Walking towards a photograph

This piece of writing lay incomplete, seeking its correct form, after its beginnings on my one-week residency at Sweeney’s Bothy, Isle of Eigg in November 2016. In December 2018, I was invited by The Bothy Project, the residency host, to speak about my research on early photographer M.E.M Donaldson, and the series of photographs she had made on Eigg. I completed this text to open the presentation, endeavouring to lead myself and the audience to the point that Donaldson takes a photograph at Laig Bay, of a woman who walks along the beach. I had experienced her photography as ‘a journey into’ a landscape, so ‘Walking towards a photograph’ echoes my aims for the residency, which were to locate the exact spots on the island, where Donaldson had taken her series of images, in order to understand more about her methods. A number of her photographs of Eigg illustrate her travel book ‘Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands’ [Published by Paisley: Alexander Gardner Ltd, 1920].


The sound shifts where there is something for the air to engage with,

Flowing through the dry, florescent leaves of a cottage copse,

or carried from source at Beinn Bhuide.

The dancing water follows the gravitational pull,

slicing under the tarmac of the main road to Cleadale,

to stalk the farm road down to Laig Bay.


Here stranded at the the farm road’s mouth

lies a Toyota jeep with half a registration plate L878,

A blue sticker on its pushed in side window declares– YES!

Last night’s rain follows a snaking tributary down a shallow gulley,

past a Castrol Oil drum, caught in the first curve.


Look up!

This juncture provides an excellent platform

To see Laig Farm in the distance,

nestled by foothills then the cliffs that

surround the top of the bay.

Continuing on, the track continues to dip,

And the sea disappears

As the vegetation grows high.


Black and red rosehips compete with brambles

that grow through and over the orange bracken,

reaching up to trace along the lowest tree branches,

then twist across the stream

which declares itself by sound only.


In fact, three different sounds of water can be heard:

Behind – the louder water from the cliffs of Beinn Bhuidhe;

Beside – the small stream now lost in yellow rushes

Ahead -the distant sea waves.


A singular fence post, with its wire haphazard and low to the ground,

halts to demarcate nothing.

A fat rainbow sprouts up to the left of the white church

With its green wooden window frames and door.


My wrists are cold.

I can feel the larger gray stones under my boots.

I and my shadow circumnavigate the larger puddles,

Avoiding the soaked heads of long grass.


The peat brown stream as it nears the beach, flows high and deep.

An inconsequential log fords it, to connect

With the small grassy verge, lined with sheep tracks,

That disperse into the low dunes.


The stream, now a tributary, reflects Rùm,

cutting the beach in two, to run into the sea.

Black brain coral lies beyond

these untrustworthy depths.


Instead, as I am not the protagonist,

I retreat to the rise before the beach,

to locate where she once stood,

as she observed the woman who walked along Laig Bay.


Tracing the founding members of Glasgow Society of Lady Artists

‘A well painted figure subject from Miss Greenlees … Study of gladiolus, artistic in drawing and good in colour is shown by Mrs Provan … Mrs Robertson sends nicely painted vases, while Madame Röhl shows to advantage in birch trees… Miss Nisbet artistic drawings of poppies and Miss Henderson, well painted lilies. Whilst there is much commendable work there is a lack of variety and a total absence of domestic subjects which might be expected in such an exhibition.’

Glasgow Herald 5 Jan 1884, p4, held in Mitchell Library Special Collections

The above quote is from a critique of an early exhibition that founding members of the Glasgow Society of Lady Artists participated in. Very little beyond a list of names from a transcribed speech in the slim volume ‘History of the Society of Lady Artists’ Club’, (1950, printed by Robert Maclehose and Company Limited) can initially be ascertained about the eight women who established this society in 1882, with its primary aim to afford due recognition and opportunity to women in the art field.

This essay for the publication ‘Raoul Reynolds: A Retrospective’ (Poursuite Editions, 2018, ed. Zappia, F and TANK Art Space Marseille) roves between non-fiction and fiction, gathering through press cuttings, archival holdings, online marriage registers and existing scholarly work more information about Miss Greenlees, Miss Patrick, Mrs Robertson, Miss Nisbet, Mrs Agnew, Mme Röhl, Mrs Provan and Miss Katherine Henderson; whilst introducing the fictional character of Henriette Aliès-Reynolds, an early feminist and artist who went to the Glasgow School of Art at the end of the 19th century. Aliès-Reynolds is part of the collective fiction of the life of Raoul Reynolds, created by Francesca Zappia (independent curator, Glasgow) and TANK Art Space (Marseille) as part of their curated group exhibition ‘Raoul Reynolds: A Retrospective’ (2016) [1].



