Research Note 5: Sanna Bheag, Sanna, Ardnamurchan: M.E.M. Donaldson, April 2017

In her book, ‘Further Wanderings- Mainly in Argyll’ (1926), M.E.M. Donaldson (1876-1958) wrote that the approach and view of Sanna ‘…bursts upon you with a splendor that is almost overwhelming’ [1].

Looking over to Sanna Bay, (2017) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Approaching Sanna Bay, (2017) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

She continued, ‘From whichever end you approach Sanna, on reaching there you find yourself in a characteristic crofting township of twenty houses that, scattered with a delightful disregard for any ordered plan, nestle in the shelter of the rounded crags that form the landward boundary.’

Looking over to Sanna, from opposite direction, (2017) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Looking over to Sanna, from opposite direction, (2017) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Donaldson was to build and settle in Sanna in 1927, on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, living there for twenty years until a fire damaged the property.  It is clear in Donaldson’s  unpublished manuscript of her autobiography ‘A Pebble on the Beach[2], that the house, Sanna Bheag (Small Sanna) was a joint project taken on by both Donaldson and her friend Isabel Bonus (1875 – 1941), stating ‘The friends had determined that it [the house] should offer no affront to the landscape.’ The choice of wording in ‘affront‘ reflects Donaldson’s position on the modern houses that she saw creeping into the Highland landscape – ‘I have not ceased to deplore the ever-increasing examples of bad manners in building that are disfiguring the length and breadth of the Highlands’ [3].

Site of Sanna Bheag, M.E.M. Donaldson's home, Sanna, Ardnamurchan, (2017). Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

The crag that surrounds the site of Sanna Bheag, Sanna, Ardnamurchan, (2017). Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Bonus, Donaldson described, worked on plans for the ‘one storey’, whilst she ‘concerned herself more with questions of material and methods of construction.’ Their main aim was that the architecture would be sympathetic to the local vernacular, whilst being adapted to ‘modern needs’. To achieve this they wished to demonstrate that ‘they might demonstrate how unnecessary it was to import any alien and ugly material or fashions to procure such requirements’ [4]. From an article Donaldson wrote in Country Life [5], materials included the local stone, ‘a beautiful blue granite… blasted with gelignite’ and a thatch, partly crafted from heather. Donaldson emphasized in her article the labour required for both. The stone was blasted from nearby and the heather pulled up at distances from the road itself, then transported to site by cart. Donaldson and Bonus were to work with a lead builder and labourers mostly from Mull, with ‘unskilled labour … supplied from the local crofters’. A photograph in the ‘Country Life article is titled ‘Thatching in Progress, the writer (third from the left) assisting.’ On viewing the rocky outcrop behind the house, one can only marvel at the level of labour required to get the materials to Sanna then, for the amenities, taking the water power and electric supply from the loch on top of the hill,

1,400 ft, of four inch piping were required. So rough and steep was the way up and so broken the hillside that it was impossible to employ even the solitary horse available, so all the steel pipes, as well as bags of cement and gravel for concrete… had to be carried up by the men.’ [6]

The house was designed complete with a photography studio for Donaldson.

'Looking out from front of Sanna Bheag', (2017) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

‘Looking out from the front of Sanna Bheag’, (2017) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

In further research over the last five years, I have found that there are three recorded approaches made to the door of Sanna Bheag. The first is by the founder of Highland Folk Museum, Isabel Frances Grant (1887-1983). She and Donaldson both shared a passion in vernacular Highland architecture. Where Donaldson writes of Sanna inhabitants, ‘Often in the cottages you see evidences of the skill, ingenuity and industry of the crofters in their simple furniture – box-bed, table, chairs cupboard and dresser – all home-made and often out of driftwood’, [7], one can imagine the inveterate collector within IF Grant having her attention piqued.  However, in this instance it is Donaldson’s own home that IF Grant set out to visit. In her book, ‘The Making of Am Fasgadh’ (National Museums Scotland, 2007), Grant wrote of an expedition to Ardnamurchan:

‘I was most anxious to see the arrangements in the house that Miss M.E.M. Donaldson had built in the traditional style but with modifications to suit modern ways of living, including ‘mod cons’. I have always thought this a splendid idea.’ [8].

Grant goes on to describe that she journeyed out to Sanna from Acharacle. ‘I thought that Miss Donaldson was pioneering a most valuable idea and wanted to see what her house was like. I had, however, looked forward to calling upon her with some trepidation for she could be a formidable lady and I knew in some respects we did not see eye to eye.  It was not with unmixed disappointment that I learned she was from home. I went to look at the outside of the house. This was hampered by the presence of a very inquisitive bull.’

