Scottish Road Trip

 

The eternal questions are “who am I?” and “where do I come from and fit in?”.  It is the basis of the module Identity and Place that I am studying.  I spent the last week in the Highlands of Scotland on a trip taking in the landscape of Glens and Lochs while travelling on roads that were not used to large amounts of traffic – narrow single land roads with passing places if you should come across another traveller.  For me it was not just a holiday but another chance to embrace my Scottish heritage.  Both my parents were Scottish, my mother a native from Hamilton in Glasgow and my father via parents from Dundee by way of Canada and then Stirling in Perthshire.  As a child I spent a few summers visiting Grandpa and staying in midge infested areas, and in my memory it was always raining.  The few photographs that we still have bear testament to that fact with bright blank skies or us wearing full wet weather gear while hanging on to railings to avoid being blown away.  Photographs contribute to memories and I wonder how much we actually remember and how much now is constructed through the static images that pass down the years.  Once I was old enough, I avoided Scotland preferring warmer climates like the south of France when I could afford it, southern England when I couldn’t.  But then I got to a certain age, I started to wonder about where my parents had come from and it seemed important to get them to talk to me about their upbringing and what they remembered about growing up ‘up north’.  In 2012 my younger sister and I went on a trip to Glasgow and Stirling to have a look at those places, to put places to names and to put a human aspect on them as well as to try to remember them from our own childhood.  It was a trip of mixed memories, a bit like piecing together a jigsaw as they all differed slightly with me being older and having spent more time with my parents than either of my sisters.  I think it was at that point that I began to be much more aware of my heritage, to follow Scottish news occasionally, support their national teams as my number 2 (sometimes number 1 in the case of football which I loathe!) and try to make a trip north of the border at least once a year.

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My mum passed away in 2013 after suffering from dementia for several years, and one of the things that saddened me was that I felt that I didn’t know enough about her life.  My dad followed her last year and I was struck by the fact that all the photographs that they left behind are now orphaned and there is no-one to ask who these people with them are in each one.  Some you can read as a historical glimpse of the past – the one of my Grandfather (who I never met) in his suit and Homburg hat alongside a Canadian Mountie and a guy in full Scottish Regimental Kilt with two other well dressed men, I assume the photo was taken in the 1920s, but to see the three different styles together is unusual.

Scotland meets Canada

My mum’s album has holidays with friends, photos of school and university classmates – one nicknamed “Stinker” which is so 1940s – and them sitting fully clothed on the beach.  They must have been in Scotland!  All of these inform who I am and where I came from, and why I now feel an affinity with this place at the other end of the British Isles.

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I suppose that this ties in with a couple of the artists that I have studied both on this module and on Context and Narrative. We have been asked to look at Julian Germain for his work on a series of images For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness, 2005. That series was an interesting narrative on the life of an elderly man and I found it thought provoking.  The project that is relevant to this post is War Memorial where Germain brought together photographs from men and women serving in the armed forces over the past 100 years.  It made me think of the photographs that I have of my grandfather with his comrades, and all I have is a name and a place scrawled on the back.

These men are all strangers to me apart from the one I know to be my grandfather seated on the right.  He is familiar because I have seen other photos of him, and my dad looked very like him, but I don’t know who he is.  I study him trying to decide if I look more like his side of the family than my mum’s.  He died at the age of about 54 when my dad was 21 which seems young but later photos of him seem that he was much older.

Then I looked at the work of Zun Lee whose project Fade Resistance was interesting looking at the orphaned polaroids of black americans which he found online or in charity shops, the nameless people going about their daily lives.  He was reassessing his heritage after finding out that his biological father was a black GI rather than the Korean man who had brought him up.  And then going on from there I also looked again at the work of Nicky Bird Question for Seller where she did the same thing of buying up unwanted photographs from eBay and finding out what she could about them.  In an interview, she stated:

“What is it about this type of imagery that interests you so much?

I think – along with many others – there is a fascination for vernacular ‘family’ photographs that have been removed for unknown reasons from their original context, and names of the person, the photographer, are also lost. Particularly with analogue photographs, the fact you can hold it in your hand, whilst looking at the content, brings home that this is part of someone’s ‘life,’ and connects you to history, even if specifics are missing, and you might not fully understand what you are looking at.”

When looking at my old family photographs, the physical sensation of holding this tiny piece of paper in my hand makes it seem much more real and connected to me, even I never met the people in the photographs or even know who they are.  All this brings me back to my visit to Scotland….

I had thought about what this trip meant to me in the context of this course, and during the week I had time to consider what it is that makes this place so important to me.  I can feel myself relax as I go further north, past Manchester and Preston and then into the Lake District on the M6, away from the bonkers traffic and built up areas of housing.  Once I cross the border, it is like I can take a breath and be.  We did the Highlands on the west coast after crossing over from Glasgow and headed out towards Glencoe and Fort William.  I climbed Ben Nevis overnight for a charity about three years ago and as I looked up at it this time I felt an immense pride that I had made it up…and down again.  Then over to the Isle of Skye and across to Inverness, the gateway to the sea at Cromarty which is one of the areas on the shipping forecast.  Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Cromarty.  The echoes of childhood.

