I think it is hardest to photograph the place where you come from; familiarity can make it hard to get a new angle on a subject, or to work out what interests you. For that reason I hadn’t photographed so much in Scotland where I was born, grew up and (relatively recently) returned to live. I’ve always liked to photograph in Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine and Russia, but finding a subject back home was more of a challenge.
One thing that did always draw me about Scotland though was this sense of history in the everyday, the way that today’s society is interwoven with echoes of witchcraft and paganism. I originally took my university entrance exam specializing in James VI & I – and one of the many curious things about that particular king was his obsession with witchcraft. He was a bit of an intellectual, and wrote one of the defining guides to witches, which he named Daemonologie. He was keen to put his theory into practice - one lady from my own home town, Agnes Sampson, was accused of being a witch, and this was the spark for the famous North Berwick witch trials, where around 200 women were accused and mostly convicted and condemned.
So I started looking at behaviours today which would have one condemned as a witch or a devil worshipper. One of the biggest pagan festivals in Scotland today is Beltane, which involves folk dancing semi-naked around Calton Hill in Edinburgh – not specifically witchcraft, but James VI (who was also responsible for the authorized translation of the Bible) for sure would have seen the work of the devil in it.
To get the pictures involved challenging lighting, and plenty of camouflage in the form of dressing up in pagan costume myself – as did my wife. Luckily we didn’t have to get too undressed though – it was a bit chilly up the hill that night. A Christian group who were there trying to rescue a few souls saw us looking scary in our face paint and monk costumes and tried to convert us back to Christianity. Apart from that the main challenge was the crowds and the extreme low light, with just a bonfire for lighting. I had in mind Matisse’s painting “Dance” – not to reconstruct it, but just as a visual reference in my head. And this is what came out.
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