Research Note 9: Edinburgh Central Library and Highland Folk Museum

The latest research visits (April & May 2022) have been on the trail of a particular series of photographs by Dr Isabel Frances Grant (1887-1983) that are part of the IF Grant Photographic Collection. I moved from one digital archive, am baile to two physical archives- Edinburgh Central Library which holds the photographic collection itself and Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, which is the embodiment and repository for IF Grant’s wider work as the founder of Am Fasgadh.

IF Grant described Am Fasgadh as ‘a pioneering attempt to create a Highland variant of the well-known folk museums of Scandinavia’. [1] She originally organised an exhibition in Inverness in 1930, in the hope that someone upon seeing the history and the material culture of different areas of the Highlands and islands, would create such a museum. Whilst the exhibition, lasting 7 weeks and receiving ‘close on 20,000 visitors’ [2] proved popular, no one came forward. IF Grant then went on to tour over Scotland to collect and buy artefacts, which she subsequently housed in three iterations of Am Fasgadh (‘The Shelter’). Grant saw Am Fasgadh as ‘providing a shelter for homely Highland things’ [3] in Iona (established 1935), Laggan and Kingussie. Following gifting her collection and museum to the four Scottish Universities [4] in 1954, Am Fasgadh was taken over by Highland Region in 1975.

The IF Grant Collection online at am baile and held at Edinburgh Central Library brings together IF Grant’s own photographs with the work of other photographers that she purchased, including Margaret Fay Shaw and Violet Banks. All the photographs depict different aspects of Highland life. Shaw’s photographs augment a gap in the collection on South Uist; whilst Banks’ works are of the ‘Last remaining inhabited thatched cottage’ in Eigg and a white thatched cottage in Sconser, Skye.

Grant’s own photographs, (attributed to her in the IF Grant Collection), depict a keen interest in different building styles and variations of thatched cottages across Scotland. Whilst there are examples from the larger islands of Lewis, Mull, Skye, and Arran, Grant also photographed buildings in Colonsay, Ulva and Lismore. She took examples across the north of Scotland in Thurso and Durness, around to north west, in Mallaig and Morar. Intriguingly, there is also a sub section of Grant’s photographs which are of ruinous cottages, which on one emotive level illustrate that this way of life was fast disappearing. Grant notes the cause in the early 1930s as ‘the Scottish Board of Agriculture was carrying a housing drive. Every steamer I travelled in appeared to be loaded with piles of window frames, sanitary equipment, etc… one began to wonder if any cottage of the traditional style would be left’. [5]

My research day at Highland Folk Museum, concentrating on IF Grant’s own photography, has proved to be three-fold – seeing the volume of photography that Grant commissioned from other photographers, mostly relating to Am Fasgadh; the subsequent usage of that photography to disseminate the existence of the museum further afield; and, some context relating to her own photography series of the cottages. Firstly, Grant worked with different photographers as well as postcard publishers Valentines and JB White, to document artefacts, interiors and exteriors of the three iterations of Am Fasgadh. She then utilised this documentation for spreading the word of the museum, in particular as saleable composite image postcards for museum visitors. A number of the photographs also illustrate articles on the museum in Scots Magazine and The Listener. Names that crop up repeatedly in her photograph album captions are Glasgow photographer John Mackay, who took photographs of the objects such as stools, chairs and farming implements, on mostly stark white backgrounds; and Donald B MacCulloch, whose address stamped on the back of one loose photograph in an album places him in Aviemore. In amongst another archival box, several visitors mailed IF Grant photographs of their day at the museum, which illustrates cameras were very much everyday objects used by the general population.

Cover of photograph album, with IF Grant’s handwritten index Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2022)

In the photograph albums held in Am Fasgadh, Grant’s own captions provide a good level of detail relating to the authorship of photographs of the museum interiors and exteriors. An example is ‘Large photograph by D.B. MacCulloch’. However, on the pages there are also smaller, unattributed photographs of the museum. One option would be to surmise she did not note when a photograph is one of hers, but it is difficult to be sure of her authorship when she worked with numerous photographers. In Box 6, there are two foolscap sheets of paper, which are the only visual reference to the series of thatched cottages held at Edinburgh Central Library. There are 6 photographs affixed across the two sheets, with captions relating to object and place, in IF Grant’s handwriting. ‘1. A ruined cottage in Inverness-shire’ shows the pared back gable, stripped of thatch. It sits on the page next to ‘2. A very primitive cottage in Barra with hearth in the middle of the room’. The photograph captions do not state the author, however the image of the Barra interior, is definitely one of Margaret Fay Shaw’s. The Edinburgh Central Library holds larger reprints of this image, correctly attributed to Shaw. On the second foolscap page, the photograph with caption ‘5. Lewis houses’, reverts back to likely being taken by Grant. In this example, is the blurring of authorship down to IF Grant’s larger role of collector? Did she see her own photography as part of a larger collection, alongside other photographers’ work?

In Box 5, commissioned Aviemore photographer Donald B MacCulloch appears again, this time writing an article ‘Am Fasgadh: The Iona Museum’, for Scots Magazine and Scottish Country Life. MacCulloch states, ’She [IF Grant] has also formed a remarkable collection of old thatch cottages, and of various domestic activities carried on throughout the North Country and islands’ (P.48). This is the first external appraisal of the series as part of a collection.

Furthermore, the inclusion of these photographs in the exhibition catalogue for the ‘Highland Exhibition Inverness’ 1930, pre-dates this series to Grant’s subsequent establishing of Am Fasgadh’s first iteration in 1935. The introduction essay on P30 notes:

There will be a collection of portfolios [in the exhibition] for those who care to spend more time … there will be a large collection of photographs of old Highland cottages and of familiar work scenes.

The last entry in the catalogue reads: ‘Portfolio of Photography of life in the Highlands, lent by Miss IF Grant, Balnespick.’ Grant saw this particular portfolio’s purpose as one which augmented the exhibition, for those interested in the subject.

It is not unusual to traverse ground between archives to understand better the motivations and aims that each of the women photographers and filmmakers from early 20th Century in Scotland had for their work. The path between Edinburgh Central Library and Highland Folk Museum is no different. In a photocopied bibliography of Dr IF Grant’s written work, held at Am Fasgadh, it is noted ‘”Random recollections of the distribution of Local Types of Cottages”, typescript, 17pp, deposited with Edinburgh City Libraries, a companion piece to IF Grant Collection of photographs (1965)’. I shall look forward to returning to Edinburgh Central Library to learn more about this portfolio of images, and, hopefully, to shed more light on the photography she authored.

With thanks to Helen Pickles, Highland Folk Museum and Iain Duffus, Edinburgh Central Library

Am Fasgadh entrance Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2022)

Footnotes

[1] P.11, ‘The Making of Am Fasgadh: An account of the Origins of the Highland Folk Museum by its Founder’, Isabel Frances Grant, (2007, National Museums Scotland).

[2] From Report of the Joint Honorary Secretaries to The Executive Committee of the Highland Exhibition 1930, typescript, (Accessions no: 2:1985), Am Fasgadh

[3] P.191, ‘The Making of Am Fasgadh: An account of the Origins of the Highland Folk Museum by its Founder’, Isabel Frances Grant, (2007, National Museums Scotland).

[4] P.10, Hugh Cheape, introduction, ‘The Making of Am Fasgadh: An account of the Origins of the Highland Folk Museum by its Founder’, Isabel Frances Grant, (2007, National Museums Scotland).

[5] P.30, Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s