LONDON – After working for years at a recycling center on the Shetland Islands, in the far north of the British Isles, Paul Mawar used to help the public get rid of unwanted things.
But when an old man entered a recycling center in Lerwick, capital of the archipelago in the North Atlantic, carrying two large suitcases full of old photo slides, he quickly realized that this intended trash might be worth keeping.
In the bags, he found a wealth of old photos of Shetland Islands taken in the 1960s and 1970s – elderly farmers hand-slaughtering sheep, views of winding dirt roads between tiny stone houses, and fishermen rowing small boats on the beach.
“My jaws hit the ground,” said Mr. Moar, a local history lover. “Some of them were amazing snapshots of island life, and others were just landscapes,” he said. “But I knew I had found a little treasure.”
In the days that followed, Mr. Moar digitized 300 photos, tracked down the photographer, and posted dozens of photos online. There, they proved a sensation for the islanders, which have a population of only 22,000 or so, who helped group when they were taken, identify people in photos, and share their own memories of the islands.
In the process, it has become an unexpected flashpoint in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions that have left people feeling isolated.
“You were definitely in the right place at the right time,” said Mr. Moar. He added that the photos provided a rare and intimate glimpse into the decades-old daily life of the island’s community.
“I think it gives people a little ray of light, you know, in a dark time,” said Mr. Moar. “It was great, not only saving the pictures, but seeing people enjoying them as much as they enjoyed them.”
Through a neighbor, Mr. Moar reached out to Nick Dymond, the local resident who delivered the bags and who took the photos, and with his permission uploaded a number of photos to the Shetland Memories collection on Facebook.
Overnight, dozens of people were leaving messages and helping to identify the people in the photo, entering notes about the family’s homes and sharing memories of places they’d spent as children.
“It must have been 40 years ago when we were very young!” Jillian Ockel wrote, after someone tagged her in one of the photos.
“My father’s boat is on the right, named after my name,” wrote Mayrie Thompson, alongside a picture of the port.
Frank David Simons wrote of one picture, in which he shared memories of limited machinery farming: “If only those days came back.”
A member of the Facebook group where Mr. Moar shared the photos for the first time said it “gives everyone a boost in these dark times”.
Mr Moar said his particular passion for the islands’ history – as his family can trace his ancestors back to the 14th century – is what initially motivated him to save the pictures.
The rugged Shetland Islands are located 110 miles north of mainland Scotland, about 190 miles west of Norway. More than half of the islanders live within 10 miles of Lerwick, and the rest are scattered across 16 other inhabited island communities – although there are about 100 small islands in the archipelago.
Mr. Dimond, 77, was surprised by the hype about his old photos, but said in a phone interview that he was glad others were able to enjoy it.
“I was just taking them out,” he said of his decision to move them to the dump. “I’ve had these three big boxes of slides in my very small house for 30 years or so.”
Mr. Dymond was a prolific photographer who liked to document his travels, including his trips to places like India, Kenya and Russia, but he said he had never switched to digital and no longer had a slide projector to display his old photos.
“I can’t do anything with them,” he said, laughing with a chuckle. “I’ve already seen all the things I took pictures of.” “But I realized that other people are enjoying it.”
Mr. Dimond is originally from Bedford, England, but in the 1960s, he made his home in the Shetland Islands. He first moved to Fair Isle, the southernmost island in the group, and in the 1970s he began leading bird and wildlife tours in the summer. He served as an observer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a charity, and later wrote a book on birds on the islands.
Mr. Dimond said that viewing the pictures was a journey back to small moments in his life that he hadn’t thought about in a while.
Of the photos, Mr. Dimond said, “There is a kind that brings back memories in me in a personal way.” “It’s a bygone era. Some people won’t know who the people in the pictures are and try to figure it out, and there are a few of them that I don’t know either.”
One of his favorite photos is a photo of a farmer kneeling to feed a lamb, taken on the tiny island of Vettlar, which had a population of only 100 during Mr. Damon’s seven years there. Find out about neighbor Lolly Brown who passed away years ago.
He said, “He was just an amazing guy.” “That was a great reminder to me.”
Mr. Damon has given permission to donate the slides to the Shetland Museum and Archives, and Mr. Moar plans to move them there once the site reopens after the coronavirus restrictions are eased.
Mr Moar said he hopes it will serve as a reminder of the simplicity of life on the islands.
He said, “Life is slower here.” “But these ancient images are definitely a window into a bygone era where life was, as people say, more real and tangible.”