In the Lay of the Land

Edinburgh-based photographer Mhairi Law tells The Island Review about her project, In the Lay of the Land, and how it opened up new ways of understanding what life on the Isle of Lewis means for a group of young people.
 

The Isle of Lewis has been a part of my life since I was wee. My introduction to the island was through a jumble of music, art, exploring, storytelling and good company. And of course, like anyone else who visits these parts, I am constantly blown away by the raw beauty of the Hebridean landscape.

In the Lay of the Land focuses on four young people who have chosen to make Lewis their home. When growing up in the Scottish Borders, I began to realise that my own perception of the island was perhaps different to those my age who had never been to, or even heard of Lewis.

People might ask: Doesn’t everyone leave if you grow up on an island? What do people even do up there? It would be foolish to generalise. As with any rural community, I am aware that many young folk leave the island seeking further education and opportunities, and that many don't return. However, I feel there is little representation for the young, enterprising people who live and work on these islands through choice. Giving them a voice was the main drive for my project.

Each subject in these images lives and works on Lewis. Between them lies a host of skills and occupations: A teacher and manager at the Scaladale Outdoor Centre on Harris; a business owner and maker of tweed creations in Stornoway; a skipper, carpenter and joiner; a bike hire business owner and joiner. These are their skills and jobs, but it is not the only tie that each of them have to the island.

It became clear to me that one of the main reasons these people live on Lewis is because of their proximity to the land. More than once it was described to me as their 'playground' and I can see why. To be a stones-throw away from a walk in the hills or a beach, sea-cliff climbing, sailing, mountain biking or kayaking is a serious draw. Although some people may feel that the surround of the sea is a claustrophobic limitation, for many it gives a sense of freedom.

The thought that islands are 'edge places' or away from the centre of things is a question that I hoped to explore through making these images. What I have discovered on Lewis is an important sense of community, tradition and enterprise. This, more than anything, I feel presents Lewis as a centre in its own right, and not somewhere stuck on the cultural periphery. Nor do the islands solely come into their own as a tourist destination, as often perceived. It is dangerously easy to romanticise island life, and I have tried to avoid this in my image-making.

Although I have always felt I had a strong familiarity with the island, through working on In the Lay of the Land I began to experience Lewis in a different way: I was questioning; I was observing. I feel privileged that these people shared their home with me, and I thank them. What I discovered was the kindness and welcome of their community. I would tell anyone I know to go see the beaches, rent a bike, take a climb, admire the latest tweed creation, go and engage with what this island and its people have to offer – because I know they will receive the same welcome as I did.

The poem that accompanies these images was written by Ian Stephen, a Lewis poet and storyteller. The culture of poetry and storytelling and its continuing presence on Lewis is something that fascinates me, and it felt important to include an aspect of this tradition within the project. In the coming months I will be developing my work for a collaborative exhibition at An Lanntair in Stornoway in October 2015.

Mhairi Law lives and works in Edinburgh, where she studied photography, film and television at the city’s Stevenson College (now Edinburgh College) in 2009, then graduated with Honours from the Photography and Film course at Edinburgh Napier University in July 2014. Her work has been exhibited at the 'Free Range' exhibitions in London, and in September 2014 she was awarded a residency with the Stills Centre for Photography in Edinburgh. In December 2014 she will exhibit her work at the Futureproof exhibition at the Streetlevel Gallery in Glasgow.

More work can be seen on her website: mlawphotography.com