All Roads Lead to Scotland | Paul Strand's 1950s Hebridean photographs

Anne Lyden is responsible for the photography collection at the National Galleries of Scotland. The collection is presently around 40,000 objects. In this blog, Anne reflects on the incredible group of images taken on South Uist by American photographer, Paul Strand.​

Paul Strand, Mrs. Archie MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
© Paul Strand Archive.

When I was a curator based in California, I would often joke that ‘all roads lead to Scotland.’ While my American colleagues would politely smile at my patriotic pride and bombast, there were certainly enough moments within the history of photography to demonstrate my claim.

I had the opportunity to muse on this once more in 2015 when the National Galleries of Scotland made a major acquisition of nine photographs by the American photographer, Paul Strand (1890-1976). The vintage silver gelatine prints date from 1954 and are of the landscape and people of South Uist, an island of the Outer Hebrides. Strand is among the greatest photographers within the history of photography, and his work is represented in collections all over the world, so having a selection of these Scottish works enter our collection was an exciting opportunity.

Paul Strand Norman Douglas, South Uist, Hebrides 1954 © Paul Strand Archive
Paul Strand John Angus MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides 1954 © Paul Strand Archive

Strand spent three months photographing the people and the land of South Uist for his book Tìr a’ Mhurain (1962). The title is taken from a traditional Gaelic song “Tìr a’ mhurain, tìr an eórna” (land of bent grass, land of barley) that laments the plight of emigrants, longing to return to Uist, the treeless island, where strong winds bend the beach grass. Strand was inspired to travel to the Hebrides after hearing a radio programme on Gaelic folksongs and when the time came to publish his photographs of the islanders, he reproduced the lyrics to the Tìr a’ Mhurain song in the pages of his book.

Paul Strand, Peggy MacDonald, South Uist, Hebrides, 1954
© Paul Strand Archive

While the Gaelic music was a major influence on the photographer’s desire to document the islands, the photographs also show the influence of another Scottish connection—the early portraits by Hill & Adamson. Strand admired the work of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, photographic partners in Edinburgh between 1843 and 1847 who produced thousands of prints, many of which are now part of the permanent collection based at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. In describing Hill & Adamson’s work, Strand spoke of their photographs as recording an ‘inner strength’, something that he aspired to achieve in his own work. His Hebridean portraits, made over a hundred years later certainly recall the heroic nature of the Newhaven portraits by Hill & Adamson. In the 1840s Newhaven was a small fishing village on the outskirts of Edinburgh, populated by a tightknit community of men, women and children.

Paul Strand, Archie MacDonald, South Uist,1954
© Paul Strand Archive. On loan from Stills Gallery
David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Newhaven fisherman leaning against a boat, 1843-1847.

Their traditional way of life would soon be impacted by the growth of the capital city and the wider industrialisation of the nineteenth century. Similarly, in the 1950s the crofters of South Uist were witnessing change to their own remote community, most notably with the siting of a missile rocket range on the island. While Strand opposed this facility and indeed his portraits may be seen as a protest against the Cold War, the works should not be read as propaganda. They are part of a life-long quest of his to capture something of humanity’s essential character focusing on communities whose precarious existence was under threat from the modernising world. His photographic journeys took him all over the world—America, Mexico, France, Italy, Egypt, Romania, Hungary, Spain—but in considering the Tìr a’ Mhurain work, literally and figuratively, all roads led to Scotland.

By Anne Lyden, Chief Curator, Photography