‘…The studios became the site of the annual exhibition. The stairs at 136 Wellington Street are described by two critics. In the Lady’s Pictorial (1890):

In a miniature gallery perched atop of an excruciating number of stairs winding up to one of the high-lands of Wellington Street, which traverses the heart of the local artist colony.

The Stirling Journal and Advertiser (March 27, 1891): ‘I climbed the interminable stairs and found myself in the eyrie’.

In standing outside Wellington Street, one must still strain one’s neck in order to see the line of small windows in the top floor…’

Present day, 136 Wellington Street, Glasgow (2018) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Present day, 136 Wellington Street, Glasgow (2018) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg


[1] The publication is linked to the exhibition ‘Raoul Reynolds: a Retrospective’ (2016), curated by Zappia and Tank Art Space (Marseille) at Scotland Street Museum, Glasgow, as part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art; and La Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseille (2016).’ Raoul Reynolds: A Retrospective’ was the result of a collective and collaborative exhibition made by twelve artists and a curator. It aimed to further develop the existing cultural exchange that forms part of the cooperation and twinning agreements between the two cities of Glasgow and Marseille. Thus, the twelve artists – Stéphanie Cherpin, Helen de Main, Sandro della Noce, Guillaume Gattier, Amandine Guruceaga, Benjamin Marianne, James McLardy, Douglas Morland, Philippe Murphy, Emilie Perotto, Bobby Niven and Alys Owen – represent the emergent artistic, and notably sculptural, scenes of the two cities. Together, they have collaborated and signed their works under the name of Raoul Reynolds.

[2] The book editors are Francesca Zappia (independent curator, Glasgow) and Amandine Guruceaga (TANK Art Space, Marseille). The four other publication contributors are Éric Mangion (Director of Exhibitions at the Villa Arson, Nice, France), curator and art critic Thimothé Chaillou and art historian Anna Dezeuze (L’école supérieure d’art & de design Marseille-Méditerranée). The publisher is Poursuite Editions, a french-based publisher focused on photography and related topics.

A Psychic Conversation with The Big Grey Man

‘A Psychic Conversation with The Big Grey Man’ was my contribution to Alan Grieve’s ‘Dry Your Eyes, Big Man’ at Workspace, Dunfermline (7.7.18). The one night show and event brought together responses to The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui. Haunting Scotland’s second highest mountain, this legend or ‘strange phenomena’ engenders terror in those that experience its presence, with some hearing footsteps, others seeing a huge figure in the mist. Wendy Wood describes her own encounter in her book ‘The Secret of Spey’ (published by Robert Grant & Son, 1930):

‘It was on a dull day, with light snow lying, and I had no further intention than to wander to the mouth of the Lairig…I stopped to enjoy these surroundings, the uprush of the cliffs of Creag a’ Leth-choin, too steep to hold the snow, and the shadowed side of Sron na Lairig, and as I turned to retrace my steps I heard a voice of gigantic resonance. It spoke with the harsh consonants and full vowels of the Gaelic, but it issued so close to me that I was too startled, and I suppose I might as well confess, too scared, to unravel or even remember the sound of the words’.

P.26, ‘The Secret of Spey’, Wendy Wood

Lurcher’s Crag, Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms. Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Affleck Grey’s ‘The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui: Myth or Monster?’ (Lochar Publishing, 1989) brings together the evidence of those who have seen or heard him. During World War 2, on mountain rescue duty, Peter Densham and Richard Frere found themselves in a conversation with the Big Grey Man- on what subject, they were unable to recall:

‘I was surprised after a little to hear Frere apparently talking to himself. Then I had the impression that he was talking to someone on the other side of the cairn. I went around and found myself joining in the conversation. It was a strange experience which seemed to have a psychic aspect. We talked to someone invisible for some time, and it seemed we had carried on this conversation for some little time, when we suddenly realised that there was no-one there but ourselves. Afterwards, neither of us, strangely, could recall the purport of this extraordinary conversation’.

P.7, ‘The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui: Myth or Monster?’, Affleck Gray

‘A Psychic Conversation with The Big Grey Man’ imagines such a conversation taking place, and seeks to re-imagine the Grey Man’s purpose of haunting these particular slopes and his approach to hill walkers. The text is laid out in the shape of his spectral silhouette.

Installation at ‘Dry Yer Eyes, Big Man’, Workspace Dunfermline, 2018. Photo: Alan Grieve

‘Dry Yer Eyes, Big Man’, Alan Grieve, Workspace Dunfermline, 2018. Photo courtesy the artist

‘I gladly strained my eyes to follow you’, Pollok House: Sally Salisbury portrait

I gladly strained my eyes to follow you was devised by Shauna McMullan. It took the form of a 45min guided tour of National Trust for Scotland’s Pollok House, focusing on a selection of female portraits from the House’s art collection. [1] It was part of a group residency and exhibition, Cabinet Interventions (2018).

