Revealed: Postcards from a vanished era in the Hebrides

He was a principled man of the law in the Outer Hebrides who in his spare time created some of the first postcards of the islands of his dear place and its people.

The pictures were taken by Archie Chisholm the Procurator Fiscal at Lochmaddy and the images show islanders at home and at work

He was a principled man of the law in the Outer Hebrides who in his spare time created some of the first postcards of the islands of his dear place and its people.

The work of Archibald Chisholm, procurator-fiscal of North Uist for more than 30 years, is now being remembered – along with his struggle with the island’s owner, who tried to deprive him of a roof over his head.

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Chisholm’s interest in photography peaked during the late 1890s and early 1900s and documented changing times in the islands, from the Land Wars that pitted wealthy landlords against the growing activism of tenants and new legal rights for crofters, plus the rise of tourism and transport and communication connections.

Archie Chisholm

His photographs capture the island landscape along with everyday moments of crofting, fishing – including whaling – and home life.

He was also not afraid to tackle difficult subjects – his photographs of a family eviction showing the anguish in the faces make their mark as serious early reportage.

“He was driven by an empathy for the people and the landscape,” said Michael Cope, a relative of Chisholm through marriage who has published a book on the man and his photographs.

On his retirement from the procurator-fiscal’s office in 1913 after 32 years of service, Chisholm was remembered as someone who acted with the “utmost impartiality, administering equal justice to rich and poor” and who stuck to the path of duty.

This approach was perhaps at the root of the enmity between himself and Sir John Campbell-Orde, owner of the North Uist Estate.

As well as being a fiscal, Chisholm had a solicitor’s practice in Lochmaddy with a colleague, Thomas Wilson. Cope said: “The firm had refused to act for Sir John in connection with eviction disputes with his tenants.”

Sir John’s anger with Wilson boiled over, with the solicitor banned from taking lodgings on any house on the estate – he moved to a houseboat.

By 1892, when the lease for Chisholm’s house came up for renewal, he was served with a notice to quit and banned from taking any other property in North Uist. He ended up staying with a friend and was forced to auction off his belongings.

A string of acrimonious letters between Chisholm and Sir John were later given to the Royal Commission (Highlands and Islands) investigating the living conditions of crofters.

With a box camera and tripod strapped to his back as he roamed the islands on a pony to capture the unique landscape, Chisholm’s photographic endeavours came as the postcard moved into a golden era.

His working base at the old court house in Lochmaddy was opposite the Scottish Home Industries Association, which marketed Harris Tweed and other locally produced items beyond the islands, and some of Chisholm’s photographs were turned into postcards to commemorate a conference in Manchester in 1903.

“That is how he got started, but the following year he decided to go it alone, using a printer in Manchester. We know so far of around 140 postcards that he produced,” Cope said.

Some unforgettable pieces of work feature evictions on North Uist, including of the MacKiggen family for a road widening scheme. Cope said the MacKiggen eviction was reported in the Inverness Courier at the time. “The bailiffs came from Inverness and they were referred to as the ‘crowbar brigade’.”

Cope’s book concludes a 20-year family project to document the life and work of Archibald Chisholm.

An exhibition was due to open in Lochmaddy’s Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre this summer; work is now under way to adapt it for a digital audience.

The Photographs of Archie Chisholm by Michael Cope is published by Thirsty Books.

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