The MacKinnon Collection | Edinburgh exhibitions reviewed by The Scotsman

The MacKinnon Collection offers a priceless record of Scottish life from the birth of photography to the 1940s — ★★★★★

By Duncan Macmillan

This review, originally published on The Scotsman’s website, refers to our exhibition Scotland’s Photograph Album: The MacKinnon Collection and At The Water’s Edge at the National Library of Scotland.

The tides in the Kyle of Lochalsh are fearsome. Before the Skye Bridge was built, the ferry had to set out almost at right angles to its intended direction of travel to cross the racing waters. But what was it like before the ferry was mechanised? A photograph by George Washington Wilson gives us the answer: an open boat with oars and sail. A covered wagon perched precariously across the beam was no doubt a typical cargo. How the ferry ever crossed the water is hard to imagine. This remarkable photograph documenting a long forgotten, but once matter-of-fact scene of Scottish daily life is just one striking image from more than 14,000 in the MacKinnon Collection, acquired jointly by the National Library and the National Galleries of Scotland and now subject of a two-part exhibition, consisting of a small selection of gems at the Library and a broader survey at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Together they comprise little more than one per cent of the total, but the whole collection will eventually be digitised including images now in albums, the latter often themselves historic.

George Washington Wilson Ferry Boat at Kyle of Loch Alsh 1870s-1880s

This photographic treasure trove was collected by Murray Mackinnon. Now retired, he expanded from a chemist’s shop in Dyce to run a chain of photographic shops in Aberdeen. His interest in photography was not simply commercial however. He began to collect as a teenager, sold his vast collection a few years ago and now in turn it has been bought for the nation, and what an acquisition it is. Its thousands of photos are an extraordinary record of Scotland’s past, from the beginnings of photography until around the 1940s. They include recognised masterpieces with work by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, for instance, or Thomas Annan’s pictures of Glasgow, but like a family album it is the stories it tells that make the collection so fascinating. So many of the pictures by unknown photographers are so good that they would anyway make nonsense of a separate “artistic” category.

One of the earliest images here is by Henry Fox Talbot, pioneer of photography. It is of Abbotsford, Walter Scott’s home, once a place of European pilgrimage. Using Fox Talbot’s calotype method, Hill and Adamson were not far behind and pictures by them here include a group of Newhaven fishwives, but then – and this is typical of the richness of the collection – nearby is a wonderfully unexpected image from a slightly later time. Two Newhaven fishwives are standing by, their heavy baskets of fish already shouldered, while a third is struggling with hers, helped by the driver as she gets off a tram. This is not history as it is written in books, but as it was lived. Then again there is a portrait by WK Munro of a younger member of this community of doughty women, the picture tinted to show off the brilliant colours of her striped skirts.

Thomas Annan Close No. 37 High Street, Glasgow 1868
Thomas Annan Close No. 148, High Street, Glasgow 1860s

Thomas Annan’s photographs of Glasgow closes are truly beautiful. The urban squalor they portray should be the opposite. The ancient buildings do keep a little of their dignity, but the people he includes add something immeasurable too. Indeed, there are wonderful landscapes, especially among the remarkable postcards, but throughout it is the people that bring it all to life – the people and the children. Children playing in the street in Dundee early last century look as lively and irrepressible as Oor Wullie and his friends.

The images are constantly surprising, too. Here is J Armstrong Drexel in his Bleriot monoplane in 1910, for instance, covering a measured mile above Lanark racecourse at the stunning speed of 75.94 miles an hour. Even more startling is a picture of a bomb exploding during the Glasgow Blitz, the work of an unknown photographer who did not lack courage. There is also a breathtaking picture of the Queen Mary before her launch in 1934, her immense prow towering above a single figure. Children play by the sea with a misty Forth Bridge looming behind them. Unknown Victorians gaze at us from gilded miniature frames. There are pictures of sportsmen and women, of agricultural workers and women making munitions in the First World War. A group of artists is gathered outside a reed-thatched cottage at Cockburnspath, their landlady looking on. They are not identified, but surely could be. A key would be even more desirable for the Victoria Group of Eminent Women, a photo-collage of about a hundred women with Queen Victoria at the centre. There are a few former queens, but most of the women, like Florence Nightingale, for instance, seem to be contemporaries. Properly annotated this could be a feminist icon, while a picture of Aberdeen in the 1920s by John Stephen certainly should be an icon for the SNP. The statue of William Wallace stands silhouetted against the misty dawn. His raised arm seems to point the way for a sturdy boy marching purposefully towards the rising sun. The title is Dawn of Light and Liberty.

Scotland’s Photograph Album: The MacKinnon Collection is open now at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and runs until Sunday 16 February 2020.

At the Water’s Edge is open now at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh from now until Sunday 16 February 2020.

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

By Duncan Macmillan, 27 November 2019