McMullan invited a number of writers, artists, academics and Pollok House staff to consider a particular portrait she had selected for each person. McMullan sent no details of the work, allowing for each respondent to consider how they would approach their task. The content of the tour, delivered by the Pollok House tour guides, was made up from short texts written specially for each work. The full piece I submitted, can be read here.

‘Mrs Salisbury’ (1724) by Michael Dahl (1656/9-1743), Pollok House, Glasgow, National Trust for Scotland

The painting that McMullan invited me to consider was ‘Mrs Salisbury’ (1724) by Michael Dahl (1656/9-1743). Her name gave enough for an internet search. The first image I find is of a mezzotint. It is a half length portrait in an oval, with the inscription under it reading ‘Mrs Sally Salisbury’. The curator notes in the British Museum catalogue entry, that ‘… both the engraver and the original artist suppressed their names from the print due to the character of the personage.’ [2]

Detail, ‘Mrs Salisbury’ (1724) by Michael Dahl (1656/9-1743), Pollok House, Glasgow. National Trust for Scotland

I first visit this painting at Glasgow Museum Resource Centre in Feb 2018. The work had been temporarily re-located to this store whilst building work was taking place in several of the rooms at Pollok House. I don’t want to miss any detail in this first meeting with her. Accompanied by the two museum curators who facilitate this visit, they stand aside whilst I look at the painting. I then examine the slim folder that accompanies it. There are no biographical details; the index only includes a curator entry on the condition of the painting. The gold relief frame, complete with heart and cherubs, seems at odds with the considered portrait within. The museum curators ask me if I wish for the painting to be turned over. The back is marked with a hand-painted inscription: ‘Mrs Salisbury or Priddon. Dahl Pinxt’.

Dahl paints this portrait of Mrs Sally Salisbury, in 1724, the year that she dies. She is thirty-two, whilst he is sixty-five. He lives to be eighty-four. In her short life, she has sold lace and oranges as a child; as a young runaway been forced into prostitution; then tried for stabbing a lover, whose misdemeanour had been to give two theatre tickets to her sister rather than to her. She subsequently dies of ill health in Newgate jail. In the year before her death, her story and likenesses are heavily circulated as she has become notorious. There are two separate volumes of her life created during the year of her trail, with further mezzotints from the accompanying illustrations sold. The two books are ‘Authentic Memoirs of the Life, Intrigues and Adventures of the Celebrated Sally Salisbury’, 1723, by Capt. Charles Walker and ‘The Genuine History of Mrs Sarah Prydden, Usually Called, Sally Salisbury, and Her Gallants. Regularly Containing, the real Story of her Life’, printed for Andrew Moor, 1723.

Michael Dahl, a Swedish painter, was highly regarded in his field, regularly gaining major commissions from the ruling classes, as James Mulraine notes, in the period 1690s-1710s:

…regiments of [his] sitters line the walls of Royal and country house collections of the period. All this changed in 1714, when Queen Anne was succeeded by King George I.

Who commissioned Dahl to paint Sally Salisbury or did he choose to do so himself? Did she sit for him or like the ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic’ memoirs purporting to know her, is his portrait of her a real likeness or fabrication? As he moves from court sitter to ‘courtesan’ as subject, is he aligning his fading trajectory with that of her rising one in a bid to rekindle his own publicity? Or is he merely freed in 1714 from court patronage and able to draw on a wider repertoire?

It can only be noted that Dahl’s portrait of Salisbury is sympathetic in nature. She does not appear out of place in Pollock House in the company she keeps with royal and privileged women.

The painting in situ, Pollok House, Glasgow

The subsequent piece that I submit for the Pollok House tour, mirrors the brevity of her life by selecting the succinct, at most six word commentaries that describe each stage of her life, taken from the margins of the memoirs that circulated about her. The piece begins and concludes with two longer quotes that capture her trajectory:


Sarah Pridden or Priddon,

alias Mrs Salisbury or Sally Salisbury,

(b. Shrewsbury, d. London. c.1692-1724)

The Drawing Room, Pollock House.

‘Many are the reports spread abroad, celebrating that Piece of Contradiction, SALLY SALISBURY’. [6]


‘Her Birth,


and earliest



Her first


and Re-



She is put

to a Seam-



The Acci-

dent that

made her

run away

from thence.


Of her sel-

ling Oran-

ges, about

the Play-



The Vul-

gar Report


her sel-

ling Pears,





Falls in

Love with

a Colonel…../


/…. She allures a




Clouds ri-

sing about



Her la-


Downfall.’ [5]

‘But, like a’ Comet, her blaze was Bright, but of no continuance; Scare had she appear’d like the Sun; before she disappears like a Meteor…’ [6]]


[1] The Pollok House collection was amassed by Sir William Stirling Maxwell (1818-1878). The tour was part of ‘Cabinet Interventions’, an exhibition at Pollok House, Pollock Country Park, Glasgow. (April-May 2018) https://cabinetinterventions.org/

[2] http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1659383&partId=1

[3] James Mulraine https://jamesmulraine.com/2017/02/16/the-painter-by-himself-a-late-self-portrait-by-michael-dahl/

[4] p.3, ‘Authentic Memoirs of the Life, Intrigues and Adventures of the Celebrated Sally Salisbury’, 1723, by Capt. Charles Walker.

