Paul Strand in South Uist
Katie Morag Morrison was 8 years old and one of the most important days in the calendar of an island child, second only to the South Uist Games, had finally arrived.
But for Katie Morag it was to become a much more significant day. It was a day which produced an encounter that still brings strangers to the door of her guest house in Fort William, more than five decades later.
In the town, she is known as Katie Steele, wife of John Paul, and mother to Iain, Catriona, Anne Marie and Calum. But to the rest of the world who come across the work of the iconic American photographer Paul Strand, whether casually or as students, she will forever remain as Katie Morag Morrison from South Uist. The photograph taken that morning is stunning. Katie Morag, with thumbs hitched in the pockets of her coat, stands against the stones that form the end of her parents house.
Like every other portrait taken by Strand during his three month visit to South Uist and Benbecula she exudes strength and dignity. This in part due to the skill of the maestro who set the camera lens at the girl's eye level, but it also owes much to her piercing eyes that seem to look straight into your soul.
More than fifty years later I sit opposite Katie Steele in the Crannog restaurant in Fort William. As she reminisces, her hand flicks back her shoulder length brown hair, and she fixes me with that same stare: "I was so frustrated and disappointed that I was held back while the other children went off to the cattle sale."
She then laughs and explains that she was desperate for the man behind the camera to finish his work. Paul Strand was not a man to be hurried. He had arrived in South Uist in the spring of 1954 and spent the first few weeks observing the people he would photograph. Fishermen, crofters, their wives and children, all set in their natural environment. He had chosen his local guide with great care. Dr Alasdair MacLean, brother of the esteemed Gaelic poet Sorley, knew every family on the islands. Dr MacLean spoke the language of the community, he knew the colourful characters and, most importantly, he guided Strand towards the people he considered to be the most photogenic.
Katie Steele cannot remember Dr MacLean being present: "My mother was there and she told me that the man was taking photographs for a book but that made no impact. I wasn't impressed." Katie Morag could only think about what she was missing.
Nine years after the end of the war, South Uist was still a poor place. The vast majority of families had little in the way of steady income, depending instead on the produce from the land and the sea.
The day of the cattle sale was the rare exception when crofters had money in their pockets. Attracted by the quality of the beasts on offer in the islands, mainland drovers would arrive with their pockets stuffed with cash. By the end of the day the animals would be steered towards the boats, which would carry them to the mainland where the drovers could expect a handsome profit.
As soon as the money began to change hands, the crofters' children would be waiting for their share. It was literally pennies, but it was enough to buy sweets and toys from the vans that always attended the sales. This was also a big day for the local merchants. Their customers had money to settle bills and buy the treats they had stockpiled for sale day.
A few miles from the sale, Katie Morag was becoming increasingly exasperated. The man who had arrived at their house that morning had taken a photograph of all three Morrison daughters. They were all pretty, each had their own special quality, but through his viewfinder, one of them was outstanding. While the other two disappeared off with the rest of the village Katie Morag was held back.
With every breath of wind the photographer stopped and seemed to take forever to begin the process again. Every time a hair strayed from the clasp behind her head the process would be halted again. Every minute seemed to last an eternity. The photographer did not speak much, but eventually he nodded. He was finished, and the little girl ran off as fast as her legs could carry her to get her share of the proceeds from the sale of the family's cattle.
It was to be another eight years before Paul Strand's book of photographs from Uist, Tir a Mhurain - The Land of Bent Grass, was published in Leipzig in former East Germany. It was an unusual location for an American to choose to publish, amidst the mutual hatred and suspicion of the Cold War, but it tells us a lot about Paul Strand and could explain why he came to spend time in South Uist.
Strand was a committed Marxist with a keen interest in geo-politics. He had a wide circle of like-minded friends from around the world including members of the Russian avant-garde he met during visits to the USSR. The political climate of the American 1950s meant that he was inevitably caught up in McCarthy's witchhunts and was forced to travel. Strand was in his 60s when he travelled to Uist and had already established a considerable international reputation. Early in his career he became the first photographer to make a break with pictorialism. He produced the first Cubist, or abstract, pictures made with a camera but it was his portraits of ordinary people that increased his popular appeal.
Strand worked hard at understanding his subjects, their environment and the forces that shaped their lives: "I like to photograph people who have strength and dignity in their faces; whatever life has done to them, it hasn't destroyed them. I gravitate toward people like that." There are two main theories about Strands photography. Some experts argue there is no connection between his published work and his politics, but others find it impossible to divorce his choice of destinations from his Marxist views.
