Immersion into the unchanging beauty of the Outer Hebrides, the home of Harris Tweed, capturing the intimate connection between land, thread and weaver. By Ian Lawson.
I first travelled to the Outer Hebrides in search of the light. The long summer days of the far north; the twilight hour of changing colours on brae and ben, the open sky and where the wind blows salt and free. It was to be a rendezvous with beauty. I went with an open mind and an open heart. I wasn’t expecting this journey, the first of many I would make to the Hebrides, to spark a passion that would fundamentally alter the direction of both my personal and professional life.
There is no place in the world quite like the Outer Hebrides. Stern and sublime, the islands boast a long and fascinating history. For centuries they have inspired and challenged poets, philanthropists, scientists, artists and adventurers. Contested in battle, debated in parliaments and celebrated in literature, now as much as ever the Hebrides are capable of provoking the strongest feelings of longing and attachment.
This unique environment of unchanging beauty is the home of Harris Tweed, and my book From the Land Comes the Cloth attempts to show the intimate connection between land, thread and weaver. Everywhere I went, I found intrigue in this wild, illuminating land of tweed. I visited at different times of the year and watched the slow procession of the seasons.
Some years ago, now, something very peculiar happened. One spring day on a still morning of clearing skies over West Harris, the hills lay quiet and green. A shepherd was calling clear Gaelic commands from the rolling dunes that overlook the ocean. As I watched his flock of white wool scampering towards him up the grassy slopes the landscape unexpectedly came to life. It caught my eye, excited my mind and a vital connection was made. Land, shepherds and sheep – they cooperated with an impassioned sense of timing and order. Each fitted into an old routine. I realised that people are the essence of what this landscape is about for me; their lives, the very fabric of existence here. I soon found myself alight with inspiration and set about documenting the land at work. The story of wool to weaver provided me with a way into a culture of which I had little previous knowledge or experience. I came to think of Harris Tweed not as a product but as a process, encompassing and illustrating an entire way of life.
During the day of the sheep gathering, an ambition was born. I would commit myself to a heartfelt study focused on the Isles of Harris and Lewis, a project over which I could exercise complete artistic control. It was an opportunity to give something back to the place that had inspired my creative adventures and ambitions.
This wasn’t so much an issue of professional development as personal. I was ready for renewal. I wanted to go deeper than I’d ever gone before, to engage with my subject on an entirely new level. I knew that I needed time. I needed to take a long unhurried look, a step to the left. There was so much to see but I allowed the magic to creep in slowly.
And the longer I worked on the project, the less it felt like one. Boundaries dissolved. I made good friends. I got to know the lie of the land. Every time the ferry docked in Tarbert, it felt like a homecoming.
It took some time before I began to consciously seek out subjects illustrating the relationship between landscape, weaver and tweed. I happily waded through rivers and bogs and climbed the tallest hills to find a panoramic view. I walked miles in search of perfect light. I endured midges and waited days for the rain to ease. I slept out on lonely beaches and silent moors beneath remembered stars. As well as capturing the wide vistas, I loved selecting and isolating small personal images, tiny details integral to the bigger picture. For a while, my questing spirit and sweet hunger was at the heart of things.
Throughout this period, I kept a journal. It was a simple memoir of an enthralled photographer. As well as being a scrapbook and a sketchbook, the journal contained ad hoc weather observations, lists of names and addresses, notes-to-self on must-see places. Later, when I came to think about using the journal as a basis for the text in this book, I was pleasantly surprised to discover forgotten mementos pressed between its pages: a fulmar’s feather, a ferry ticket, a loose bud of red clover.
From the Land Comes the Cloth is about the relationship between land and sea, man and nature; a photographic journey of discovery portraying a singular island landscape. For me this represents how my story, my journey, was but a moment in time. How even though it was such a cherished and incredibly rewarding time in my life, it was a moment in time already passed. And it felt wonderful to have captured it. Bound it. Shared it.
To those who have never known the Isles of Harris and Lewis in all their glory; storm and rain, sunshine and snow, perhaps this unfolding story of land and cloth will prove the key that will open a magic casement. There is beauty and pleasure waiting for them beyond their dreams.
To purchase Ian’s book, From the Land Comes the Cloth, and learn of this incredible relationship between landscape, weaver and tweed illustrated by stunning photography throughout, visit: