Thursday, 17 September 2009

Jonathan Meades and the Isle of Rust

Our contribution to to the scrap cult, an old Co-op van on the croft. It served as an excellent sheep shelter for years.

Was last night's Off Kilter, with Jonathan Meades wandering around the Isle of Rust, the best television I have ever seen about Lewis - or the worst? I just can't decide.

Architecture critic and iconoclast Meades was brutally anti-religious and patronising at times, but that aside, his main thesis was a homage to the wrecked cars and rusty sheds that litter the Lewis landscape. It amounts to what he called a scrap cult.

Meades is the first since Gus Wylie to recognise the bleak grandeur of all this wreckage in paradise. I'm a little envious because it was the kind of imagery I'd want to infuse any film set on the islands instead of the candied scenery we serve up to ourselves.

For Meades the corrugated iron sheds - a whole sub-category of scrap in themselves - were temples of abstract art, the abandoned cars previews of the future of mankind . It was all very tongue in cheek and when he described some examples of modern architecture as pretentious you had to laugh out loud at his gall.

But when Meades asked how you get a Ford Transit van without wheels into a peat bog metres from the road or why a red Mini Metro should be left upside down in the moor he missed the whole point of the scrap cult.

The real reason wrecked vehicles are left randomly in the landscape was perfectly captured by a deeply ironic Randan sketch some years ago.

The scene is an Anglo-sounding couple surveying the Lewis landscape. She says: "Oh Ralph, I thought this was going to be island for us to move to but there are just so many wrecked cars ruining the landscape. Let's go to Orkney instead."

A boiler-suited crofter is listening and watches the potential incomers depart. "Aye, I knew that old Marina would come in handy one day, " he muses.


  1. I have to admit I felt much the same way. I didn't know whether rave or rant to be honest.

    If nothing else he definitely managed to get some magnificent shots of the islands, but at times I thought he was playing some sort of wierd drinking game with himself - you know the kind where you down a shot for every word with more than 10 syllables in it.

  2. No sitting on the fence for me.... it was by far the best TV programme I've seen on the subject of the Outer Hebrides. Rather than coat things with layer upon layer of sickly sweet, rose-tinted nostalgia, reminiscing how good things were before electricity and grants... the times we sat in the darkness, choking on the smoke of the peat fire whilst tending to an ageing relative dying of TB... mucking out the animals at the far end of the house with creels on our backs to the soundtrack of a dreary musical Gaelic dirge. Cue shot of beautiful sunset over Luskentyre.

    Meades managed to get under the skin and present a refreshing viewpoint. Aside from portraying the raw beauty of the landscape and its wildlife, he mixed in many of the human impositions that have made the place what it is today.

    This wan't nostalgia for an idealised version of the past. This was Lewis and Harris as it is today.

    Yes, he had a pop at religion. But he's right. It's crazy that the particularly dour form of Presbyterianism practised in the Isle of Rust holds such influence. But the very fact it does is one of the reasons - even for the atheists amongst us - Jonathan Meades and people like myself find the place so interesting and likeable.

    The programme was well researched, intelligently presented and beautifully filmed. It will have offended some and pleased others. If I had never visited Lewis or Harris before, this would certainly have seen me taking advantage of the recently reduced fares provided by CalMac. And I'd have quite happily booked a Sunday sailing (if it wasn't already full).

  3. Living In the Pairc17 September 2009 at 15:34

    Having lived on Lewis for nearly 6 years now after years of the commutor rat run into London my wife and I both agree that with regard to a true reflection of Lewis and Harris the programme was first rate.

    We have blended in and have forgotten the rot and decay around us - we live within 500 metres of the moor based Transit, some how losing the rust from our vision of what are beautiful Islands.

    What Meads omits sadly is that The Grand Design is to build 200+ 140+ metre (near 500ft)high wind turbines all over Lewis - their stark technology will clash some what with the aging relics put out to pasture by the locals.

    Excellent TV.

