The MacKinnon Collection | Love is all around

Valentine's Day in the twenty-first century conjures up images of heart-shaped balloons, impossibly large teddy bears and tonnes of plastic-covered chocolates. Respectively cute, cuddly and delicious, but not to everyone's taste. In this blog - a more subtle celebration of the Saint - we dip in to the MacKinnon Collection of photographs to seek examples of love captured in snapshots of Scottish life between 1840 and 1940.

Unknown Dundee Views Gelatin silver print, 1904

Companionship in youth

We don’t know the names of these youngsters. They could be family, friends or co-workers. Perhaps even all three. We do know that the photograph was shot in Dundee, and that their young faces seem to betray the thoughts of minds carrying burdens too heavy for their youthful shoulders.

Yet there is also a strong sense here of companionship; that this two-man team is more than up to its current task and that each boy would do anything to help the other. The more you look, the more you yearn to know: Did they watch the football at Dens or Clepington Park (later Tannadice) together? Did they ever take a dram? Did they ever fall out? Did they stay in touch?

Unless such a time comes that a descendant approaches us with information on one or both, we can only speculate on how these youngsters from the City of Discovery spent their time on earth.

Their fate for now is to melt the heart of every visitor who comes across them within the MacKinnon Collection.


War photography often acts as a reminder of the horrors that have gone before; a warning that we must never repeat the events which led to the suffering of those caught up in conflict. Many of us will associate photographs with specific wars. Don McCullin's haunting images from the conflict in South-East Asia between 1955 and 1975 come to mind.

In the MacKinnon Collection, we find an astonishing selection of photographs taken by Roger Fenton within soldiers’ camps during the Crimean War. These photographs stand out both for their quality, dated as they are from the early decades of photography, and also for the achingly honest picture of hardship and camaraderie that they convey.

Roger Fenton Officers of the 71st Highlanders Albumen print, 1855
Roger Fenton Hardship in the Camp Albumen print, 1855

It is possible that the subjects pictured may never have seen a camera before. Their reactions to the process, therefore, are fascinating. Some grin widely, enjoying the novelty. Others look away, either unaware of how to react to this new technology, or understandably preoccupied with thoughts about how or when their war will end, allowing for a safe return to their loved ones.

These images provide a snapshot into a war that ended 164 years ago. Generations have come and gone since the last musket was fired. And yet the photographs evoke the same sense of humanity that is evident in images of conflict captured ever since. There is strength and a type of love in the bond of those who have been brought together, far from home, by a unified purpose. ‘Hardship in the Camp’, pictured above, shows a trio sharing a cup of tea and a smoke, possibly unaware that they are being photographed.

Everything about the photograph, from the log that one soldier sits on, to the facial expressions and body language of all three, feels real, a value that resonates strongly in our age of staging images which are quickly taken, widely shared but instantly forgotten.

Unknown Tournament, Gullane Golf Club, "The First Tee" Gelatine silver print, about 1910

Passion of the crowd

Rory McIlroy, eat your heart out. This golfer has the crowd and her competitors in a trance as they watch her tee shot sail towards the first hole at Gullane Golf Club in East Lothian.

There are many images of sporting pursuits within the MacKinnon Collection, but this one stands out as it reflects the passion of a small crowd. There is movement in the image, thanks to photographer's successful effort to capture the player’s swing, and the fact that the assembled observers have turned as one to keep an eye on the shot. A moment in time, preserved forever by the power of photography.

Charles Reid Boy and Dog Albumen print, late nineteenth century

One boy and his dog

This photograph makes us feel a little fuzzy inside, not specifically because of what is shown happening, but because of the tantalising possible answers to the question: What happens next?

Scenario 1: The boy may drop his piece, in which case the dog will devour it, leaving the dog happy, and the boy decidedly upset, until the dog wags its tail and the boy smiles and is contented again.

Scenario 2: The boy does finish without dropping anything, and then offers any remains or wrapping to the dog, who willingly accepts; everyone’s happy.

Scenario 3: The boy finishes his piece, and doesn’t offer the dog any. Well, both he and the dog are still happy, and the reasons are threefold: One, because dogs don’t hold grudges, two, because that is not an underfed dog by any stretch of the imagination and, most importantly, three, because these two clearly have a bond.

This photograph is an absolute gem. From the wee lad’s bunnet to the dog’s hopeful grin, all we see is love.

Unknown Morningside District Ensemble, Edinburgh Gelatin silver print, 1908

The bond of a group

The art of performing as a group requires such precision from each member that by the end of a run of concerts or theatrical productions, an ensemble or cast will know and trust each other so well that they may feel a bond akin to that of a family.

The desire to play – and play well – matched by the adoration of a willing crowd leads us to see a good deal of affection in this photograph of the Morningside District Ensemble.

Charles Reid Three black and white puppies Albumen print

Puppy love...

Sorry, but we couldn’t resist. Whether you’re a dog lover, a cat person or allergic to most things on four legs, you’ll surely find these three posers adorable, right? Notable as much for its exquisite composition as for the sheer amount of treats it must have taken to get these pups to stay still long enough to capture the image, this would be our vote for ‘February’ in a MacKinnon Collection calendar.

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.

10 February 2020