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M.E.M. Donaldson

M.E.M. Donaldson was an author and technically accomplished photographer who documented the people and the west highland way of life during the first half of the twentieth century.

Mary Ethel Muir Donaldson was born in Croydon, London in 1876 in to a wealthy and fiercely Presbyterian family. She was educated "privately and by self" and as a young woman she sought out quiet and remote places in which to study natural history. By her twenties and with the freedom of independent wealth she was spending several months of each year "tramping around in the Highlands." She was particularly drawn to the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, the most westerly point on mainland United Kingdom. In 1927 she moved there to the village of Sanna where she had built a large house 'Sanna Bheag', lit by electricity from her personal hydro-electric power station.

The Photographer

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M.E.M. Donaldson and 'Green Maria'.

© National Museums Scotland. Licensor www.scran.ac.uk
M.E.M. Donaldson and 'Green Maria'.

© National Museums Scotland.
Licensor www.scran.ac.uk

As a photographer M.E.M. Donaldson specialised in topographical scenes and portraits. She not only studied the composition of photographs but also chemistry and optics, allowing her to process her own glass negatives, prints and enlargements in her darkroom at 'Sanna Bheag'. Her house also contained a workshop in which she modified and improved her photographic equipment.

She travelled extensively throughout the northern and western highlands wearing her distinctive clothes. These were made for her and to her own specifications to ease mobility over rough and rocky terrain whilst remaining resistant to the Highland weather and presumably midges. On her travels, often on foot but occasionally by horse-drawn transport, she would be accompanied by 'Green Maria'. This was a green leather-covered wheeled wooden box consisting of two compartments. The first contained her "half-plate camera, six slides, two lenses etc." The other compartment held photographic plates, maps, kettle, provisions and her "night and toilet requirements."

Her sensitive and beautifully composed portraits captured many aspects of crofting life on Ardnamurchan and further afield on Skye and are technically excellent. Many of these can be seen on-line, see the more information section below.

The Author

Between 1912 and 1949 M.E.M.D. as she referred to herself, penned nine books. Early works included; 'The isles of flame, a Romance of the Inner Hebrides in the Days of Columba' (1913), 'Tonal Mactonal' (1919) - a satirical look at the highland character - and 'Islesmen of Bride, Native Life in the Hebrides' (1922). The covers were designed by her good friend, companion, painter and illustrator Isabel Bonus.

'Wanderings in the Western Highlands and Islands' (1923) and 'Further Wanderings, Mainly in Argyll' (1926) are two of her most popular works. These were illustrated with her own photographs and drawings, again by Isabel Bonus.

M.E.M. Donaldson is perhaps best known today for her 1935 book 'Scotland's Suppressed History: Talks on Scottish Church history for young people, etc.', dealing with the religious history of the country. She returned to religion for her final book 'Till Scotland Melts in Flame' in which, remembering her own upbringing, she is particularly critical of Presbyterianism.

In 1947 her Sanna home was inexplicably gutted by fire and aged 71 she moved to Edinburgh where she remained until she died in a nursing home in 1958. Her funeral was held at St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh but she was buried on the north west coast that she loved at Oban.

More information

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In 1979 John Telfer Dunbar, an archaeologist and costume historian, published a biography entitled 'Herself, the life and photographs of M.E.M. Donaldson'. He collected over 1,000 of her photographs covering the period 1900 to 1930 and upon his death donated them to Inverness Museum and most can be viewed on the excellent Am Baile website.

The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland Scran website also contains a small but high-quality selection of M.E.M. Donaldson's photographs. Be aware though that you will need an account or personal subscription to access these images.

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