SOMETIMES there is nothing more important than a photograph. A loved one, especially a child, caught by a photographer in less time than it takes to blink an eye. Perhaps an ancestor.
In my case, like many people, I keep photographs of my nearest and dearest on the desk where I sit to write. I look at them from time to time - as most of us do - to remind myself that the world is not without joy or purpose.
One of the photographs is different. It is of someone I never knew, my great uncle, William John Esler. He is pictured in his army uniform (he was in the Seaforths) taken shortly before he was killed at the battle of Paschendale in the First World War. His last resting place is unknown. He was lost in the chaotic action in the mud fields on the Belgian-French border, though he is commemorated at the Paschendale memorial and by the Royal Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
I look at the face of this unknown ancestor in an old battered black-and-white photograph, and I wonder what might have been if he had lived. Another family? Another set of Clydesiders who escaped the First World War only to find their sons in combat 20 years later against Hitler? Undoubtedly.
The story of my family, and probably, if you dig enough, of yours.
But it is the striking nature of the photograph which keeps it near to me. The enigmatic smile of a man about to die, a smile captured, I should guess, at one- thirtieth of a second by the photographer. This great uncle looks like a man proud of his uniform and of a cause which turned Belgium and France into a mincing machine of the youth of this country and much of Europe.
I turned to the importance of photographs because a picture has arrived of one of my favourite places, in Wester Ross, and it has made me feel rather wistful.
This picture was taken by the Scottish photographer Andy Hall who has already published a magnificent collection of pictures which tie some of us Scots to our native land. When he asked me to select a place which means a lot to me, I was torn between a view which is almost a photographic clich - Edinburgh Castle, much loved by shortbread manufacturers and postcard producers - and a more private place, Gairloch, not far short of Ullapool.
I had a very particular view in mind, from the dunes and the campsite north of Gairloch looking south. Now, I’m delighted to say, Andy has sent me a print and asked for a few words to go with it, explaining what the place means to me.
It’s a request which is at once simple and profoundly difficult. Simple because this is the view of my Scottish childhood.
In his picture, the sun yellows in the west looking over the seawater which runs slick on the stones. To the south the mountains are kissed by the sea and also by a sky so blue you can taste the cleanness of the air like a draught of neat whisky.
It makes my breath catch. But it is also profoundly difficult to explain exactly what this place means to me now. What does Scotland mean to me - to any of us - in this vast Scottish diaspora which stretches from Wester Ross to California and New Zealand to Zimbabwe?
I go back to Wester Ross as often as I can. I still camp sometimes among the dunes and manage the best night’s sleep of my life after supping the intoxicating air. But is that it? The nostalgia of the exile?
THE Bonnie-Prince-Charlie-was-a-saint nonsense of our collective Celtic sentimentality does not have much room in my brain, but when I look on the picture of Wester Ross, I wonder if I am tinged (as generations of emigrants always are) with a wee smack of the White Heather Club and the shortbread tin?
Probably. And especially at this time of year. I have now lived longer outside Scotland than inside it - though I have never lived continuously in any one place as I have done in Edinburgh. I’m not sure I have the complete answer to Andy’s deceptively simple request about what that photograph of that place in that country I still call home, really means to me.
A Sense of Belonging to Scotland is the title of his book. Maybe I cannot improve much on that. We belong, we always belong, no matter how far away we live or for how long. Happy New Year.
Gavin Esler is a presenter on BBC2’s Newsnight