For generations, Paul Glazier has documented the people and rugged landscape of Vatersay
Taking form in a new book published by Bluecoat, Paul's work depicts the changing faces of a small community in the remote Scottish island.
- Ayla Angelos
- 26 January 2021
Vatersay is the southernmost and westernmost inhabited island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Irregularly shaped and comprising two rocky islands, it’s about three miles long from north to south and has a population of around 90 people. It’s absent of any trees and instead offers a blunt and rugged landscape of beaches and stone. It’s rural Scottish land at its finest.
“Arriving there from the claustrophobic suburbs of London felt like a homecoming to me,” says Paul Glazier, a photographer who’s been visiting the island since the age of 12 in 1978. The heavily contrasting landscape of Vatersay is what caught Paul’s eye quite dramatically, and after his first visit he wanted to make sure to return as many times as possible – be it during the school holidays, Christmas, Easter or summer. Then, while attending art school, it was habitual for Paul to turn his head towards the island as his subject – a place that would have a hold of his heart for many years to come. “I’ve continued to return to the island ever since and have always had my camera with me,” he tells It’s Nice That. “Over the years, I have taken so many photos that, at a certain point, it just seemed natural to start developing the idea of a book.”
This idea has grown into a new 168-page book published by Bluecoat, a Liverpool-based publishers founded by Colin Wilson that specialises in the work of British photojournalists and social documentary photographers. Titled Island Tides, Paul has devoted much of his time towards making the book of late, which has involved a process of rescanning old negatives and “trying out endless selections and combinations,” he says.
As a London-born photographer who attended Goldsmiths College of Fine Art, Paul graduated in 1987 and, at this time, had printed his first photographs taken in the Hebrides. He’s now based in Amsterdam, and puts his hand to a range of media-based projects including photography, moving image and sound. It’s a marriage of mediums that has accounted for a whole host of work, yet always drew him back to the art of picture-taking. “Even though I thought of myself more as a painter, I spent a lot of my time in the dark room. When I moved to Amsterdam in 1994, my practice started to broaden greatly – but photography has remained a constant aspect of it throughout the years.”
Paul has built a colossal archive of pictures taken during his time on the island. Now collated in book form, his audience can now not only fully appreciate the momentous work that he’s put forward, but also how deeply he’s been affected by the wonders of this place. In his younger years and during his first visits to Vatersay, he was constantly in awe of the habitants there. He speaks fondly of the “folk” he used to meet regularly, “especially the older generation who were always ready with a tale, tea and sandwiches.” Then, having returned consistently over the years, he’d built strong relationships with the people there – “they have seen me grow up and older,” he says. “I’ve seen generations pass and new ones grow up, all against the backdrop of the sea, the machair and the hills.” So much so that within Island Tides, you’ll see snapshots of children, who then grow up and have their own children; a time capsule of generations that proceed to live in this rural, mesmerisingly attractive lands.
One image, in particular, resonates with Paul for reasons that are purely related to his affection for the place. It’s the photo where you’re looking down on Vatersay village from the hill above West Bay – a shot he’d taken around 1985. “From this distance, it looks much like it does today,” he adds. “However, as you would expect, there have been a lot of changes, mostly in the way of life.” One change is that of the causeway construction in 1991, a 200-metre long road filled with rock that linked the island to the neighbouring island of Barra. “The previously risky trip across the water for supplies is a thing of the past,” says Paul. Another is the arrival of the internet, along with access to shops that can now be done with great ease. “But it remains a remote island and the six hour crossing between Castlebay and Oban on the mainland is still not guaranteed every day of the year, due to the vagaries of the weather.”
A further photograph that Paul speaks of fondly is a portrait of Calum MacKinnon, taken in 1984. He’d often visit Calum and his wife Marie Anne, dropping in to see them regularly. “He was very well-read and loved poetry; he had travelled the world in the merchant navy and was full of stories, but my strongest memory of them is of their great warmth and kindness.”
Island Tides has been somewhat of a cathartic experience for Paul. Not only does it serve as a historical documentation of a place, but it's also a wondrously personal narrative of a photographer’s affinity for an island – a chronicle that will continue for years to come. It’s provided him a place of escape from the bustling metropolis of London, with trips that have been fuelled by the impressive, weathered landscape and the stories of those that occupy it. “It’s more a document of my relationship with the island and its people,” he says as his final note on the series. “As such, I hope it reflects a certain intimacy and that the images can convey the love I have for the place.”
GalleryPaul Glazier: Island Tides, published by Bluecoat (Copyright © Paul Glazier, 2020)
Paul Glazier: Island Tides. Boat boys. Published by Bluecoat. (Copyright © Paul Glazier, 2020).
About the Author
Ayla is currently covering Jenny as It’s Nice That’s online editor. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.