Tir A' Mhurain.
Photographs by Josef Tornick.
25 pp., Pigment prints throughout, 16x16".
Tir a'Muhrain - 50 Years On
The Outer Hebrides of Scotland
a Photographic project by Josef Tornick
'Whilst we in dreams
behold the Hebrides'
- Emmigrant Song
In the summer of 1954, photographer Paul Strand and his wife Hazel spent three months living in the Scottish Hebrides, the small chain of islands off the Northwest Scottish coast. His aim was to document a last remaining fragment of traditional Gaelic crofting and fishing culture, and to explore and illustrate the complex interrelationship between the land, the people, their homes and work, and the long and rich history of the area.
Set like a jewel in the Atlantic Ocean, these islands have been inhabited continuously for 5,000 years, and are an outpost of traditional Gaelic culture. I found it to be a sparse and ancient land of rich and subtle beauty - cloud-wrapped mountains, lochs, long and empty beaches with machair (beach grass), extensive wildlife, strong winds, and moody, ever-changing weather. The geology is significant; the rocks comprising these islands are some of the oldest on earth, estimated to be some 5 billion years old. Strand focused his camera's lenses mainly on the islands of South Uuist, Berbencula and Eriskay, all adjacent to each other, and only fairly recently connected by causeways. South Uist, the largest of these, is approximately twenty miles long by eight miles wide, and has a varied and beautiful geography - with sandy beaches and beach grass stretching on the west side facing the Atlantic Ocean, a range of hills and mountains down the spine and extending to the East, all intercut by numerous lochs and bogs.
My journey to these islands in May, June and July of 2004 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Strand's own trip to the islands, and was both an homage to his work, and an exploration of the continuing experiences of the islanders in maintaining their traditional way of life in the 21st century. 'Tir a’Muhrain - Fifty Years On' documented the changes the culture and landscape have undergone, while illustrating that which has endured or even flourished over the years.
It was my awareness of the seamless webs of connections amongst the islanders that most affected me while living there. These were complex ties of relationships going back many generations among the natives, and their memory is long. Many community ties have been sustained, whether it was at the Grimsay Boat days celebrating the fishing boat building heritage at Kallin Harbour in Noth Uist, or the memorial Cellidh for a young man recently lost at sea, or the concerts of traditional Scottish music, or the Gaelic teacher, Flora Steele teaching children the old language. The military base has come, and largely gone, causeways now arch over the tidal flats, the ferry service from the mainland takes vehicles, and internet access, while slow and sketchy, has just arrived. The traditional fishing industry has been largely destroyed by EU agreements favoring other nations, and the old thatched blackhouses are mostly in ruins. But peat is still often laboriously dug by hand for winter fuel, potatoes are hand-grown and hoed, and sheep are sheared in labor intensive ways. Salmon farming and cold-smoking fish are new and vital industries. But it is a complex and old culture, and there were no simple understandings.
On these islands the weather is always a force that is experienced very directly; it was cooler than I am used to in summers, the wind whipping off the Atlantic Ocean seemed relentless to me, and islanders would speak of the ferocious winter gales. Being further north, the summer daylight was extended, it wouldn't really get dark till 12:00 a.m., and of course in the winter the daylight hours are conversely quite short.
In a world that often seems chaotic and lost from its moorings, I found it of immense value to be able to observe, reflect upon, and experience what I could of these traditional ways of life that all too often are lost, overlooked or devalued by contemporary culture.
I found the people to be proud of their heritage, and reserved, as were their ancestors; yet they kindly opened both their hearts and homes to me, allowing me extraordinary access in recording their way of life. I hope that I have done them justice in recording their timeless 'Tir a'Mhurain' - Land of Bent Grass - with photographs that illustrate and evoke the beauty of a culture deeply connected to its memory, community and its environment.
This portfolio contains 25 loose signed, numbered and dated pigment print from this project.