Black and white photo by Robbie Lawrence showing a Highland Games event in a field with tents and benches

Robbie Lawrence explores the evolution of tradition

The photographer’s new publication and exhibition interrogate mythmaking through the lens of the Highland Games in Scotland and the US

Robbie Lawrence’s newly published project, Long Walk Home, charts the modern day iterations of the Highland Games, a centuries-old Scottish tradition often involving sports, dance and music, and which nowadays can also be found much further afield, from Canada to Norway.

“The Games as a subject has always interested me, not just visually, but also as a vehicle for considering how we as Scots allow history to inform our modern identity,” the photographer says.

Expressions of tradition often raise their own complex questions about ourselves and our personal and collective histories, which Lawrence encountered in making the work. “At first I struggled to look past the mythmaking and nationalism often espoused in the Games. I was trying to document these events objectively, without clarifying with myself how I felt about them,” he explained on social media. “Eventually I threw out years of work and started again.”

Black and white photo by Robbie Lawrence showing two people wearing kilts and bare chested lying on grass
All images from the series Long Walk Home, 2019-24
Two young girls with their hair tied in buns peering out through a sheer curtain

Shot over the course of five years, Long Walk Home examines how cultural traditions take on new permutations and meanings, both in their original and adopted homes. “It was only when I started photographing the Games in the US that I really understood how ideas in the past can be recycled and repurposed by future generations,” he says.

The series features images made in both Scotland and the US, yet the locations of the photographs are concealed, eroding any hierarchies that are often applied to traditions in terms of their proximity to their original home.

Black and white photo by Robbie Lawrence showing two people wearing kilts wrapped in a contorted position on a playing field
Black and white photo by Robbie Lawrence showing a young person with their hair in a high bun wearing a translucent poncho

The work is currently on display at Webber 939 in LA, and has also been published in a two-volume set by Stanley/Barker – Lawrence’s third project with the award-winning publisher.

The volumes are split into candid and studio photographs, which captures something of Lawrence’s findings: that the Highland Games, born as live activity, have been carefully moulded over the years to fit people’s “fabricated ideas”. And yet there’s still something poised even in his candid photographs, as participants – and to a degree the observers – perform rituals that have been learned and honed over time.

Black and white portrait photo by Robbie Lawrence of a young person with a plait and nose ring
Black and white photo by Robbie Lawrence showing a person with their arms extended, and their shadow projected against a grey backdrop

The book also features an essay by author and poet John Burnside, who passed away very recently, from which an excerpt is displayed at the exhibition.

In it, Burnside differentiates history – “what sets us in our place” – from myths, which do not rely on fact or geography and are instead a space for imagination. He writes that “by now, in much of the world, including Scotland, Scottishness is as much myth as it is history, which means that we must guard it carefully, retell it beautifully and, more than anything else, love it wisely.”

Black and white photo by Robbie Lawrence showing two people with their arms wrapped around each other performing an activity in a studio environment

Long Walk Home by Robbie Lawrence is published by Stanley/Barker. The series is on display at Webber 939, LA until July 20;