  4. So many great moments. Blogged a little about it too.

  5. This fellow countryman of mine really annoyed me. Disclaimer: I live in the Highlands and go to a mainland version of the kind of church he criticised (incidentally the mainland versions are subtly different). I don't think I'd want to live on the islands, they are too bleak and too isolated and too culturally "different". But what right has he to mock a whole area of the country in this way? This place has had to suffer gross poverty (yes, that was mentioned in the context of Matheson, I guess) and unfavourable weather (strong winds), and remoteness from services, and most of the best-educated/most enterprising of its people being exported 18 years after their birth for the last 100+ years. Socialism is rather too strong for my liking there too - this contributes to the herd mentality, bland buildings, etc. I can't think of any other part of the highlands with that horrid 1970s pink pebble-dash (now very sad-looking) so prevalent, though white harling comes a close second in terms of boringness. As for rusty corrugated iron, wasn't this pretty common in the whole of Britain a few years ago? Maybe Lewis didn't really enjoy the economic booms of the 80s and 90s. The economic boom probably got no further than replacing a lot of the windows of the inhabited houses with UPVC, mending roofs etc, both a very expensive business in this day and age especially on a remote island.

  6. To be honest all I ever wished for was a fair and balanced view of the island to counter the lazy journalism we've endured for decades. Instead this program was not just a good piece on the island but a brilliant piece of television. I have watched it three times and found it more inspiring with each viewing. Isle of Rust, I want to live there, oh I do....

  7. Thanks, I thought that the programme was excellent.

    The man is a genius, he is an excellent polemicist. I always try to catch his programmes on the iplayer.
    I don't know if last weeks one about Aberdeen is still up on the iplayer, but that was also good.

    He is highly opiniated but so what, in fact I agree with everything he said. This guy is an architecture critic by proffesion and I'm glad he laid into the pebbledash buildings, this is relevant also to the new builds springing up all round the island. Timber frames, breeze block and pebble dash is a recipe for disaster.
    He went round the town on a Saturday night, then Sunday morning and laughed at the dfference.
    He had a go at the castle.
    At the church, supposedly 'anti cult' but is essentially a cult.
    And he evn praised SY black puddings

    Thanks for the BBc for producing such intelligent programming, now I am going to watch it again.

  8. I though it was great though I have to admit it was only on second viewing that I really "got it" having missed the central conceit while half watching it first time round. For sure his pop at religion was very one sided but he's a polemist, that is what he does and I'd take articulate and witty anti-theism of a Meades over the dim witted dulness of a Dawkins any day of the week. All in all I thought the piece was ultimately nothing less than a love letter to the island.

  9. very much agree with dan that it's a love letter to the island. i'll be watching it again tonight

  10. It was only about halfway through that I realised that this wasn't a partonising attack on Scotland, her identity and the people of the Long Isle but instead one of the best pieces of TV I have ever seen.

    The unadorned, simple Calvinist churches of Skye are some of the most beautiful buildings in Europe - modernism before the term was invented. Why the Gaels across the Minch with the same religion and building materials produced uninspired banality is something of wonder. Yes, they may be fellow Gaidheil but the people of Rust are a race apart. If they could raise their spirits they might even rejoice at the ugly, insipid houses they call homes. One day someone might plant a flower in a garden instead of planting another old bus in a bog. But that would be just too sinful perhaps?

  11. "If they could raise their spirits they might even rejoice at the ugly, insipid houses they call homes. One day someone might plant a flower in a garden instead of planting another old bus in a bog. But that would be just too sinful perhaps?"


    Nice and patronising, that is.

  12. I've got to say I loved it. Yeah he goes on a bit but he does have some very interesting points to make under all the waffle!

    I've always loved the random junk left dumped around the islands, and found it all very interesting...

  13. Meades captured the raw essence of the island but totally missed the point of the Transit van. I have it on the highest authority that far from being dumped, it was carefully sited close to peat banks, thereby creating a handy shelter during the peat-cutting season. Scrap cult, or recycling?

  14. "Why the Gaels across the Minch with the same religion and building materials produced uninspired banality is something of wonder. Yes, they may be fellow Gaidheil but the people of Rust are a race apart."

    I expect with attitudes like yours, they are happy being a race apart from you.

    I loved the documentary and as a regular visitor to the Highlands and Islands, would choose the honest starkness of Lewis and Harris, over the twee superiority of Skye. I have rarely met better people than those of 'Rust'.

  15. A spell-binding programme with Meades' trenchant and admiring commentary. He loves the place; its haunting past, stark present and predictable future. Such beautiful artistic forms in the abandoned stone and rusting hulks. Wonderful. I feel like setting off tonight.