The MacKinnon Collection | Scotland at work from 1840 to 1940

The MacKinnon Collection comprises 15,000 photographs showcasing a century of life across Scotland. From street scenes to rural dwelling, sporting pursuits to family portraits, these fascinating snapshots tell the story of how Scotland was changed between the 1840s and 1940s.

Within the collection are a number of images which show the country at work, in cities and towns that were rapidly becoming industrialised, and in more rural settings, where communities were often shaped by the industry that surrounded them. This blog examines some of these photographs in more detail.


The Industrial Revolution fostered new potential for commerce in Scotland’s cities. Scores of photographs celebrated the potential for prosperity through images of proud proprietors, cheerful workers, and bountiful displays of desirable product (below left).  The picture below right, The Day’s Work Begins, Newhaven, stands out in its depiction of the toiling fishwife, yet its emphasis seems to be on the ease and convenience provided by modern transport in her daily work.

John David Rattar Packing Kippers About 1920s.
Charles Trampus The Day's Work Begins 1937.
Unknown Stoneywood Paper Mill 1940s.

This picture is from a promotional book for Stoneywood Paper Mill in Aberdeen. The mill opened in 1770, joining a thriving Scottish paper industry that had begun near Edinburgh two centuries prior. In the mid-1800s, Stoneywood began to utilise automated machinery, doubling its production, expanding its selection of papers, and soon employing more than a thousand workers. Exemplary of photography’s natural allegiance with modern production, this image captures an ideal of man and machine working in unison.

Unknown Launch Day John Brown's Shipyard Govan Glasgow 1934.


Scotland's shipbuilding industry played a major role both on the international stage as well as in establishing major population centres across Scotland.

Decades of advancement in engineering and transport were enabled by the establishment of heavy industry in the western central belt.

The new Forth Bridge and Clyde-built transatlantic luxury liners benefitted from nearby production of iron and steel, whilst international fervour for aviation inspired a rapid succession of innovative ‘flying machines’.

These feats of ingenuity are celebrated in photographs emphasising massive scale, elegant design and dizzying speed.

Rural communities

In the late nineteenth century, photographs contributed significantly to public knowledge of the often-harsh conditions of Scottish rural life whilst simultaneously qualifying a sentimentality for its perceived traditional virtues. Though these workers appear willing, if not happy, to acknowledge the camera it was not they but their urban counterparts and tourists who were the primary consumers of these images. These were subjects of greater curiosity than honest regard.

Unknown Leading Hay 1894
Unknown Making Straw-Backed Chairs, Orkney Early 20th century
W. B. McCallum Hand Weaving, Island Mills, Killin About 1900
Unknown Unidentified woman Early 20th century
Unknown From the album Gladstone Presentation Album of Scottish Scenery About 1879-1880.

Factory work

This album was assembled on the occasion of William Ewart Gladstone’s visit to Dalkeith during his Midlothian Campaign of 1879. It was presented to Gladstone’s wife by the lady friends of the Liberal Committee of the South Eastern District of Midlothian. Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign was the first whistle-stop campaign by a British party leader, and contributed to his success in the general election of 1880. Whilst the album is primarily illustrated with topographical views of Scotland, several plates feature female factory workers. The workers pictured in this photograph were likely employed by Henry Windell & Stewart Ltd, which produced Persian and Turkish style hand-knotted carpets.

Unknown Ballachulish Slate Quarry About 1930s


This sturdy worker appears dominated by a dark incline of solid slate.

His arduous task nevertheless provided durable roofing for buildings throughout Scotland.

Quarrying at Ballachulish began in 1693, one year after the historic Glencoe Massacre and reached its peak around the 1860s when fifteen million slates were quarried annually to support rapidly expanding cities.

By the time this image was made in the 1930s, efficient transport of slate had benefitted from the introduction of nearby railways yet increasing availability of cheaper artificial roofing materials contributed to the quarry’s closure in 1955.

Unknown A Cooperage of Whisky Barrels, Speyside About 1930s


‘When neibors anger at a plea, an’ just as wud (savage) as wud can be, how easy can the barley brie (whisky) cement the quarrel! It’s aye the cheapest lawyer’s fee, to taste the barrel’
Robert Burns, ‘Scotch Drink’ (1785)

Skilled in a craft that dates back thousands of years, a cooper readies oak barrels to receive whisky for its long maturation. The shaping, shaving, and charring of casks is integral to the industry that established regions such as Speyside as production centres for whisky — the water of life.

James White Making and Shaping a Curling Stone About 1940s

Crafting a curling stone

Glasgow photographer James White depicts his subject in a moment of intense focus. The craftsman precisely forms a curling stone to the maximum circumference of 91.44 cm, minimum height of 11.43 cm, and weight between 17.24 and 19.96 kg. This granite stone will have been quarried from the island of Ailsa Craig, an extinct volcano in the Firth of Clyde. Kays of Scotland, based in Mauchline, Ayrshire, holds exclusive rights to Ailsa Craig granite and has produced stones for ‘the roaring game’ since 1851.

This small selection shows how photography was able to capture a century of dramatic transformation, innovation, and upheaval in Scotland and worldwide.

Scotland at work

Take a look at more images from the MacKinnon Collection that show Scotland at work.

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.

20 January 2020