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Duncan Macpherson

Few will have heard of the late Duncan Macpherson MPS outside of his adopted home village of Kyle of Lochalsh. It is questionable whether the Isle of Skye would be as popular today if it were not for his 50 years of promoting Skye and Lochalsh through his books and photography.

The Chemist

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Duncan Macpherson at work in his pharmacy in Kyle of Lochalsh.
Duncan Macpherson at work in his pharmacy in Kyle of Lochalsh.

Born in the Aberdeenshire hamlet of Glenquithel on the 24th of May 1882, Duncan was the youngest of five children. He grew up on a farm near the village of Pennan (of 'Local Hero' movie fame) and was educated at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen and at Edinburgh University from where he graduated as a pharmacist. He initially moved south to England working in pharmacies in Warwick, Bath and Wisbech before returned north to the Victorian spa resort town of Strathpeffer. After a period of ill health he arrived in Kyle of Lochalsh one spring afternoon during 1912 "in search of a livelihood, and even more vitally important, seeking after elusive health." As his father Neil originally hailed from Glenelg 6km (4 miles) to the south east of Kyle it is perhaps not too surprising that he felt drawn by the lure of the West.

Duncan opened the Kyle Pharmacy on land at the corner of Station Road and Ferry Road, a location that locally became known as 'Chemist's Corner'. He paid the Highland Railway Company the princely rent of £3 per year. A few years later the Highland Railway was amalgamated in to the London, Midland and Scottish (LMS) Railway and the kindly factor in Inverness was replaced by a "modern Pharaoh" in Glasgow who demanded a rent of £500 per year - a mere 16,000% increase! In one of his books he recalls how he dispatched a representative from Glasgow "in a sentence of three words." His rent remained unchanged.

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Glenquithel', the house that Duncan built. His wife, son and daughter appear in this 1926 Kyle Pharmacy postcard. Permission was granted in 2008 to demolish the house but it remained standing at the end of 2012.
'Glenquithel', the house that Duncan built. His wife, son and daughter appear in this 1926 Kyle Pharmacy postcard. Permission was granted in 2008 to demolish the house but it remained standing at the end of 2012.

Known affectionately as 'The Chemist', he built a house off Church Road, Kyle of Lochalsh that he named 'Glenquithel' after his birthplace. He married local girl Margaret MacIver in April 1916 and they had a son Neil, daughter Mary plus Sally, a cairn terrier.

Kyle Pharmacy thrived at the heart of a steadily growing village, dispensing pharmaceuticals for humans and animals, poisons for pest control, supplies to the local hospitals in Broadford, Portree and Uig, film and chemicals to photographers plus the inevitable sunglasses, shampoos and toothpaste. His shop was conveniently unavoidable for visitors to Kyle of Lochalsh whether they arrived by steamer, rail and road or private yacht. Indeed regular visitors to his pharmacy included the landed gentry and well-heeled members of the hunting, shooting and fishing brigade travelling to and from their highland estates. Reflecting Duncan's sense of humour, for a period during the 1910's the Kyle Pharmacy letterheads carried the crest and grandiose proclamation "by appointment chemist to H. H. The Maharajah Gaekwar of Baroda." Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III owned an estate at Achnashellach near Kyle.

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A 1914 statement of account addressed to the MacKinnon Memorial Hospital at Broadford, Isle of Skye.

Items include six bottles of "Valentines Meat Juice." To quote from their 1933 advertisement "In disturbances of the digestive system, in influenza and other wasting febrile diseases, before and after operations, Valentine's Meat-Juice has been relied upon to stimulate the flagging vital forces."

The postage stamp indicates that Government "stamp duty" has been paid.
A 1914 statement of account addressed to the MacKinnon Memorial Hospital at Broadford. Items include six bottles of "Valentines Meat Juice" Click on the image to find out more.

Other notable visitors to Chemist's Corner included authors Sir Compton Mackenzie, Major Gavin Maxwell and Eric Linklater plus current and future royalty including Mrs. Wallis Simpson, later Duchess of Windsor.

For the best part of fifty years the pharmacy acted as the unofficial tourist information office with Duncan producing a prolific number of guides, booklets and postcards promoting Kyle and Skye. He was a prominent and active member of the local council and did much to promote the development of Kyle and the surrounding area.

