31 August 2014


The last few months have been pretty hectic (with trips to Iceland, Harris, Snowdonia and Norway) but I’ve finally got around to processing the 5×4’s and getting Tim Parkin to scan them for me. I’ve just uploaded the first three images (from the east coast of Harris, southern Iceland and Snowdonia) and I want to tell you a story about creels…

Creels 1200

Stacks of lobster creels have always fascinated me; perhaps it’s the patterns formed by the netting and arched forms, perhaps it’s the patina of weathering that speak volumes about them as the tools of hardworking fisherman trying to wrest a living from the unforgiving sea. Despite my interest, I have always struggled to make an image that I felt worthwhile. It’s easy enough to make something very formal, that plays with the regularity of the creels’ shape. But I wanted to make an image that was subtler and less ordered than this, something that reflected the work-a-day.

Travelling along the Golden Road, on the east coast of the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, you begin to think about how tough it must be to make a living from this beautiful but barren landscape. A scant few centuries ago hardly anyone lived on the rocky eastern side of the island, where bare knolls of ancient Lewissian Gneiss rear like cumulus cloud tops above a sea of blanket bog. The crofters used to live on the more fertile west coast. There, broad bays are backed by soft, vegetated dunes – the ‘machair’; a landscape rich in bird life and carpeted in wild flowers in June. Inland lies a narrow margin of fields, with sandy soils, before the land rises toward the mountains. A scatter of single storey houses stand betwixt field and moor. It’s not great land but there is grazing for a few cows, the possibility to grow some crops and take a harvest of hay. It is certainly an easier place to make a living from than the east yet there are more settlements in the east. The west would be more densely populated today were it not for the events following the Jacobite Uprising.

lastoftheclanHardly had the smoke cleared from the Battle of Culloden than the English imposed wide ranging changes on the Highland way of life. Prominent amongst these were the banning of Gaelic and the prohibition of kilts. These were direct assaults on the culture of the Clans. But something that had an even more profound effect was the insistence by the Crown that the sons of Clan chiefs be educated in England. In a generation the centuries old paternal relationship between Chief and crofter was replaced by one driven by commerce. Where once the Chief had looked upon his fellow clansmen as family members, people to be protected, his sons now often regarded them as squatters on valuable land. Previously, crofters weren’t seen as a source of income but as source of manpower, for when the Chief needed an armed force. Inter tribal conflict was now banned and the clans were policed by a resident standing army of lowland Scots and English officers. What use were the crofters to their Lords now? Lowland Scots were also hired to run the large tracts of Highland estates – some still controlled by Clan landlords, some now in the hands of absentee English landowners. Regardless of their nationality, the landlords quickly came to the conclusion that more money could be made if the tenants were evicted and their farms were amalgamated into enormous sheep or cattle ranches. They cared not that there was nowhere for the crofters to go to. Their houses callously burnt to the ground, families were left destitute. This incredible upheaval, known as the Highland Clearances, went on for over a century. It effected a diaspora of Scots. Some moved to the cities of the central belt, many opted for a life in the far flung Colonies – a ‘boat people’ travelling in steerage class and dying in their thousands.

So it came to be that the crofters were evicted from the more fertile west of Harris and forced to make a living on the barren eastern shore. The soil was so thin that in some places they had to gather it by the barrow-load before it was deep enough to grow a crop. Piled into the characteristic ‘lazy beds’, the remnants of thousands of hours of hard work can still be seen as patches of parallel lines scattered across the moorland landscape. This wasn’t enough to fill their bellies so he crofters turned to inshore fishing as a way to supplement their meager diet. In an ironic twist, the descendants of those farmers evicted from their lands by the gentry now make a living catching lobster to be served to the rich in expensive restaurants. Lobster might be glamorous served as thermidor, the life of a working Hebridean fisherman is anything but.

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5 Responses to “Creels…”

  1. On September 1, 2014 at 7:44 am