I used to live on an island. What I loved most about that temporary home was the very particular geography. The Outer Hebrides are flat and relatively barren, save for a few dark hills squatting on the horizon. There’s a real mood to the place, and an uninterrupted horizon – somehow the sky appears bigger than anywhere else in the world. Probably because of the lack of trees. Everytime my grandad arrived at the airport from the mainland, he’d make the same comment on this absence – “It’s quite bleak, isn’t it?” It was hard to argue the point. Also unique to these Scottish isles (and the west coast of Ireland) is the “machair”, which is Gaelic for a type of low lying grassy plains. Because of how exposed the land is there, sand continually blows ashore – swept up by great Atlantic gales – and so you get this habitat of flower blooms and abundantly rich insect and bird life, stretching up and behind the island’s long coastlines.
And it’s those great coasts and beaches that the isles are best known for. You could spend hours scouring the sands for lost treasures. One moment you would discover the venerable carcass of a dolphin or whale, hauled up onto the land by wild waves. Just along from that the ocean has spat out a different kind of carcass… some rusted ship engine, hoisted up onto a group of jagged rocks. It’s a striking contrast. Decomposing machinery crashing against raw wilderness. The sublime sitting besides the mundane.
The Outer Hebrides are full of these little juxtapositions, and I’m not the only one to notice. Jonathan Meades toured Scotland in his 2011 documentary, Off Kilter, and fell in love with the “unsurpassable strangeness” of the islands. Last year, he collaborated with photographer Alex Boyd on a book – “The Isle of Rust“. Based on Meades’ episode on the isles of Lewes and Harris, the glossy tome is filled with images that set our rusty leftovers against an impressive backdrop of austere landscapes. Old farming equipment withering away on a wind-blasted hill.