[5] Comments from the side margins, ‘The Genuine History of Mrs Sarah Prydden, Usually Called, Sally Salisbury, and Her Gallants. Regularly Containing, the real Story of her Life’, printed for Andrew Moor, 1723. Reproduction from British Library, Gale ECCO Print Editions.

[6] P41, Ibid.

‘I gladly strained my eyes to follow you’ publication. A guided tour of Pollok House, Shauna McMullan (2018)

Pollok House, Glasgow. National Trust for Scotland. Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

‘Draw from the well’, catalogue essay for Sam Ainsley solo exhibition, An Tobar Gallery, Isle of Mull (2017)

Poster, Sam Ainsley, An Tobar Gallery, Isle of Mull (2017)

This catalogue essay (full text here) accompanied Sam Ainsley’s first solo exhibition in thirty years, at An Tobar Gallery, Isle of Mull (16 September – 25 November 2017). The catalogue is designed by Graphical House. The essay focuses on three new works that Ainsley made for the exhibition, and through them, appraising the on-going themes of her work, namely the metaphor; and the relationship of the body to landscape and architecture. The translation of ‘An Tobar’ is the well. I contextualise her work through drawing upon the well of words of women writers that she consistently revisits as inspiration for her work. Furthermore, from an early interview I made with Ainsley, she re-called the impact science fiction written by women had on her. I investigate this in the essay, drawing connection between how Ainsley often in the displaying of her work in grid form or series, juxtaposes different ‘worlds’ together – a science fiction device. Ainsley refers back in her work to ‘The Map of Tendre’, a 17th century allegorical cartography linking geography to the body and emotions. Using this device, I created small text ‘islands’ throughout the body of the essay, based on some of the map’s locations. Given the site-specific island location of Ainsley’s exhibition her third work, a wall painting of imaginary and real islands, the essay also brings in references to the ways in which other Scottish islands have been either realistically or fictionally represented. Examples include St Kilda (Powell and Pressburger) and Shetland (Jenny Gilbertson). The essay begins with a manifesto including all of the titles of a grid of 36 new drawings/ collages that Ainsley made for the show. I am very grateful to Sam Ainsley and to Mike Darling (curator, An Tobar) for the invitation to write about her work.


Draw from the well. Dig, drive, drill or use your hands. Is this what pain feels like? Whatever means you think necessary to scoop the words and ideas of women into any container you have. Is it dark? Follow the darkness of the well down. Choices not fears. Walk this way my lovelies. Then scoop and lift the words up high. See, at the moment when running away from, became running towards; at the very instant you felt the precipice and desired the exit, the well and its contents become your lifebelt.

Lift up the words of women, for reference, for inspiration, for critique. It is a true avalanche. A high rise of hopes; the wakened night! These words are rhizomes, creeping up and through the once crack’d earth of essays, paintings, spoken word, education and action, where once only he thought – he said – he had a point – he had a purpose. These words of women are cloning brains as the shoots put out into fertile ground. Where once we stared with saddened eyes at the calloused mountain, we now realise (we are), were always, the dull blue base…]

‘Her wild, scared Heart’, Sam Ainsley, (2017)


Sam Ainsley (right) and Mike Darling (An Tobar curator, on left), during installation at An Tobar. Photo: Comar twitterfeed


Pauline and the Matches: script and narration

This voiceover (duration 34 minutes) and corresponding script, are part of Pauline and the Matches’, 12-27 August 2017, Custom Lane, Edinburgh.  ‘Pauline and the Matches’ is based on the tale by Heinrich Hoffman (1809-1894) called ‘The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches’ from the children’s book ‘Der Struwwelpeter’ (1845). The allegory this cautionary tale presents- that small actions have catastrophic consequences- has exploded within contemporary culture. We hear how microscopic actions, when they become collective, have a global impact.

‘Pauline and the Matches’ is an interactive performance space and installation, made by a collective of multi-media performance and sound artists. Part of Edinburgh Art Festival, supported by Creative Scotland.


Script and narration: Jenny Brownrigg; Sound Production: Mark Vernon; Booklet Design: Christine Jones; Project devised by B Gilbert Scott.

