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30 Jul 2018

Photography on the Edge: Part 3

Written by Antonia Laurence-Allen
Tourist sitting awkwardly with a St Kildan woman
Glass plate negative of a tourist sitting awkwardly with a St Kildan woman, #733 © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda
Victorian photographs taken on St Kilda often depict an uncomfortable and awkward relationship between the visitors and the St Kildan islanders.

Visiting Tourists

Glass plate negative of tourists on the SS Dunara Castle
Fig. 1. Glass plate negative of tourists on the SS Dunara Castle, #601, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

Steamers had been taking tourists to Staffa since the 1850s, but St Kilda was much more remote, so it wasn’t until the 1880s that sightseeing excursions became more regular. In 1877 the SS Dunara Castle started summer cruises to St Kilda. The first brochure, advertising a ten-day trip, was entitled ‘Romantic Western Isles and Lone St Kilda’. It specifically promoted St Kilda as ‘the island that wants to be visited’ because of its rare beauty and romantic isolation.

Glass plate negative of tourists posing with St Kildans
Fig. 2. Glass plate negative of tourists posing with St Kildans; note the camera in the hands of the man on the left, #616, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

Photographs helped to supplement visits that were by necessity often very brief. However, they frequently illustrate just how awkward and difficult it must have been for the St Kildans to succumb to the curious gazes of outsiders. A version of fig. 3 was published by the photographic studio Valentines of Dundee, titled ‘St Kildan Natives’. The artificial nature of the composition is accentuated by the woman’s uncomfortable posture, but also by the man who looks on. He spectates with an air of amused satisfaction in seeing the group so strategically assembled.

Glass plate negative of St Kildans posed for a tourist photo
Fig. 3. Photograph of St Kildans posed for a tourist photo, #261, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

In his book St Kilda (1900) Norman Heathcote wrote that ‘so many tourists treat them [the St Kildans] as if they were wild animals at the zoo. They throw sweets at them, openly mock them, and I have seen them standing at the church door during service, laughing and talking, and staring in as if at an entertainment got up for their amusement’.

In fact, tourists often found they preferred the photographs to the real experience, for it kept things at what was for them a comfortable distance. In Island on the Edge of the World: The Story of St Kilda (1972) Charles MacLean quotes one 19th-century tourist who complained that ‘the women were stout ... and that both sexes emitted an unpleasant odour, which he attributed to the large quantities of oleaginous sea-birds consumed by the islanders’.

A tourist sitting awkwardly with a St Kildan woman
Fig. 4. Photograph of a tourist sitting awkwardly with a St Kildan woman, #733, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

Resident Crofters

However, as the camera became an increasingly familiar sight on St Kilda, so the islanders began to stare back. In the context of the heated debate on crofters’ rights in the 1880s, these photographs can be seen in a different light. George Washington Wilson’s photographs were taken during this period, a decade which began with economic depression and several disastrous years for Highland farming. Landlords attempted to evict tenants and populate the land with sheep; a Crofters’ War broke out on Skye in 1882. This eventually led to the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886, which gave tenants more rights.

St Kildans
Fig. 5. Photograph from the early 20th century of St Kildans; note the more confident stare back at the camera, #105, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

Photographs provided opportunities for people far from Edinburgh and Westminster to be seen as well as heard. Later images (figs. 5 + 6) from the early 20th century show firm confident stares from the St Kildans, who by then had become used to being in front of a camera.

St Kildan women
Fig. 6. Photograph of St Kildans, #134, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

This growing sense of confidence in the face of the patronising attitude of tourists is illustrated by the story of the wedding of Annie Ferguson (fig. 7) and Neil Gillies (fig. 8), who married in 1890, recounted in MacLean’s book. The story goes that on the wedding day, a party from Sunderland in County Durham landed on St Kilda in a steamship laden with presents. An advert had been placed in local Sunderland papers asking tradesmen to donate gifts, and the party arrived with a variety of items, from silver spoons and a wedding cake to pork pies, jars of Bovril and even a large American organ. 

The visitors disembarked with great expectations of witnessing an ‘authentic’ event and charitably presenting gifts gathered for a couple with little means to buy anything. Before their arrival, the school teacher on St Kilda, John Ross, had written an encouraging letter saying, ‘you have done for them … what they cannot sufficiently appreciate, you have led the way … in bringing St Kilda into true civilisation and making it part of Great Britain’.

Drawing of Annie Ferguson
Fig. 7. Drawing of Annie Ferguson, #522, © National Trust for Scotland, St Kilda.

The islanders greeted the boat thinking they were welcoming usual tourists; however, when it was discovered they had come – uninvited – to the wedding, they were asked to leave and the presents were rejected. MacLean states this was because, ‘The St Kildans … objected to being treated as wayward and primitive freaks; to being guided on to the path of progress and “true” civilisation by the self-adulating generosity of trippers.’

Drawing of Neil Gillies
Fig. 8. Drawing of Neil Gillies, #521, © 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.