Photographs of a Watson year

Monday June 14, 2004 How do you measure a year?

Dear friends, please find below my submissions for my Watson year photo montage. These images all capture something of my time in Scotland.

In selecting them, I've faced a difficult question: how do you translate a year's journey--both literal and metaphorical--into a purely visual medium? I think it's rather difficult, perhaps even impossible. Nonetheless, I will give it a shot. One of the things I'm learning from my time in Scotland is that it's still important to try even when success is not assured. A life lesson in there somewhere, I think.

I have included some photographs of myself here. This feels narcissistic, but is important. The year has wrought many changes in how I look, how I think, and in what I choose to care about. Is personality written in the face?

I've spent quite a while this evening with my flatmate Paul, sifting through my stack of photographs. It was a good conversation as well as a useful exercise, and I enjoyed his company. This friendship is something I found for myself--without help--and plan to keep.

We carefully built a narrative of major themes in my life since coming to Scotland, and framed the montage around it. It is necessary that every picture tell, and the process of culling is a tedious one. It was good to have a companion.

A quick look through the montage will give a wholly unrealistic impression of Scotland, and from a certain point of view that's a good thing. It strikes me more and more that one purpose of the Watson Fellowship is to teach you first-hand that empiricism is the only way to learn about life. It's just not good enough to read about someone else's life; you must live your own. Therefore it seems silly to try to summarize Scotland in 10 photographs, as you'd need to live my life to understand what they mean.

That said, it's still a place of wild beauty and strong magic, and I would like to share it with you. Come with me on a short trip; you've gotten past the pretentious philosophizing and can now enjoy a slide show.

Welcome to Scotland.

A seagull (as opposed to a herring gull) perched on the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry between Wemyss (WEEMZ) Bay and Rothesay. Something in this photo really pleases me--I think it's the way the saltire (the Scottish flag) draws together the colors of the rest of the picture. The water is the Firth of Clyde, from which Lomond and Clyde Pipe Band draws its name. This represents arrival in a new place.

It's often lonely to find yourself somewhere new. I spent a lot of moonlight hours feeling like the only still point amid the great bustle, wondering whether I had been foolish to accept the red pill and take a Wanderjahr. This is also, perhaps ironically, a bit of home: I'm standing on the Kelvin Bridge, about five minutes from my flat.

Photo credit: Elizabeth McDonald

The Quiraing, in Trotternish on the Isle of Skye. Elizabeth and my parents and I drove up to Skye on New Year's Day. Our base for exploration was the bed-and-breakfast run by Mrs. Elizabeth MacDonald; great fun given that my girlfriend is Elizabeth McDonald! Mrs. MacDonald recommended the Quiraing to us, and we drove up. Here I show not the thing itself, but the road to get there. It was much steeper than it looks in the photograph.

The Quiraing is a wild and desolate place, and it gives a visual reminder of the sort of esoteric knowledge that suffuses piping. Much of piping study seems to concern a long hard road following in the footsteps of giants. If you consider it in that light, perhaps you'll understand a bit more of what this photo represents for me.

If you follow enough long hard roads, eventually you'll find something that makes it all seem worthwhile. This is a winter sunset (at 2:30 pm!) over Glen Nevis, near Spean Bridge and Fort William.

Eventually, you can make good friends even as a shy person in a new place. With practice, you become less shy.

Tony, on the left, was my first friend in Scotland. He's a piper as well, and lives two floors down from me. As I moved into my flat, I heard bagpipes and swore I was going mad. But no imaginary bagpipes play tuning phrases! Finally I worked up the nerve to say hello, and we became fast friends. Tony introduced me to the Campaign for Real Ale, and it was on a group outing to the Port Royal Hotel on Bute that I snapped this shot. The seagull up top escorted us back to the mainland on the way home.

Russell, on the right, is another friend. Tony is English; Russell's Welsh; and depending on which of my friends you ask, I am American or Canadian. Together we make a motley crew!

I've spent a lot of time playing with Lomond and Clyde this year, and Paul Warren is our fearless leader. He's a very dear friend of mine. Paul has taught me everything I know about pipe majoring, a whole lot of "bandcraft", and a good bit about life.

Here you see him and some of the guys preparing for battle at the Gourock Highland Games. We are fierce and proud and we swagger like you wouldn't believe! The shades are part of the uniform.

