Written by RSGS Collections Volunteer, Jane Griffiths.
On a wet Monday morning at the RSGS offices in Perth I am about to investigate the contents of another box of the Society’s glass lantern slides. There is always a sense of anticipation! I open a small box labelled Lapps. The first slide is that of a Sami herdsman standing in the snow beside a reindeer with enormous antlers almost as tall as he is. He sports a beautiful four-cornered hat, called a Four Winds hat, typical of Sami dress in Northern Norway. In subsequent slides reindeer are herded, families fish, make camp and collect traditional shoe grass for insulating footwear. But perhaps the most engaging slide is the simplest: a group of small children snuggling around a dog in the smoky interior of their tent or gamme.
Areas such as Tibet and Ladakh also held a particular appeal for many travellers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A hitherto anonymous collection of early 20th century slides of Ladakh illustrates the experiences many of them sought: monasteries and stupas in remote settings, a chance to witness events such as the famous devil dance at Himis – with the extraordinary masks and costumes worn by the Lamas – and long marches across the mountains by way of vertigo-inducing platform roads or paraos. One particularly interesting slide is that of a polyandrous family in Ladakh, where it was customary for a woman’s brothers-in-law to become her “minor husbands”. According to travellers, polyandry was a pragmatic response aimed at keeping population numbers low enough to cope with the risk of famine.
This collection of slides from Ladakh also represents a connection between Ella Christie, of Cowden Castle and a much-valued member of the RSGS, and fellow Scot, Jane E. Duncan. The women met at Khapala but were in complete agreement about, as Jane Duncan put it, “the joy there is in travelling alone.” Their plans took them in the same direction, but they customarily left a day or two apart, to preserve their independence. Jane Duncan’s account of her own journey in 1906 in A Summer Ride through Western Tibet included a number of photographs contributed by Ella Christie, some of which are represented in the slide collection. The genuine hardships of their journeys across high mountain passes contrast amusingly with Jane Duncan’s accounts of making camp promptly in late afternoon, in order to enjoy scones and read her Shakespeare. Alas, no slides exist to record the latter!
While most of the glass lantern slides held by the RSGS have already been documented, the moving of collections and the passage of time has led, inevitably, to a few re-discoveries. An unassuming wallet of anonymous negative photographs labelled Greenland turned out to have been taken by the traveller Isobel Wylie Hutchison during her travels in Greenland and the Arctic in the 1930’s. They were accompanied by a neatly handwritten – but anonymous – list of captions. On further examination captions such as Self in Eskimo Dress and botanic captions for flowers and plants sounded strangely familiar. It was a stroke of luck that I had recently attended a talk on Isobel and her travels by RSGS’s Writer-in-Residence Jo Woolf.
Researching the background to these collections usually involves checking a variety of sources linked to the Society’s records. Refreshingly perhaps, lantern slides contain very few selfies. Most travellers don’t appear to have felt a need to photograph themselves or their lunch! However, this approach does have its disadvantages, especially when trying to track down the original source or photographer. Some of the more unusual searches have ranged beyond lecture lists and the back issues of the Scottish Geographical Magazine to antiquarian bookshops in Hampstead, websites for Tibetan hotels, biographies of Christian missionaries in Korea and the history of British diplomatic buildings across the world during the last 150 years.
It can be fascinating to see unexpected themes emerge. A current one seems to be headgear. A vivid example from 19th century slides of Korea includes one captioned Summer and Winter Hats. Two slight figures pose for the camera in the corner of a Korean street; one sports an unexceptional straw hat, but the other is dwarfed by a cone-shaped structure of such immense proportions that his upper half is barely visible. Street scenes from the same collection show more prosperous Korean men wearing their distinctive gats over their top-knots. Some are dressed in the white mourning robes many of the upper classes adopted permanently in a pragmatic response to a series of deaths in the Korean Royal family. Travellers to Korea apparently commented on the repetitive sound of women beating the garments with sticks overnight to clean them!
Closer to home, there are slides documenting travel around the Highlands and Islands over a hundred years ago, ranging from towering brochs and crofting townships to deserted East Neuk harbours. In one of the most memorable, a group of women and children cluster around the door of a small wooden hut on a tiny island in the Outer Hebrides. The caption identifies them as the family of a Vatersay raider from the early 20th century. One can’t help but be struck by their expression of stoicism as they gaze steadily at the camera. The final slide depicts a rocky coastline. It symbolises the inescapable harshness of the life for which they were fighting. It is labelled simply Small patches of potatoes among rocks.
All of those early members and supporters who delivered lectures, wrote articles for the Society, or simply donated their own slide collections, were not only motivated by a desire to explore and understand the world around them, but also with a belief in the benefits of sharing that experience. On reflection then, perhaps not so very far from the Instagrammers of today after all!