While everyone back in the United States is talking about St. Patrick’s Day, Scotland is fairly quiet. One of the most iconic emblems of the holiday, choruses of “Danny Boy” will probably float from the corner pubs across the country, invariably, at one point or another. But as a Scottish-American kid, I didn’t feel that same surge of emotion which accompanies a cultural connection to a piece of music — beautiful and as perfect as Danny Boy seemed, he just wasn’t for me.
Instead, I had “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”, another iconic piece of folk music from the British Isles centering around themes of profound loss and departure, and this seems to fit the bill in producing the requisite overflow of tears when played at an emotional time (for best results, pair with a twelve-year Scotch, building stress from academic research, and a litany of questionable life choices).
I visited Loch Lomond in recent weeks, and despite the freezing cold weather which usually deters tourists at this time of year, it was, expectedly, as beautiful as the song suggests, and suddenly it became clear why everyone goes into a tizzy of romantic daydreams at the sight of it.
I have to imagine that the fury of emotion associated with the triumphantly tragic tune and romantic setting is partly due to the older generations’ propensity for holding in emotions and a cultural pride in the ability to sequester them to the unaccessible depths of the psyche. It is something of an unspoken rule, particularly among men of a certain age, from certain parts of Scotland, that emotions are to be kept largely under-expressed lest weakness be shown, building pressure and tension until they are forced outward, typically by negative stimuli. The classic melody of a tender song has the ability to prod at those feelings in a different way, and on this I base my theory as to, partly, why the piece is still so incredibly popular here.
I expected to do the shoot, explore, enjoy the day, take in some lunch from a local place, chat with locals, and head back to Partick. In many ways, this is what I did. I hadn’t planned any invasive measures given the cold, and expected some generic shots as I was getting a feel for the place. Then I saw it.
On one of the more accessible banks, a bouquet of white lilies had been placed carefully, quietly — wrapped in celophane as they had been purchased, untouched — a gift for an unknown lost lover, lost life, or lost moment in time, placed by the hands of someone ultimately, intimately familiar with the feelings “Loch Lomond” evokes. It stopped me in my tracks and suddenly, this piece of litter, by definition, became the focus of my mind for weeks to come.
The simple image produces a thousand thoughts, a thousand questions, all never to be answered, and suddenly all the research in the world is useless. Was the person who placed the flowers young, or old? Were they mourning, or celebrating? Were they angry, or at peace? Are they still in pain? Are they still in love? Did they do it for others to see, or for themselves to enjoy — or was it for both purposes?
But the burning question underlying any and all endeavours to understand photography, from an artist point of view, was the unpleasant rhetorical question: ‘Well. Who does this remind you of?’
I am a researcher of Victorian literature. I have read Kate Greenaway’s “Language of Flowers”, released in 1884, which captivated the attention of the people by providing significance to floral arrangements — sometimes used to express emotions which otherwise may have been sequestered just in the way I have described above. By the definition of that book, white lilies are emblems of purity, of sweetness.
I have read, of course, the origins of the song, published in the 1840s, author unknown. I have read essays on the significance of Victorian photography as an avenue by which to better understand and contextualise Victorian literature. Importantly, as noted by Jennifer Green-Lewis in her paper “Victorian Literature in the Context of Photography” for the Victorian Review in 2008:
“Photographs, we note, have meanings that speak to the world beyond their immediate frames and aren’t necessarily “about” what we see at all: they may speak of our desires far more eloquently than they speak about their subjects.”
I have only ever learned, in all I have learned, that in many cases, there just are no words. Sometimes, there are just reminders, signs, and things which prod at that ever-heightening emotional tension. No analyses from which to base an understanding. No discussion needing to be had. No broader context. No benefit to any of it. Sometimes it’s not a song that makes you remember.
Sometimes it’s just the privilege of imagining and empathising with the shared struggles of another human being, gifting flowers to the banks of a landmark long associated with patriotism, lost love…
And to the sustenance, in my case, of a fuzzy memory of a bus ride home, singing the chorus under my breath.