This is Scotland – notes on a book from a writer and a photographer

Here’s a piece that appears as the cover story in this month’s Leither magazine, in which we explain away a book.

TiS cover png

The writer – Daniel Gray
Photographs annoy me. I research and toil away on 5,000-word chapters, and then a person points a camera at something and in a second writes 50,000. If your lap can take the pressure then a browse through Phaidon’s Century will transport and electrify and horrify you more than any history book. Photographs are better than television documentaries and even films, because they let you join the dots and write your own stories; whisper it quietly, but men with footnotes do not know everything.

I met Alan one morning while we were both putting out the wheelie bins. It was clear from his performing of this role that he too was an Alpha Male and a skilled craftsman. Within days, we were staring longingly at photographs of old football grounds and discussing the best way to slice an aubergine (I’ve always been of the long slither school, Alan is a disc man, but we got over it, we moved on, this creative partnership was built to last).

At that point, Alan was a few months into his 100 Weeks of Scotland project. He had the scars to show for it: a car overflowing with Ginsters sheaths and a knowledge of B-roads up there with a highly-efficient rural serial killer. I hadn’t written a book in a while and needed the naked ego rush of pretending to be a proper author. One afternoon while discussing a large section of tarpaulin gifted to Alan by his Dad, we decided to mould words and pictures into what would become This is Scotland. It was, too, we both felt as Marxist-Feminists, about time the mothers of our children spent more hours with them.

Tirelessly intrepid, we began by walking about Leith and then stopping for a brew in the Now Rest cafe, sadly now forever rested. It is possible that the Now Rest closed because its proprietors feared it becoming a living shrine to two artistic icons. Alan fired up the old Citroen, her suspension now so low that to sit in the passenger seat was to chafe one’s bum-cheeks on road markings, and we roared on to California, near Falkirk, to Grangemouth and to Cowdenbeath. Onwards went this hot tin tank of art, conveying us up to Pitlochry and down to the bad bad Borderlands. We went to other places, too, some by train or boat, but I’ll leave Alan to mention them in case he is struggling with reaching the word-count.

What happened was the capturing of a place in time, but an every day one. This is not shortbread-tin Scotland; we both prefer battered disused petrol pumps to hills and glens. I sketched the outline, recounting conversations overheard and tales gone by, Alan coloured the rest. And then we went home and put out the bins.

Govan-9

The photographer – Alan McCredie
The title and premise of our book sound great – This Is Scotland: a Country in Words and Pictures. What a noble idea to search for the heart and soul of a nation. And what a massive fib that is. The true title of our book should be The Search for the Perfect Chip Butty because it was this, and only this, that drove us on, into the wilds, backwoods and urban landscapes of 21st century Scotland. Every photograph and every word was merely a means to get to the nearest chippy or café, and there to wait apprehensively, for those slender, crispy potato nuggets to be placed lovingly between the two perfect lobes of a soft floury bap.

Galashiels was very good, Pitlochry first class. Grangemouth was old-school – two chips rolls on a Saturday afternoon listening to the football on the car radio. Govan remains the great unknown, as for reasons neither of us can now remember we left this surely fertile butty hunting ground for the barren wastes of Byres Road. A truly disappointing savoury fry experience ensued where, in the back of a dark ‘gastropub’ (shudder), two smalls bowls of thin batons appeared. To try and save the day I was forced to do something I never do: I applied ketchup. It was that bad.

Slowly something began to emerge from the scribbled words in Dan’s notebook and the hundreds of images that I now stared at on my laptop. Without properly realising and without seemingly any effort whatsoever we had crossed Scotland from top to bottom. We couldn’t really call it a road trip as most of the time we managed to get home for our tea. We didn’t travel in style – my 1999 dirty blue Citroen will probably never be used by a fictional TV detective. However, having driven for 40 miles with a tank full of petrol instead of diesel, I was happily informed by a mechanic: “Son, these engines were built by the Nazis to take over Europe. Indestructible.”

All around us, though, Scotland seemed to be subtly changing. Something was beginning to awaken under the grey winter skies, and as the seasons advanced would come more and more to the fore. Here was a nation seemingly looking at itself and being slightly startled by what it saw. The hills were alive with the sound of rhetoric. It was a pleasure to be out and about in the country at this time. Not judging, just watching. In a slightly creepy way, going by some of the images…

Now, as my word-count reaches a happy end I have no need, as Dan speculated, to talk of journeys by rail or sea. What goes on the boat will stay on the boat. And as for the greatest chip butty of all? You’ll have to wait: we may yet wrench a book out of it.

'Doon the watter' on board the Waverley Steamer from Glasgow to Largs


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s