Chris Higgins
Chris Higgins

Passing Place: A Hike Through Skye, Scotland (Part 1)

Chris Higgins
Chris Higgins

I spent most of May 2015 in Scotland with my wife, Rochelle. We spent several weeks on the Isle of Skye in small cottages, going out for hikes when the weather permitted (and hunkering down during the blustery gray days).

The most memorable hike of all was a long trek through two ruined villages, Boreraig and Suisnish. I brought my camera; here's what I saw.

The hike starts at Cill Chriosd, a ruined church closed in 1840. It is overrun with sheep.

It's also surrounded by a graveyard.

Inside the church, vines have taken over and the roof is long gone. (Note the lumps on the ground—sheep poop.)

Plants are taking over everywhere.

A plastic-coated booklet tucked between some rocks.

View from inside the church.

Sheep in the graveyard.

A particularly regal sheep.

A grove of trees still stands by this monument.

There are several plaques like this. The cemetery is populated with war dead.

Leaving the church, we faced a mountain range. It would be a long day.

Although most of the land is covered in scrub, a few trees thrive. This one is surrounded by some ruins.

One of the many, many waterfalls along the way.

On the way to Boreraig is an abandoned quarry. This is part of it. Keep an eye out for these rocks later.

The remains of a winding wheel; it pulled trains up the steep incline we had just ascended, in order to fill them with quarried stone.

More piles of stone.

From a small hill, I saw this ruined house in the distance. This was taken using a very big zoom lens.

We called these "Star Trek rocks." They look like polystyrene rocks you'd see on an alien planet. I checked; they're real.

The hike often went uphill; this was the first time we saw water in the distance. (Boreraig was a coastal village.)

Approaching Boreraig, there are some ruined stone houses (lower right) barely visible. This is Loch Eishort.

The first one we encountered, up close. Many of the houses were missing walls, all had long ago lost their roofs. The village was forcibly cleared in 1853 by Lord Macdonald, who preferred to use the land for sheep. He burned the houses.

Inside a house, storage cubby holes are still intact. Plants are taking over. In the background, another hut.

In this structure, the wall facing the water is almost completely gone. This was one of the bigger huts; many of them were 60 square feet at most.

Another ruined hut.

Someone has propped up a stone over the former doorway. Virtually all the doorways are intact as openings, but missing their top stones.

This is the view residents of Boreraig had.

More ruined buildings.

A sheep shown for scale. The walls are very low; standing inside a house, I was head and shoulders above the walls. Presumably the roof would have made these considerably taller and more livable.

I noticed that there isn't any mortar in these rock walls. They're just carefully laid.

Detail of a rock wall.

Rochelle stands inside one of the largest structures.

Perhaps this tree grew because of the windbreak of the walls? (Note the distinct lack of trees in the background.)

Heading away from Boreraig, we approached the coast. Throughout the hike we had to ford small streams; this one had a beautiful stone crossing. The best we got on the rest was a half-broken piece of wood, or a few strategically placed stones (that were often an inch underwater). Boots were very necessary.

We started walking up the coast. We'd have to go halfway up and around this mountain.

There were a few more ruined buildings down by the water. This one still had a window intact.

Looking in another window, we see some trash. Plastic washes up on the beach. Somebody decided to put this bucket inside a house.

Amidst the rocks on the beach, some blue and yellow plastic.

The sheep had no problem navigating rock-strewn beaches. We stuck to grassy areas and paths (often muddy).

Rochelle takes a picture as we begin the ascent.

Next up: Part 2, featuring insane photographs of the sky over Skye, as the sun comes out and we encounter hundreds more sheep!

Show and Tell
Photograph of Jefferson Davis in Women’s Clothing
International Center for Photography, Gift of Charles Schwartz, 2012

On May 10, 1865, Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, was captured by Union troops near Irwinville, Georgia. Davis’s capture, about a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, was the effective end of the Confederacy and the four-year war that had left hundred of thousands of Americans dead.

Davis, a true believer in the cause of the Confederacy, refused to accept Lee’s surrender, believing that the South could still wage a guerilla war against the Union (clearly, Lee disagreed). With that cause in mind, Davis and his family fled Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, hoping to make it to Texas, where he believed he could continue to fight. But the Davises would only make it as far as south Georgia before they were found by Union troops.

According to a handful of accounts from the period, Davis was captured while wearing women’s clothes. The story, as it’s generally told, depicts a man desperate to escape and so, with the encouragement of his wife, Varina, he donned her overcoat and shawl and slipped into the Georgia swamp with a female servant (other accounts say he grabbed his wife's coat and shawl accidentally). Union troops spotted the two “women” and, on closer look, realized that one was wearing spurred boots. Given away by his footwear, Davis surrendered to the Union troops.

The story of Davis in women’s clothing traveled quickly to the ears of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. Stanton recognized the story as an opportunity to discredit Davis, who still had numerous sympathizers throughout the country. Historians have noted that the North gendered its victory as masculine and heroic and, in contrast, portrayed the South as feminine and weak. Davis’s flight played into that narrative, portraying the Southern leader as a coward willing to emasculate himself in order to escape. In short, manly martyrs do not wear women’s clothes. (Never mind that numerous eyewitness accounts disputed the story, including two by members of the First Wisconsin Cavalry, one of the units that captured Davis and his party and another by Davis’s coachman.)

Nevertheless, Stanton planned to exploit the account to the Union’s full advantage. But there was a slight hitch in his plan—namely, the look and style of Varina Davis’s overcoat and shawl. Mrs. Davis’s overcoat was essentially unisex, and bore a striking resemblance to the raincoats of Union soldiers. Furthermore, the shawl was also worn by many men in the mid-19th century, including Abraham Lincoln. The original plan foiled, Stanton encouraged the rumor that Davis had been captured wearing women’s petticoats, earning Davis the derogatory nickname “President in Petticoats.”

The rumor proved incredibly popular. Historian Gaines Foster writes, “Northerners delighted in the accounts of how the Confederate chieftain had tried to escape in female disguise.” Indeed, even P.T. Barnum couldn’t resist the spectacle: The circus king exhibited what he claimed to be the very clothes Davis was wearing at the time of his capture.

Boston Public Library via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Numerous prints circulated of Davis in petticoats, and photography—a relatively new medium at the time—took up the theme as well. In this combination photograph (up top) produced by the Slee Brothers of Poughkeepsie, New York, and now owned by the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, Davis is depicted in the petticoats of a woman, his head, taken from a separate photographic portrait, having been imposed on another body. Here, Davis wears bonnet, shawl, and petticoats, a fanciful elaboration on the story of his capture, and the skirts are lifted to reveal his spurred boots. The Slee Brothers were one of many photography studios to use combination printing—the production of a single positive through multiple negatives—to play with the theme of Davis fleeing in women’s clothes.

Other photographs from the period depict Davis’s head superimposed on a body wearing full hoop skirts with large men’s boots also imposed over the body, as well as Davis (again in full women’s dress) sneaking through the Georgia swampland while holding a dagger. In almost all of these photographs, the boots are prominently displayed, noting Davis’s folly and a clear part of the narrative of the North’s victory.

Photography was undoubtedly a powerful tool to disseminate the story of Davis’s and the South’s defeat. Davis himself recognized the importance of the new medium: In 1869, he commissioned a photograph of himself wearing the actual clothes he had worn when captured. But the act was fruitless and, despite his insistence, the “President in Petticoats” is a story that stuck with Davis long after death.

Header image: International Center for Photography

By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]


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