WHO are we? What is it that makes us Scots and what does it mean to be Scottish or live in Scotland?
Last September’s referendum and the ongoing debate has focused minds on these questions more than ever before, and with the anniversary of the vote this month, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is staging an exhibition that attempts to point a lens at the key issues.
Inspired by the vote, The Ties That Bind is the work of four of the country’s top documentary photographers –Stephen McLaren, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, Colin McPherson and Sophie Gerrard.
Together they set up Document Scotland, a photographic collective formed to look at contemporary issues and the nation as it is now. Each has zoomed in on a different strand of Scotland’s culture and heritage to look at personal, community and national identity; to scratch the surface and see what is underneath.
While the referendum was there in the background, it was never the focus of the approximately 150 images, which took no stance on the issue either way. The intention was to portray a multiplicity of views and shine a light on aspects of Scottish society and life in a unique way.
McLaren’s photographs focus on Scotland’s legacy, namely its role in the slave trade and sugar plantations of Jamaica, while Sutton-Hibbert looks at tradition, in the shape of the centuries-old Common Ridings festivals of the Border towns. McPherson deals with engagement, highlighting the devotion of football supporters in small communities, and Gerrard looks at the land itself, highlighting contemporary farming through the experiences of six women farmers. Throughout the photographs there is a commonality, strands that run through a place and a time – when Scotland took a good look at itself.
Sophie Gerrard - The Land Itself: Drawn To The Land
A symbol of national identity and nostalgia, the Scottish landscape can often provoke an emotional response. Gerrard looks at six women farmers, from the Borders to Argyll, and records how the people who identify themselves as custodians, feel about the land, how they shape it, and are shaped by it. She shows us what the rural parts of our country tell us about Scotland’s national identity.
“I returned to Scotland nearly three years ago and felt it was time to re-familiarise myself with it. I wanted to get to know my own landscape. Often landscape has been portrayed through a male gaze, in an epic way, but it struck me that there’s a link between women, landscape and farming that was underrepresented, so I wanted to look at the women who were looking after the landscape.
“I went with them on their daily routine as I wanted them front and centre, hauling sheep over fences, to show them physically and intellectually. Then as it developed I got closer to them and photographed them in slower, calmer moments too. It’s about women being embedded in their landscapes, being part of the elements, the changing seasons, and there is often a lyrical connection. I wanted to capture that, the poetry of it.
“These women have a huge respect for the land and a desire to look after it and leave it in a better state for the future. They’re employers, accountants, midwives, vets, managers, and I have a huge respect for that life and people who are the managers and custodians of our landscape.
“I also wanted to look at them looking at old photographs, diaries or with tools as these are an important part of the connection they have with the land. Sarah on Eigg has a lovely crook that was given to her by the uncle she took the farm over from, and she uses it all the time. Minty on Mull talked about growing up in that place, and in that portrait that look summed up her determination and commitment.
“There are political issues, about livestock control, forestry, wind power, land ownership, but I never wanted the work to be politically biased in any way. The project is there to lead to further conversations around those issues. Coming up to the referendum there were those who talked about it and those who never mentioned it. For them the most important thing was that the right thing happened for that landscape, and that commitment, passion and responsibility didn’t have a Yes or No sticker on it. Nuances around identity don’t come down to a simplistic for or against.
“There’s something about the countryside, the horizon, the epic sense of Scotland that I love. It’s the opposite of power, it’s a reminder of how small we are in the scheme of things.”
Colin McPherson - Engagement: When Saturday Comes
Named after the football magazine for which McPherson has been photographing football culture for the past decade, this strand of the exhibition focuses on lower league football and the associated rituals. From Berwick to Fraserburgh, belonging, commitment and loyalty are expressed every Saturday in stands and on grassy verges, whatever the weather – or the result.
“There is a commonality of feeling among fans, and football is about the fans. Players come and go and stadiums too, but it’s about the fans and their culture. There was a lot of talk around the referendum about Scotland being divided and needing to heal, but if you went to a match, you couldn’t tell who was Yes or No, and the next week back at the football, nobody was upset. It’s the stuff below the surface that unites us, urban, rural, rich, poor.
