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Freedom Of The Outer Hebrides

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Ian Lawson and a faithful friend enjoying the freedom of Harris. Image ©️ John Maher

These islands are beautiful, of that, there is no doubt. With a phone camera now in every pocket, it is easier than ever to capture the light and landscape of Harris, and its neighbouring isles.

What is more challenging, however, is to get beyond the blue-green seas of a summer’s day, past the closed doors of loom sheds, and under the skin of a community and culture which is often quite happy to remain quietly behind the scenes.

People here also intuitively understand that life takes time, and patience rewards those who sacrifice themselves to the rhythms of the season rather than be ruled by the dictates of the clock.

Photographer Ian Lawson is one of those rare individuals who has devoted years of their lives to documenting this place through a lens. Following the legendary likes of Paul Strand and Gus Wylie, Ian’s devotion has taken him to every hidden corner of our remote archipelago.

The warp and weft of the island's life and landscape.

By getting far off the beaten track, building relationships with local people, and returning to our shores again and again, at all times of the year, his images have built into an impressive body of work, one which goes deep into the heart of Hebridean life and landscape.

First brought to the world through his well-loved ‘From The Land’ books, Ian’s visual story evolved into a new collection of words and images called ‘Saorsa’. It proved to be equally as seductive for his audience and the first release soon sold out.

With his new second edition now available online, we caught up with Ian, living life in lockdown at the Cumbrian hill-farm he calls his first home…

“It’s a lovely place to be and I’m very fortunate to enjoy such a degree of freedom, peace, and safety. But, my mind is never far away from the difficulties experienced elsewhere. Harris, as always, is in my thoughts daily, and I’ve been seeking solace in mentally re-tracing my former footsteps and fond memories from past trips.”

A photographic exploration of people and place.

Those who have seen Ian’s photography and the personal journals which are bound together in his beautiful books will know just how much the place and people here mean to him. He tells us…

“Have you ever been somewhere and simply never wanted to leave? That’s the feeling I get with Harris. This year will be the first time in two decades I’ve not been there. I miss the landscape of course, but also meeting old friends and weavers, and learning the latest news from across the crofts and community.”

We know Ian won’t be the only one feeling this way. In Gaelic, there is a word called cianalis (kee-anna-lus) which embodies a kind of homesickness or yearning. It’s most keenly felt by those born and brought up here, but we suspect that this feeling can affect everyone who finds a connection with this special place.

As the coronavirus crisis causes the cancellation of many people’s travel plans this summer, perhaps we can try to come to you instead? Getting hold of our Isle of Harris Gin is a good start, both bottle and spirit bringing a sense of the salt-sea air and an evocative measure of the island to your glass.

Island life, island culture...

With this in hand, the next best thing to being here would be to lose yourself in the pages of Saorsa, each one bursting with the colour of Ian’s full-plate photography and 12,000 words describing his Outer Hebridean odysseys.

You’ll meet the characters who have lived and worked here their whole lives, the crofters and Gaelic speakers, the fishermen and the weavers of Harris Tweed, and many more…

Mountain, moor and machair are explored across every season and in all weathers. Nature abounds, from wildlife to wildflowers, and all are intertwined with colourful stories like the beautiful warp and weft of our iconic island cloth.

“Creating the second edition of Saorsa was an unstoppable feeling, I had to do it! Every book I release sits proudly in my studio and serves as a happy memory of my achievements at that time. But, I try to strive for even more specialness, without taking anything away from its predecessor.”

Getting to grips with 'Soarsa' and Harris in all its glory

He continues…

“The differences are subtle but numerous. Through new photography, sequencing and design, I’m always refining things to keep my work and ideas progressing. While not always good economics for me, I can’t help myself from pushing things forward in this way.”

With copies of his new book now in our hands, we can testify to the joy it continues to bring. Often, we islanders take our surroundings for granted, or simply become accustomed to the beauty of the place we call home. But, sometimes a photographer can open our eyes anew.

Saorsa is the Scottish Gaelic word for freedom, and as we wait for the world to finds its balance, we hope Ian’s work can grant you the inner space to explore, bringing you closer to Harris at home, and inspiring a fresh sense of adventure for when the time is finally right to return once more.


Saorsa: Freedom of the Outer Hebrides is available to order now.

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