purchase copies of the book here at a discounted price.
Alex Boyd is a landscape and documentary photographer. His work has been widely exhibited internationally with solo exhibitions at the Scottish Parliament, as well as group exhibitions at the Royal Academy, Royal Ulster Academy and Royal Scottish Academy. His work is held in the collections of the National Galleries of Scotland, The Royal Photographic Society, the Royal Scottish Academy, the V&A and the Yale Centre for British Arts in the US. His first book St Kilda – The Silent Islands was shortlisted for a Saltire Award. More of his work can be found here.