Born in 1960, Ron Lawson is widely regarded as Scotland’s most original and distinctive contemporary landscape painter. His instantly recognisable palette and style has met with an extraordinary response throughout the UK and abroad, where his striking works of the Scottish Islands and Highlands are enthusiastically collected.
With a passion for dramatic and sparsely populated locations, Ron has spent many years exploring and capturing the wild remoteness and majesty of the Outer Hebrides and Scottish Highlands.
His remarkable contemporary Scottish landscapes appeal to an international audience, and are included in private collections worldwide. Ron exhibits regularly in Scotland and London with Eduardo Alessandro Studios and in New York.
The original black houses, which date back centuries, were built without so much as a window or even a chimney.
The smoke from the open peat fire, which was the centre of family life, went directly through the thatched roof.
Inside the double stone walls, filled with earth for insulation, lived both the family and their animals.
Having animals in the house made it warmer and meant fewer buildings were needed. The smoke rising from the peat fire into the roof also had hidden benefits — it killed bugs and the smoke-infused thatch made excellent fertiliser for the fields later.
As one of the most primitive forms of the North Atlantic longhouse tradition it is very probable that the roots of the black house are more than 1,000 years old, however today few pre-18th-Century examples remain.
The true origin of the name black house is unsure, and may have arisen from the phonetic similarity between dubh, meaning black, and tughadh meaning thatch.
Most believe the name is derived from the fact that there are few or no windows in these buildings and the smoke from the fire would cover the inside of the house in soot.
Although many of the black houses found today have a real look of antiquity, most of the upstanding ruins were built less than 150 years ago, and occupied until as recently as 1974.
Hebridean cottages have been designed to survive in the tough environment of the Outer Hebrides. Low, rounded roofs, elaborately roped, were developed to resist the strong Atlantic winds and the thick walls provide insulation.
Towards the end of the 1800s a new type of housing was introduced to encourage a healthier lifestyle. To distinguish between them people would call the old style house “black” and the new ones “white” houses, which were further characterised by their white lime mortar exterior.
The white houses are now more commonly seen on The Outer Hebrides than the ancient black houses and create a striking contrast against the dramatic skies and scenery.
Hebridean cottages were the traditional home for islanders for centuries and are increasingly being restored as part of conservation work or for use as holiday accommodation — some even have hot tubs in their gardens!
Tiree, known for its architecture, stunning beaches and record sunshine hours, measures only 12 miles by three miles and is inhabited by about 750 people, many of them crofters. The island rarely rises more than 15 metres above sea levels, as such it’s easy to see how it came by its Gaelic name, Tir An Eorna – the land beneath the waves.
But from the highest point of Ben Hynish (just 141 metres above sea level) you can survey the entire island and its impossible not to love it. It’s a peaceful place to take it easy, spot seals, otters and even basking sharks, for which the surrounding waters are famous for.
Another distinctive sight are the black houses, which are numerous and stand out from those on the rest of the Hebrides. A few are still thatched in the traditional manner, however, most are now white-washed and have the more practical black tar-painted felt. This gives the long and low homes a unique bottom-heavy look but is sensible in an environment often struck by gale force winds in winter.
As well as the black and white houses the island is also known for its spotted houses (pudding houses), which are unique to Tiree. These simple structures take their name from their external appearance where only the mortar is painted white giving a mottled appearance.
The tiny and stunning island of Barra will forever be associated with the MacNeil clan, who have been on the island since the 11th Century, and also Sir Compton Mackenzie and his novel Whisky Galore. Although the events of the novel do not take place on Barra, the island was used as the setting for the film version and many islanders were extras.
Shortly after the MacNeils were granted Barra they built Kisimul Castle on an island in Castlebay harbour. This wonderful construction is only surpassed by the bountiful remains of black house communities to be found all over the island. It was hearing about life in these seemingly inhospitable yet enduring and much-loved buildings from the landlady of a B&B on the island that fired Ron’s imagination and desire to recapture and chart this way of life.
Another famous sight on Barra is the extraordinary airport, which is sited on an extensive beach, where the runway can only be used when the tide is out. Visitors wait for hours to watch the little planes land and take off. Backing onto the runway is a collection of beautiful red-roofed houses which blend perfectly with the turquoise water and vast sand dunes behind. These bright and cheery buildings became a fascination in Ron’s work as a modern contrast to Barra’s historic black houses.
The enchanting island of Eriskay lies at the southern end of the Uist chain and can be reached by a short ferry crossing from Barra. The tiny island is 2 ½ miles long by 1 ½ miles wide and is dominated by Beinn Screin (610ft) and Beinn Stack (403ft) and spectacular beaches with crystal clear waters.
The islanders have been dependent on fishing and owe their survival there to the Eriskay pony whose strength and temperament enable the crofters to transport everything from seaweed, cement, food and potatoes across the islands and were still used into the late 1950s.