Observing Women at Work: Franki Raffles

‘Kvaerner, Govan’, (1988) Franki Raffles, from the exhibition ‘Observing Women at Work: Franki Raffles’, (2017), Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art. Photo: Alan Dimmick

In 2017, I had the privilege to curate an exhibition of Franki Raffles’ (1955-94) work. This project is in partnership with Dr Alistair Scott (Franki Raffles Archive Project, Edinburgh Napier University) and is supported by St Andrews Special Collections.

Franki Raffles was a feminist social documentary photographer. A new publication accompanies the exhibition ‘Observing Women at Work’ in the Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art (4 March – 27 April 2017). The exhibition presents a selection of black and white photographs and material by Franki Raffles namely ‘Women Workers in the USSR’ (1989)’, ‘To Let You Understand…’ (1988) and material from the first ‘Zero Tolerance’ campaign (1992), entitled  ‘Prevalence’Zero Tolerance was developed as a ground-breaking campaign to raise awareness of the issue of men’s violence against women and children. See documentation of the exhibition here.

Installation shot, ‘Observing Women At Work: Franki Raffles‘, Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art (2017). Photo: Alan Dimmick

Installation shot, ‘Observing Women at Work: Franki Raffles’, Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art (2017). Photo: Alan Dimmick.

My essay is on P33-40 of the new publication ‘OBSERVING WOMEN AT WORK: Franki Raffles’. The book is published by The Glasgow School of Art with support from Franki Raffles Archive Project, Edinburgh Napier University and contains an introduction by Sarah Munro (Director, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art) essays by Jenny Brownrigg (GSA Exhibitions Director, curator of this exhibition) and Dr Alistair Scott (Edinburgh Napier University, The Franki Raffles Archive). The photographs are held by University of St Andrews Library Special Collections Division.

From l to r: ‘Burntons Biscuits, Edinburgh’ / Cleaner EDC, Edinburgh/ ‘Cleaner EDC, Edinburgh’, from ‘To Let You Understand…’, Franki Raffles (1988), ‘Observing Women at Work: Franki Raffles’, Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art (2017) Photo: Alan Dimmick

[ESSAY EXTRACT: ‘A local authority canteen worker is quoted in Raffles’ 1988 publication, To Let You Understand…, as follows: “Well privatisation won’t affect me. I’m due to retire soon, but it’s the younger ones I feel sorry for.”

Looking back over the quotations gathered for this City of Edinburgh District Council Women’s Committee commission, they concentrate on high unemployment statistics for school leavers; impending privatisation (at the time the publication was written, this related to British Steel, water and electricity following the sell-off of utilities such as British Telecom and British Gas); low pay; childcare issues, particularly free nursery places; income support; inadequate NHS funding; equal opportunities; and employee protection rights. Fast-forward 29 years to 2017, following Thatcher, New Labour and into the economic uncertainty of BREXIT, Raffles’ work continues to be relevant to present-day working conditions and debates. The destination of many school leavers and graduates continues to be the Job Centre; sections of the NHS are being quietly privatised; the high cost of childcare still impacts greatly on income; and zero hour contracts create often precarious working conditions. Viewing Raffles’ work in black-and-white from our current decade is not in any way a nostalgic activity.

On entering the gallery to see Observing Women at Work, visitors encounter a similar view as the narrators do in Charlotte Gilman’s novel Herland (1915) – a society entirely comprising women. Through the repetition of gender, each of Raffles’ photographs reinforces her feminist agenda. The women are centre-stage. It is only on closer inspection that one can see men in the further recesses of the photographs – having a cigarette out of a lorry window or lingering at the end of a corridor with a co-worker. Even in a sole photograph of doctor and patient (Inside Back Cover, Women Workers, Russia), where the male has equal presence to the female, it is the woman who is wearing the white coat of the doctor, and the man who is the patient. Intriguingly, Raffles resists the device of the close-up, preferring the mid- or long-shot. She predominantly uses the establishing shot, which clearly shows the environment within which the worker operates, whether it is the regulated space of the open plan office, the natural dirt of the state farm or the systematic space of manufacture… EXTRACT ENDS]

Read full essay here.

The book can be purchased from GSA Shop for £7.

ISBN: 9780956764669 Dimensions: 21 x 14.8 cm Materials: paperback Designed by Maeve Redmond, 52 pages, edition 300.

Installation shot, ‘Observing Women at Work: Franki Raffles’, Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art (2017). Photo: Alan Dimmick

Franki Raffles, ‘Plasterers, Women Workers, Russia’ (1989), from the exhibition ‘Observing Women At Work: Franki Raffles’, Reid Gallery, The Glasgow School of Art (2017). Photo: Alan Dimmick


POP-UP is a short story, illustrated by Paul J. Ryding and Neil McGuire, self published in Dec 2016. Download full text here

'Pop-Up', illustration by Paul J Ryding and Neil McGuire

‘Pop-Up’, illustration by Paul J Ryding and Neil McGuire


The Pop-Up”. Xavier placed his hands on the table and leaned forward. This was the body language of leaders. As the youngest guy in the room, he skirted the right kind of informality with his ‘meet the clients’ outfit. He was wearing a narrow black tie with the top button on his white shirt undone. His sleeves were rolled up a little to hint that he wasn’t afraid of hard work, when actually his line manager would have said he was.  ‘Right guys, we are designing this space in the building for pop-ups. You are going to have a key flow of people through here and you want to grab their attention. This is a flexible, dynamic space which can powerfully encourage repeat visits’.

