At first glance at the cover image of Alicia Bruce’s new book, one might be forgiven for presuming it to be a coffee table tome immortalising North East Scotland’s epic rural landscape. Look closer, however, and it heralds a vital pictorial document of a community campaign against a predatory attempt to erase it along with its natural surroundings, redrawing the map in the name of big business.
The title of the book is the giveaway, taken from a song by Karine Polwart, who recounts in her afterword how she co-opted the motto of the MacLeod clan. Given the circumstances of the song’s composition, this it is as much anthem as work of art.
The same can be said of Bruce’s book, which features eighty photographs that bear witness to almost two decades of resistance by residents of Menie, close to Balmedie beach in Aberdeenshire, to Donald Trump’s building of a golf club on what was then a Site of Special Scientific Interest. This is a status supposed to save it from hostile developments.
Bruce was on the frontline of Menie’s campaign, harassed by Trump’s security and present when neighbours were nearing arrest. Her photographs honour her friends and fellow protestors with an artistry that gives them a dignity that towers above any of those they were opposing.
Bruce’s portraits are inspired by and modelled on historical paintings, including works drawn from the Aberdeen Gallery & Museums Collection. Local legends usurp Trumpian propaganda, with John Munro photographed in a 2010 recreation of Erik Hoffmann’s ‘Nightfall: Portrait of George Mackay Brown’ (1988). Munro’s wife Susan does likewise, as she is pictured the same year on the dunes in homage to D. Reid’s ‘On the Bents’ (1873).
Moira Milne is defiant in a reimagining of Thomas Faed’s ‘The Reaper’ (1863); as is her husband David in a reworking of Arthur Hughes’ ‘The Mower’ (1865). ‘Molly Forbes: Paradise’ (2010), Molly Forbes watches over a gaggle of geese like the girl in James Guthrie’s ‘To Pastures New’ (1883). And so on.
Perhaps most striking of all is ‘Mike and Sheila Forbes: Mill of Menie’ (2010), in which Molly’s son Mike and his wife Sheila stand defiantly outside their home Trump decried as ‘a pigsty’, posed side-by-side like the couple in Grant Wood’s much satirised ‘American Gothic’ (1930). There is poignancy in another photograph of Mike on the day in 2021 he lowered Sheila’s ashes into the cairn that is now beside him. Bruce gives Mike, Sheila and the rest a gravitas that shows how they too have their place in history.
The before and after of Bruce’s other photographs that make up I BURN BUT I AM NOT CONSUMED show off a once unspoilt landscape scarred by its enforced reconstruction. Bruce’s images are punctuated by testimonies from those pictured as well as essays by Polwart, writer Lesley Riddoch, and Louise Pearson, a curator of photography at the National Galleries of Scotland.
It is here Polwart recounts how she premiered her new song at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival on the day of Trump’s inauguration as U.S. president. With Trump’s Lewis born mother a MacLeod, the resonance packs an extra punch. A full timeline of the civic and environmental abuses inflicted on Menie brings things home even more.
This is much more than a photography book. Not only does it transform living history into art. It is a document of the community fight back it is part of, even as it honours that community. It is also a warning.
The paradise of Menie may have been sullied by the collusion between Trump and those in power at national and local level, but Bruce shows the resilience of those in her photographs, and makes heroes and heroines of them all.
Published by Daylight Books. Available directly from the artist at https://aliciabruce.co.uk/book/iburn