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  • April 5, 2016

A Long Love Affair With the Scottish Isles, in Pictures

From the deck of the boat, the cloud-raked island of Boreray beckoned me, flanked by fanged stacks rising out of the sea. Odd, perhaps, that I should find this welcoming. But I do.

Boreray is part of the St. Kilda archipelago, visible from Harris in the Scottish Hebrides islands but another world away. By boat it’s 40 miles of North Atlantic swells that heave and slap you into rubber-legged submission. Seamen Angus Campbell drives with a steady hand on the throttle, making the trip everyday, if he can—which he can’t. Weather. But now Angus nodded. We’d make it today.

See more of Richardson’s pictures of the dramatic landscape of the Hebrides.

Picture of stone houses on St. Kilda
A village house on St. Kilda

I remembered that trip when I got an email recently from the St. Kilda Club. These are fellow romantics; the islander’s story tugs at them too. They were collecting pictures for a calendar to sell to visitors, raising funds for preservation and restoration work. The National Trust for Scotland cares for the island. It’s expensive. Once, during a week of constant, driving rain (Angus warned me) I stayed in one of their restored village houses. Haunting but dry.

St. Kilda was never easy—to get to or to live on. Hence it’s fame and allure. It was abandoned, you see, by the islanders who had endured there for thousands of years, until a day in 1930 when two of Her Majesty’s ships came to evacuate them. At their request. They couldn’t go on, dwindling away, isolated. It’s a heartbreaking tale. It’s why people come here, for the melancholy that pervades the empty village. Stone-walled shells now, with their hearts gone.

Picture of sheep being moved from island to island by boat
Sheep are moved from the harbor in Valtos on the Isle of Lewis over to the nearby island of Pabay for grazing.

Of course the club could use my pictures. It’s a paltry contribution but very rich for me. A reward, really, caught by the web of connections that can develop because of an ongoing photographic coverage. A sense of making some contribution to the ongoing life of the place, of becoming part of its story. The pictures, doing their job, linking people together. It feels good. Homecoming reunion emotions for an Atlantic island welling up in a Kansas farm boy.

Picture of puffins on the Shiant Isles
Atlantic puffins on the slopes of Garbh Eilean in the Shiant Isles

My pictures have seen the world; printed in National Geographic, they get around. Dentist offices everywhere, barbershops in Bhutan. You know.

But for all their connections with the real world, photographs too often lead disconnected lives. It is as if, after their moment of creation, they go off to live in a foreign country. They talk to the wider world, spread instantly across the planet, but with the folks back home, where they were born, not so much. Sometimes they act like children estranged from their parents, all links severed with the real world where they were born.

Picture of boys gathered after mass on the island of Barra
Boys gather after a mass honoring the founding of St. Brendan’s church in Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

Twenty years ago I came to these remote islands strewn along Scotland’s northwest coast as an objective observer, smugly expecting lonely outposts, bleak beauty, stoic islanders. Not anymore. Now I subscribe to the local newspaper, Am Pàpier (it’s Gaelic) on North Uist. The news is hyper-local but comforting stuff: first steel cut for a new ferry, crofters advised on lambing season. Headlines: “Seal Surprise in South Uist Garden.” “’Mittens’ Winning Entry to Name Post Office Cat.” I’m quite proud that I was their first foreign subscriber.

Picture of the Ring of Brodgar on the Orkney Islands
The Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic henge monument in the Orkney Islands

Some connections knit themselves together quite marvelously. I went to the Shiant Isles to see puffins. These curious birds landed close by and looked at me as if I was the curious one (which is probably true). Adam Nicolson (an English author of considerable note) owns these uninhabited islands, and so I sent him some pictures. He wrote back asking if I’d like to work with him on a story about the King James Bible for National Geographic? Not what I expected, but, yes, I would! So we did. That finished, he asked if he could use my pictures for fundraising to eradicate the invasive black rats from the Shiant Isles. (They eat seabird eggs.) Adam and friends (the EU, RSPB, SNH) raised more that £1 million. His friend Prince Charles contributed too. (Adam is well connected.) If all goes well, when I go back the Shiants will be awash in Manx shearwaters, storm petrels, and puffins. Nice.

Picture of flowers from a pagan wedding ceremony at the Ring of Brodgar on the Orkney Islands
Flowers from a pagan wedding held at the Ring of Brodgar. The couple came to Orkney for the ceremony at the 5,000-year-old stone circle.