His son Neil joined the army and died on 21st May 1944 aged 24 from injuries sustained in an accident at 16th Army Ordnance Depot in Penshurst, Kent. His mother never recovered from his death and became seriously ill. Daughter Mary relinquished her Oxford teaching post to return home to look after her, taking up the position of principal teach of English at nearby Plockton Secondary School. Margaret died in 1949.

Duncan Macpherson found the health that he sought and died aged 84 in 1966.

Mary remained in Kyle near her father, marrying briefly in 1984, and continued to live in 'Glenquithel' until her death in March 2007 at the age of 90.

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A busy "Chemist's Corner" as it appeared on a Kyle Pharmacy postcard. The pharmacy was demolished in 1970 and replaced by the present day Kyle Pharmacy built on the site of the building to the left. The two storey building still stands selling knitted woollen goods.
A busy "Chemist's Corner", Kyle of Lochalsh. The pharmacy was demolished in 1970 and replaced by the present day Kyle Pharmacy built on the site of the building to the left. The two storey building still stands selling knitted woollen goods.

In 1970, after 58 years of proud service to the community, Macpherson's Kyle Pharmacy building at 'Chemist's Corner' was demolished to accommodate road improvements connected with the introduction of larger ferries across to Skye. Today the modern-day Kyle Pharmacy stands across the road from the original site and continues to provide an essential service to a community that has fought hard to reverse the slow decline suffered by the village since the 1995 opening of the Skye Bridge.

As for 'Glenquithel', in 2008 the present owner applied for and was granted permission to demolish the house to build two modern houses in its place.

The Writer

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The 1947 edition of 'Macpherson's Vest Pocket Guide to Kyle of Lochalsh and the Isle of Skye'.
The 1947 edition of 'Macpherson's Vest Pocket Guide to Kyle of Lochalsh and the Isle of Skye'.

The Chemist found time away from his shop and family to compile and publish local information cards for tourists listing bus, steamer and train times and local events. In 1923 he produced a guide to the 'Isles and Peaks of the West'.

During his lifetime Duncan authored three books, each providing a humorous insight in to relaxed way of life and characters found in Skye and Lochalsh during the first half of the 20th Century.

He completed his typed, illustrated and bound manuscript for his first book, 'Gateway to Skye' in 1939 however it was only after he received encouragement from prolific author Phyllis Bottome and the ending of World War II that the book was finally released in 1946. It was subsequently reprinted in 1946, 1947 and 1948. This book established a successful formula based on of recording scenes of everyday life, landscapes and the comings and goings of people, a formula that he followed in his two subsequent books; 'Lure of the West' in 1950 and the autobiographical 'Where I Belong' in 1964, two years before his death.

Whilst his books continue to be enjoyed he is perhaps better known for his immensely popular, annual booklet 'A Vest Pocket Guide to Skye and Lochalsh' published annually for 34 years from 1927 until 1960. This was an early tourist guide that included timetables, accommodation, events, sites of interest, stories and anecdotes, all written in his humorous style. In the 22nd (1954) edition of his Vest Pocket Guide he describes Skye as follows;

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"With best wishes, Duncan Macpherson. Kyle of Lochalsh 5th July 1946."
"With best wishes, Duncan Macpherson. Kyle of Lochalsh 5th July 1946."

"Skye attracts thousands of visitors annually. There are 300 miles of motoring roads, besides numerous pony-tracks and hill-paths which can be negotiated by cyclists. There are bypaths for those who would explore on foot, and mountains which test the skill of the climber."

"Skye has been described as a land of mist and of rain. Yes, but a land of sunshine and cloud. And mighty silences. A Paradise for the artist, it is a haven for the nerve-racked. For here is peace."

Concluding; "But the glory of Skye is in her sunsets. Stand on the mainland, at the Gateway to the Isle, where I have dwelt for many years, and watch the sun go down like a ball of fire behind the Cuillins. See the whole heavens aflame, and the glory reflected in the waters beneath."

"Go where you will. Visit the cities and palaces of the South, or the wonders of the East, Skye will lure you back."

An announcement of the final edition of the Pocket Guide appeared in 'The Sunday Times' national newspaper resulted in Macpherson being deluged by enthusiastic correspondence from around the world.

The Photographer

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"The Cuillins at sunrise, from Kyle of Lochalsh", one of many picture post cards published by Duncan Macpherson and Kyle Pharmacy. This post card has an ethereal quality to it normally associated with infra-red film.
"The Cuillins at sunrise, from Kyle of Lochalsh", one of many picture post cards published by Duncan Macpherson and Kyle Pharmacy.

