The Islands Book Trust has just published Destination St Kilda: From Oban to Skye and the Outer Hebrides, edited by Mark Butterworth.
The book comprises the original text of two magic lantern lectures, “From Oban to Skye” and “The Outer Hebrides” and the full set of accompanying hand-coloured slides, produced by the George Washington Wilson Company of Aberdeen in the 1880s.
The photographs were taken by Wilson and his colleague Norman Macleod when they travelled through the Hebrides to St Kilda in 1886.
As well as introducing some of the earliest photographs taken in the islands, which are of absorbing interest for their recording of contemporary life, the lecture notes shed light on how the Hebrides and their inhabitants were viewed among commentators from the outside world at this critical juncture in history.
The slides give a vivid picture of social and economic life, housing conditions, agriculture and fishing in the islands in the 1880s. The black-house, the cas chrom, the creel and the bustle of the herring industry are all captured. So are everyday practices such as washing clothes outdoors, spinning and corn grinding by hand. While many of the photographs are obviously posed, they nonetheless offer a unique glimpse of a long-vanished era.
At the time the inhabitants of the Hebrides were generally a subject for pity. It was becoming widely accepted that poor living conditions had been brought about through economic injustices, which needed to be corrected.
But alongside this sympathy, which was at least less threatening than the overt hostility shown in earlier centuries, there was no feeling that the culture of the islanders was valuable or that the outsider could learn anything useful from their experience.
The snatches of Gaelic phrases heard at the harbours seem to be regarded as symptomatic of a primitive society rather than as a window into the oral culture collected and celebrated by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica, first published in 1900.
So, as we look at the slides and read the notes, we can get an impression of how visitors to the Hebrides regarded the islanders and their world at this particular point in history. The islands were becoming more accessible to an increasingly prosperous society.
The dominant attitude was one of curiosity that such apparently primitive conditions could still be found in one part of Great Britain. Indeed, the lectures and slides seem like an early travelogue; the first pictures show Oban and the Sound of Mull, moving on to Tobermory, Eigg and Skye before travelling across the Minch to the Outer Hebrides and the ultimate destination, St Kilda.
As Butterworth explains in his contributions, these lectures and slides took advantage of the latest technology of the time, and reflected a keen and growing demand in Victorian Britain for learning about different ways of life in various parts of the world, certainly not confined to Scotland. This interest was fuelled by rising incomes in the higher echelons of society and easier transport links and services, not least to the Hebrides.
Destination St Kilda: From Oban to Skye and the Outer Hebrides is available from The Islands Book Trust at www.theislandsbooktrust.com or by calling (01851) 880737.