Friday, 16 July 2010


Life is about choices. Surely, our most important decisions relate to our usage of time. Technology having the potential to be a curse as well as an asset, self-discipline required to use it to enhance our lives and not let it distract from that which we want to achieve. Harnessing technology, cultural connections can put us in contact with a wider circle of like-minded people who enjoy similar interests and creative pursuits. Through this blog I can share photos and stories in communication with a global circle of people. But all stories need a beginning so, I start my Blog with some background information on myself and my Scottish home, in a scenic location which provides me with inspiration 365 :-)

From Edinburgh, Scotland's capital city, I was fortunate to grow up in a house with nearly 360 degree views of Edinburgh and the coast. On one side was the sea, the city buildings from Leith to Portobello and over the sea across the Firth of Forth was Kircaldy in Fife.

The coastline of Portobello and Leith with Arthur Seat behind
Text and Images © Shona McMillan. All Rights Reserved

On the other side, our house looked on to Arthur Seat, an extinct volcano rising up from the centre of Edinburgh. From a certain angle, it's shape like a huge lion at rest and guarding the city below.

Arthur Seat from the Holyrood Park in the centre of Edinburgh
Text and Images © Shona McMillan. All Rights Reserved 

Built on seven hills, Edinburgh is a beautiful city and also, I loved the rest of Scotland which I saw. Every year I holidayed in the Highlands and enjoyed living and working in Scotland. Yet, I also had a healthy thirst for knowledge and the desire to explore and learn more about the rest of the world. Through music and work in project management, I was fortunate to do a lot of travelling. However, when I came to settle in Inverness (and the years began to pass by) it was then that I experienced the strongest longing for my Edinburgh / East Lothian 'home' which I had left behind.

My house in Inverness, the city viewed from across the Moray Firth
Text and Images © Shona McMillan. All Rights Reserved

My house in Inverness had stunning views of the Kessock Bridge and the Moray Firth.  Inverness, for me had been like the Gateway to the road north to Sutherland (my spiritual home in the Highlands). Yet, on a day to day basis, I missed being in Edinburgh, easily able to walk around Arthur Seat or to take a drive to East Lothian and walk along the beautiful beaches in the region's 43 mile coastline.

Edinburgh, Scotland's capital city as viewed from Arthur Seat
Text and Images © Shona McMillan. All Rights Reserved
In 2006 I moved home and in my career I developed a new strand as a freelance photo-journalist. The work gave me the flexibility I required to be there for my family, my mum becoming increasingly unwell.  Through my mum "Jean", Jane Ritchie of the Thorburn Fisherrow family, I was descended from the fishing community.

L-R: Wilma, Jean, Billy, Lily, Crissie, Christina and Archie Thorburn
Text and Images © Shona McMillan. All Rights Reserved

My great-grandfather Archie and my granda' Billy had been fishermen who had gone on to be Harbour Masters at Fisherrow. My great-granny Jane Ritchie Thorburn (Jeannie) had worked as a fishwife and my granny Crissie, a fine singer like my mum, had sung in Fisherrow Fishwives choir, their love of music being passed on to myself.

Celebrating her 80th birthday, my mum, Jean Ritchie Thorburn McMillan
Text and Images © Shona McMillan. All Rights Reserved

On my return back home, my mum had asked for a special request for her 80th birthday - she asked that I produce a project to celebrate the fishing community. A huge task, I gasped when she asked and gave all the reasons why it would be such enormous work but she smiled and said "but you could make a start and, if you did your best, that would be good enough..." So, I began with mum's stories, old photos and then, I met with other relatives and fisher folk. News of what I was doing led to an invitation to write People of the Sea, an article for East Lothian Life magazine to commemorate the 14th October, 125 year anniversary of the Eyemouth fishing disaster in 1881, when 189 fishermen died. My own life changed whilst researching the story, I found my great-grandfather had survived being swept off a boat but, in the here and now, my mum was diagnosed with cancer. I dedicated the article to my mum and just  days after it was published she lost her fight to cancer.    

After my mum's loss, I continued and my subject archive grew to over 500 old images and 3,000 photos.  Hearing about my collection, I was invited to stage an exhibition at Port Seton library.  The exhibition coincided with what would have been mum's birthday. It was an amazing opening night with an impromptu ceilidh. Over eight hundred people came to visit the exhibition and more libraries invited me to exhibit. I believed the demand for my project was because the community was looking to come together, my work was a catalyst for this and so, I formed an ambitious plan. For the Year of Homecoming 2009, I saw a partnership project with all the libraries along the coast, other organisations and community groups brought together through exhibitions and events - a People of the Sea May-Dec tour in 14 fishing communities from Edinburgh, to Eyemouth, to Anstruther. I also wanted Celtic music in the project and to involve as many as I could through a compilation album 'People and Songs of the Sea.' Aswell as professional artists from Scotland and Ireland, I wanted to involve 100 local fisher folk. I saw a unique recording of the fishing hymn 'Will Your Anchor Hold' recorded at the Auld Church of Scotland Kirk in Cockenzie.