Bill Staton didn’t like being called ‘guys’ by a junior, not one little bit, but he dimly recognised the phrase ‘pop-up’. Had he seen a pop-up on the recent visit to Gateshead where a mixed delegation had been sent to research different kinds of loose seating for auditoriums? He knew that as the Local Authority’s Head of Culture, Sport and Engineering he needed to express some words right now to show he was boss. He rocked forward gently in his seat to signal he was ready to engage…..”

Photographs of Eigg: MEM Donaldson and Violet Banks, November 2016

Thanks to a weeklong residency at Sweeney’s Bothy, I was able to visit the Isle of Eigg for the first time. My main aim was to seek out the places that MEM Donaldson photographed on her visits to Eigg, between 1918-1936. Her photographs illustrated her travel guide ‘Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands‘ (1921). The week also became a time to look at a second Scottish photographer, Violet Banks [1] and her photographs of Eigg from her tour of the Western Hebrides c. 1920s & 30s’.

Map of Eigg, green arrows denote sited Donaldson photographed Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2016)

Map of Eigg, green arrows denote sites Donaldson photographed Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2016)

Intriguingly, Donaldson and Banks’ paths may have crossed at Donaldson’s distinctive home in Arnamurchan.  In a set of black photograph albums held at Royal Commission of Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Banks dedicates one section to Ardnamurchan, with a page of four photographs captioned ‘Views of Ardnamurchan, House at Sanna built by M.E.M. Donaldson‘. Banks frames the low buildings of MEM Donaldson’s home in the middle distance, nestled with a small hill behind and close to the edge of a low dune. The photograph with caption provides the first physical evidence that one photographer is aware of another, amongst the women who I have been researching that documented Scottish Highlands & Islands life in the inter-war years.

Detail from Violet Banks' photograph album, Royal Commission of Ancient & Historic Monuments Scotland Ref: PA244

Detail from Violet Banks’ photograph album, Royal Commission of Ancient & Historic Monuments Scotland Ref: PA244

Banks also visited and photographed a number of locations that Margaret Fay Shaw captured too, including the Telegraph office at Eriskay, and also a Highland Games featuring Compton Mackenzie in a line of judges at Northbay, Isle of Barra. The photographs have a similar framing, yet the seating arrangement and Mackenzie’s flamboyant dress as a chieftain is different in each photograph, so may not be taken at the same Games.

On the Saturday ferry over from Mallaig to Eigg, I showed digital images of MEM Donaldson’s series on the island to Lucy Conway (the host of Sweeney’s Bothy with her husband Eddie Scott) and another islander, Eric Weldon.  They immediately helped identify locations. A further resource has been the impressive, ten years in the writing, ‘Eigg: The Story of an Island‘, [2] by local resident Camille Dressler. This book is part of an excellent compact collection called the ‘Walking Library’ [3] at Sweeney’s Bothy. Dressler recounts that Donaldson stayed at Laig Farm, on her visits to Eigg, which in that period as well as a working farm was a Temperance Hotel. [4] Two of Donaldson’s photographs show the farm. The first shows the start of the path down to the farm, with the gateway at the side of a cliff-face. The second denotes Laig Farm’s grouping of low buildings, in a small valley with a sandstone headland rising behind [5]. Laig beach, close to the farm, is the site of third photograph, which shows a woman, likely Donaldson’s companion, the illustrator Isobel Bonus, walking along the gray sands. The distinctive silhouette of the island of Rum lies on the near horizon. Donaldson takes another photograph at this location; a detail of the strange fossilised stones found at the south end of Laig beach.

(l) Detail of 'Coast of Eigg, Sgurr in background', MEM Donaldson, Ref: 958.20.505, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery. (r) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2016)

(l) Detail of ‘Coast of Eigg, Sgurr in background’, MEM Donaldson, Ref: 958.20.505, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery. (r) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2016)

Like Laig Farm, a good number of the photographs are dotted around Cleadale itself, where Sweeney’s Bothy is located. Donaldson was drawn to ‘sites with historical associations’ [6]. She photographed two local children, Joanne MacLellan and Katie-Ann MacKay fetching water from St Columba’s Well [7] at Cleadale, where one can still take a drink of its cool, clear water, credited with healing powers, from a generously provided mug. (Lucy tells me later that this is the water for both drinking and showering with at Sweeney’s Bothy!) The well was said to be blessed by Colm Cille and believed to prophesize the fate of those children baptised in it, from the ‘number of rivulets running down’ [8].  Perhaps this story prompted Donaldson to photograph the two girls at the well. Further around the coast, in another photograph, a white bearded islander, Lachlan MacAskill points with his stick to St Donnan’s ‘pillow’ stone, lying in front of the ruins at Kildonan Church.

