Today I visited the Outer Hebrides for the afternoon.
This shattered place, this place of fragments,
A play of wind and sea and light,
Shifting always, becoming and diminishing.
‘Hebrides’ from Salt and Light Kenneth Steven
(Saint Andrew Press 2007)
I went to see the exhibition of photographs From the Land by Ian Lawson. The images are taken mainly on the Isle of Harris and are completely absorbing to look at. I felt as if I was there, out in the uncertain weather (there are no cloudless skies), hearing the wind and the waves, watching the crofters working their sheep.
A picture of the vast sandy bay of Luskentyre reminded me of Norman MacCaig’s Aunt Julia (from the Isle of Scalpay) buried in ‘a sandy grave at Luskentyre’. Several photographs featured the bare rocky landscape of the east part of Harris, where islanders in the past painstakingly built up the ironically named ‘lazy beds’ with seaweed taken from the shore (I overheard one person explaining what she called ‘the olden days’ to her grandchild). The grassed over straight lines of the lazy beds could be seen perched above the shore in the image of the Old Post Office at Manish. The picture was a reminder of the way the Hebrides have changed: this post office was ‘once home to the only telephone in the area ... a vibrant hub of community and communication ... letters from war-torn Europe, parcels to exiled family, an influx of news and goods’. It’s a solid building, built of good quality quarried blocks of stone. But now the rust red corrugated iron roof is fraying at the edges, birds fly in through glassless windows and sheep are the only customers, wandering in through the blank doorways.
But the vibrant colours of the photographs, especially of flowers on the machair, prevented me from lapsing into melancholy. It’s good that Harris Tweed is thriving and provides additional employment on the Outer Hebrides. The exhibition is held in collaboration with the Harris Tweed Authority and there is some interesting information about the making of Harris Tweed in the 21st century (no urine as a mordant now!). The rich colours of the landscape are shown alongside the same colours in the tweed (if you thought Harris Tweed was just a – tweedy green, think again!). I learnt some of the names for the weaving patterns:
‘bird’s eye’, ‘barleycorn’, ‘herringbone’ (how appropriate – the ‘silver darlings’ were once a big part of the economy of the islands).
The photographs are accompanied by a lyrical, romantic commentary. Ian Lawson’s manifesto is ‘Documenting the places I have come to love’. Is there a word to denote love of a place or a landscape? Topophilia. It sounds like a pathological condition. Perhaps it is – but many of us have it.
Harris Tweed: From the Land is on show at Rheged near Penrith until Sunday 15 May 2016.