As a teenager Duncan Macpherson was fascinated by photography. He became a prolific and gifted photographer creating a detailed photographic record of the Highland way of life before the sweeping cultural changes brought about by two World Wars. On his journeys in and around the Skye and Lochalsh area, often accompanied by his family, he would carry his heavy field camera or clockwork driven panoramic camera, capturing unique and enduring images of people and places. Some of his photographs illustrate his three books, others were sent all over the world as part of 'Kyle Pharmacy' picture post card series that ran to over 400 different cards. Postcards from the series appear regularly on eBay in the United Kingdom.

In common with chemists of old, Kyle Pharmacy supplied local photographers with the noxious and toxic chemicals used for developing and printing photographic emulsions in addition to the photography, developing and printing service that Duncan Macpherson provided to locals and tourists.

Ben Attow and the Five Sisters, Loch Duich. Click to enlarge.
"Ben Attow and the Five Sisters, Loch Duich"

Kyle Pharmacy postcard number 56 dates from before 1920.
Skye, Isle of Mist. Click to enlarge.
"Skye, Isle of Mist"

An unidentified steamer, possibly TMSV 'Loch Seaforth', approaches the Railway Pier at Kyle of Lochalsh. Castle Moil is visible in the background. Kyle Pharmacy postcard number 344 dates from the 1920s.
Kyle of Lochalsh and the Cuillins. Click to enlarge.
"Kyle of Lochalsh and the Cuillins"

Kyle Free Church was built in 1902 at the junction of Main Street and Church Road. Church Road is not named after this church the Mission Church built in 1901 out of shot to the left. Also out of shot to the left is Duncan Macpherson's house 'Glenquithel' further down Church Road. The white house to the right one of four built in the 1930s on what is now Kyle Terrace. Originally named Baldwin Terrace, these were the first Council-built houses in Kyle.
Glenelg. Click to enlarge.
"Glenelg"

This postcard of Glenelg village dates from the 1920s.
Over the Sea to Skye from Kyle. Click to enlarge.
"Over the Sea to Skye from Kyle"

Notice the car balanced precariously on the two planks strung across the rear boat. This is being towed across to Kyleakin by the motor launch.
Kyle Bay and Lighthouse. Click to enlarge.
"Kyle Bay and Lighthouse"

The Paddle Steamer 'Glencoe' apporaching the Railway Pier at Kyle. Eilean Bàn lighthouse in the background was built by David and Thomas Stevenson in 1857. The lighthouse was automated in 1960 and the island and cottages were purchased in 1963 by the author and naturalist Gavin Maxwell.
Isle of Skye from Plock of Kyle. Click to enlarge.
"Isle of Skye from Plock of Kyle"

An unidentified steamer off Kyle of Lochalsh.
Badicaul, Kyle of Lochalsh. Click to enlarge.
"Badicaul, Kyle of Lochalsh"

A thatched cottage at Badicaul village on the road to Plockton.
Erbusaig, near Kyle of Lochalsh. Click to enlarge.
"Erbusaig, near Kyle of Lochalsh"

A fine character study of a woman standing outside a thatched cottage. Some of Duncan Macpherson's photographs romanticised highland life. Reality was very different.
Anna Mhor, Balmacara. Click to enlarge.
"Anna Mhor, Balmacara"

This lovely postcard of Anna Mhor at her spinning wheel dates from 1910.

More information

Am Baile logo

A collection of over 1,200 of Duncan Macpherson's negatives, prints, plus Kyle Pharmacy letters, documents and ephemera was donated by his daughter Mary Hudson to the safe hands of The Highland Council Libraries Service. Many photographs and documents can be viewed on-line on the excellent Am Baile website.

The Skye & Lochalsh Archive Centre in Portree holds copies of many of Duncan Macpherson's prints. The public searchroom is open to all, free of charge.

"The Land Where I Belong" by Mary Carmichael

At the end of October 2010 Mary Carmichael, formerly Museums and Heritage Officer for Skye and Lochalsh, released her book "Where I belong - Fifty Years in Focus in the Highlands and Islands: Duncan Macpherson - Photographer and Pharmacist". The title really says it all and it is an enjoyable read, crammed with photographs and informative commentary.

Mary's book may be ordered directly from Amazon.

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