2023, An Lanntair, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
I'm sitting in the Blackhouse waiting for the rain to pass. A few months ago I saw a photo in a library that described a scene in a home like this one. The photograph is strange. Too much light streams in from beyond the frame for it to have been taken in this dim room, but effort has been made to make it look like it could be. It is as if a perfectly framed portrait has been set up, but the camera has slipped moments before it was taken leaving the human subject a spectral haze above a peat fire with three teapots at their feet. There is no photographer named, no subject. The figure in the photograph is anonymous, yet the teapots at her feet bind her to a place and a time which seem distinctly here and then. She could be Flora or Catriona or one of the Marys, or just as likely someone else, somewhere far from here, not a potter but a model in a collector's fanciful recreation. “It's a very arty, dramatic picture, an' sometimes I think it's staged, just 'cos…” The paper that the image is printed on to was smaller than I expected based on the jpeg in my inbox. It is mounted on a piece of card with a long number written in pencil on the back and would fit in the palm of my hand if I removed it from it's backing.
To me, the fire I'm sitting by looks the same as the one in the picture. A pile of ash overflows the circle of stones that should describe the edges of the hearth and I can't tell where the floor begins. Neither the hearth in the image or the hearth I can smell are able to contain the layers of peat that have turned from deep brown to black, ochre, peach, white, and melted into grey with the heat. The glowing bricks would have been many things with many names before they were peat. Things that were green, alive and growing; wilted, swallowed and time-pressed by the bog into dark, wet fuel that's been cut, carried, stacked, dried and burnt. A thousand thousand once living things now dust the edges of the fire; the dissolution of a million boundaries.
A pair of wally dugs sit on top of the cabinet on the other side of the hearth, regarding the room and me in it. They could have been brought straight from my granny's. Hers sat in two-up two-down nearer to the shirt factory than the machair, but the language she spoke was far closer to the one these walls are used to than my own, and it seems that her taste in ornaments was too. The dugs sit at opposite ends of the shelf with their ceramic paws turned toward each other and their snouts facing me and my notebook. As I look up at the CCTV camera from my perch on the bench I remember the stories I've been told of the women who still occupy these rooms. Someone in skirts adding peat to the fire, captured on the monitors in the office but unseen by eyes attached to optic nerves. The presence of ghosts seems fitting in a place held with purpose in one time, kept as it was when it's last owners left it. This is a home preserved as a snapshot while the rest of its kind have been converted into tourist accommodation or left to the whims of the wind and hungry bracken. A home that now hosts countless strangers whose movements are dictated by the universal museum etiquette – DO NOT TOUCH.
I return to the hearth in the image, resting my eyes on the only objects in focus. There are two teapots just below the skirt, and a third can be glimpsed from behind them. The first pot sits on the ash-hearth-floor at an angle that suggests a gentle incline. It is the same colour as the substance it sits on and I can't be sure where the clay begins or ends. It is turned towards the fire with it's spout facing the peat. The lid, like an upturned mushroom, blends into the arc of it's handle, whose base is obscured by it's stout body. The second teapot's spout is turned towards the first. All of it's recognisably teapot qualities; spout, lid, handle – are clearly defined against the dark background. The third teapot hides underneath the skirt, with only the curve of a tentative handle visible. It's been a long time since tea was last served here but there's comfort in the warmth and the smell of a room saturated with smoke from peats stoked under an empty kettle. Years and years of stained hands and bent backs have tossed fresh lumps on to the bed of smouldering ash. The sooty residue of generations of women's work blankets its plump metal sides and has accumulated on the chain and hook that holds it. Yes things are still changing, if slowly, even here.
The skirt of the dress on the figure in the picture is long enough that it's hem is lost in the gradient where hearth and fabric meet. The charcoal grey at the centre of the image fades to clouds of smoke and hides where human feet should be. One side of the figure fades into darkness, towards a door that lets light into the room through the bottom. This is the edge that makes the skirt expand beyond the body holding it. It goes further than the folds of fabric and into something flat, black and opaque. It is only when looking to the right of the figure that I see the skirt's threshold clearly picked out, cutting a curved line across the shelves behind. It's creases describe a shape underneath - that it gathers and hangs from a waist. Neither the shelves, their contents nor the edge of the skirt are in focus but they are undeniably there.
A percussive smattering of human feet enter through the exit bringing with them a cacophony of accents that puncture the quiet I've been sitting in. A bus full of tourists has turned up at closing time, their voices effortlessly carrying through doorways I had to bend down to get through. We are all here to witness the stillness of these rooms and the wave of activity reminds me of my own presence, a visitor too. I watch a woman hobbling through holding a phone in front of her face. I eavesdrop. She's giving a guided tour to someone somewhere else and holds the phone so close that the screen must entirely fill her vision. I can't tell if she's describing the room we are in or the room inside the screen. I wonder what I would see if I was inside her phone too, her face looming in from a window. “'It was much pleasanter at home,' thought poor Alice, 'when one wasn't always growing larger and smaller” I wonder if she's really here at all, and if that really matters.
Near the top of the photograph there are two clasped hands that are completely out of focus. I say they are hands because they are where I expect hands to be. I say they are clasped because the gradient of light shows that the hands touch each other, are held together, joined. They form a light hued lump that hovers in space above the fire and close to the skirt. I think they are holding one another but they could be holding something else, a third object I can't see. Nearby another kind of holding is happening. Two S-hooks, each the length of a forearm, hang from the hoop of what I assume is a third, picked out by the light against the black wall behind. They hold nothing but each other, resisting gravity, waiting to hold something that doesn't want to be on the floor.
I smile. I have just noticed a cat in the picture. It is black, small, could be a kitten. Smaller than the peat, smaller than the stones, the hooks, the shelves. It could be the perspective. It is sitting at the edge of the print, caught by accident perhaps. It fades into a light leak but is still there – it's feline presence jarring with the blurry figure, unmistakeably alive. I can see the outline of its face and the lustre of it's fur. Its eyes are two pin pricks of reflected light. “I'm not a ghost”. The visitor operations assistant arrives and locks the door that faces the car park behind her. The other tourists have left. She throws two more peats on the fire, unhooks the kettle and rolls a wide mesh cage through from the other room to cover the hearth. She turns the jug on it's side in it's basin, pulls two fire blankets from behind the curtains of the box bed and tucks the tweed I'd been sitting on under the protective cloth. She takes the dugs and the lamp from the top of the dresser and places them next to the cake stands further down. “In case of the wind”, she says, and covers the entire thing in another blanket, putting the room to bed.
I stand over a fire, holding my hands together because I don't know what else to do with them. Maybe they're cold, maybe they're sweaty. Maybe I'm holding something small cupped between them. The pots might still be hot, ready for their baptism in milk's oozy goodness and in a few minutes white might lick the mud with a tender hiss, the heat from it's body warming snow-chilled hands through layers of tea towel. Small prayers might be whispered, “Just don't break. Please”, though it's cruel to ask since each fault would be the result of my own impatience. Coaxing cracks and knitting edges together with a polished pebble rather than let them split, maybe that's what I'm doing.
When the room is finally fire-safe, well covered and tucked in, we leave through the entrance and stop off at the ticket office to clean out the coffee machine. Though the rain has stopped I'm glad for the offer of a lift, and I'm dropped back at the hostel in time for dinner.