‘Herself’ – and Highland spinning

I’ve been a bit grotty – an excess of winter, really – but am now on the mend and distracting myself. Instead of doing something really necessary like – oh, please – housework, this has taken the form of rifling through my bookshelves. I need to do some culling, you see. If I’m to fit any more in.

Every so often you open a book which has lurked on your shelves for a while, and think ‘time for the charity shop’. And then you leaf through it more thoroughly and discover something which makes you change your mind. I’m not entirely sure whether an old book on a Victorian lady photographer will make it back onto my shelves; for one thing, I’m not particularly sympathetic to the subject, M E M Donaldson. But it just might, because of some of her subjects…


(I apologise for the quality; I couldn’t find the shots I wanted online, and had to photograph the book.) Note the sack of fleece behind the spinner, too. I’ve got several of those awaiting attention myself.

M E M Donaldson, photographer and writer, was an interesting character, but I don’t find her particularly appealing. I do find her books (now out of print) flowery, largely unreadable and prejudiced, and her representation of accents uncomfortable: ‘Ta way you wass pulling wass ass peautiful ass efer I did see before anywhere whatefer!‘ She was fascinated by Scottish religious history, and from a quite dogmatic point of view; she was deeply proud of her clan affiliations whereas I’m too cynical about the clearances (and many other things) to have any faith in the mystic power of a clan chief or crest; and she had a great hankering for the ‘king over the water’ – anathema to my rebel heart.

MEM and green mariaBut she was quite a rebel herself, in her way. For one thing, she spent her life with her – now, let’s see, how is she described? – her ‘friend and companion’, Isabel Bonus. For another, she was undoubtedly intrepid for her time and social class, taking off and dragging her photographic equipment behind her over hill and down dale in a trolley contraption she created and named the ‘Green Maria’. And, in an early foretaste of current trends, she created her own Grand Design: the home she built on the Ardnamurchan peninsula in the late 1920s (it burned down twenty years later).

Born in London – more accurately, in Croydon (I know, I know – would she have been so romantic about the Highlands if she’d been brought up there?) – to a wealthy Presbyterian family in 1876, she died in Edinburgh as recently as 1958. This shocked me slightly, as her photographs seem to belong to a much older world.

They are undoubtedly posed, but they still give a vivid impression of rural life in the early years of the twentieth century, and I am convinced that most male photographers would not have been as interested in domestic minutiae and specifically in the preparation of fibre, from carding and spinning to winding wool and knitting.


Knitters do crop up in early photographs, and quite regularly – think Frank Meadow Sutcliffe on the north Yorkshire coast, or the many photographers of Shetland life – and so, not quite so often, do spinners. Donaldson photographed both.


(I do like the little girl playing with the fibre in this shot from ‘about 1905’, engrossed in what her grandmother is doing on her Saxony wheel.)

But ‘herself’, as Donaldson was sometimes known, also bothered to take a photograph of someone carding:


and, a considerably later stage in the process, of the same woman winding wool on a crois thachrais, a winder with revolving arms for holding the skein set on a three-legged stand. A very similar wool winder is illustrated in L F Grant’s Highland Folk Ways, where it is described as ‘primitive’, but then the base does seem to be an old tree stump. If it works, it works:

wool winding

and I’m fascinated by it, as it so clearly almost exactly the same as the one in Grant’s book. The skein is held in place by angled pegs and I’d assumed they would hold it taut, but that doesn’t seem to be necessary. Perhaps because the pegs are so long?

The ultimate posed photo, though, added dyeing to the mix and involved the whole family:


Grandma spinning, aided by the ubiquitous curious child; mother, knitting behind her; and the other children, incongruously dressed in their very best clothes, gathered around a ‘dye tub’. It’s not very big, and that’s backed up by Grant in her Highland Folk Ways. She states that it was usual for the raw wool to be dyed, rather than the finished fabric, and speculates that one of the reasons for the popularity of checked fabric was the relative smallness of the dye tubs. It would be impossible to match large quantities of colours precisely, and in a checked fabric an accurate colour match is not essential.

What was in the dye tub in the photograph, I wonder? Crotal, the rock lichen which gives a reddish brown? Peat soot, boiled in a bag and ‘much used for olive brown’? Alas, Donaldon’s interest didn’t extend to investigating that – or maybe the shot was so posed that there was nothing whatsoever in the tub. Perhaps the children’s Sunday best was under no threat at all…

So does the book go back on the shelf? I’m still not sure…


16 thoughts on “‘Herself’ – and Highland spinning

      1. grackleandsun

        I think that particular crossover from the late 1800s to the 1950s is a strange one—so very, very much happened and was invented in that time. It would be like being born in one world and dying in another.

        1. kate Post author

          My grandfather used to say almost exactly that. Two of his sisters were killed in the first ever fatal car crash in their area, and he lived to see people get bored with moon landings and blasé with computers in the home. An extraordinary period… and not exactly a restful one in European history, either.

  1. Lindsay

    Goodness me – a blast from the past. I grew up knowing MEM’s Ardnamurchan home (from the outside, and once re-built) and have (or had) somewhere a book of her pictures from there but didn’t know of all these textile photographs. Don’t let it go to the charity shop – lots of us probably want it if you tire of it!

    1. kate Post author

      Oh wow – I don’t know Ardnamurchan at all well (much further north, yes). So many of her photos are landscapes, or document the house; I don’t think these (alas) are entirely typical….

  2. karibu57

    Sorry to hear you have been unwell and hope all is well now 🙂 Fascinating post as always and I think you should put back on shelf, even if it’s just for the photos. Hugs from the North

    1. kate Post author

      All definitely improving at long last! Yes, I think she’s staying on the shelves. I’ll have to find some other stuff to recycle!

  3. knitsofacto

    Yes, back to the shelf … you’d regret parting with these images!

    Another thing to bear in mind about early lady photographers … working in a darkroom with quite toxic chemicals was not considered at all a ladylike pursuit.

    1. kate Post author

      I hadn’t thought of that aspect – of course you’re right. I don’t think MEMD would have given that a second thought – not one for being ladylike, as far as you can tell…


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