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‘A new beginning’: How a South Uist photographer captured the birth of a Gaelic hub

The sky seen through the rafter of an unfinished roof.
In Michael Faint's photographs, an unfinished building comes into its own. Photo: Michael Faint

Michael Faint’s photographs, alongside poetry by Niall Campbell, are on display at the newly-opened Cnoc Soilleir building in South Uist.

Opened earlier this month, Cnoc Soiller looks set to bring new life to the Gaelic arts scene in the Hebrides.

But its story didn’t start when Deputy First Minister John Swinney cut the ribbon.

At the opening, Cnoc Soilleir chair Mairi T MacInnes said that it was “a day for us to draw breath” at the end of a long, complicated journey.

And it was a journey that was documented at every step by a local photographer.

‘Sunrise at Cnoc Soilleir’, the photo that led to the commission. Photo: Michael Faint

Michael Faint lives in Lochboisdale, where he splits his photography with working as one of the owners of popular local business Skydancer Coffee.

Like many local people, he was struck by the emerging frame of Cnoc Soilleir.

One morning, he took a photo of the building’s frame and a crane, touched by a sunrise.

It caught the attention of Cnoc Soilleir’s Catherine Yeatman. For her, she says, Mr Faint is “the best photographer in Uist by a mile”.

Cnoc Soilleir found funding to commission him, alongside poet Niall Campbell, to produce photographs and poems documenting the building project.

‘We exchanged words and pictures’

They “exchanged words and pictures as the build progressed”, with Mr Faint “able to take further inspiration from [Mr Campbell’s] poems”.

These were shared on social media, leading up to Cnoc Soilleir’s first gallery display.

“I knew what Mike would come out with in the end wouldn’t be what anyone was expecting,” says Ms Yeatman.

A toolbag hangs on an unfinished wall.
The photographs aim to capture the beauty of the most seemingly mundane objects. Photo: Michael Faint

Thanks to local builders MacInnes Bros, he was “given free access” to the site.

He described his time there, gathering the smallest details of the build, as “photo-sketching”.

“I was able to show people that didn’t have the access that I had what was happening inside the build.”

A measuring tool.
A measuring tool used in the construction of Cnoc Soilleir, South Uist. Supplied by Michael Faint

The photographs shine a spotlight on everyday objects that most people wouldn’t expect to see at an art exhibition — from dusty tools to a bottle of Irn Bru on standby.

They also capture what those objects represent: a slow but steady labour of love.

Mr Faint started the project in 2020, and it captures a project that faced numerous delays due to “COVID and Brexit complications”.

The building took “much longer to come to fruition than we thought,” says Ms Yeatman.

‘A new beginning’

But the project also looks forward.

Mr Faint “looked for chances to represent the way that the building would be used in the future.”

He wanted the photographs “to celebrate a new beginning at ‘the bright hill'”.

As well as the documentary photographs of building materials, the commission asked Mr Faint to respond to the Cnoc Soilleir’s Gaelic music and readings.

An abstract image of harplike lines.
Clarsach (Harp), one of the more abstract photographs Michael Faint produced for Cnoc Soilleir’s exhibition. Photo: Michael Faint

Challenged to represent sound in a visual medium, he produced “more abstract” images that “represent a musical journey that begins with the people, culture and place.”

He was inspired by “the landscape around Cnoc Soilleir along with the hills, sea and machair that are close by.”

“From this beginning the voices and instruments join together to produce a crescendo that should continue at Cnoc Soilleir for a long time to come.”

Sunset light on a building on a hill.
With ‘Sunset at Cnoc Soilleir’, Michael Faint brought the project full circle. Photo: Michael Faint

Alongside the abstract photographs, though, are two more traditional ones: the sunrise and a sunset, representing the beginning of Cnoc Soilleir and the final result.

For Ms Yeatman, they just had to be included.

“I felt they told the whole story,” she said.

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