Orkney’s human connections go back 5,000 years, mine mere decades. But I have come to know island doctors and farm families. Neolithic folk erected the standing stones tourists flock to ogle. Archeologist Nick Card and crew are digging up a temple complex in the backyard of Orkney jewelry designer Olga Gorie. Down the road Jimmy Tullach grazes sheep among the Standing Stones of Stenness. (“They were there when I bought the farm.”) My pictures ended up in their books and literature. They raised enough money to extend the dig season from six weeks to eight. I’m just a little part, but it felt good, anyway. (It’s actually a selfish pleasure, seeing my pictures living a life in the islands.)

Learn more about Richardson’s approach to creating stunning visuals of these stones.

Boreray still has my heart. Seaman Seumas Morrison brought me here once. Spitting rain but clearing, as the Scots say, meaning it will rain less before it rains more. Out of the clouds swirling around the island heights the gannets streamed in their thousands, craning down at the wild man on the boat below, the one with cameras whooping and hollering, stumbling toward the rail of the pitching boat. Another man grabbed his belt, saving him. An odd scene, to a gannett. But glorious to me.

Picture of the church of Rodel on the Isle of Lewis
The 15th-century church of Rodel, located in Harris on the Isle of Lewis, was built for the warlike chiefs of the MacLeods and towers over the sea lochs of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.

In my mind, that moment of rescue has become one of many that also save me from the disconnect of the modern world—vast, anonymous, impersonal. With them the pictures seem to come home, to take a cozy place in the family album, where I can feel them blowing gently on the kindling inside me, encouraging a small flame.


Jim Richardson has made numerous trips to the Scottish isles for National Geographic magazine and will be heading there again in the coming weeks for a story about the Scottish moors. Follow Jim on Instagram @jimrichardsonng and see more of his work on National Geographic Creative.

There are 40 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Bruce Benedict
    June 4, 2016

    Just wanted to say thanks. The teaching you did at KU had a good and lasting impact. I was lucky enough to attend while you were working on the High School project. My wife is English, and has been introducing me bit by bit to the United Kingdom – good fun!

  2. Maurlei Forcier
    April 27, 2016

    The photography is simply stunning! The anecdotes that come along with the photos are equally as entertaining. I’d love to visit the isles soon. What a fascinating place this must be.

  3. Don Scala
    April 24, 2016

    Stunningly beautiful photography –
    thank you,Nat. Geo., for bringing them to us.
    DS

  4. Brian McGarry
    April 18, 2016

    I’m going to St Kilda in July for a week’s photography, staying in the same cottage. Inspirational photos – hope I can get something half as good!

  5. Jim Richardson
    April 17, 2016

    Thanks for all your comments. And to those disputing the location of Rodel on Harris. I agree but that won’t help. Your beef is actually with Ordnance Survey who still says there is one Island of Lewis with a region called Harris. You’d think they would have worked this out but no such luck. And we follow their naming policy in the UK. If you get them to change I’ll stand up and cheer. Jim

  6. Jim Richardson
    April 17, 2016

    To Dr. Clarke. Regarding Harris, please see my previous comment. It won’t be satisfying but will at least explain. Regarding Her Majesty’s ships. Right you are and my apologies for inserting an unconsidered glib phrase. Thank you. Jim

  7. K K Nair
    April 12, 2016

    Amazing photos. keep it up.

  8. LateNightBlond
    April 11, 2016

    briefly caught images of a road less traveled – thank you.

  9. Carlos Pinto Leite
    April 11, 2016

    Superb photography quality!
    Adding to scottish roots and blood running in the family, now even more inspired to go and visit Scotland.

  10. Chris Boddington
    April 11, 2016

    We are fulfilling a long held dream of spending our summer holiday on the Isle Of Skye. What an inspiration these photos are!

  11. Alphy
    April 11, 2016

    Another place to add to my bucket list. How melancholic!

  12. Valorie Wells Fenton
    April 11, 2016

    Kenny and I were married in a garden by the shore at sunset on the Isme of Islay in 2005. And yet we still haven’t made it out to your studio in Lindsborg! Just a wee hop from State Line Rd in Kansas City

  13. Jackie Stevenson
    April 10, 2016

    I just found out recently through Ancestry.com that my ancestors were lords in Scotland. How very exciting! I so enjoyed these photos because they show the roads less traveled and how life could have been when my ancestors lived.

  14. Debbonnaire Kovacs
    April 10, 2016

    I had the blessed privilege of going to mainland Scotland once, but once is never enough. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to live on one of the outer islands for a whole year, raising sheep and spinning their wool. I’m a spinner and weaver; also a Montgomery, born of 1,000 years of southern highlands Scots. Your pictures bring me “home,” too. Thank you!

