Ian Lawson’s new book Saorsa captures the beauty of Hebrides and Harris Tweed


The Hebrides captured Ian Lawson’s heart long ago. Now his latest book documents its landscapes and the cloth it produces – Harris Tweed

Lawson and his beloved dog ©John Maher 2017

When Ian Lawson was a photography student, he was given an assignment that sent him off investigating the furthest place he could travel to. Camera in hand, he made his way to the Hebrides – with no inkling of how the culture of the islands would affect him, steer the course of his career and offer him a second home of sorts.

He was also unaware of how the islands themselves were changing and how, in the years to come, they would evolve to allow their traditional industries and ways of life to exist – indeed, thrive – in the modern world. He went there to discover the landscape, but what he found was a deep-rooted connection with the people who are the lifeblood of the islands. 

Lawson was born in England but went to school in Dumfries and Galloway, where his love of photography flourished (his father was Scottish and wanted his children to be educated north of the border).

A selection of vivid wools await weaving

“As a kid, I had my own darkroom where I would process black-and-white film,” he recalls. He went on to study at Manchester Polytechnic and has worked as a freelance art and architecture photographer ever since. Despite a healthy career, he says, “There was something eating away at me. Maybe it was approaching a milestone birthday, but I wanted to look back on my life’s work and have something I could be proud of.”

Lawson made his way back to the Hebrides in 2007, this time with a different brief. “I’d previously gone to shoot the landscape, but this time I wanted to see if I could offer an alternative to my day job and make connections through my work between the land and the people who live there,” he explains. “I wanted to build a story around my work and this place that had really gotten under my skin.”

He recalls being on the east coast of Harris, watching a lobster fisherman making its way along the shoreline. He followed the boat’s path, which took him down an inlet where he spotted a sign for Harris Tweed. “I could hear the clickety-clack of what I now know to be a loom going inside a shed, where Katie Campbell, a weaver then in her 70s, was working away.”

Sheep’s wool is freshly dyed blue above a steel cooking pot

Campbell invited a curious Lawson in, and from there he was directed to Donald John Mackay, probably the area’s best weaver, the man responsible for rejuvenating the Harris Tweed industry and introducing its trademark. Lawson was struck by the warmth and openness of the people he encountered here, and credits their talents, as well as their friendliness, with sparking in him an excitement to capture more, reinforcing the link he’d identified between people and place. 

From the Land, a compendium of images celebrating Harris Tweed, came out in 2013, and has now been followed by Saorsa (the Scottish Gaelic word for ‘freedom’). It is Lawson’s self-published ode to the Hebrides, charting its many different landscapes. “In the north, in Lewis, the land is windswept low-lying moorland with fewer trees; in the east, the coastlines are marked out; while in the west, beaches, wildflowers and grazing fields for farming prevail,” he remarks.

His images are beautifully paired so you can see the influence of the land on what the weavers have created at the loom. The cloth’s heathery purples, marshy greens and browns are derived from the inhospitable moorlands, while blues so vivid they seem to belong to a Caribbean resort, are drawn directly from the hues of the unspoilt waters, the open skies, the boat sheds, the netting and creels, to make the tweeds native to these islands.

From left: A young crofting apprentice helps out with shepherding duties; the woven fabric has emerged directly from the colours and textures of the landscape

Charting the resurgence in this cottage industry, Lawson also depicts the farmers, shepherds, wool dyers and weavers, telling their story and showing how centuries-old traditions that were on the verge of extinction have been resuscitated; the younger generation, taught by family members, crofters and community elders, have taken on age-old crafts, rejuvenating them and demonstrating how they can prosper in the contemporary world.

Lawson travels back to the islands four or five times a year, keen to chart the progression in this story he found and tells through the lens. The independence he sees in the way the islanders work is reflected in his own self-published titles, which allows artistic integrity to be maintained. “Heritage and culture are preserved,” he notes, “but there are no heads stuck in the sand. It’s the bond between land and loom that continues.”

Saorsa is out now

His new book, containing well over 300 images, is a 432-page large-format homage to the beauty of the Hebrides
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