Book Review: Alex Boyd, St Kilda, The Silent Islands

Stac an Armin and Boreray

Alex Boyd endures a complex relationship with Romanticism. His past projects have poked tongue in cheek fun at lone figures in sublime Scottish landscapes whilst, on the other hand, pursuing a series of arduous alternative process chemical adventures in suitably remote locations in Scotland and Ireland. In his newly published book St Kilda, The Silent Islands Boyd finds middle ground where the inescapable natural beauty of the islands and the archetypal abandoned settlement at Village Bay on Hirta are balanced by a healthy injection of contemporary reality through inclusion of photographs of the long running and still active military presence on the islands.

Village Bay from Ruabhal

Not to kill the romance completely, we are told before we reach the photographs that many of them were made using a camera previously owned by renowned landscape photographer Fay Godwin. The connection is clear enough to see through the photographs themselves: black and white, square(ish) in format, with a subtly politicised approach. Dr Kevin Grant, a former resident researcher, has written an introductory essay on the comings and goings of people on the islands today. Grant wittily describes the tensions between the various tribes: awe struck tourists, National Trust researchers, arms length military workers and hoards of mesmerised artists. He makes the key observation that the St Kildans of old were not in fact bird-eating subsistence farmers untouched by modern civilisation. They harvested sea birds on an industrial scale to supply by-products for cash and were linked to their fellow Hebrideans through culture and custom as well as trade. Curiously, Grant is also at pains to point out how much the maintenance of the islands’ heritage relies upon the presence of MOD contractors, as if there were no conceivable alternative for this dual Unesco World Heritage Site.

Radar installations on Mullach Mor

Once past the text and illustrative pictures we encounter a fine collection of seventy-eight matter-of-factly captioned photographs in five passages. First there are dramatic landscapes captured from the sea looking into deep caves, small islands and giant sea stacs. Then a larger collection of photographs surveys the old structures of Village Bay where the fabled St Kildan community once lived and worked until their evacuation in 1930. Third we see indicators of the military presence: weather recorders, roads and listening devices. Then come the cleitan, stone built store-houses once used by the farmers. Finally we return to a series of landscapes only this time from a perspective looking out from terra firma to edgelands of rock and sea and the great beyond. This structure works well. There is a sense of arriving from the sea into the bay where the old settlement sits and then passing out beyond cold war masts and orbs through rows of cleitan into the hinterlands where once again we reach the surrounding limitless sea and horizon. One minor gripe is the several occurrences of similar photographs sharing the same title: Cemetery Wall, Village Bay or Radar Installation, Mullach Mor are, unnecessarily,  ‘treblers’. Overall however, we are taken on a satisfying journey with a much needed, disconcerting, jag of the military situated slap bang in the middle of all that wild beauty.

Cleitan along the gap between Conachair and Oiseval

Photographers have visited St Kilda since 1860 when Captain F.W.L. Thomas made a series of uncomfortable portraits of islanders wedged into the doorway of the village manse*. For the next seventy years the focus of photography there continued to be people and their dying traditions more than the dramatic landscape in which they lived. A romantic myth was fostered of a primitive Gaelic community living in harmony with nature, remote from modern life both physically and metaphorically. Photography was instrumental in constructing and perpetuating that myth. In Alex Boyd’s book there are no people. Rather than struggle to obtain formal permissions (or not) to photograph the current residents in what is now a highly controlled environment he chose to make a picture of the Silent Islands through the land itself and through its starkly contrasting man made structures both old and relatively new.

Dun and Ruabhal in the mist

In the end Boyd’s islands remain silent, listening and looking out, defined both by the absence of people from sight and the presence of things normally absent in contemporary representations of St Kilda. By drawing attention to important things often left out of the picture of this emblematic site, Boyd exemplifies a process much needed in Scottish photography by unpicking historic layers of misrepresentation and by making visible what we need to see if we are to form a truthful picture of Scotland today. 

* Martin Padget, Photographers of the Western Isles, (Edinburgh, John Donald, 2010)
** All photographs © Alex Boyd


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