A Love Affair With the Scottish Isles in Photographs

National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson has an enduring passion for the wild, remote Scottish islands.

By Jim Richardson

From the deck of the boat, the cloud-raked island of Boreray beckoned me, flanked by fanged stacks rising out of the sea. Odd, perhaps, that I should find this welcoming. But I do.

Boreray is part of the St. Kilda archipelago, visible from Harris in the Scottish Hebrides islands but another world away. By boat it’s 40 miles of North Atlantic swells that heave and slap you into rubber-legged submission. Seaman Angus Campbell drives with a steady hand on the throttle, making the trip everyday, if he can—which he can’t. Weather. But now Angus nodded. We’d make it today.

I remembered that trip when I got an email recently from the St. Kilda Club. These are fellow romantics; the islander’s story tugs at them too. They were collecting pictures for a calendar to sell to visitors, raising funds for preservation and restoration work. The National Trust for Scotland cares for the island. It’s expensive. Once, during a week of constant, driving rain (Angus warned me) I stayed in one of their restored village houses. Haunting but dry.

St. Kilda was never easy—to get to or to live on. Hence it’s fame and allure. It was abandoned, you see. Islanders had endured there for thousands of years, until a day in 1930 when two of Her Majesty’s ships came to evacuate them. At their request. They couldn’t go on, dwindling away, isolated. It’s a heartbreaking tale. It’s why people come here, for the melancholy that pervades the empty village. Stone-walled shells now, with their hearts gone.

Of course the club could use my pictures. It’s a paltry contribution but very rich for me. A reward, really, caught by the web of connections that can develop because of an ongoing photographic coverage. A sense of making some contribution to the ongoing life of the place, of becoming part of its story. The pictures, doing their job, linking people together. It feels good. Homecoming reunion emotions for an Atlantic island welling up in a Kansas farm boy.

My pictures have seen the world; printed in National Geographic, they get around. Dentist offices everywhere, barbershops in Bhutan. You know.

But for all their connections with the real world, photographs too often lead disconnected lives. It is as if, after their moment of creation, they go off to live in a foreign country. They talk to the wider world, spread instantly across the planet, but with the folks back home, where they were born, not so much. Sometimes they act like children estranged from their parents, all links severed with the real world where they were born.

Twenty years ago I came to these remote islands strewn along Scotland’s northwest coast as an objective observer, smugly expecting lonely outposts, bleak beauty, stoic islanders. Not anymore. Now I subscribe to the local newspaper, Am Pàpier (it’s Gaelic) on North Uist. The news is hyper-local but comforting stuff: first steel cut for a new ferry, crofters advised on lambing season. Headlines: “Seal Surprise in South Uist Garden.” “’Mittens’ Winning Entry to Name Post Office Cat.” I’m quite proud that I was their first foreign subscriber.

Some connections knit themselves together quite marvellously. I went to the Shiant Isles to see puffins. These curious birds landed close by and looked at me as if I was the curious one (which is probably true). Adam Nicolson (an English author of considerable note) owns these uninhabited islands, and so I sent him some pictures. He wrote back asking if I’d like to work with him on a story about the King James Bible for National Geographic? Not what I expected, but, yes, I would! So we did. That finished, he asked if he could use my pictures for fundraising to eradicate the invasive black rats from the Shiant Isles. (They eat seabird eggs.) Adam and friends (the EU, RSPB, SNH) raised more that £1 million. His friend Prince Charles contributed too. (Adam is well connected.) If all goes well, when I go back the Shiants will be awash in Manx shearwaters, storm petrels, and puffins. Nice.

Orkney’s human connections go back 5,000 years, mine mere decades. But I have come to know island doctors and farm families. Neolithic folk erected the standing stones that tourists flock to ogle. Archeologist Nick Card and crew are digging up a temple complex in the backyard of Orkney jewelry designer Olga Gorie. Down the road Jimmy Tullach grazes sheep among the Standing Stones of Stenness. (“They were there when I bought the farm.”) My pictures ended up in their books and literature. They raised enough money to extend the dig season from six weeks to eight. I’m just a little part, but it felt good, anyway. (It’s actually a selfish pleasure, seeing my pictures living a life in the islands.)

Boreray still has my heart. Seaman Seumas Morrison brought me here once. Spitting rain but clearing, as the Scots say, meaning it will rain less before it rains more. Out of the clouds swirling around the island heights, the gannets streamed in their thousands, craning down at the wild man on the boat below, the one with cameras whooping and hollering, stumbling toward the rail of the pitching boat. Another man grabbed his belt, saving him. An odd scene, to a gannet. But glorious to me.

In my mind, that moment of rescue has become one of many that also save me from the disconnect of the modern world—vast, anonymous, impersonal. With them the pictures seem to come home, to take a cozy place in the family album, where I can feel them blowing gently on the kindling inside me, encouraging a small flame.

You can see more of Jim Richardson's work on his website.


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