'Closer, site of M.E.M. Donaldson and Isobel Bonus's home, Sanna Bheag', (2017) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

‘The site of Sanna Bheag as it is now, with flat roof’, (2017) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

M.E.M. Donaldson’s fiery temperament was not only alluded to by Isabel Grant. I believe that Compton Mackenzie (1883-1972) satirized M.E.M. Donaldson in his 1949 book ‘Hunting the Fairies’ [9]. The book follows two competitive American amateur folklorists coming to Scotland to see fairies and collect songs from islanders. Mackenzie re-cast Donaldson as a male poet called Aeneas Lamont, living with his sister at ‘The house of two hearts’. The gender switch was likely a dig at Donaldson, who had helped build her own house and was fully involved in outdoor pursuits. It is likely Mackenzie is also passing comment on her living with a female companion, Bonus, in calling it ‘The House of Two Hearts’.  The architecture of the poet’s home in ‘Hunting the fairies’ also matches that of Donaldson’s unique home and building project at Sanna Bheag. As the visitors arrive at ‘The House of the Two Hearts:

‘Welcome in’, said their host brusquely. ‘And, oh dear, what an exceedingly picturesque house,’ Mrs Urquhart-Unwin exclaimed. 

‘It isn’t old. It was only finished two years ago’, Mr Lamont hissed. ‘I wanted to show it was possible to design a twelve-roomed house in the style of a crofter’s cottage. I’ve done it. Six rooms in the main part and three rooms in each of the wings at the back. The kitchen and domestic offices form a courtyard’. [10]

A photograph of MEM Donaldson’s home also can be found in a photograph album that is part of the Violet Banks Collection, held at Historic Environment Scotland. Banks (1886-1985) was a photographer who had a studio in Edinburgh. Banks’ photographs of the Highlands and Islands were the result of a tour she made during the late 1920s / early 1930s. The photographs are captioned by Banks in her album as ‘Views at Ardnamurchan. House at Sanna built by M.E.M. Donaldson’. Whether the two women were known to each other, or that Sanna Bheag, through its unique build and story in ‘Country Life‘ had become a place of interest to visit, it is hard to say.

I visited the site of Sanna Bheag, at Sanna, Ardnamurchan on the 30th April 2017, lucky that, ‘the day [was] one to do the scenery credit‘.  Dependent on approach, the house would have been the first or last in the bay, affording it a certain amount of privacy. A low rolling dune with stretch of marram grass connects the foreground of Sanna Bheag to the expanse of  sand and dark rock. In the words of M.E.M. Donaldson,

‘To the right and left sweeps a magnificent bay of silver sand, sparkling in the sunlight, divided and diversified by patches of rock and stretches of reef. Beyond, the sea smiles serenely, and in the distance there rise the gracious outlines of the islands, radiant in soft blue.’ [11]

To see the original photographs of Sanna Bheag and an extensive gathering of information and links on M.E.M. Donaldson, please see the excellent resource https://www.ornaverum.org/family/donaldson/mary-e-muir.html

'Over to Eigg from Sanna', (2017) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

‘Over to Eigg from Sanna’, (2017) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

'Over to Rum, from Sanna', (2017) Photo: Jenny Brownirgg

‘Over to Rum, from Sanna’, (2017) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Footnotes

  1. P.248, Further Wanderings- Mainly in Argyll’, M.E.M. Donaldson, (1926) Alexander Gardner Ltd, Paisley
  2. Unpublished manuscript, M.E.M. Donaldson’s autobiography ‘A Pebble on the Beachhttps://www.ornaverum.org/family/donaldson/mary-e-muir-beach-pebble.html
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. P.144,’House at Sanna Bheag, Ardnamurchan, in the Western Highlands’, M.E.M. Donaldson, Country Life, Vol LXIV, No 1645, 28 Jul 1928
  6. Ibid
  7. P.250, Further Wanderings- Mainly in Argyll’, M.E.M. Donaldson, (1926) Alexander Gardner Ltd, Paisley
  8. P.74. ‘The Making of Am Fasgadh’ (National Museums Scotland, 2007)
  9. ‘Hunting the Fairies’, Compton Mackenzie, (1949), Chatto & Windus
  10. P.125, ibid.
  11. P.248, ‘Further Wanderings- Mainly in Argyll’, M.E.M. Donaldson, (1926) Alexander Gardner Ltd, Paisley

With thanks to Anne-Marie Watson, for driving me to Ardnamurchan and Sanna.

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