A haunting and evocative photo documentary examining the legacy left by the Highland Clearances is attracting international attention.
The exhibition’s black-and-white images of barren landscapes and ruined croft houses reclaimed by nature, show how historical depopulation and tree-felling have left a lasting impact on the environment and culture of Scotland.
They are accompanied by a soundtrack of traditional and specially created music.
The project is the brainchild of Thurso-born Robert Clamp, a forester by trade but also a keen amateur photographer and accomplished musician.
The work has been well received after its first showing, in Serbia’s cultural capital, Novi Sad.
The key messages in Celtic Exodus and Empty Landscapes are how large-scale depopulation has impacted both the culture and environment of Scotland.
It has received acclaim not only for its artistic merit but also because of the parallels it draws with Serbia’s own more recent history, where ethnic cleansing and migration have resulted in a massive displacement of people.
“The exhibition was about the message, the legacy of what has happened in Scotland and how we are trying to mitigate that now, and to share the experience,” said Clamp.
“Serbia has a very common history with Scotland and issues with population displacement after the Balkan wars. Theirs is much more recent, but a very similar story to ours.
“There are real issues with people leaving the countryside to go to the cities, to go abroad and being ethnically displaced, so it was interesting to find messages from things that happened here a long time ago, and take them to Serbia.
“They were very interested in that. I think they can see the commonality.
“Things that have happened here, the Highland Clearances 200, 300 years ago, we’re still feeling the impact of that to this day. It has left a legacy. That, for them, was the really intriguing part, I think.
“I tried to make the exhibition fairly unsentimental. I use black and white photography, so the images can be a bit stark, and I made a soundscape. I play traditional instruments, which invoked a lot of atmosphere and strengthened the message.”
Daniela Pavelka, culture editor for Serbia’s Radio Beseda, was instrumental in bringing Clamp’s work to Novi Sad. She said people there had been deeply affected by Celtic Exodus.
“I believe that many people in Serbia have been disturbed after seeing and hearing this truly moving and distressing story about Scotland and Scottish forests,” she said.
“The first association I have with Scotland would be lush vegetation, Highlander, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, but certainly not devastated forests, destitute settlements and abandoned hearths.
“The emotions I felt were deepened by the fact that villages in central and south Serbia offer a similar sad, deserted and desolate picture.
“The unpretentious background melodies have evoked an almost film-like atmosphere in this fantastic exhibition.”
Clamp, who has been working as a forester for 25 years, took up photography as a hobby when he was a teenager.
“I’m very privileged in my job,” he said. “I go places most people don’t know about or get to see, so I take my camera with me all the time.
“I keep being drawn back to the banks of Loch Tay. It’s a very interesting area – full of all sorts of remains and ruins, everything from the Bronze Age right up to the time of the Highland Clearances. You can trace the history of Scotland right back, and land use and deforestation as well. There isn’t a lot of forest left.”
He believes regeneration of Scotland’s woodlands is key to the country’s recovery.
Clamp, who lives in Longcroft, near Falkirk, has already been invited to bring his work to Croatia and Slovakia this spring. He also has ambitions to stage the exhibition, his first ever, on Scottish soil some time soon.
He is due to have talks with national arts agency Creative Scotland in the hope of generating support.
In the meantime he will keep on planting trees and documenting Scotland’s natural beauty as he goes.
To see Celtic Exodus and Empty Landscapes online, go to https://vimeo.com/182926360