a set of early photographs has revealed a rare glimpse of Edwardian
life in the Scottish islands – and the extraordinary story of their
creator, the 'Adder king'.
It came about, in part, because of a Jiffy bag. Some years ago the
now-late Peggy Macleod, a native of Shawbost on the beautifully
stormswept west coast of Lewis, decided to get a print made from a
box of glass photographic plates which had languished, quite
unremarked, in her barn for decades. She wondered, in her quiet,
contained manner, if the Stornoway Gazette could be of any help.
Well, yes and no.
They printed up her century-old picture, right enough. But some
harried office junior decided to post back the fragile glass plate
in said Jiffy, with the inevitable consequences. If it's not an
error quite up there with that of the London gopher who, tasked with
processing Robert Capa's photographs from the Normandy landings,
went for a too-liquid lunch and left them in the drying-oven an hour
too long and thus rendered them all but indecipherable, it still,
historically, irks. But it prompted Peggy to make a few inquiries of
friends, and of the local historical society. Were the plates,
perhaps, of cultural significance – a slightly daunting thought to
her? And should she take steps to have them preserved?
She asked but tentatively: even though Facebook was arriving in the
Outer Hebrides, some stoic right-thinking souls there still believe
all life need not necessarily be an urgent voiding of personal
information. And slowly, so slowly, it was realised that they had
been the work of one man, whose images had somehow ended up
(probably via a neighbour's house-clearance in the 1950s) in Peggy's
barn, and Dr Norman Morrison was thus rediscovered.
Self-portrait: photographer Norman Morrison wearing police uniform
and holding a live adder. Photograph: Tormod an t-Se ladair
Morrison, Gaelic name
Tormod an t-Sẹladair, was an extraordinary man, even for those
isles. Born in 1869 also in Shawbost (Siabost), he was denied,
mainly through circumstances – relative poverty, a large family, the
harshness of life on Lewis – the benefits of anything but the bones
of an education. "My father did not believe in education for people
so humble as we were," he would write in his 1937 autobiography, nor
was he obliged to facilitate it: the Education Act had not yet
reached Lewis. Norman, a strong and tall youth, worked the croft,
built drystane dykes and paid the occasional visit, when allowed, to
Shawbost Old School, where he drank up the chance to learn, and
never stopped doing so until his death in 1949.
On reaching early adulthood he was meant to do duty on the trawlers
(not really trawlers – 24ft open boats, fishing with long lines with
baited hooks), but found that he suffered from crippling
seasickness. He decided to get on the steamer to Glasgow, and join
the police. His book, My Story, contains harrowing tales, drily
told, of the world of Glasgow policing in the 1890s, and of the
politics of the police: he was a keen believer in the rights of the
worker, and summarily dismissed (only to be reinstated by public
demand). Today he is credited as co-founder of the Scottish Police
Posted to Argyll, he developed a fascination with snakes. He would
walk around Kintyre counting snakes' heartbeats. He became known as
the "Adder King", occasionally came to work with a snake in his
sleeve and would go on to publish seven highly regarded books on
herpetology (and prove, inter alia, that snakes are not susceptible
to music). But despite becoming a Fellow of the Royal Zoological
Society of Scotland – accorded a doctorate in France and winningly
peer-reviewed in the US – British universities refused to consider
his thesis, because he was not a graduate.
Such honest photos, taken before the photographic art was even into
long trousers, yet shorn of the romanticising tendencies of the
Victorian age, should perhaps speak for themselves – but I'll insist
on co-opting this paper's own photographer, Murdo MacLeod, who also
comes from Shawbost: "They are truly, truly remarkable, these shots.
Not just because of the early times, but because of the slant it
affords us into how the people wanted to be seen – not as simple
folk, sickle in hand, in a picturesque landscape. See, the islanders
knew Norman as one of their own. And as such, they wanted to present
themselves as they wanted to be seen. There are guns, and jewellery.
And they were faintly ashamed of the local blackhouses, preferring
instead to be pictured against the newfangled harling. But there's
also a severe nod to the real fear of the devil: you'll see Bibles,
with thumbs held in them, in case this new photography should be the
work of Satan."
Peter May, author of the bestselling Lewis Trilogy, concurs. "I've
been following recently the story of these photographs, and it's a
fascinating one. What we're discovering here is no less than the
young days of an early art, and how people wanted to be seen, which
had never happened before."