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27 Feb 2017

Photography on the edge

A black and white photograph of a line of people, sitting on a path beside a row of stone houses. They lean their backs against the wall of the house.
St Kilda islanders
In Victorian Britain, photographs were often used as propaganda to champion the importance of colonialism and the ‘civilising’ force of the British Empire.

By the 1850s commercial photography was on the rise in Scotland and George Washington Wilson from Aberdeen had one of the most successful studios.

Wilson created a series of ‘lantern’ slides in the 1880s – hand-coloured glass plates to be used in a projector. The slides were sold with accompanying notes, to help presenters inform their listeners about local customs and traditions. The photographs of St Kilda proved exceptionally popular. These were people who lived ‘on the edge’ of the world, their lives and habits considered ‘beyond the pale’ of civilisation. As such, the St Kildans were both feared and admired by a curious Victorian public.

The photographs in the National Trust for Scotland collection reveal how significantly photography created and re enforced this myth of St Kildans as ‘the other’. Images reveal bare-footed children in need of charity, mud-soaked streets in need of modernisation and a beneficent tourist eager to ‘experience’ traditional ways of life.

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