Updated: Jan 13, 2020
I remember my Mum talking to me about watching the red sandstone tenement blocks in Glasgow where she was brought up being torn down. She told me they came down in stages, and at one point only the back wall remained, exposing the Fireplaces of what had been several homes stacked on top of one and other. The hearths around which people had stood sharing good news and bad had fallen into dust. There was something tragically poetic about the image to me. Even at a young age, she recognised the poignancy of what she saw. It wasn’t just a demolition of a building, it was the end of a way of life. Buildings hadn’t been centrally heated when my mum grew up,and the fireplace and hearth brought literal warmth to the home, as well as being where emotional warmth was shared.
The conversation is one I often recall as photos of various rusted stoves, and dust covered fireplaces of so called 'abandoned houses' of the Hebrides appear in my Facebook news feed.
The hearth was a special place within my own childhood growing up on a small island in Orkney. My Dad was always up earliest in the morning, and he would get up and light the fire before me and my sister wakened, and would lay out our school clothes in front of it so they were warm when we got dressed. A very special memory for me now . Unlike my parents generation we did have other sources of heat but the hearth was still 'the meeting place' where everything happened, laughter, tears, thinking about sad news, thinking about good news...watching ‘The Generation Game’ together (Yes, I am that old!). It sounds cliched, but it was the heart of our home.
I think that’s why I feel as though I’m being intrusive when I'm taken into these places without an invite.
There are many things I'm happy to share with other people : I’m a citizen of the world, a European, a proud Scot….but when I open the door to my home and cross the threshold, Its my sacred safe place and for better or worse I’m just Eilidh. Its like pulling up a draw bridge ,whether life is good or bad as it inevitably is at times, home is a special place…or at the very least private.
Perhaps it could be said that its natural for humans to take interest in such places. ‘Time Capsules’ providing an insight into life exactly as it was. Fascinating eh? Objects that don’t exist anymore opening the gate of Nostalgia for the passing voyeur, allowing a connection of some sort to their own life. I think though, there’s a difference in noticing a house that appears to have been ‘abandoned’ and actually crossing the threshold to go into it and therefore into the space of those who own it, whether it has been ‘abandoned’ or not.
I recall what looked like a justification attached to one post : ‘ Given the dilapidated conditions of some of these houses its clear the owners don’t care, so why shouldn’t I go in’. Islanders and Tourists alike take the photographs, there’s not a particular demographic of people it can be pinned to . But when such bold statements are made, I do feel that they are misplaced and lacking in facts, along with the use of words such as ‘sad’, ‘abandoned’, ‘deserted’ and ‘tragic’.Why are these houses any of these things? Some of them may well have sad stories, but others are full of happy memories and their occupants still vividly remembered by remaining friends and relatives.
Meaning and sometimes integrity seems to be lost sometimes nowadays in the 'instant' and still developing cyber climate we live in. A couple of decades ago if someone stumbled across one of these houses and took interest in them, and snapped a couple of pictures, they would have been developed and put in a wallet in a drawer. Now they are uploaded without thought to a limitless community where control of their final destination is immediately lost.
People are addicted to content and in search of hashtags, but why when they have no personal meaning!? You could call it intrusive and thoughtless, but you could also say that's what society has become now – which is so sad. I've lost all of my grandparents in recent years which I found devastating as they really were huge influences on my life. If I scrolled through my news feed and found a picture of their ruined house taken by a perusing visiting stranger, I would find it incredibly distressing. I can't understand how there is such a lack of consideration given when posting these things, but again is it part of a wider issue, i.e. the hashtag world we now seem to live in or is it that the branding of a place allows people to see it as a tourist destination and not a community.
I've thought a lot about this in general terms recently whilst I was looking for some candid photos to paint from for a competition that celebrated 'Frida Kahlo' by creating something which captured the spirit of her art. I subsequently didn't enter because I couldn't find any from the last 10 years . Not of me, my family or friends...it really made me think. Anyway, I digress...
It’s part of life when you come from an Island community that many people do have to leave in order to find work often with the intention to return, but its not that simple, for myself included. Even when I’m a couple of hundred miles away from all of the Island homes I’ve had, my mind wanders back to them during quiet moments. I’ll think of the sound of the sea…which is different to the East Coast because nobody else is there, and cars are few and far between. The air which is so fresh, It makes me feel tired for the first few days I’m home. The Accent that makes me feel anchored to the ground. The feeling of knowing those that came before you were there and that you belong. The connection people from the Highlands and Islands feel to their home is romanticized by those who understand it and mocked by those who don’t. Its hard for me to put into words but is very definitely real. There’s a beautiful word which describes this in Gaelic ; ‘Cianalas’ . Something I’m sure many of the occupants of the 'abandoned' houses felt. Rather than assume the owners of the house did not care about it, personally I think its more likely that they may have been unable to attend to it, for many reasons.
I've tried to explore this by painting some of the photographed interiors of these houses and giving them positive names to reflect from my point of view. For me whats been 'abandoned' isn't necessarily a house, ironically its values of those who take the pictures and share them, whether its positive or negative is a matter of opinion. My small collection of originals 'Cold Hearth, Warm Heart' reflecting these sentiments will be on display in Harris later this year, and available to buy. I look forward to sharing the location and date with you all in the next few weeks.