St Kilda – The Silent Islands by Alex Boyd is a modest hardback produced by Luath Press, an independent publisher based in Edinburgh who specialise in Scottish work. It is smaller than one might expect for a landscape photobook, but at around A5 in size it is neat and easy to hold, and the cost considerably lower than the average photography publication. It is unpretentious and traditional; an essay by Kevin Grant, sometime inhabitant of St Kilda and archeologist, leads into a series of around eighty duotone images printed with heavy blacks and a fair whack of contrast, each with an economical caption on the facing page, giving an insight into St Kildan history and community. Vast stacks rise from the sea with an appropriate ominousness, their scale emphasised by the tininess of many seabirds circling the craggy tops, and expanses of stone-scattered moorland sweep high above the Atlantic.
Reading Grant’s essay is essential to approaching the images from the contemporary perspective that Boyd intends. St Kilda is a repository of huge romance in the public mind, and Boyd deliberately wishes to avoid adding to the vast collection of idealising photographs that already exist of the famously ‘abandoned island’. On the other hand, he does still use black and white film, a traditional landscaper’s approach, and “a battered medium format camera” that once belonged to Fay Godwin.
Boyd is a traditionalist’s photographer, one who hand-prints his own images with a craftsman’s approach. To be truly unromantic perhaps the inclusion of some smartphone selfies and Insta-filters would have done the trick, but that would be an entirely different photographer than Boyd. He does however avoid the clichés and tropes of the would-be explorer’s imagination. This is not ruin porn – of which we have all, I dare say, seen more than enough – but an ode to a beautiful place. It is also not a monumental coffee table book; it’s accessible – but with that it is a little frustrating that the images are so limited in size. The stark grandeur of majestic rock and seascapes isn’t given full play in the small pages, but then perhaps we just have to wait until Boyd produces large-scale prints to enjoy their full impact.
Left empty in 1930, St Kilda is not uninhabited now; there is a permanent MOD base on the islands, and modern-day St Kildans include researchers, National Trust volunteers and defence contractors. Boyd deliberately includes the power station, fuel tanks, helicopter pad and the less picturesque alongside the wind-blasted landscapes. Despite the entire absence of figures in the book, the unattractive buildings which make St Kilda habitable (much to the chagrin of some cruise ship visitors, apparently) remind us that the islands are not preserved in some kind of forlorn aspic, but continue to house human life – and not all of that life is picturesque Village Bay; a pub needs electricity, and food supplies come much faster by helicopter than across the sea; Boyd makes sure that we recognise that history is ongoing and St Kilda’s community is still evolving.
St Kilda – The Silent Islands leaves you in awe of the remoteness of Hiort (the Gaelic name for the archipelago) and a sense of how hard it must have been for the earlier inhabitants to scrape together a life there, and also with the sound of gulls wheeling around the great stacks cawing in your imagination.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Lottie Davies