This is the part of my montage where I start to find a place, and where I realize that I've found a way to belong here. We will miss each other when I go, and it wasn't always clear that I'd get to this point with anyone in Scotland. L&C is my family in Scotland, I think.

This is the crucial shot, the one that falls at the Golden Mean of my montage. These are the standing stones of Stenness on Orkney's Mainland isle. I've always loved standing stones and places that feel powerful somehow. Stenness, and the Ring of Brodgar just up the road, are definitely places with some magic deep in the bones.

Orkney represented a turning point for me, I think. I'd meant to go there, and didn't think I would get the chance. A friend from Edinburgh called me up to tell me that the Orkney Folk Festival was on, and I decided to go. From that point onward, it seemed fate tried its very best to keep me from getting there. Orkney represents the triumph of persistence over adversity.

There were no seats on the bus, so I went and waited for one to open up. There was no food, so I ate peanuts and traded with the wee old guy in the seat next to me for candies. I had no idea where I was going to sleep, but I knew I'd have it figured out before bedtime. There were no cars available for hire, so we hired bicycles, and toured the island at a human speed. In Orkney I refused to be denied, and let flexibility guide me at all times. That's an attitude that serves me well when I can remember it. I'm getting better at doing so.

I love Orkney. It is an intensely beautiful place, and holds some of my fondest memories of Scotland. I like that this photo, which carries so much meaning for me, has a great deal less obvious symbolism than the others.

Here we have the gentlemen of Inveran Bagpipe Makers: Donald MacFarlane, Martin MacBeath, and Brian Donaldson, from left to right. They're friends of mine, and they work over in the Kingdom of Fife on the eastern side of Scotland.

Brian is one of the most successful competitive pipers I have ever met. He's also a superbly talented instrument maker, and that's why I asked him to make me a set of bagpipes. My teachers all told me--within a week of each other, and independently--that my old instrument had taken me as far as it could, and that I'd need a better one to progress. I spent an agonizing few months carefully weighing choices and makers and materials.

I went to visit Brian in his shop one day. There were ewes lambing on the fields outside his workshop, and a cool breeze through the open woodshop doors. We had a long conversation about what was important in life, about music and love and wood and far-away places. I hadn't planned on making a decision that day, but at the end of the afternoon I ordered my Stradivarius from Brian. I have never regretted it.

The bagpipe drone top you see in the photograph will be mine. It looks and feels superb, and I can barely wait to hear the finished instrument. This photograph, then, represents both the birth of my new instrument (and thus touches on speaking with a new voice) and the importance of intuition in a Watson year. That and they're just really great guys and I like them very much.

All dressed up and ready to go. This is me, after the turning point. I'm proudly wearing the uniform of Lomond and Clyde in Dumbarton, at the Scottish Championships. Looking back at this, I seem to have acquired some confidence since the picture at Kelvinbridge was taken. I know the boys of the Mighty Clyde have a place in their hearts for me, and I think I stand a little straighter for the knowledge.

Photo composed by me and snapped by Buck DeFore.

This is the most recent photograph of the bunch, and it belongs to Lomond and Clyde. I believe it was taken by Scott Birse's father; it comes to me through the band website.

This is the culmination of all that came before. From loneliness, I have found community; from shyness, I have taken strength and confidence. You can see me in the photo, if you look carefully. I won't tell you which one I am, because it doesn't matter. Here we are The Mighty Men of the Mighty Clyde, and we are proud and fierce and wonderful.

We spent last Saturday at the British Pipe Band Championships in Turriff, up in Aberdeenshire. We played well, in a field of strong competitors, and had a great day. Rain had been predicted, but the sunny weather held through for us. The sun always shines on Lomond and Clyde, we like to joke, but at times it seems like truth. The photograph was taken just before our long, long bus ride home at the end of the day.

I love it that we appear as a single entity, as a group rather than a group of individuals. I love the grins and raised fists and the memories of shouting that this photograph will always carry for me.

And I love that only after looking for a while do you notice the trophy, placed atop the bass drum, that marks us British Champions for 2004.

My sincerest thanks are due to the people of the Watson Foundation, for funding this amazing year. Thanks, guys! Click on the photographs for the full-size versions. Permission is given to the Watson Foundation and its agents to use these images for publicity and conference materials as specified in our agreement. Other people: please do not reproduce them without permission. All photographs are copyright 2003-2004 Hollis Easter except where noted.

Click here to see some photos that didn't get selected.

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