Northern Exposure: Technology brings pictures of the past to life

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WICK is in the spotlight with today's launch of the Gaelic National Mòd, in Caithness for the first time in the event's history. But today marks another important milestone for Scotland's northernmost county town – the online launch of the Johnston Collection.

• In a harbour crammed with boats and workers, the schooner Elba waits to be loaded

It's the work of three generations of a Wick family of photographers who captured images of local life between 1863 and 1975, producing around 100,000 glass-plate negatives. Over 112 years, brothers Alexander and James Johnston, Alex's son and Alex's grandson captured an era when Wick was the "herring capital of Europe", with over a thousand boats crowded into the harbour packed with migrant workers who swelled the town's population.

Fishermen were photographed preparing their boats, setting the tan sails for sea and landing catches. Onshore scenes of intense activity showed the teams of workers – mostly women – who gutted, cured, packed and carted the salted herring barrels, for export across the world.

The Johnston plates also show the boat builders, coopers, rope makers, basket weavers, plumbers, shopkeepers and others in supporting industries to give a wonderfully vivid glimpse of social history. Until now the herring industry has been the best known part of the collection. But roughly half consists of portraits, landscapes, buildings, harbours, castles and street scenes from all over Caithness. The pictures of local barefoot children and "tinkers" living in caves are moving – the images of Wick harbour solid with sails and ships are astonishing.

The story of the collection's "discovery" is no less dramatic. In 1977 a century of unbroken photographic service came to an end when "Young" Alexander Johnston retired. He asked local historian and Wick Heritage Society founder Iain Sutherland if he wanted the clutter stored in his garage before it was sold. Four of the museum founders, including Iain and Donald Sinclair – now the society's chairman – went to see what the garage might contain.

According to Donald Sinclair: "After the tour of his garage Alex took us upstairs to his dark room and store. The rooms were nearly all undecorated and in the centre sat an enlarger – an old plate camera – which fell to pieces when we touched it. The wood screws had rusted through.

"The negatives were in another room and we all were amazed at the quantity of plates, of all sizes. We were lifting negatives from the top of piles, some over 4ft high – carefully wrapped in blotting paper with names, dates and addresses. I tried to lift a negative from the top of a pile and found that a clump of negatives stuck together – linseed oil had been accidentally dropped on the pile.

"We came across sheets of paper, damp and now curling and discarded them as being of no interest. Many years later I realised that they were paper negatives – far cheaper than plates to produce and able to produce pictures cheap enough for people on low income to buy.

"Recently I unburdened myself to Alex saying that in my ignorance we had lost many images. Alex replied that he had burnt nearly all of the paper negatives himself, in an earlier clean-up. In a way that was a relief."

So the glass plates sat in six old filing cabinets in Pilot House – the society's first storage area – and were then moved into the Wick Heritage Museum in the early 1980s, where within years they were stored in a humidity-controlled room.

After a TV documentary in the 1990s, several books of the photographs were published locally, and volunteers were trying to photocopy and photograph the deteriorating originals in a bid to save the collection.

The masterstroke – to digitise the collection – occurred to Donald Sinclair three years ago and the online site is the result of the collaboration that followed between the pensioner stalwarts of the Wick Heritage Society and NHC Online, the online development section of The North Highland College based in Thurso. The first 10,000 or so images (featured on the website) were scanned largely by staff members Jacqueline MacKenzie and Marc Farr, and Fergus Mather and Alf Gunn from the Wick Society – both of whom had been trained by the Northern College in a free, certified Professional Development Award (PDA) in Digital Imaging held in Wick. The course – jointly funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee and the Highland Leader Programme – improved skills and job prospects for 23 other Wickers and created an active workforce able to scan the rest of the collection.

According to Marc Farr, business development manager for NHC Online, the march of time would have destroyed the original images. "We found some of the old glass plates were broken and others were deteriorating quite fast. Wick Society members were managing to digitise a couple of images a day – I think they had completed about 50. With the right equipment that rate is now 160 a day.

"I think most people will be amazed by the range of subjects and number of places included – and the quality of the digital images is a perfect representation of the negatives on the glass plates. No matter how much the remaining glass plate negatives decay in the fullness of time, there will always be a precise snapshot of each image preserved for future generations."

This is the first part of a campaign to have the Johnston Collection recognised as a national collection because of the pioneering nature of the photography, and because the subjects, locations, industries, and people are – in many cases – gone forever. The collection includes other seminal moments in the history of Scotland – and Britain. The first mainland daylight air raid of the Second World War happened in Wick in July 1940 when a lone German plane dropped two bombs on Bank Row. Fifteen people were killed – eight of them children. A memorial garden was recently opened in Pulteneytown – a model new town built a century before Bourneville and Welwyn Garden City, by Thomas Telford, the Scottish civil engineer and architect. Such national recognition would be of immense importance to morale and self esteem in modern day Wick.

After a brief period in the international limelight, thanks to herring in the mid-19th century, Wick declined while neighbouring Thurso grew in size and importance with the construction of Dounreay and the Forss American navy base.

The county town – declared a royal burgh in 1589 – is now mainly a stopping place on the way to the Orkney ferries – Caithness as a county has little of the dynamism exhibited by the entrepreneurial Orcadians.

Dounreay has been wound up, with no nuclear replacement in sight. Wick lost port status six years ago. John O' Groats is (once again) awaiting a renovation plan.

Bridges have reduced journey times, closing branch offices and allowing most businesses to run from Inverness, and despite sitting beside Europe's tidal energy site, the only company planning turbine manufacture in Wick lost out in the recent Pentland Firth leasing round. So can the Johnston Collection help put Wick back on the map? It will be a long haul for the Wick pensioners – thousands of unscanned glass plates still sit in the backroom of the Wick Heritage Society Museum, which is damp in parts (though the collection is in a humidity-controlled room) and has a leaking roof. Many of the items that fill the surprisingly large collection were originally loaned not donated. That is slowing down the Museum's bid for accreditation, and a museum must be accredited to house a national collection.

So the volunteers are working round the clock to find the descendants of original lenders and ask them to either donate or remove their artefacts. The Museums Council is to introduce a new set of rules about accreditation in the spring, so the Wickers will know how much more progress they must achieve.

According to Anne Dunnett, Lord Lieutenant of Caithness: "The Johnston Collection of photographs is the star in the crown of the Wick Heritage Society and should be considered a national treasure. It never ceases to amaze me how great the quality of the original photography must have been to enable photographs and digital images, more than a century later, to be reproduced and blown up with the original clarity and no loss of sharpness."

The story isn't over – schoolchildren in Caithness and Sutherland have been invited to recreate an image from the Johnston collection. Naturally, digital cameras will go to the winners of ecah age group in the contest, whose work will be permanently exhibited at the Wick Heritage Society in Bank Row. The competition closes on 12 November, days before "Young Alex" Johnston celebrates his 101st birthday.

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