It was also here that the SS politician ran aground in 1944 carrying more than 20,000 cases of whisky, bicycles, shoes and Jamaican currency – much to the islanders’ delight!
The dramatic cliffs with crofts perched on top, dropping down to coastal coves and across blues seas to views of Barra make this an inspirational spot that has a recurring presence throughout Ron’s work.
Largely flat and dominated by the mountain Beinn Mhor, South Uist can appear desolate and inhospitable, but if you know where to look there are special gems that reveal the beauty of the island.
Howmore (Tobha Mor) is one such gem. Restored black houses and ruins of ancient communities can be found all over the island but this village is home to one of the best collections of thatched buildings and the effect is stunning. One example has been transformed into a lovely hostel and nearby are ruins of churches and chapels that date back to the 1200s alongside the more modern Howmore Church built in 1858, which is used as a landmark by fishermen off the west coast.
To the west of Howmore a network of tracks run to and along the impressive 20-mile beach that lines much of the west coast. The machair lands and dunes here are brimming with flowers and wildlife.
It is in the bleak landscape of South Uist that Ron’s trademark grey skies can be best experienced for real. As you watch the ominous weather roll in across the flat land from the west, you can feel safe in the knowledge that it’ll soon pass to give way to the bright sunshine that lights up the foreground of a lot of Ron’s paintings.
The island of Benbecula is the pretty little stepping stone between South and North Uist. It is defined by causeways, beaches and wildlife.
The west coast largely consists of gentle beaches while the east has a ragged coast of jagged inlets. With some patient searching this island reveals a previous way of life in restored and derelict black houses that current crofters would have lived in only one or two generations back.
North Uist measures 18 miles by 12 and is slightly smaller than South Uist yet has a more interesting landscape. Much of the island is covered by water, giving the place a rather unsettling feeling to some as the sky so readily meets the sea and there seems little firm ground.
North Uist suffered significant population reductions due to the Highland Clearances, and there was also mass-emigration to Canada due to a failure in the island’s kelp industry.
The main village is Lochmaddy in the north, from which there is a direct ferry to Uig on Skye and to Harris. One of the main draws to North Uist is its prehistoric significance. The earliest crannog site in Scotland is located here, at Eilean Dòmhnuill. There are also standing stones and stone circles as well as the chambered cairn at Barpa Langass and the roundhouses at Baile Sear (Baleshare) which give an insight into the depth of history here.
It’s here that one of Ron’s most popular images derives, Malacleit cottage, with its ever-changing backdrop of one of the finest beaches in North Uist.
With the right weather spectacular Harris is heaven on earth, yet those grey skies are ever-threatening creating a magical atmosphere that brings you so close to nature.
The mountainous and imposing hills of north Harris give way to a more gentle landscape as you travel south, with the lush, white shell beaches and turquoise waters of the west coast and the barren, lunar-like landscape of the east.
Some traditional black houses have been turned into holiday accommodation on Harris and at Borve you can enjoy the character and history of the black house with all mod cons, even a hot tub to relax in and soak up the unbeatable views of mountains, islands and sea.
Evacuated in 1930 the archipelago of St Kilda, reached by a 3 ½ hour boat trip from Harris, has caught the imagination of people from all around the world. It had been a life-long ambition of Ron’s to visit and camp out on this remote and magical island, one which was finally realised last year.
The most stunning views of the islands and sea stacks of St Kilda are on the approach as they rise up on the horizon, at first seeming small and insignificant the Jurassic looking mountains in the sea gradually becoming huge, towering above the boat, while the air fills with the deafening calls of millions of seabirds.
On the main island of Hirta the village has been partially reconstructed to give a glimpse of what life would have been like here. The island is also covered in seemingly randomly placed-cleits – rounded stone constructions thought to have been used by St Kildans for drying and storing birds, the staple food of the islanders and caught by skilled climbers high up on the stacks and cliffs.
The St Kildans had a distinctive way of life in which all food and resources were shared equally and is often viewed as a utopia spoiled by the arrival of external influences.
It’s here that the vast skies, seas and emptiness of the outer Hebrides can be fully appreciated and it is this natural, wild and beautiful phenomenon, which leaves such a lasting impression, that Ron aspires to recreate through his work.
Lewis is the largest of the Outer Hebrides and sits at the north west tip of the 100-mile long chain of islands. The island, defined by mountains, moorland and vast peatbogs, is steeped in history. The Callanish stones are one of the most complete historic stone circles in Europe and the restored black house village at Garenin transport you back to a simpler and more magical way of life.
Lewis is also the populous of the Hebrides with more than 6,000 residents on the main port of Stornoway alone.
This was one of the first islands Ron explored and fulfilled a dream as for years he’d watched the ferries head out from Ullapool and longed to get on board. Five years ago Ron loaded up his touring bike and finally boarded the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Stornoway, a step which saw the beginning of a fascination with island life, culture, landscape and architecture which has resulted in this series of magnificent paintings, with more island adventures still to come.