“Photographing lower and non-league football it’s all about the characters, the supporters and the ritual. My camera is very much pointed away from the pitch. I like to observe people who are absorbed, the Kirkintilloch fans rallying around a flag, looking ahead, the Berwick fans optimistic because it’s a lovely day and the start of the season. By November it’s cold and wet, but the fans still come.
“Football culture is different in Scotland. It’s like the carpet you walk on: it’s always there. Per head of the population more people watch it than anywhere else in Europe. There’s religious devotion and ritual: taking the same route to the game, standing in the same place, wearing the same scarf, singing the same songs. The rituals are part of a greater humanity. And there’s a sense of continuity – they’re back next week, whatever the result. The picture of Cappielow – I remember standing there 25 years ago, and it hasn’t changed a bit. These are the ties that bind and are important to us. The club will always be there.”
Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert - Tradition: Unsullied And Untarnished
Throughout the summer Scotland’s border towns celebrate with Common Ridings, where riders survey the boundaries of their communities’ common lands. Local youths represent towns like Hawick, Selkirk and Jedburgh, bearing a standard they are charged with bringing back “unsullied and untarnished”. Sutton-Hibbert visited the Ridings, making portraits of the participants and looking at tradition and how it keeps a sense of community alive.
“I was really impressed by the love that people have for their community and the strength of bonds people have. There’s pride and also commemoration of their history. Those communities have a sense of the past and what’s gone before, a sense of identity. It reaffirms friendships and ties between family and community. In a modern social media world of constant change, to have the same thing every year, the same songs in the same place, grounds people in their space. Doing this every year strengthens the bonds and carries a force for years to come.
“Tourists are welcome, but these are local festivals for local people. There’s no branding or sponsorship, they’re pure. Each festival has its own history and idiosyncrasies. Often I ask about them – parading around a crown of pink roses, an eight-foot thistle, a salted herring and a bannock – and someone will just reply, ‘It’s aye been’.
I have gone to various countries and seen fascinating events, festivals and normal life. But when you have been in The Hut in Hawick Common Riding where the riders jump off their horses at the top of the hill, run in and drink rum and milk and sing songs about local community, around 200 men all linking arms, it’s moving, stirring, and as fascinating as anything I’ve seen elsewhere. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and think ‘this happens in Scotland’. This is in our own country. All we have to do is open our eyes.”
Stephen McLaren - Legacy: A Sweet Forgetting
This project revolves around Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade and how the country’s wealth was built on the back of African slaves. McLaren travelled to Jamaica to find the sites of the plantations then returned to Scotland to see how the wealth was spent and what the legacy is of that today. His photographs, many of the mansions and estates bought with the money, explore the past, how it shapes the present and also how we choose to remember the past.
“I am very interested in the Scottish diaspora across the planet and now that we are in the middle of a ‘migrancy crisis’ it is worth remembering that Scots have migrated across continents for centuries. As regards Jamaica, we as a nation seemed to have forgotten that thousands of Scots journeyed there to own or work on sugar plantations which produced immense wealth for our country despite being underpinned by African slaves. Several Scottish historians are doing amazing research on this period and my project is a visual addendum to that work.
“What does it tell us about our culture and heritage and about national identity?
“Jamaica is full of people with surnames like Campbell, Macintosh and Dunbar, and place names like Inverness and Culloden, so our legacy in Jamaica is undeniably strong and controversial. The project tells us that recent Scottish history is closely tied in with the slave economies of the West Indies in the 18th and 19th centuries and that we need to come to terms with that fact, otherwise we cannot tell a full and true picture of our national story.” n
Document Scotland: The Ties That Bind
26 September 2015 – 24 April 2016
Scottish National Portrait Gallery,
• Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1JD
Admission free, open daily 10am-5pm, Thursdays until 7pm
(0131-624 6200, www.nationalgalleries.org/portraitgallery)