Framed MEM Donaldson photograph of children at St Columba's Well, Eigg, exhibited at Pier Café, Galmisdale, Eigg

Framed MEM Donaldson photograph of children at St Columba’s Well, Eigg, exhibited at Galmisdale Bay Café and Bar, Eigg

It is important to note that we read these images differently, according to our own experience. I am a similar audience, thanks to where I live, as Donaldson’s main readership was. Hugh Cheape asserts that as her photographs were to illustrate literary work, the perceived audience would have been those who were ‘probably town-based’. [9] Before my visit to Eigg, this series of photographs had their only identifiers of location as the general catalogue credits from Inverness Museum & Art Gallery Archive, which was enough to bring me to Eigg. Local knowledge shared during this residency, has brought the photographs into a new focus. The image of a woman, possibly Isabel Bonus, with knapsack on her back, walking along a track was identified as being at Cleadale, ‘round the corner by the quarry‘. A traditional cottage and byre are identified as ‘Mairi’s house and shed‘.  Dressler when looking at the same photograph pointed at the stone in the foreground and recounted that a previous owner, an old man, ‘always used to always sit on the rock’. For the island resident, the photographs are coded in a different way, moving naturally to the detail such as who currently owns the croft pictured. Sometimes the information that stands out in a local reading is an anomaly in the landscape. For example, it was remarked that it was ‘unusual to have a boat there’, in another photograph.

(t) Detail, 'figure, Miss D probably, on road in Eigg' Ref: 95820.182.185, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery (b) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2016)

(t) Detail, ‘figure, Miss D probably, on road in Eigg’ Ref: 958.20.185, Inverness Museum & Art Gallery (b) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2016)

Both Donaldson and Banks photograph key landmarks on Eigg, in particular An Sgurr, the distinctive pitchstone outcrop, which the highest point of the island; also both photograph other ‘tourist sites’ at the Massacre and Cathedral Caves. Donaldson’s photographs of An Sgurr place it within the context of one of her walks, showing the approach to it from a route than can be traversed across a plateau. Banks chooses to show An Sgurr by placing a woman in scale with ‘the Nose’. Both Donaldson and Banks also separately photograph the loch to be found en route to the Sgurr, known as Loch nam Ban Mora – ‘Loch of the Big Women‘ – where the submerged causeway to the crannog in the middle could only be forged by a race of women of ‘supernatural proportions’. [10] The name refers to the Queen of Moidart’s warrior women, sent to murder St Donnan and his monks on Eigg. Lights from the dead bodies of the monks bewitched the women, leading them up to Loch nam Ban Mora, and luring the women one by one into the water, with all drowning.  Both Donaldson and Banks also photograph the Sheela-na-gig, at Kildonnan Church. Sheela-na-gigs ‘are carvings, often found in churches, which consist of a female displaying, or drawing attention to, her genitals‘. [11] Alasdair Alpin MacGregor also photographed the Sheela-na-gig  on his visit to Eigg.

(t) detail from Violet Banks' photograph album, Royal Commission of Ancient & Historic Monuments Scotland Ref: PA244 (b) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2016)

(t) Detail from Violet Banks’ photograph album, Royal Commission of Ancient & Historic Monuments Scotland Ref: PA244 (b) Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2016)

Donaldson’s work in particular has very much been given its place in Eigg, represented in (photo)copies of her work held in the photographic collection at Eigg History Society Archive and in Dressler’s writing on Eigg. Donaldson’s photographs can be found framed in the Galmisdale Café and Bar. This archive gives the unique opportunity to view Donaldson’s work alongside other vernacular historic photography collections, amassed from photographs by islanders, held over generations, in an ‘Awards for All’ project led by Eigg History Society (Comunn Eachdraidh Eige)  for the Eigg Trust, started in 1997. Taking an example, one of Donaldson’s photographs is captioned by John Telfer Dunbar in ‘Herself‘, a biography, as ‘taking the peats home’ where ‘the woman with a white kerchief tied round her head is described as ‘the embodiment of good nature, health and contentment’. This woman is named in a photocopy of this photograph held in Eigg History Society Archive as Ishbel MacQuarrie [12]. Donaldson photographs MacQuarrie at work, but also her home, which may for Donaldson signify the changing traditional architectural vernacular of the Highlands and Islands. The caption for this photograph in the archive relates to the disappearing history that the architecture represents and an anomaly which may interest the urban readership- ‘Lossit and last black house on island with hipped roof covered in thatch. Note roof of byre next door is upturned boat’. This croft house also features in the islanders’ own photographic collections, in particular the Katie Maclean Collection, with family connections to the MacQuarries, which denotes ‘Donald MacQuarrie, wife Mary, children and Ishbel MacQuarrie lived here’. Ishbel MacQuarrie is photographed here as she is a relative who is part of a family. Therefore, the photograph was taken with different reasons- to record the actual person and her significance to the related photographer. The Eigg History Society photographic archive provides a significant collection for study of local history and how islanders documented themselves and their surroundings.