He published photographs from France and Italy, the two countries with the largest communist parties in the western world. He chose to go to Egypt over Israel at the time of the Suez crisis and he was personally invited to Ghana by the country's socialist President. It is impossible to believe that a man with Strand's political antennae would have been unaware that in 1954 South Uist was about to become a new frontier in the Cold War.
A year earlier the military decision had been made to build a rocket testing range and in 1955 the Government announced the military base would be on South Uist. The rocket range does not appear amongst Strand's photographs, for the obvious reason that it is impossible to take a picture of something that did not exist when he was there. However, the photographs are accompanied by a wonderfully perceptive commentary written by Basil Davidson, who was a friend of Strand and has been described as a fellow political traveller. His commentary speaks of the "grim and dubious" project which provoked widespread resistance led by the local priest, Father John Morrison, who was dubbed "Father Rocket" by the visiting press.
It is clear from his observations that Davidson believes the rocket range will herald changes that will alter forever the community he and Strand were observing. The photographs had not merely captured a moment in time, but the passing of time and the end of a particular way of life. An interesting footnote to the South Uist project is that Strand had considered asking Sir Compton MacKenzie to write the words to accompany his photographs because of the popular appeal of the film 'Whisky Galore', which had been released a few years earlier. The photographer thought a famous author would help secure a publisher, but changed his mind after realising that he and Mackenzie had nothing in common, politically or artistically.
Of course, Katie Morag was far too young to be aware of the political debate that was raging around her and the changes that were slowly beginning to appear within her island. She remembers a community where everyone spoke Gaelic. No door was ever locked or knocked, particularly by children. The machair, the beach, the lochs and the village were their playground. She remembers a very happy childhood but can now see the island was changing as she was growing.
Basil Davidson records the joy of listening to one of the local women, Mrs Archie MacDonald's mother sing two or three of her oldest songs: "Here in a living mouth are the hint and music, faint as a rustling amid dry leaves, of a time when the Romans were comfortably settled in Britain." Mrs Archie, as he calls her, tells him that ancient Gaelic songs are not being passed down from mother to daughter as they used to be, "The young people want only Radio Luxembourg."
Within a few years the servicemen at the military base had imported their own music and culture. Rock'n'roll began to replace the strathspey and fling. In the 1950s South Uist was still one of the strongest Gaelic-speaking communities in Scotland but it was already showing signs of yielding to English, the outside language imposed in school and by bureaucracy. Davidson notes the observation of one academic, "that it is possible to travel through the Hebrides without hearing anything but Gaelic spoken and reading nothing but English."
When Katie Morag was growing up she was taught in English but played in Gaelic. A lifetime later Gaelic has replaced English as the language of education in some schools but the children now play in English. Gaelic road signs are visible throughout the islands and people can read books and listen to the language on radio and television but Gaelic remains under siege, its fluency and purity within the community eroded. However, fears about the malevolent impact of the "rocket range" failed to materialise. The range provided highly skilled and well-paid jobs for generations of islanders. And when the Government announced the staged withdrawal of the military, the community was as fearful about its future without the army as their parents and grandparents had been about the invasion in the 1950s.
In her late teens, Katie Morag moved away to the mainland and she worked in Oban before settling and raising a family in Fort William. But that day long ago still brings surprises. In 2006, Katie Steele was stunned to discover that a vintage print of that photograph was on sale in a gallery in London for 18,000. This print was also part of a Strand Exhibition at the Atlas Gallery. It was used to publicise the show and was one of the most talked about exhibits. It was also the second most expensive.
Sitting in Fort William, Katie explained why she has no great desire to go to London to see the show: "When Paul Strand came to take my photograph in 1954 he was from a world a million miles away. The person who can afford to pay £18,000 for my photograph is just as far removed. I would like to find out why they bought it and where it will end up."
She cannot remember anything about the cattle sale she was so desperate to get to in 1954.
About John Morrison
A native Gaelic speaker from the Western Isles, John Morrison worked with the BBC for nearly twenty years in a variety of roles. Most recently he was Scotland correspondent for BBC network news, working on programmes from Breakfast, the One, Six and Ten o Clock news, News 24 and BBC World. His previous roles included Chief Political Correspondent and Europe Correspondent for BBC Scotland. In March 2006 John became one half of a new PR and Media consultancy, McGarvie Morrison Media Ltd. He plans to continue writing for newspapers and other publications.
Last updated 1 Apr 2015