Like many good stories, Scotland through the lens of Anthony Georgieff begins with the open road.
The open road is unpredictable, it could take you anywhere and a return ticket is not guaranteed. Georgieff’s road takes us into a realm both familiar and unsettling, of classic Scotland and of another hidden, interior Scotland that takes you by surprise.
This is a realm of broom and mist, ruined castles and time-nibbled remains of crofts, burns and lochs, and oceanic waters that fill and empty and refill the land ceaselessly. And everywhere – the ever-shifting sky of steel-grey. It is a sky you don’t see on the European continent.
That is because in Scotland, and especially as you go north, you are not in continental Europe. You are somewhere at the end of it, and also the beginning. You are on the edge and the further north you go, the more you sense that multiple currents meet here – Norse-Viking, Gaelic-Celtic, Christian-pagan.
You feel this among the standing stones of Callanish on the Hebridean isle of Lewis, captured by Georgieff in their cosmic completeness. You feel it in the broom of Mull with its final cliff, and also under the marbled February sky of the swept Cairngorm Mountains where an isolated cottage is glimpsed before nightfall. You feel it in the ruins of a kirk with its forgotten mossy gravestones, and you feel it when you glimpse Ben Hope, here shrouded in enigma but sometimes seen in its full glory. You feel it on the plain of Glen Coe –
Oh, cruel was the snow that sweeps Glen Coe
And covers the grave o’ Donald
Oh, cruel was the foe that raped Glen Coe
And murdered the house of MacDonald
– where an entire clan and their guests were annihilated one February night in 1692 by an enemy clan in a feud, thus breaking the age-old custom of Highland hospitality. Georgieff captures Glen Coe at its ghostliest. You feel it on the Loch an Eilein where the castle of Rothiemurchus is said to be haunted and where the cruel Wolf of Badenoch in the 14th century was undone by falling in love with a Common woman.
And of course, you feel it on the banks of Loch Lomond, the lake of the beloved ballad. Though Loch Lomond is a real place, the ballad – like the Scotland of Anthony Georgieff – dwells in a dimension beyond the physical:
'O ye'll tak' the high road and I'll tak' the low road,
And I'll be in Scotland afore ye,
But me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o'Loch Lomond.'
North Bridge, Edinburgh
Georgieff shows us the stony ruins and buildings across the Highland plateaux as embodiments of the Gothic principle in both its romanticism and its dread. Every building, every road has its story of haunting – by drowned sailors, by lonely widows, by the dishonourably killed, by killers who can find no peace in the afterworld – but the real story behind them is one of economic and cultural struggle.
The decline of Gaeldom marks the west coast of Argyll and the Hebridean archipelago – only a generation ago you could still find remote pubs where only Gaelic was spoken. Though it is heartening to see the bilingual road signs that have recently gone up, and if you want a glimpse of something authentically northern, go visit remote Lairg (photographed by Georgieff at its most unpeopled) during cattle auction season.
Georgieff's road takes us all the way to the north shore and the elemental beaches of Durness and Thurso. Truly a Land's End place, yet here your idea of 'north' shifts further – to the north.
Anthony Georgieff’s images show that nothing short of myth can do justice to this metamorphic world of stone, moss, earth, the work of time and tide and man over millennia, a world halfway between heaven and hell. We are fortunate to be fellow travellers on Georgieff's journey and to be taken both along the high road and the low. To travel with him is to fall in love with this country.
The High Road: Photography From Scotland was on at the Sofia Press Gallery in Sofia, in January; at the Casino Cultural Centre in Burgas and in Veliko Tarnovo in February.
Loch an Eilein, Rothiemurchus
Callanish Standing Stones, Isle of Lewis
Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye
Aurora Borealis over Dunnet Head, Caithness
Cuillin Mountains, Isle of Skye