Land, photography and politics

We’ve just spent a week on Skye, staying in the very north, on the Trotternish peninsula.  Skye is as spectacular as everyone always says it is: this was the view we had looking south-west from near Ord in the southern part of the island towards Rùm:

view from near Ord on Loch Eishort, looking to the Isle of Rùm on the left, with the Cuillin mountains on the right

view from near Ord on Loch Eishort, looking to the Isle of Rùm on the left, with the Cuillin mountains on the right

However, as ever on the west coast of Scotland, devastating reminders of the not-so-distant past are everywhere.  Looking a little further up Loch Eishort to the opposite shore, away from the Cuillins, are the ruins of Dun Boreraig:

view from near Ord on Loch Eishort, to the ruins of Dun Boreraig

The village was reached by coming round the mountain from the gap in the top right of the image, along the curved track towards the shore.  The village was emptied in the mid-19th century as part of the Clearances – the people made way for sheep that were more profitable for the landowners than peasant farmers working the land.  Many of these people ended up in Australia.  Today, the people are still gone, and the sheep are still there.

The individual responsible for this was Lord MacDonald, chief of the Donald clan, who owned much of this part of Skye.  Ironically, on our return journey we stopped off at the Kinloch Lodge Hotel for tea, a place made famous by the chef Claire MacDonald.  Her husband’s wealth will in part have come from this 19th century expulsion of people for profit.

So land is never just spectacular (etc.), but is always also political.  I increasingly struggle to make “simple” pretty images, in part because I know that there is always more to a photograph than a simple pretty scene, and in part because I struggle with the politics of land.  What I today regard as beautiful on Skye – the bleakness, the hills, the apparent wildness, even though I know this is all just a series of constructions that fit a certain kind of idealised aesthetic – has profound social and political contexts to it: the land is always more than just land, it is social and personal history as well.

However, it is not even just history.  Indeed, the Clearances are not just historical, they continue to take place even today, in the ongoing battle of historiography – the question of how we DO history – as this sign at Erisco shows (the full sign is at the end of this blog posting):

Erisco sign, Trotternish peninsula, Isle of Skye

Erisco sign, Trotternish peninsula, Isle of Skye

The key part of the text here I’m referring to here reads:

During the 19th Century when crofters were being cleared from the best areas to make room for the incoming flocks of Cheviot sheep and their Border shepherds, several Skye landlords including Lord MacDonald were forced to resettle their tenants elsewhere.

The idea that the poor hard-pressed Lord MacDonald might have been forced to resettle the community  of tenants for an unstoppable wave of sheep and their shepherds is completely ludicrous, and I cannot help but wonder at the power of the present MacDonalds when it came to the creation of this sign (I notice one of the acknowledgements includes a Mr MacDonald, though I don’t know of his possible connection to the present Lord and his family).  There is a long tradition now in academic circles of postcolonial readings of history – understanding history not just as being postcolonial in the sense of ‘after colonialism’ (what I tend to call the ‘postcolonial moment’), but also as postcolonial in the sense of method and purpose (the ‘postcolonial movement’ that can help us understand our contemporary context more completely by reading it in the light of power and colonial/neocolonial control) – and we need to apply such readings to our present Scottish context just as much as those formerly dominated by European empires have done in other parts of the world.

Land is never just land.


One of the best contemporary authors on land, especially in Scotland, is Andy Wightman.  Andy engages in precisely the kind of postcolonial reading that I think we so urgently need, and I highly recommend his blog, his Who Owns Scotland website and his books, especially The Poor Had No Lawyers.

Here’s the full sign at Erisco:

Erisco sign, Trotternish peninsula, Isle of Skye

Erisco sign, Trotternish peninsula, Isle of Skye



One thought on “Land, photography and politics

  1. Dr Rajalakshmi Nadadur Kannan

    Nice one, Michael! It raises a lot of questions that I can’t articulate now. It reminds me of my blog on the contexts within which any art is ‘performed’. I wonder whether knowing the context changes the way, your image for instance, is interpreted. However, land is never just land; an image isn’t either 🙂

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