Many Stornoway families treasure photographs depicting their Victorian and Edwardian ancestors, attired in their Sunday best. These sepia portraits, usually in the small format of cartes de visite, are often stamped on the border or on the reverse, ‘W. Macleod, Stornoway’. Sadly, numerous sitters – like most of those illustrated here – are unidentified.
William Macleod (1833-99) was born in Stornoway. His father, Donald, was a joiner on Keith Street, and William – the eldest son – began his working life as a painter and sign-writer. A glimpse into the experience that was to change his life is found in a letter written on 24 February 1858 by Georgina Russell (née Gerrie) to her sister Christina (then staying with their brother William in Canada). Georgina wrote:
Wm McLeod the Painter has begun to take Photographic likenesses. Their (sic) was a Photographer here in the summer time, that he got lessons from, and when he went away McLeod bought his instruments – he takes them very well. When the weather gets a little finer I will go and get the children and myself taken (before I get crosser or older).
Georgina never did grow old: she died aged 35 in 1867.
Sometimes we can only guess who the sitters might be in old photographs. The group below could well be Matthew and Georgina Russell with their family, but if this is correct the image must post-date her letter (above) by two years. It could have been taken in early spring 1860, when the Russell children were: Matthew (7), William (5), James (3) and Margaret (born December 1859). Despite Georgina’s intention of visiting William Macleod, the photographer is unnamed. His approach was rudimentary. As well as leaving an object (possibly a lighting stand) in the picture, he took few pains with the setting, and certainly didn’t flatter his clients!
William Macleod was not the only photographer working in Stornoway around this time. The photograph below was taken by William Macdonald: probably the 39-year old photographer from Nairn who was listed as a lodger at 18 Cromwell Street in 1871. The floor covering resembles that in the group photograph above, suggesting that both were taken by Macdonald. He may have worked in Stornoway for several years.
William Macleod set up as a photographer at a remarkably early date, just four years after the carte de visite had been patented, and two years before it was popularised. He continued to work as a painter after 1858, giving his occupation in census returns as ‘house painter’ or ‘house painter and photographer’. His studio moved from 17 Keith Street (in 1861), to 20 Keith Street (by 1871), and later to 34 Keith Street (by 1891; site of Telephone Exchange).
After Macleod’s death the family moved to 3 Kenneth Street, then to 1 Matheson Road. The studio at 34 Keith Street appears to have been taken over by J. W. Jarrett. One undated group photograph by Jarrett is in the author’s possession, and in 1907 Jarrett advertised for a ‘lady assistant’ for his Stornoway studio (Dundee Courier, 2 September 1907, 1): ‘Good Retouching Essential. Apply, with Photo of Self and Specimens’.
If we look closely at William Macleod’s photographs, it is evident that the studio backdrop and props seldom changed. The gothic scenery, long curtain and distinctive fringed chair which recur in several of the photographs published here probably show the studio at 20 Keith Street in the 1860s, 70s and 80s. Since Macleod was a painter, it is possible that he painted the backdrops himself. Further research could establish a more refined chronology, based on studio props and Stornoway fashions, to help people date these photographs.
William and his wife Jane had a large family. Their youngest son, William (b. 1883), studied photography in London before returning to Stornoway to pursue his profession. The photographs he took in the years leading up to the Great War were more natural than his father’s studio shots, sometimes using outdoor settings. William junior fought with the Seaforth Highlanders during the War and was killed near Arras in May 1917.
Finally, here is one photograph, taken by William Macleod senior towards the end of his working life, of identified sitters. It depicts the Morrison family, possibly shortly after the eldest boy, Alexander (Alick), drowned at sea in 1890. They are, back row left to right, Charles McEwing Morrison, Margaret Ann Morrison (Maggie Ann), Matthew George Morrison, James Hodgins Morrison (Jamesie), and seated left to right, Charles Morrison, Georgina Gerrie Morrison (Gina), John Robert Morrison (Jack) and Christina Morrison (née Gerrie). Other family groups of the late 1880s/ early 1890s show the same studio background, presumably at 34 Keith Street.
Thanks for this interesting story. An ancestor of mine (who lived in Keith St) sent a portrait by William McLeod to grandchildren in New Zealand and the USA, who of course she never met.
Thank you for this article! My mother’s cousin passed recently and at her memorial, my sister and mum found a W. MacLeod portrait of a woman – unfortunately there’s no information on who the sitter is, but knowing who took it is a very interesting first step!