The MacKinnon Collection | Cataloguing Dawn of Light and Liberty

When the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland jointly acquired the MacKinnon Collection of historic Scottish photography, we knew it contained many exceptional photographs representing the lives and achievements of Scots from the 1840s through to the mid-20th century. With more than 14,000 photographs amassed by collector Murray MacKinnon, we also anticipated that it would be a treasure trove of discoveries.

Volunteers working together to catalogue the MacKinnon Collection at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Left to right: Milo Wheelaghan, Evie Boyd, Andrea Manning and Paul White.

Over the past year, we have taken the first steps toward making the entire MacKinnon Collection publicly accessible. A group of dedicated community volunteers began working with me to catalogue the collection, and we have begun sharing a selection of the photographs in exhibitions at NGS and NLS and on our websites. Through these activities, we started fulfilling one of our ambitions for the collection in identifying unknown subjects, correcting historical errors and adding further descriptive data to our records. Beginning with our wonderful volunteers, the public has been essential to the ongoing creation of accurate and useful catalogue records for this collection.

Throughout the MacKinnon Collection there are examples of photographs to which ample and accurate information has been assigned over the past 180 years by the photographers themselves on through to various owners, sellers and historians. As he formed this collection, Murray MacKinnon researched and recorded a wealth of important data on the subjects and photographers.

Cataloguing begins with consultation of each photograph and any accompanying inscriptions or records. But there are many photographs in the collection for which there is no existing information and we are limited to describing just what we see in the images themselves, with resolve to creating more robust records over time as wereveal/share the collection to the public. 

John D. Stephen Dawn of Light and Liberty Early 20th century

One example of a photograph that has benefitted from a combination of existing information, curatorial research and public knowledge is John D. Stephen’s Dawn of Light and Liberty. For this exceptional image, the photographer and title were identifiable (they are inscribed on the photograph’s mount) and a date of 1920s had been assigned prior to the acquisition. Although Stephen himself is not a well-known historic photographer, the quality of his print confirms great skill while the signature and provocative title suggest his probable conversance with the photographic community of the time. 

As Murray MacKinnon and I discussed the collection during the past year, he mentioned that Dawn of Light and Liberty was one of his favourite photographs and that the scene depicted in the image was Rosemount Viaduct in Aberdeen. This prompted me to visit Aberdeen and discover what the place itself might reveal. 

John D. Stephen Dawn of Light and Liberty Early 20th century
The scene on the Rosemount viaduct in central Aberdeen today.

The view is indeed along Rosemount Viaduct across from Union Terrace Gardens, facing east toward the sunrise. The statue, so prominent in Stephen’s photograph, is still there a century later and portrays Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace. Standing in this place provided important and illuminating context to the photograph and its title in which the Wallace statue serves as a representation of liberty, authoritatively gesturing toward the young milk carriers striding into the light of dawn. This experience enabled me to bring this photograph to life in the exhibition through accompanying text and in public tours; it will also become a component of the record for the photograph, informing future research and interpretation. But this story doesn’t end there.

As Stephen’s Dawn of Light and Liberty featured in the exhibition, on reproductions and online, people responded with interest and helpful information. Dr Michael Pritchard of the Royal Photographic Society was very taken with the photograph and forwarded an article from the 17th August 1917 edition of the British Journal of Photography noting that John D. Stephen had died at the front that year. Dr Pritchard also found that Stephen was a member of the Aberdeen Photo Art Club from at least 1904, was elected to the Scottish Photographic Federation in 1915 and his photographs were exhibited in the Scottish National Salon, Glasgow Southern Photographic Association, and other shows (email, 13 January 2020). This was reiterated by a finding sent to us from a member of the public, Joseph Coutts of Aberdeen, who discovered a reference in the ‘Aberdeen Press and Journal’ dated 9th March 1908, listing Dawn of Light and Liberty being exhibited in the Scottish National Salon, selling for 15shillings (about £60 in today’s money!) and listing Stephen’s residence at Fonthill Road in Aberdeen (email, 7 March 2020). Dr Pritchard and Mr Coutts provided sound references, prompting us to revisit the date of Stephen’s photograph. The image must have been created prior to 1908 and certainly not after 1917, so we must consider a date closer to 1900 than the 1920s. It seems that Stephen also captured the ‘dawn’ of a new century!

Left, James Valentine Wallace Statue, Aberdeen 1860s-1870s, Albumen print, MMK.00339 and right, George Washington Wilson Statue of Sir William Wallace, Aberdeen 1870s, Albumen print, PGP 404.16.

As cataloguing the MacKinnon Collection progresses, we are also able to identify interesting and relevant connections between images across the NGS collections by different photographers. Here are two nineteenth century photographs depicting the Wallace statue.

The sculpture by William Grant Stevenson (1849-1919) was erected in 1888 and commissioned as early as 1885. This strongly suggests revising the dates on both these photographs. Additionally, the initials ‘J.V.’ appear on the left-hand image, indicating an attribution of James Valentine as the photographer. However, as Valentine died in 1879, but his company Valentine and Sons carried on into the twentieth century, we must reconsider reassigning attribution as well.

As we continue to open windows into the MacKinnon Collection, we seek the public’s range of backgrounds and experiences to:

  • Identify unknown people and landmarks
  • Lend knowledge of historic industries, businesses, transport, costume, sport and more
  • Spot historic inaccuracies
  • Contribute relevant descriptive information

Your diverse knowledge, expertise, insight and interest will help us document the MacKinnon Collection with the goal of providing greater access to this remarkable photographic resource. Beginning in May, we will post one image on a weekly basis on Facebook, encouraging our communities to share details on the image publicly or via email.

The MacKinnon Collection was acquired jointly with the National Library of Scotland with assistance from National Lottery Heritage Fund, Scottish Government and the Art Fund.

By Blake Milteer, Curator, Photography (The MacKinnon Collection), 17 April 2020