Drive north from Inverness, into Caithness or Sutherland, and there’s abandonment everywhere. Much of it is subtle, hidden – derelict cottages tucked away in the woods or down a quiet glen. In most cases they are quite similar – gutted, often roofless, with a familiar smell of damp and a chimney blocked with sticks. There often isn’t much left to make you feel a connection with the past.
Occasionally however, you find somewhere that chills you to your core.
I’ve photographed many of Scotland’s abandoned mansions, hospitals and industrial sites. Some of these are vast places which can take hours to explore, so in general I no longer get inspired by lone derelict cottages.
This one looked like any other as I drove past. A gaping hole in the roof, smashed windows, a tree growing where it shouldn’t. So what made me look twice? I’m not sure, but something compelled me to pull over and get my camera gear out.
A wade through deep undergrowth took me to the front door, ajar. With a sizable hole in the roof, why did it look so dark inside? As I tip-toed into the doorway, an unsual smell greeted me. Everything was covered in soot and ash. The windows were blackened and the air thick with dust and sadness.
For a moment I couldn’t really see what was in the room I’d entered. But as my eyes started to adjust a stab of blind panic went through me. A face was staring at me out of the darkness.
My heart was pounding as I stared back a the teddy bear, its arms spread wide to greet me, sat on the floor amongst the ashes. I breathed a sigh of relief and began taking in the rest of my surroundings. Another teddy…this one face down on the floor, twisted and singed. I moved into the corridor, past a burnt out staircase, past a roof collapse. The fire hadn’t reached the bathroom – the curtains were still drawn and bottles of shampoo still stood on a shelf.
The next room took my breath away.The kitchen table was still laid up for a meal. A teapot and cups, plates, cutlery. Washing up still in the sink. A kettle still plugged in. Another teddy bear – this one dressed as a toy solider, laid on its back beneath an algae-covered window. A toy monkey sat beside a teapot on the dinner table, burnt and missing one of its ears. Whoever had lived in this house had left in a hurry.
A wave of deep sadness rolled over me. This was a freeze-frame of lives interrupted, a snapshot of of an ordinary day amongst disaster.
When I left the cottage a while later, the question on my mind was the same as it always is after I explore dereliction. ‘Just what happened here? What went wrong?’. You can become a bit numb after a while of photographing abandoned places, but it was impossible to avoid the sheer misery that oozed from the walls of that house. It left me feeling slightly sick. That was 3 weeks ago, and a day hasn’t passed when I haven’t thought about those burnt toys staring at me out of the ash.