MEM Donaldson's photograph of Ishbel MacQuarrie features on the cover of Camille Dressler's book 'Eigg, The Story of an Island'

MEM Donaldson’s photograph of Ishbel MacQuarrie features on the cover of Camille Dressler’s book ‘Eigg, The Story of an Island’

In 1935, Violet Banks established her own commercial photography studio in Edinburgh. Lucy Conway organized for me to speak about Donaldson and Banks with the Eigg History Society. At the event Camille Dressler identified that three of Banks’ photographs of Eigg, that appear in her photograph albums held by RCAHMS, are also held as facsimiles of postcards in the archive. The copies show images of Laig Bay, the Sgurr and a view of Eigg from the Isle of Muck, all bearing the credit ‘Photo: Violet Banks‘. This provides another use of Banks’ images, for commercial purposes, and another line of enquiry to follow up, in looking for the original postcards.

'View of Eigg from Muck, Photo: Violet Banks', photocopy of postcard, Eigg History Society

‘View of Eigg from Muck, Photo: Violet Banks’, photocopy of postcard, Eigg History Society


[1] Veronica Fraser, an archivist at Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland writes about Banks’ life in ‘Vernacular Buildings‘:

Violet Banks (1986-1985) was born near Kinghorn, Fife and educated at Craigmont, Edinburgh, and at ECA (Edinburgh College of Art). In 1927 she was senior arts mistress at St. Oran’s, a private school at Drummond Place, Edinburgh‘.Banks’ photographs of the Hebrides, Fraser recounts, were discovered by John Dixon of Georgian Antiques, in a drawer in a sideboard that had been part of a furniture purchase and then gifted to RCAHMS to become The Violet Banks Collection. P67-78, ‘Vernacular Building 32′, Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group 2008-2009) ISSN:0267-3088.

[2] ‘Eigg The Story of an Island‘, Camille Dressler (Birlinn Ltd 2007, 3rd edition)

[3] ‘The Walking Library’ for Bothan Shuibhne, Isle of Eigg, is a project by Dee Heddon and Misha Myers, with this particular iteration in 2013. The ‘Walking Library’s‘ aim is to bring together books on walking and its contemplation, and is a collective gathering of book recommendations from those that accompany Heddon and Myers on a walk, in this instance from Carbeth Community Huts to the Walled Garden, with Sweeney’s Bothy in mind.

[4] P.104, ‘Eigg, The Story of an Island’, Dressler, C.

[5]’The Geology of Eigg‘, John D Hudson, Angus D Miller and Ann Allwright, Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, (2014, Second Edition) is part of the ‘Waking Library’ at Sweeney’s Bothy and accounts for the rock formations of Eigg.

[6] P.45, ‘Herself and Green Maria: the photography of M.E.M. Donaldson’, Cheape, H, ‘Studies in Photography’ (2006)

[7] P.50, ‘Eigg, The Story of an Island‘, Dressler, C, (2007, Birlinn Ltd, 3rd Edition)

[8] P.7, ‘Eigg, The Story of an Island’, Dressler, C, (2007, Birlinn Ltd, 3rd Edition)

[9] P.45, ‘Herself and Green Maria: the photography of M.E.M. Donaldson’, Cheape, H, ‘Studies in Photography’ (2006)

[10] P.4, ‘Eigg, The Story of an Island’, Dressler, C, (2007, Birlinn Ltd, 3rd Edition)

[11] P.98, ‘The Small Isles, Canna, Rum, Eigg & Muck’, Rixson, D, (2011, Birlinn Ltd, 2nd edition). Copy in Sweeney’s Bothy’s Walking Library.

[12] Donaldson’s photograph of Ishbel MacQuarrie ‘gathering the peats’ is also the cover image of Dressler’s ‘Eigg, The Story of an Island’.

With thanks to: The Bothy Project, Lucy Conway & Eddie Scott, Eigg Historic Society, Camille Dressler.

Sweeney's Bothy, Isle of Eigg, The Bothy Project Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2016)

Sweeney’s Bothy, Isle of Eigg, The Bothy Project Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2016)