Grounding me are the hills on Skye leading to the tiniest harbour. Then looking across the water to the mainland as we crossed to Skye into a town called Armadale, the business name for my dad’s machine tool engineering work.  The high distilling stills of Glenmorangie whisky, apparently the tallest ones because they were originally used for gin.  My parents both enjoyed a wee dram of whisky!  And Ben Nevis, the scene of my achievement in climbing up it overnight and being surprised to find snow and ice at the top in June.  These all are links to my past and to try to work out who I am in the mix.

I consider myself English as that is where I was born and have spent my life, but there is a part of me that considers myself Scottish – after all I was born with red hair and my middle name is Seona, Gaellic for pure.  I feel at peace among the hills and lochs of the highlands but equally easy in Glasgow.  But it doesn’t matter where you are because you always to take yourself along so the next step is to be comfortable in my skin and accept who I am now that I have (almost) found the where.

Drumnadrochit
My dad always referred to an evening drink as ‘a wee drumnadrochit’.  Then I discovered it was an actual place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.zunlee.com/faderesistance#0   (accessed 11.7.17)

http://griotmag.com/en/fade-resistance-zun-lees-project-restores-orphaned-polaroids-of-black-families/  (accessed 11.7.17)

https://photoparley.wordpress.com/category/nicky-bird/  (accessed 12.7.17)

 

1.4 Archival Intervention

Part One, Project 3, Exercise 1.4, Archival Interventions

 

A very interesting exercise that I could easily get lost in once I started.  Looking at the outline of the exercise, I thought about the large numbers of very old family photographs that I now have since the death of my Dad last year.  I found it really hard to get rid of them as the old tiny black and white pictures of my grandparents in particular are a window onto a different time and fascinating in the clothes, cars, setups they have for their snaps.  Sorting through them also struck me as to how little we actually take time to look at printed images and try to connect with what happened at the time they are taken.

My thinking was to somehow connect the past with the present through the family and had a couple of options.  The old photos were mainly of my Dad’s family so I had a starting point of looking at the paternal side rather than maternal.  Plus, I don’t have many photos of my mum’s.  I am quite close to my aunt, my Dad’s sister, and I was interested in the connections to her and family.  One option that I pursued was of the women starting with the grandmothers, then my mum and aunt moving on to me and my two sisters. The photos of my grandmothers are of them in their 40s or 50s.  I always thought that one of them was in her 60s, judging from her white hair and dumpy physique.  In fact, she was only 55 when she died and in these photos she is much younger.  It highlighted the fact that we make judgements on appearances even if they may not be true.

I decided instead to look more closely at the military connection of the men in my family. I would not consider us to be a military family in that we have not had generations following each other into the armed forces, but there is a connection of sorts.  Both of my grandfathers were in the armed forces during the First World War, one in the Flying Corps and the other in the Army, the Artillery Division.  Their portraits are formal and posed using the style of the day.  One is full length in a studio set up with props and countryside scene, the other has heavy white vignetting around his head and shoulders.  My father was in the Army at the end of WWII and went to Northern Ireland to train new recruits to shoot.  His portrait is similar to that of his father, a head and shoulders but without the vignetting.

My two sons have been involved through one being an Army Cadet at school, and the other was a Recruit with the Royal Marines but had to make the tough decision to leave because of injury.  I have a snap of the Cadet but in full rig with cap and badge in place.  The other is the formal photograph that all new recruits have taken along with a Troop photo shortly after joining.   His is the formal portrait of head and shoulders, but in contrast to the older ones he is looking at the camera.  I can see a confidence in him but is that because I know him and what he went through in order to join?  I am sure that the other difference to the older generations is that he chose to join rather than being drafted which I know happened to my dad and very possibly to my grandfathers but I am not sure.

As a family, we had conversations about the army as for my generation WWII was still quite close and our parents had lived through it as young people.  I was always fascinated by the fact that my grandfathers had been in the First World War and as our knowledge of it grew I wondered about the horrors that they may have faced.  One of them got a medal for courage under fire when he helped other soldiers while being gassed.  My dad loved talking to his grandson about uniforms, weapons, drill and bad food.  It gave them a connection that had been missing and a talking point to bring the generations together.  I would have liked to have had that opportunity with my grandparents but unfortunately they were all gone by the time I was old enough to understand and question them.

Archive Collections-2
Three Generations of Armed Forces

When putting them together, I started with what I believe is the first one taken of my mother’s father in the Flying Corps in about 1914 then my father’s father in the Royal Artillery in about 1915.  Then my father in the Army about 1945 followed by my younger son in the Army Cadets in about 2006 and finally my older son after joining the Royal Marines in 2015.  If only George Armitt had been wearing his cap with badge, it would have made the set more complete but we don’t have one with him wearing it.  There are only three or four photos of him in uniform and all are without his cap. Personally I find this connection interesting because while I was aware of it, this is the first time that I have had them all together.

This exercise was interesting in bringing out family photographs and putting them together with different connections.  I also looked at weddings in the family and how they changed over time.  This has sparked something that I would like to pursue further and it is a reason for getting out the old photos rather than having them away, to look at the past and discover where we all come from and how we come together with shared interests, jobs, lives and families.