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16 Jul 2018

Photography on the edge: Part 1

Written by Antonia Laurence-Allen
Glass plate negative of Boreray in the St Kilda archipelago, #192 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda
Glass plate negative of Boreray in the St Kilda archipelago, #192 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda
By the 1860s commercial photography was on the rise in Scotland. George Washington Wilson of Aberdeen had one of the most successful studios, and St Kilda became an especially popular subject.

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 tell their audience about local customs and traditions. The photographs of St Kilda proved exceptionally popular. The St Kildans were people who lived ‘on the edge’ of the world; their lifestyle was considered ‘beyond the pale’ of civilisation. The St Kildans were both feared and admired by a curious Victorian public.

The photographs in our collection reveal how significantly photography created and re-enforced this myth of St Kildans as ‘the other’. Images reveal barefoot children ‘in need of’ charity, mud-soaked streets ‘in need of’ modernisation and beneficent tourists eager to ‘experience’ traditional ways of life. These photographs were often used as propaganda to champion the importance of colonialism and the ‘civilising’ force of the British Empire.

Maps to Imagine the ‘Edge of the World’

Fig. 1: A 35mm slide of a map of Scotland believed to have been presented to Mary, Queen of Scots in 1558. Hirta is at the very top of the map © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda

Fig. 1: A 35mm slide of a map of Scotland believed to have been presented to Mary, Queen of Scots in 1558. Hirta is at the very top of the map © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda

Travellers began to explore St Kilda as early as the 16th century, but the archipelago remained elusively located on the maps of this time. The map in fig. 1 is believed to have been presented to Mary, Queen of Scots in 1558, and is the first map of Scotland drawn independent from the rest of Britain. Hirta (the largest island in the St Kilda archipelago) is shown as 80 miles wide by 50 miles long and is placed at the far north of Scotland.

Fig. 2: A map of Europe dated 1570, with Hirta just north-west of the Hebrides, National Library of Norway

Fig. 2: A map of Europe dated 1570, with Hirta just north-west of the Hebrides, National Library of Norway

On a map of Europe dated 1570 (fig. 2), Hirta has moved only a few miles to the west and is still imagined as being significantly larger than its Hebridean neighbours. It’s actually just over 3 square miles in area, while the islands of Harris and Lewis (nearest on the map) are over 840 square miles. 

The first accurate map of Hirta (fig. 3) was completed by Norman Heathcote in his book St Kilda, published in 1900. He wrote in the preface that previous attempts at mapping the island had been done from memory and were inaccurate. Although he had no experience in the field of surveying, his calculations were made on the island and were subsequently published with permission from the Royal Geographical Society.

Fig. 3: Norman Heathcote’s map of the St Kilda archipelago

Fig. 3: Norman Heathcote’s map of the St Kilda archipelago

Romancing the Remote

Fig. 4: Glass plate negative of Boreray in the St Kilda archipelago, #192 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda

Fig. 4: Glass plate negative of Boreray in the St Kilda archipelago, #192 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda

St Kilda’s photographic collection illustrates how images have reinforced the Romantic notion of a sublime place located at the edge of the world. It’s 41 miles from Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, and photographs like fig. 4 emphasise the majesty of its isolation. This tiny archipelago was formed through violent volcanic activity millions of years ago, followed by a lengthy period of erosion. The vertical composition of fig. 5 highlights this geological drama.

Fig. 5: Glass plate negative of Boreray (with Stac an Armin in the background) in the St Kilda archipelago, #165 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda

Fig. 5: Glass plate negative of Boreray (with Stac an Armin in the background) in the St Kilda archipelago, #165 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda

The notion of the sublime was popularised by 18th-century Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and 19th-century painters like J M W Turner. Photographs like fig. 6 catered to the Victorian fashion for sublime scenery, where nature is an awe-inspiring place – to be respected and to be surmounted by heroes. The small figure and sheer rock reinforce the concept of man facing real danger while choosing to conquer nature.

Fig. 6: Glass plate negative of a man on the Lover’s Stone, Hirta, #352 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda

Fig. 6: Glass plate negative of a man on the Lover’s Stone, Hirta, #352 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda

Bare Feet

People have been present on St Kilda since about 2000BCE. Little is known about the first inhabitants, a mystery that makes the archipelago even more enticing. To survive on these islands, generations of men like Ewen MacDonald (fig. 7) would have descended the cliffs to hunt seabirds, gripping the rocks with their bare feet.

Fig. 7: Glass plate negative of Ewen MacDonald of St Kilda, #107 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda

Fig. 7: Glass plate negative of Ewen MacDonald of St Kilda, #107 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda

St Kildan men developed strong, wide feet as a result of this practice. Fig. 8 documents the variances between the feet of an islander and someone from the mainland. However, many who had read and agreed with Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) would have considered such a photograph as proof that the islanders were not as ‘advanced’, or were less evolved, compared to mainlanders. This sort of photography was used at a medical level to prove difference.

Fig. 8: Glass plate negative documenting the variances between the feet of an islander (right) and someone from the mainland (left), #43 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

Fig. 8: Glass plate negative documenting the variances between the feet of an islander (right) and someone from the mainland (left), #43 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

To Victorians, bare feet were a signifier of poverty and of people in need of Christian aid. Victorian educational advocates like Mary Carpenter (who wrote books on rehabilitating juvenile offenders) saw the benefit of images like fig. 9 of children standing bare foot outside a school. They ‘excited compassion’ and confirmed the views of their contemporaries that children were very susceptible to the suffering around them. However, they were equally supposed to show how receptive children were to the benefits of schooling. Boots and stockings were introduced to St Kilda by tourists in the late 19th century.

Fig. 9: Glass plate negative of barefoot school children outside the school building, #99 © National Trust for Scotland, St KildaFig. 9: Glass plate negative of barefoot school children outside the school building, #99 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda

The Morton Charitable Trust has been funding fieldwork on the National Trust for Scotland’s photographic collections since 2014. In 2018–19, this work will further raise the profile of the collections through research, articles, talks and dedicated projects. The project will also involve the digitisation of the Margaret Fay Shaw photographic archive of mid-20th-century Hebridean life, leading to an updated database with high-quality images.