In Scotland We Surf.
Scotland; rugged and stunning landscapes, cold water, and no shortage of rich history. With some world-class spots on its shores, there have been countless surf films and edits shot in Scotland. Often, spots are portrayed as empty, untouched locations where no one has surfed before.
We sat down to talk with Sam Howard, whose photography project In Scotland We Surf, was born from his realisation of the great mental health benefits the ocean has within the Scottish surf scene and also how the people of this cold-water community have often gone unnoticed and supported by surf media. In Scotland We Surf is a portrait project shining a light on the faces and stories of the Scottish surf community. With hopes of bringing support to the up and coming groms, people, charities, and small businesses. Telling tales of the people who are surfing in Scotland now and have been for decades.
Where’s your hometown?
The land of few waves [laughs]. No, well just south of Aberdeen in the North East of Scotland – I live in the middle of the countryside really. The waves here are kind of fickle because our coast faces slightly south. Probably less waves than the Edinburgh area. Further north and south are a little more consistent. However, there’s only a short drive between the southeast and north facing coast so we pick up a couple of swells. I’ve found over the years that if you know where to go and are willing to drive you can pick up some nice quiet waves.
I find I don’t shoot so much around here. When there are good waves it’s usually me and one or two friends and we just want to surf when we’re close to home. Usually, I keep the shooting to times when we know it’s going to be big, or if I’m shooting a dawny to just chill out and do my own thing. But yeah, I’ve lived here in Aberdeen pretty much all my life (apart from some time traveling).
How did you get into surfing?
Got into surfing about 5 years ago – so not too long ago. I was always into skiing and mountain biking and sports like that. It was actually my skiing friends that got me into surfing. I could steal their boards and wetsuits and borrow stuff. I was a pretty confident swimmer as I competed a lot when I was younger. So I was happy to follow them out into the bigger waves and get pummeled. I kind of learned the hard way I think – trying to keep up. I was probably that person that everyone looks at and thinks ‘Woah, they’re out of their depth’, but yeah I picked it up quite quickly from them. I’m still a kook though. They’d been surfing for a while and just showed me the ropes.
We had a family holiday in Morocco and we did a bit of surfing there, riding foamies and then we came back and I started to learn in Scotland which is a tough one. You need thick skin and a hunger for waves. It’s quite cool. Some people hate having to drive and look for waves but I quite like it. Having the excuse to go for the day or the weekend – I love that adventure part of it with friends. At the moment though, it’s quite a lot of driving on my own with the project!
Was surf photography always your plan?
I’m an engineer actually, but I always had an artistic side from when I was young. I actually found a memory card recently, one from ages back that I took on holiday to Africa. Think I borrowed one of my mum’s cameras or something and I found some photos on there of wildlife – elephants and other animals. I thought – these are actually quite cool, I like them still. They’re a different style but I like them.
I did a lot of art at school too. I just felt the push to do something more academic as my family is pretty academic. They never pushed me in that direction I just kind of felt like it was the thing to do. So I went to study engineering and got my masters.
I loved the University lifestyle and all the people I met there. Bagged myself a lot of free skiing holidays while I was there and put myself in any position that meant I could get away and travel as much as possible. I always wanted to do a ski season after uni but I never really ended up doing one. I worked for a company while I was at uni that meant I was able to get some free trips but my love for surfing took over a little bit and I ended up wanting to do something new.
After that, I booked one of the Ticket to Ride trips to Africa and bought myself a camera to capture some memories and just got into taking images through that. I took some photos while I was away and I liked it – looking back they’re actually pretty crap but you have to learn [laughs]. When I came back I saw a big storm on the charts in Scotland and went with up with a friend who was also into photography. It was totally un-surfable and huge. It was crazy the raw energy up there. We went and shot that and I thought ‘this is so cool, this is all I want to do’. Then I saved up and bought housing for my camera and just got into it from there.
I kind of found it as a hobby, it wasn’t a plan. I was enjoying [photography] here and there but the start of lock-down is where I really found a special place for it – I was in a bad way with my mental health. A lot of it was not being able to go out and enjoy sports and things like that. I found comfort in it and so I started doing dawny shoots before work, inspired by Mike Guest and Nick Pumphrey and their ‘dawn days’ project.
I’d go once a week or so and spend time alone in the sea as the sun came up. Sometimes there would be a couple of surfers there to chat too. I realised the amazing colours and textures you can get in the morning and things just progressed. It was a great way to feel like I had achieved something and gave me a bit of creative drive and probably a nice release of endorphins and time for my brain to switch off.
