Historic collection of photographs returns home to Scotland

An unrivalled collection of historic photographs that capture a century of life in Scotland is returning home to be seen and shared with the public.

More than 14,000 images, dating from the earliest days of photography through to the 1940s, have been bought in a special collaboration between the National Library of Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland, with support from the Scottish Government, the National Lottery and the Art Fund. Without this intervention, there was a risk the collection could have been sold overseas or broken up.

Instead, these images of family portraits, working life, street scenes, sporting pursuits, shops, trams, tenements, mountains and monuments - many of which are unique- will now be available to view by the public.  

George Washington Wilson, Fingal's Cave
Unknown, Roslin Factory Girls, about 1880

The photographs provide an exceptional visual record of Scotland from the 1840s onwards and cover many aspects of life across large parts of the country. They document how Scotland has changed physically, socially and economically and act as a timely reminder in the age of the camera phone of the power of photography.    

The collection was put together over a 40 year period by photography enthusiast, Murray MacKinnon, who established a successful chain of film processing stores in the 1980s, starting from his pharmacy in Dyce, near Aberdeen.  At the time MacKinnon’s driving impetus was to amass a collection of photographs that ‘covers the day-to-day lives of Scottish people both rich and poor, the work they carried out including fishing and farming, in order to survive, and their social live, including sport and leisure.’ He sold the collection a few years ago to a private collector who, in turn, decided to offer it for sale.

William Henry Fox Talbot, Loch Katrine (pier and boat) , about 1845

The collection contains an exquisite view of Loch Katrine by William Henry Fox Talbot, who travelled to Scotland in the autumn of 1844. Talbot was the inventor of the Calotype, a negative-positive paper process that was patented around the world, but, importantly not in Scotland, allowing for free use and experimentation. As a result, early Scottish photographers, such as David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, James Ross and John Thomson actively took up the process, becoming key figures in advancing photography and its capabilities within its first decade.

As the photographic medium evolved, Scotland once again was at the forefront when, in 1883, Thomas Annan and his son James Craig Annan secured the British rights for the previously secret process of photogravure. The photomechanical process created prints in large editions, revolutionising the publication and reach of photography.

James Craig Annan, Glasgow University, 1898
Roger Fenton, Officers of the 71st Highlanders, 1855

In addition to these works the collection also includes fine examples of the work of successful commercial photographers including George Washington Wilson and James Valentine.

Other highlights include portraits of Scottish regiments from the Crimean War by Roger Fenton (1819-1869) and a series of albums and prints depicting life in the towns and cities of Scotalnd from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Everyday life in Scotland is also represented through studies of farming and fishing communities in remote villages and hamlets. Scottish industry is well represented in the collection by images of shipbuilding, railways, herring fishing, weaving, whisky distilling, dockyards, slate quarries and other working environments.

Ross and Thomson, Portrait of a Child

While photography is known for its reproducibility, many of the artworks contained within the collection are unique, including daguerreotype portraits and hand-made albums. One such example is the Fairlie album, consisting of family portraits and photographs by known makers including Julia Margaret Cameron. Using elements of collage, drawing and marginalia the pages of the album are a one of a kind celebration of the Fairlie Family, from Fife. It is worth noting that Reginald Fairlie, was the architect of the George IV building of the National Library of Scotland.  

Various photographers, Fairlie Album,1860s

There are plans for a major exhibition to be held in Edinburgh in 2019/20 at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery with smaller touring exhibitions around Scotland to follow. The collection will also be digitised over the next three years and made available online.

13 May 2018