It’s the dead of night in a remote part of Harris and – apparently –the perfect time and place for former Buzzcocks drummer John Maher to photograph abandoned island homes. Paul English investigates...

CAR wrecks in the deserts of California sent former Buzzcocks drummer John Maher wandering into the wilds of the Hebrides with his camera late at night. “I was watching a documentary series about a couple who toured around America featuring a mish mash of art,” says the 62 year old from his home on the isle of Harris.
“One night they featured an American photographer called Troy Paiva, who does long exposure night photography of old American cars in the Californian desert. He was adding additional light during the exposure. It was sufficient inspiration for me to do what he was doing, but in the Hebrides. That got me fired up.”
Maher, who is originally from Manchester, has lived on the island for 20 years, running a high-performance VW engine business. Advancing his hobby of photography had been among his ambitions when moving north but one that needed the jump-start of encountering the art of Paiva, thousands of miles away, years later.
“I must have been waiting for something to inspire me, because for whatever reason I literally didn’t go out with my camera for seven years,” he says. 
The results are worth the wait. In the years since, Maher has collated a series of photographs depicting intimate scenes of abandoned homes and buildings around the Hebrides, often spending hours yomping across moors in the dead of night to illuminate homes where no artificial light has fallen in years.

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He says: “One night I ventured inside one of the houses and it just so happened to be one where a lot of personal belongings had been left behind.
“It became an obsession, travelling around the island looking for houses that had been abandoned but hopefully ones that had stuff left inside because that’s what I found particularly satisfying. These homes are full of things from the past but not so far in the past. Things I can still relate to. If I go to visit a historical castle I find it completely tedious, because I can’t relate to it. Stepping into one of these homes, even the little ornaments dotted around remind me of certain periods of my own life.
“I remember going into the kitchen in one house and it was just the taps – they were exactly the same taps as in my mum and dad’s house. No big deal to anyone else but something to me.
“I was fascinated by the fact these things had been left there and not tampered with for so long. And as a lad from Manchester, the thought of a house being left empty for 20-odd years and not being utterly trashed, well, that would just never happen.”
The obsession led to an exhibition, Nobody’s Home, first staged in 2016 in Fife, Cumbria and Glasgow. It will be remounted this summer, featuring unseen recent photographs, at Dunoon’s Burgh Hall in an exhibition running until September 4.
One of the new images, framing the ruined gable ends of a house in Watersay, off Barra, in the warm light after sunset, has a tragic echo. It was taken in the days after the return of Eilidh Macleod’s body to her island home, after losing her life in the 2017 Manchester Arena bomb blast. 
Maher happened to be on Barra when he saw the jarring image of Eilidh’s coffin being loaded from the Loganair plane to a hearse on the iconic beach runway on the front page of a newspaper in the church at Castlebay.

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Maher is happy to discuss the motivation and context of this image but is reluctant to spoon-feed an interpretation for other photographs.
“I’m quite happy for people to look at them and put any spin on them that they want. It’s a bit like listening to a radio play, and the old cliche that the best visuals are in your own head. And with a big print on the wall of these scenes, well, I’ve done the hard work of taking the picture. I’m not going to tell you what to think.”
Maher’s world now is a long way from the days of touring the world as drummer in the Buzzcocks.  
He joined the band as a teenager in 1976 and played with them until their split in 1981, occasionally reappearing as the band reunited over the years until his last appearance in 2012. 
When the band split in the 1980s he “drifted” into working with VW engines after indulging in his other passion of drag racing. 
From the front end of the British punk curve of the 70s and 80s to creeping around the fields in the dead of night on the fringes of civilization is quite a contrast, I suggest.
“There are some people who move up here when they retire and many of them are seen off by one winter,” he says, laughing.
“If I think of it the way other people might, then perhaps it is weird,” he says. “But I think it’s a cool thing to do.”

Nobody’s Home, in association with Street Level Gallery, is at Dunoon Burgh Hall until September 4