How did In Scotland We Surf come about?
It was kind of a right place right time sort of thing. I was having a tough time with my mental health and had to take some time out of work, and wanted to do something with my photography that could help others. I found that going out in the water, surfing, taking photos would keep me active and engaging with people which was a massive help in lock-down.
From this, I started planning a project called Clear Mind Photography which was a similar sort of idea but with creative and outdoor people around the world. The plan was to have a portrait before, during, and after their activity plus an interview with each person about what their activity does for them and how they got into it to help people connect and find a new activity.
I had this in the planning, and I was out surfing at my local break. This guy came past – an Aussie dude who said he’d just moved here and had opened an office for his company. He was chatting to my mate Stu while I was in the water and said he’d been in the industry for years. He hooked him up with a t-shirt and they got talking.
Stu mentioned I was a local surf photographer and that he should check out my work. It turns out he had already seen some of my work and we got in contact. He said he wanted to do something to support the local community and I told him about the Clear Mind project. We tailored the idea to make it more surf orientated and focused on the local community in Scotland.
It just grew arms and legs from there really. I had a good idea going on but I needed a kick up the arse and a bit of a helping hand to make it something special. It’s been a lot of work, but I have loved it. The “Aussie dude” is Scott Lewis from Dark North. He thinks big and I think he had more faith in my work than I did. It was a weird one to get used to but I’m really thankful as it’s pushed me to do more than I thought I could.
Tell us a bit more about the project.
There are so many aspects to the In Scotland We Surf now. Some I have found as it’s developed. Originally it was focused around the mental health benefits of surfing and bringing support to the community. But it is clear now, that it relates to being a part of something bigger than surfing as an individual. Showing what surfing means to people and hearing their stories has highlighted the connections and relationships in the community. People have so much support for each other when they feel like they are connected through a common interest. Community is something that is often missing in the modern world.
The project also draws the lines between surfing and everything else that goes on around it, in and out of the water. People’s passion and the balance that they take from the ocean, channeling it into their lives, businesses, charities, and attitude to their surrounding environment.
It aims to show that surfing puts you into a state of flow and gives you a break from day-to-day thoughts which I find has the best impact on my headspace. It has been great to see people’s other activities and creative hobbies that they do outside of surfing that also take them to this state of flow, woodwork, art, music. There’s a line to be drawn between that and surfing. Either surfing has given them the patience to do these things or surfing brings them the same feeling as getting lost in their craft.
It’s also about hearing people’s thoughts on the growth of surfing in Scotland, the history, and surf media. It gives an understanding of what the community wants and needs. It also helps give me guidance on how to photograph the community and surf with respect to the people and spots, whilst not exposing them. I’m well behind keeping things a bit of an adventure to find, like people tell their mates about spots and people gradually find spots the more they surf and integrate in the community. It keeps the flow of everything a little easier and helps prevent crowding – people find the spots when they are ready.
It should highlight benefits to our younger surfers and people out with the surf community. For example, The Wave Project – the shoot with them was amazing. One of the best experiences I’ve had, there’s something different about it. These kids who are facing challenges already, get in 5m wetsuits, squeeze their heads in hoods and gloves, and go out and find a new part of themselves in the water. Even if they’re just swimming. It’s awesome to see their friendships grow too – it’s such a nice part of surfing.
I think a lot of adult surfers could learn a lot from that about breaking down those barriers. There was this one kid that wasn’t really wanting to go in the water, and there was this other lad who was slightly older. It was so good to see him take the wee lad under his wing and get him involved in photos. In the end, every single one got in the water. They were surfing and even shooting with the camera.
The way we wanted to structure the project was quite difficult to organise. The project is promoting the development of surfing and promoting the development of the community. But then again, you want it to develop in a safe way. A way that’s respectful to the people that already surf and started surfing in Scotland. We hope it will be more than a photography project and there can be lots of community work in the future. Hopefully, the project will give us an idea of where everyone is at, what everyone thinks about surfing in Scotland, and the scene at the moment.
We’re hoping to run 3 or 4 stops of an exhibition/community night where people can come and have some beers, hang out, watch some surf movies, look at the portraits and read the stories. It’ll be a good reason to bring everyone together and shine a light on the people involved. At the moment I’m just doing the photography, but there are a lot of people helping behind the scenes. So hopefully, we can bring some support to environmental groups, groms, and surf therapy charities.
