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.
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.
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.
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.
http://www.zunlee.com/faderesistance#0 (accessed 11.7.17)
https://photoparley.wordpress.com/category/nicky-bird/ (accessed 12.7.17)