  15. Ads
    April 10, 2016

    So beautiful, unspoiled and pristine. I hope I get to visit Scotland one day.

  16. Lesley Jones
    April 10, 2016

    It is very beautifully captured – note that St Kilda is only visible from Harris if one is above around 400m and only if the visibility is good. To get a more realistic and less idyllic feel for the Western Isles try Jonathan Meades Isles of Rust, available on YouTube. The islands are other worldly, but changing quite fast. There’s some fantastic walking and a new long distance trail the Hebridean Way, that runs the length of the islands and is just about to open.

  17. Betty Sue Allen
    April 10, 2016

    Went to the Isle of Mull. Fell in love with the locals and the beauty of the highlands. want to go back some day. Thank you for your photography.

  18. Judy
    April 10, 2016

    I’ve always felt a connection to Scotland, people, traditions, music and so much more. Turns out my paternal line goes back to Scotland. When I discovered it, suddenly it made a lot of sense. So many families immigrated from Scotland to the colonies. Seems like it’s something that we have forgotten in this country. I’ve been to Scotland and I hope to return, it’s so beautiful. Like so many other places, it’s about the land and not what man has built upon it.

  19. Dr L Clarke
    April 10, 2016

    Excellent photos, not so the text: Her Majesty’s ships in 1930? Elizabeth II has not been Queen since she was 4 years old… Harris is not “part of Lewis”…

  20. Morag Clark
    April 10, 2016

    Pictures are phenomenal. Make me homesick.

  21. Ronald van Wijk
    April 10, 2016

    Great photos Jim! Still need to go to Scotland to trace the Scottish roots of my family. And take photos of course

  22. Suzan Alexander
    April 10, 2016

    Your pictures are stunning, Jim, as always and your words moving and funny at the same time. I would love to do another Lindblad cruise with you and learn a few more photographic tricks from one of the best.

  23. asha
    April 10, 2016

    enthralled and inspired.want more

  24. Vrushali
    April 10, 2016

    Thank you Mr Richardson for taking us to the Scottish Isles. We enjoyed the trip! 🙂

  25. Glenn Guy
    April 10, 2016

    Great photographs and a powerful, life affirming story. Deserves to be shared widely and wildly.

  26. Norm Petterson
    April 10, 2016

    Wow. Hauntingly timeless. Thank you.

  27. Stephan Onisick
    April 10, 2016

    Striking Raw Beauty

  28. Peggy
    April 10, 2016

    A story of beauty and inspiration. Mr. Richardson has connected not only himself to these Iands and people but also allowed us to share in the beauty and humanity that exists there. Thank you for a memorable story.

  29. Andrew Clarke
    April 9, 2016

    Inspired to visit. Must learn more.

  30. jim mc coll
    April 9, 2016

    inspiring words and pictures. i know very little of my homeland

  31. Jackie Wilson
    April 9, 2016

    What a fantastic love affair you have Mr Richardson. How I envy you. Loved your words as well as your photography. Well done

  32. Robert Bovill
    April 9, 2016

    Quite superb photography in a lovely part of Scotland. More please!

  33. Alexa Keefe
    April 7, 2016

    Thank you @Aman Toor and @Nick Charles for your comments! We have updated the caption for St. Clement’s church in keeping with our cartographic convention, which recognizes Harris as a region on the Isle of Lewis.

  34. Mike Berry
    April 7, 2016

    Jim – what a wonderful life you’re living! Can’t wait for your next exhibit in Lindsborg.

  35. Aman Toor
    April 5, 2016

    Jim. Please note that Rodel is on the Isle of Harris, not Lewis.

  36. Nick Charles
    April 5, 2016

    St Clement’s church in Rodel is on Harris, not Lewis.

  37. Georine Rechholtz
    April 5, 2016

    I loved the warm humour that shines through the narrative. The photo’s tug at my heart, calling to visit. Thank you Mr Richardson

  38. Mike Savage
    April 5, 2016

    I was in the RAF and stationed on St Kilda in 1958,what an experience, never to be missed.

  39. Brian Allan
    April 5, 2016

    A beautiful wee part of the world! I fell in love with the islands off the north of Scotland on my first trip and plan on many more trips to this area.

    Of course it helps that my ancestors came from the Highlands of Scotland. Must be in the blood?

  40. Joyce
    April 5, 2016

    Mr. Richardson’s photography is amazing and beautiful; his obviously warm personality and humor shines through in his photographs and articles. Love both his photographs and writing style!

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