“The land was forever, it moved and changed below you, but was forever.” These words from Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s literary elegy to the world of Scottish farming, echo loudly in Sophie Gerrard’s lyrical photography series Drawn to the Land, which captures a similarly fierce bond between Scotland’s wild, untameable countryside and the women who work it.
Gerrard began the project two and a half years ago, when she moved back to her native Scotland after years based in London, as a way of exploring her own relationship with her home nation. “When you’re a Scot living away from Scotland, a lot of the questions you get asked about your home country often reflect on the image of this bonny land, the picture-postcard setting and the heather,” Gerrard told us by phone from her home in Edinburgh. “I realised I didn’t know Scotland any better than that, so I wanted to get to know my landscape as it is a real symbol of our national identity for many people.”
She couldn’t have chosen a more opportune time for this self-reflection; with the world’s eyes on Scotland during the 2014 independence referendum, a series examining its people’s relationship to the country’s hills and glens has rarely felt more pertinent. But there’s no explicit reference to nationalism in Drawn to the Land. Her subjects’ emotional ties to Scotland don’t feel like patriotism, nor does it suggest the little Britain mentality of one’s home being one’s castle – these aren’t ladies of the manor. The women of Drawn to the Land’s connections to their crofts are much more elemental. “One thing they all talk about is the fact that they have something in their blood,” explains Gerrard. As the series’ title suggests, working the land is a calling: “They just couldn’t do anything else. They couldn’t even work some lowland farm. They need the hill; they need that rugged, raw Scotland.”
For Gerrard, the key to the series was building a relationship with her subjects. “I work slowly and that’s something that works for me. I want to get to know these women because I want to show them in a really truthful way.” This intimacy leaps off her images: “I’d realised the emphasis was on photographing these women in their environment and telling their emotional story.”
The photographs in Drawn to the Land can be categorised into roughly three forms: vivid landscape pieces showcasing the harsh splendour of the women’s farmlands; expressive portraits of the women in their environment, be that outdoors or in the farmhouse; and sharply observed still lifes featuring personal objects and paraphernalia of farming. Each mode is evocative and revealing, with Gerrard capturing the practicality, the beauty and the everyday of these women’s working lives. “I do like to find an aesthetic way of presenting something,” she admits, “because I think if you can grab somebody by showing them something beautiful then you can then talk about the issues maybe once you’ve got their attention.”
She’s capturing truths as well. The series isn’t so much about farming, but how these women connect to their environment, be it the land that has been here for millennia, or the textured and memory-filled lives they create for themselves at home. “Maybe that then tells us a little bit about how we’re all connected to our own surroundings and what it means to us,” suggests Gerrard.
Drawn To the Land will be exhibited at The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh from 26 Sep 2015 – Apr 2016 as part of Document Scotland’s exhibition The Ties That Bind.
Document Scotland is a photographic collective comprising of Colin McPherson, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, Sophie Gerrard and Stephen McLaren — four Scots-born photographers, each exponents of documentary photography.