Socialist Worker

Romantic Camera: Scottish Photography & the Modern World

by Mike Gonzalez
Issue No. 2284

Sir Walter Scott has a lot to answer for.

His early 19th century novels and Romantic poems such as “The Lady of the Lake” created an image of Scotland that still shapes how people see the country.

And the Romantic Camera exhibition, at Edinburgh’s newly restored National Portrait Gallery, presents that mythical place.

It has dark brooding lakes overshadowed by mountains. There are grand Victorian Gothic monuments with plenty of spires and battlements, such as the Scott Monument in the city centre.

Early sepia prints by pioneering photographers Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill show this imagined country.

There is a picture taken by Hill on the island of Staffa with its dramatic basalt cliffs. The photographer stands tiny and insignificant beneath them.

Queen Victoria’s passion for Scotland (and for at least one Scotsman—there is a tiny photo of John Brown and her here) created a very early tourist boom.

People rushed to the fascinating wilderness, to the Trossachs hills, and to take the healing waters of the great lochs. Photography responded with endless images of empty landscapes.


The Scottish islands, the Hebrides, gave photographers more material in their search for a primitive or unspoilt world before civilisation.

The small communities living in the harsh conditions of these windswept places fascinated the photographers. A lantern slide show from the late 19th century shows the beauty of these places, but also the brutality of the life lived there.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is Alexander Hutchison’s image of the community on the island of St Kilda far out into the Atlantic.

It’s hard to imagine a harsher life than this—not a tree in sight and simple homes buried in the ground to avoid the winds.

The island was only accessible for six months of the year and the entire community was eventually evacuated in 1930.

People still come in search of that Scotland exempt from the ravages of civilisation.

Bill Brandt photographed Skye and Paul Strand took pictures of South Uist in the 1950s. They were part of the Pictorialist movement, which was a reaction against the school of lochs and mountains.


But their work was bought and sponsored by the new industrialists growing rich out of shipbuilding and iron making.

At the same time the cities, particularly Glasgow, were swelling with immigrants from the countryside and from Ireland.

But that urban, working class Scotland is barely represented here. It is as if that reality was absent from the artistic imagination. Yet we know that great works of art emerged in response to that reality.

The section of the exhibition called “Margins” has pictures of street kids in the 1940s and 1950s playing games and singing songs.

It is another kind of utopia—a picture of resilience and optimism, perhaps. But how many of these kids ever saw Loch Lomond or the northern hills?

Romantic Camera: Scottish Photography & the Modern World
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until 3 June

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Tue 3 Jan 2012, 18:15 GMT
Issue No. 2284
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