I’ve recently been spending some time on the Isles of Harris and Lewis in preparation for a photo holiday I will be hosting at the beginning of next year. The islands are world famous for their abundance of deserted beaches, but it became apparent after driving around that their beaches aren’t the only things deserted and empty on this isolated corner of the British Isles.
I had already passed a couple of properties which looked like they were from a 1980’s horror movie set, and this got my eye scanning for more. The moment you start looking for them, they suddenly seem to start popping up everywhere. We’re not talking about empty houses where someone has locked the door and left for a few months to winter in warmer climes - these have been abandoned for many years, often with the front door wide open, or sometimes missing altogether. Many have decayed to the point where they hold little record of their former existence, but some are amazing time capsules which seem to almost be creations of art - designed by man and perfected by nature.
Upon entering my first property - an attractive looking traditional croft house on the shore of a classic scenic Highland loch, I was greeted by the remains of a dead sheep. Now nothing more than a pile of bones and matted fleece, it had probably been there for some years. Stepping over it took me into a hallway with doorways off to the left and right, and a staircase leading up ahead of me.
Choosing the right hand option first, I entered a room which had a single chair, a side cabinet, and a fireplace. On top of the cabinet was a single tea cup and a single playing card laying face down. I turned it over. It was the eight of spades. The only other notable object in the room was the remains of a second dead sheep, currently resembling a brown pile of tangled wool around twisted bare vertebrae. I photographed the scene as I had found it, before heading upstairs. The rotting wooden stair boards bowed worryingly under my weight, so I shifted my feet to either side and waddled up them like a penguin. At the top there was once again a room to either side - the classic two-up-two-down format, and to keep things interesting I chose left this time.
A wooden chair with its upholstery fraying at the edges stood facing the middle of the room. A bed frame accompanied it, and both pieces were orientated as you would expect from someone still occupying the room. I wondered if they had been moved or touched for 30 years or more? A pink fireplace fought for attention between them. Other than peeling paint from the V-lined walls and the dead starling on the floor, the room felt organised and tidy and had a presence about it which didn’t seem as neglected as the other rooms in the house.
On making my way down the stairs I wondered how such places could find themselves in such a condition? The only conceivable theory I could come up with is that all the younger generations had moved away, probably off the island in search of better career opportunities, leaving only an elderly couple in the house. Inevitably the occupants died or became too frail to look after themselves and no one was there to care for the house. As no debt was due on the property, it was probably easy to forget about, and too much trouble for anyone to return to this outback island to sort out a house clearance or sale of the property. Over time, nature has been trying to reclaim it for itself and is slowly winning the battle.
Once you explore one of these places, you get the taste for more and want to start investigating each one you pass. Some had locked doors so I left those alone - only peering through the windows to see what stories they hid inside, waiting for the day when the door finally gives in so they can start to tell themselves. Others were on the verge of being not much more than ruins, with rotting rafters and joists having long since succumbed to the harsh conditions.
From my observations it seems there is a timeframe for such places which follows these generic rules. When they are first abandoned they look like a house where someone has gone away on an extended holiday, but after some time, maybe a few years, a window will break or a door will crack. Once this happens a clock starts ticking as the untamed Hebridean elements gain access and start eating away at the structure. First to go seems to be the wallpaper and soft furnishings as damp starts to take over. Ceilings start to sag and eventually fall in, then wall linings bend and buckle. This probably takes between 10-20 years, with any changes happening slowly. That is until the roof fails and rain water suddenly has free access. Now the clock starts racing as the unprotected rafters and joists start rotting away. After only another a couple more years, the roof falls in and the upper floor collapses leaving just a shell of stone walls with rotting debris inside. Over subsequent years, winter storms slowly scatter loose materials away, leaving only the stonework to pile up in a ruin.
For the best photo potential, a house needs to be at the stage where the roof is still intact yet the elements have gained access via a door or window and have started winning the battle over any remaining furniture and decor. The more time it's had, the better the photo potential. But the key is to find such places before the roof fails. Once you get your eye in, you can tell from a distance whether a place is going to be worth exploring or not.
Find a house at the right stage (abandoned for about 20-30 years) and it becomes a time capsule screaming to be photographed. A one bar electric fire, an Aga iron, a clothes mangle - all paint a vivid picture of the life in the past century, yet fading with every passing storm. There is often a unique sense of presence in these places, not necessarily in the form of a spirit or a ghost, but just in the fact that the occupants never had a chance to properly leave, so a part of them remains. One of the most common items I saw lying around was a Bible - often open on a bedside cabinet. On a couple of occasions there was a suitcase - packed as though someone was about to go on holiday in the 1970s but for some reason never got the chance.
Some houses leave good clues as to when they were last occupied. One had a insurance certificate lying on a table next to an empty envelope as though it had just been opened. It expired in Oct 1979. Another house had a newspaper dated July 10th 1983 with the headline "Death Penalty - A Last Chance?". One had a newspaper dated 1960 but it didn’t feel abandoned that long ago as the decor looked decisively late 70s or early 80s. Maybe the occupant was a fashion guru ahead of their time.
You can often get names of the people who lived in each property by looking at loose mail left lying around, but I preferred to keep the places anonymous. The more mystery they hold the bigger their appeal.
A particularly chilling house I entered had all the personal belongings still in place. Ornamental handheld mirrors, perfume sprays and pin cushions all neatly arranged on a lace mat atop a dressing table occupied one bedroom as though the occupant had just popped down the shops that morning after making themselves look presentable. Yet in the meantime, all the wallpaper had fallen off the walls and a few birds had died on the floor. In the same room, dresses were hanging in the wardrobe as though waiting to be taken off their hangers and worn again. I didn’t try them on as they looked too big for me, and after all, it was only a Tuesday.
One particularly gruesome story about the same house was that the owner was clearly a cat lover. Porcelain cat figures adorned the fireplace in the lounge, and a mounted photo of a cat with a poem accompanying it took pride of place on the wall above - probably a much missed deceased pet. In the corner of the bedroom where the dresses were hanging in the wardrobe was the skeletal remains of a cat, and strewn around the place were other signs of more cats having died in the property too. My guess was that the owner had passed away and her beloved cats had been left to fend for themselves, unloved, until they starved themselves to a long and slow death.
These houses are sadly suffering the same fate - slowly being starved as a result of being left behind and forgotten about. Their fate happens on a much longer scale than the cats (which hopefully wasn’t too long), but somewhere along their timeline of demise they become works of living art, and a perfect subject for an unusual genre of photography.An Aga with iron A cat lover's lounge, with picture and poem on the wall Death is everywhere in these houses Beds made but unslept in for thirty or more years. A wash towel hangs on a dryer as though just used. Towels still on the rail, toothbrush still in place, and ornaments on the shelf. Cupboard of chaos A handheld mirror, sewing kit, brush and sign saying "May the friendship of you and I, like these flowers never die". 5ft 6" iron bed frame with newspapers from the early 1980's on the floor Women's dressing table with various ornaments and reflection in the mirror of dresses hanging in the wardrobe Bedroom in decay, with one-bar electric fire on the floor. A "Mk1 Servis Supertwin" washing machine The ensuite facilities needed a little attention Certificate pinned to the hallway says "Attestation of Pilgrimage - By this attestation let it be known that (name of owners and address of house) by virtue of fullfillling the Biblical injunction has ascended to Jerusalem, the Holy City Capital of Israel and is henceforth authorized to bear the title of Jerusalem Pilgrim".