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23 Jul 2018

Photography on the Edge: Part 2

Written by Antonia Laurence-Allen
Photograph of tourists posing with locals on St Kilda
Photograph of tourists posing with local people, #264, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.
Romanticised views of island life produced distorted images of St Kilda, which still fuel modern imaginations about an idyllic lifestyle on the islands.

Myth

Very few testimonies about St Kilda were produced by the islanders themselves. The inhabitants, their way of life and their spirit have been mostly described by outsiders – even the ‘Diaries from St Kilda’  were written by a teacher who was only there for a few years. This led to St Kilda being viewed as an almost mythical place.

Curious tourists on St Kilda
Fig. 1. Photograph of curious tourists crowding around to learn the pre-industrial art of the spinning wheel, #368, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

Hand spinning and weaving (fig. 1) were being replaced by factory power and steam looms throughout most of Britain by the mid-19th century. Victorians immediately used the new technology of photography to document life before industrialisation, as a way of both preserving and promoting local traditions. Photographs therefore became entwined with a nostalgia for a mythical past, where people may have been poor but were happy with their lot and wiser because of their close relationship to the land (fig. 2). 

Rachel Anne Gillies on St Kilda
Fig. 2. Photograph of Rachel Anne Gillies, pictured as a diligent, happy worker, #38, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

Early observers described the extraordinary beauty of women on St Kilda. One minister from Ardnamurchan, who went as a missionary to St Kilda in 1758, wrote: ‘the women here are mostly handsome, and their complexion fresh and lively, as their features are regular and fine... There are some of them, who if properly dressed, and genteelly educated, would, in my opinion, be reckoned extraordinary beauties in the gay world.’ Ironically, many 19th-century tourists encouraged to visit were noted as being sadly disappointed with the reality.

Tourists posing with St Kildans
Fig. 3. Photograph of tourists posing with locals; note the awkward downturned faces of the local women compared to confident gazes from the tourists, #264, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

A postcard (fig. 4) from the commercial studios of Valentines of Dundee promotes the ‘natives of St Kilda’. Due to their isolation, it was thought that the islanders were a unique group, distinct from other Scottish people – but this is a myth. After a smallpox epidemic on the island in 1727, only 4 adults and 26 children survived. St Kilda was then gradually repopulated by people from other Hebridean islands.

Natives of St Kilda
Fig. 4. Postcard titled ‘Natives of St Kilda’, #384, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

Marketing

St Kildans in Am Baile on Hirta
Fig. 5. Photograph of St Kildans in Am Baile on Hirta, #226, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

Photographs of St Kilda amazed Victorian audiences, who were curious about ‘others’ living on the edges of the world. George Washington Wilson, one of the first to photograph people on the island, was driven by commerce. He knew what people wanted and his business was highly profitable. Fig. 5 depicts the islanders sitting in the mud and dirt – it literally and metaphorically looks down upon them – while fig. 6 shows the St Kildan parliament, which debated daily business on the island.

St Kilda parliament
Fig. 6. Photograph of the St Kilda parliament, #138, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

These photographs were often used as propaganda for championing the importance of colonialism and the ‘civilising’ force of the British Empire. The irony is that the houses in figs. 5 and 6 are not the original St Kildan blackhouses. These are ‘modern’ cottages, built in the 1860s when the island’s landowner Sir John MacLeod imported a workforce to build 16 gabled houses with glass windows and divided rooms. They faced the sea and were exposed to the full force of the wind. Utterly unfit for weatherbeaten St Kilda, almost as soon as they were installed the zinc roofs blew off and the walls failed.

Archaeologists and volunteers working on St Kilda
Fig. 7. Photograph of archaeologists and volunteers working to consolidate the derelict houses on St Kilda, #506, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

Photographs of St Kilda still amaze audiences. They feed a public curious both about the past and about how people live today in what seem like inhospitable conditions on the ‘edges of the world’. In 1957 St Kilda was bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland. We work in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Ministry of Defence to care for the natural and cultural heritage of the islands. Photographs like fig. 7, which shows archaeologists and volunteers working to consolidate the derelict houses on St Kilda, are designed to promote the Trust’s conservation ethos, which has been one of minimal intervention.

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.