2009 Article in East Lothian News
The album was produced in association with Greentrax on their label It was launched together with my Edinburgh to Eyemouth exhibitions and over 10,000 people visited. Then, on Hogmanay 2009, I was telephoned from Chicago to be told that People and Songs of the Sea had just won Radio Liveireland's Compendium Album of the Year 2010. The news was broadcast live on air from the station's studios in America and Ireland and over the internet the story went around the world. For me, listening at home in Edinburgh, how very special was the moment I heard our 2009 recording in East Lothian being played back to listeners from Liveireland in Chicago, Dublin and beyond.

My house in Inverness, the city viewed from across the Moray Firth
Text and Images © Shona McMillan. All Rights Reserved
Moving back to Edinburgh, reconnecting with my home, a legacy project emerged from my family's cultural connections to the fishing community. On the album's front cover, as a wee girl dressed in the traditional costume of a Fisherrow fisher lass was my mum - photographed with family and friends, collecting at Fisherrow Harbour for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution which relatives have served in and friends from the past and today still do.

People and Songs of the Sea album (CD from 
Cover: Jean Thorburn, 2nd right, Wilma, 1st right, Christina holding flag
Text and Images © Shona McMillan. All Rights Reserved

The last years have been a pivotal time for me and seen the rekindling of old friendships and the building of new ones. My photography, music, writing and art - all benefitting from the exhibition feedback and constructive criticism from my sites eg:

As a musician who learnt to play by ear, just as the music of many others helped me in learning to play the fiddle, so too I feel fortunate to have benefitted from a growing circle of artistic friends, their art contributing to an outward rippling pool of creativity. I am influenced by the creative outputs of people like John Bellany, Mark I'Anson, Doug Roberston, Michael McVeigh, Heidi Wickham, Alastair Cook, Richard Demarco and Julie Thompson. And then, there are photographers such as Laurie Campbell and film-maker Paul Bellany whose input I have found to be invaluable.

So many great artists exist, setting my own creative offerings adrift on to the internet can be daunting. Yet, I am heartened when I recall wise words said to me by friend. In Scotland, on tour in January 2009, Cape Breton fiddle player Jerry Holland spoke about his life, on those who play professionally and on those who may be early in their playing of music but find much happiness in playing and sharing music with others. Jerry said "It's not about being THE BEST, it's about being the best you can be so YOU enjoy music and your journey through life. If others enjoy your music, then all the better for that but its not a competition". Like my mum would say: "do your best and in doing your best, you can know you've done well enough."

Enjoying a laugh: Jerry Holland in Edinburgh, January 2009 with myself
Text and Images © Shona McMillan. All Rights Reserved

In setting up my Blog, I have selected a special photo from Fisherrow, a picture I took at the start of January 2010. To be exact, the photo was taken on the day that the local press invited me there for a photograph in connection with my 2010 People and Songs of the Sea award. This most beautiful sunset was, for me, a very fitting end to a day which has seen the close of one chapter and the beginning of a new one in my life's ever changing journey.

Article in Berwickshire News, January 2010

What joy I feel when a sunset paints the sky like a huge illuminated canvas of colour. A unique materpiece by Mother Nature, only there for a few short inspirational moments before darkeness and a period of rest before a new day dawns again.  In the bigger picture of the universe, our lives are gone in the blink on an eye. It seems so important to embrace how precious time is and to make the most of our lives. From Edinburgh and a lover of East Lothian's coast like myself, famous author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote "there is no duty in life that we so underrate as the duty of being happy".

For me, there is never a sunset or sunrise I see which does not make me feel glad to be alive. Such times bring me happiness and, if I can photograph nature's special moments and share these times with others, to smile and pass on that feeling of happiness - that seems to me to be something well worth doing. If you have enjoyed visiting my blog, I hope you post a comment and come back again. I also hope that  you will join me in rippling out 'positivity' from your own life's journey - not letting your talents be stifled and kept in the dark but seek to bring them out in to the light, to share with others, family and friends. I hope in life you SMILE :-D and PASS IT ON!

The Janreen at Aberlady, enroute home to Port Seton at sunrise
Text and Images © Shona McMillan. All Rights Reserved