about : isle of south uist
« The Isle of South Uist » Uibhist a Deas in Scots Gaelic, is at the southern end of the 130 mile long chain of islands off the northwest coast of Scotland, The Outer Hebrides, sometimes called The Long Island, or Na h-Innse Gall. The Atlantic coast of the island is almost one long beach of silver sand, with big skies and wide horizons bordered by marram grass and sand dunes. To the east is a fragmented coastline of five sea lochs: Loch Boisdale, Loch Eynort, Loch Skipport, Loch Shielavaig and Loch Carnan, all leading to the Sea of The Hebrides which separates the islands from the Inner Hebrides and the mainland. Sixty miles to the west is one of the remotest inhabited parts of the British Isles, St Kilda, then more than 2000 miles of the North Atlantic until you reach Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
The Outer Hebrides series features images from Barra to Berneray. Begun when I was a teenager, they explore my sense of belonging to the Isle of South Uist in particular, a personal history of time passing, images inspired by an ancient Gaelic culture on the edge of Europe, sustained by a strong sense of community and a shared past dominated by climate, rock, sea and sky. Like the tides, or perhaps the weight of ancestry, I'm always drawn back to the island.
In the early 70s, I had been searching without success, for an out-of-print book of photographs of Uist. On hearing a telephone conversation I was having with a London bookseller, a colleague asked about the book: 'I have a book about the Outer Hebrides at home' he said, 'I'll bring it in tomorrow, you can have it'. It was the book I had been searching for, Paul Strand and Basil Davidson's Tìr a'Mhurain : Outer Hebrides. Disillusioned with the politics of the Cold War and the McCarthyism prevalent in the United States, Strand, who had strong Marxist / Socialist leanings and his wife Hazel Kingsbury, became exiles, living in France from 1950. In 1954 they spent three months on South Uist and the neighbouring islands of Benbecula and Eriskay, one of many photographic journeys they made in search of places and communities holding fast to their cultures and traditional ways of life in the face of change.
I was a boy on the island in the summer of 1954, my brother and I staying as usual with our maternal grandparents, Donald and Margaret McInnes (Dòmhnall MacAonghais and Maighréad Moireasdanach). Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother singing lullabies to me in Gaelic and the ghostly call of a Great Northern Diver – The Weather Prophet – from over the loch. Whenever we return to the island one of the first things family and friends ask is: 'How long are you home for?' (Dé cho fada 's a the the dhachaigh?) Whatever the answer, the hope is always that we will stay longer.
The islands of the Hebrides are renowned for their Gaelic singers, pipers, bards and storytellers. There are many examples which eloquently express the thoughts of Uist folk far from home, when the island, the community and the family croft are intensely present in memory and imagination — inner ways of seeing. However, it is an American, as was Paul Strand, who best puts into words my attachment to the place that most endures, especially when I'm far from it:
A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest
remembers it most obsessively
wrenches it from itself
loves it so radically that he makes it
in his own image
James Jones from The White Album by Joan Didion