There’s so much emphasis on the stories and people that surround the shots for this project, why do you think that’s important?
One of the things that stood out to us is that lot of the time when Scotland is captured in surf edits or films it’s kind of shot as a sort of a barren landscape where there are no people. They go north and they find these waves and they surf them. It’s cool but in a way, it’s not true.
There have been people here surfing for years. There have been people surfing here since the ’70s with Marigolds taped over their woolen gloves, you know? Locals were always here and I’m sure they were happy keeping themselves to themselves and surfing for the love of the sport. But the pioneers I have spoken to are really proud of the scene and the people involved. But then now, we’ve got a lot of young surfers emerging and charity groups like Groundswell, the Wave Project, and loads of surf schools.
I think it’s a good time to celebrate the history of Scottish surfing and all the people involved.
My hope is that it’ll shine a light on Scottish surfing and bring in some support and structure for the young surfers coming up. The key behind speaking to everyone is to get an understanding of the perspective of the community as a whole. The performance surfers, the guys who are just starting out, the people who have been around since the start. Respecting everyone’s opinion on how things should grow rather than a governing body coming in and saying ‘this is how the support should be structured.’
Hopefully, the project will also create a bit of a platform to encourage visiting surf brands and companies to give some support back to the people here and not just shoot and surf the waves.
Tell us about the surf community in Scotland.
I think differently on it now compared to when I started surfing actually. Before I’d have described it as maybe quite quiet and pretty individual. I think people are pretty proud of their surfing but enjoy the time to themselves. I didn’t think many people were up for a chat and I think it’s easy to get put off by the occasional dick head with a shit attitude. But that’s surfing ay, there’s always those sorts of folk.
Now, a while down the line as I have met more people through the community it’s so clear it’s full of great people. People have a lot of love for surfing and the community is rapidly changing and growing. It’s like at Fraserburgh, there’s like 30 groms surfing on a weeknight and everything feels a lot more open. I think people are becoming more accepting of the sport growing here. That there are going to be more people in the water. I realised too that when people start surfing they are sometimes nervous and don’t speak to people as much. Maybe you have one bad interaction or someone is quiet and you get this feeling that people don’t want to talk. But actually, when you start speaking to them they’re wonderful with amazing stories. Sometimes you just have the be the person to say “hey, how’s it going?”.
I guess you could say the surf scene in Scotland hasn’t quite matured or developed in a way. There are folk who have been surfing here for ages but there was generally a lot less people surfing. Folk didn’t need to be around others and surf any busy breaks. And to be honest you can still do that if you make the effort. But now there are way more people wanting to enjoy the sea, and everybody has the right to. I think with technology and wetsuits now people don’t have to be quite as hard as they used to be.
I think it’s something we have to think about going forward. If it’s going to get busier and busier how should that be managed by the community? Should we be agro towards each other? Probably not. It would be cool to take a page out of the surf schools and groundswell’s book and educate and guide. Help people learn etiquette and keep everyone enjoying it and stoked. But what can I say I’m just a photographer and learning loads as I go. It’s up to the community I guess.
Have you had a stand-out/favourite shoot of the project so far?
Without sounding wishy-washy, it’d be unfair to say I have a favourite. They’re all great for different reasons. Some I love the photographs, some I love the story. Or, I’ll come away and think the portrait isn’t that good but my memory and my time with that person is so cool. Some people don’t want to talk as much but they surf amazingly or have a craft that they do so well, and that’s okay as well.
My first shoot though was really special. It was with another water photographer who was starting out at the time, Hamish. I was pretty nervous to go and do it, but doing it with another photographer was great. Hamish understood everything that it takes to get a good shot. He was happy to get up for the dawny and had a cool location lined up. Throughout the course of shooting, we had a great conversation about his life, challenges and how surfing has been a massive benefit. It was strongly fixated on the mental health benefits side of it. It was a really good way to start the project.
What’s the best way for people to follow along with the project and how can people get involved?
Before the launch of the exhibition, follow the hashtag #InScotlandWeSurf or my Instagram @S.howard_photo. You’ll see teaser stories pop up there and we’re starting to develop an Instagram page solely for the project. It’ll have some of the stories going up and some surf photos from around Scotland. That’s coming up soon.
Part of the Scottish surf community or got Scottish surf stories of your own? Let us know in the comments and drop Sam a follow to check out this special project.
Thanks to: Sam, Hugo, Hamish, Dark North & all involved in the project
Pictured: Beach Basha Sport – Black