Highland Journey

Highland Journey: In the Spirit of Edwin Muir
Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh 2009, 111 pages, map and 50 illustrations.
Hardcover ISBN 978- 1-84158-782-0

Tom Normand

In the intermittently warm summer of 2006 the eminent Scottish photographer Robin Gillanders chose to go on a Highland journey. Buying a ‘second-hand campervan’ which he fitted with a rudimentary darkroom, and purchasing a ‘thirty year old large format camera’ with various lenses, he set out to record this journey in photographs. His inspiration was Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey. This travelogue, published in 1935, was an impressionistic ‘state of the nation’ written by one of the country’s most illustrious poets and intellectuals. Gillanders would reprise Muir’s expedition while documenting the people and landscape in his photographs and accompanying these images with a narrative commentary. Highland Journey: In the spirit of Edwin Muir is the wonderful product of this creative adventure.

Gillanders is best known as a portrait photographer and in this capacity he has created some of the finest images of his peers, and Scotland’s intelligentsia. In his creative association with Ian Hamilton Finlay, the poet and conceptual artist, he has photographed many landscapes, most notably the artist’s garden ‘Little Sparta’. But this new project he has described as ‘documentary’ and has accepted the burden of ambiguity laden in this troublesome category. More challenging still he is required to acknowledge the precedent of that giant of ‘documentary’, Paul Strand, whose own Scottish journey took him to the islands of Benbecula and South Uist in 1954. Like Strand’s Tir a'Mhurain this new book is replete with fine images of individuals and impressive landscapes, and like Strand there is in Gillanders’ photographs an interest in people, pattern and texture. Gillanders, however, has followed Muir in narrating his impressions and observations of the Scottish Highlands, and these warm, witty, sometimes elegiac reflections complement his fine photographs in this book.

Arranged schematically the first photograph in the book is, appropriately, an image of the road that twists through ‘The Pass of Drumochter’. This, the Great North Road, is the main artery that bleeds traffic into the Highlands of Scotland and was the route used by Muir in 1934. In the photograph the epic grandeur of the mountains is juxtaposed against the signatures of modernity and contemporary life: a freshly tarmaced surface, the road markings newly painted, snaking metal barriers and tall electricity pylons. In some measure this image sets the tone for the book. The sense of a transcendent landscape, monumental and timeless, is everywhere in contrast to the social change in Highland life and culture. This is the principal theme of Gillanders’ narrative, and the modifications, transformations and ruptures of modernity and globalisation are impressed upon both text and image. The fourth photograph in the collection, for example, is ‘Gentlemen’s Hairdresser, Newtonmore’. Arriving in the town Gillanders notes: ‘Shops and small businesses servicing the local community seem to have gradually given way to cafes and craft shops aimed at a tourist market…I was to discover that a similar story is to be told all over the Highlands’. Gillanders’ photograph, however, shows the frontage of a barber’s shop, the signage worn but seeming to tell of an older, more stable, community. It appears both elegiac and comforting, but the author is compelled to confess: ‘I returned to Newtonmore a year later to discover that the building had been demolished. I also learned that the signage had been erected by a film crew for the television series Monarch of the Glen…Apparently the building at various times had been a chemist’s and a baker’s (both serving a local population) – but Newtonmore had never had a ‘Gentleman’s Hairdressers’…Never trust a photograph’. Patently, in the contemporary world, everything is a chimera and a simulacrum but Gillanders’ photographs remain a testament to permanence as well as change. Images from the Orkney Islands like ‘Ring of Brodgar, Orkney’ and ‘Farming, Rousay’ speak of a deep history written into the landscape. While the extraordinary portrait of ‘Allan MacRae, crofter, North Lochinver’ is set against the magnificent ‘brooding mass of Suilven’; a mountain as distinctive and enduring as the land itself.

Nevertheless the narrative element of this book is concerned with those social changes within the Highlands that have accelerated exponentially in the contemporary period. The dialectic between local and global, community and disruption, tradition and progress, conservation and economic needs, heritage and future, Highland identity and multiculturalism is the persistent undercurrent of the author’s meditations. Here, Gillanders is a generous and liberal commentator. Rueful of destructive change, and sometimes regretful of inevitable transformations, he remains open and welcoming with regard to the positive dimensions of modernity. If the Highlands are subject to an overwhelming tourist industry, an emigration of its youth to the urban south, a fractured community life, the marginalisation of its traditional occupations, and the re-colonisation of the land by new and green technologies, then it is also a culture wherein the Gaelic language is determined to flourish, where music, craft and the arts are energetically supported, where ‘incomers’ are broadly welcomed and accepted, and where both people and culture are ready to adapt.

It is, inevitably, the photographs that are prime in this publication. And, whatever the ‘documentary’ nature of the project there is a balance of portraits, landscapes and more conventional documentary images but with the tilt towards portraits. The images are printed in a manner that references the heroes of the modernist tradition. Strand is an obvious precursor but Gillanders also doffs his cap to Edward Weston and Walker Evans. He has deliberately used a large format film camera and looked to capture a tonal range that accepts a pure black, a pure white, and every shade of grey in between. These soft gradations of tone allow for a subtle, nuanced and highly evocative imagery that releases the atmosphere and mood of his subjects: the reflective sentiment of landscape in ‘Loch Garry’, the imposing grandeur of ‘Dunrobin Castle’, the complex contemporary narrative of ‘Immigrant workers, The Ceilidh Place, Ullapool’, the desolate poetry of ‘Passing place, Forsinard, Caithness’, the epic stoicism of ‘Fish-farm workers, Badcall, Scourie’, and, the resilient stone farm steading of ‘The Bu, Wyre, Orkney’ – Gillanders concluding image in the book and Edwin Muir’s childhood home.
This journey is surely a modern story, and one that might be traced in any number of cultures where the inevitability of globalisation confronts the resistance of local manners and customs. Gillanders has been judicious in recognising the multifaceted nature of these developments in the Scottish Highlands and has produced a beautiful photographic record worthy of this discernment.

Dr. Tom Normand,
St Andrews 12/09.
Selected Reviews