Taken from
Issue Number 81 Spring 2017

Preservation Island, Bass Straight, Australia. Mark McKenna.


Thomas Telford and his Kintyre connections

A recently published biography, Man of Iron: Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain (Bloomsbury. 448 pp., 25£) should be of interest to certain families in Kintyre which can claim kinship with Telford. He was born in 1757 in the upland parish of Westerkirk in Dumfriesshire. His father, John Telford, died soon after Thomas's birth, and he was raised by his mother, Janet Jackson.

She belonged to the same Jackson family which arrived in Kintyre in 1855: George Jackson, a 23-year-old shepherd, born in Westerkirk; his wife, Ann Caiman (21), born in Brydekirk, Dumfriesshire, and baby daughter, Mary, born in Eskdalemuir. In the Southend Census of 1861, the Jacksons were in 'Srone', near the Mull of Kintyre, with five additional children and George's brother John, an 18-year-old shepherd, born, like George, in Westerkirk.

The Jackson genes in Kintyre are extensive, though the Jackson name itself - relative to that family - has died out. Those local families descended from George Jackson include Blair, Clark and McKendrick.

The great engineer himself, whose multitudinous and diverse achievements include the Menai Suspension Bridge in Wales and the Caledonian Canal, worked as a shepherd boy and then as an apprentice stonemason, before, in 1782, he went to London to seek the fame and fortune, which, by a potent mix of talent and ambition, he gained. He died in 1834, in London, before his kinsman George Jackson set foot in Kintyre; but Telford had been to Kintyre ... just. In the early 19th century, he supervised harbour improvements at Tarbert.

William McTaggart's Siblings
Angus Martin

I make no apology for returning once again to the painter William McTaggart in the pages of this Magazine, for he is, I believe, the greatest of the many natives of Kintyre who have distinguished themselves in commerce, science and the arts; a genius who emerged from unpromising origins to become famous in his lifetime, and whose work remains, more than a century after his death, an immoveable pillar in the pantheon of Scottish Art.

This time, however, the focus is rather different. It occurred to me that little had been published on his siblings, and this study aims to address that deficiency. If I imagined, at the outset, that I might uncover, among these siblings, hitherto unrecognised distinction, I was mistaken. His brother Duncan's obituarist in 1899 referred to the five brothers' all being 'noted for their intellectual powers', but of that claim there is no particular evidence. Certainly, all four of William's brothers did well for themselves socially and professionally, though the sisters, whatever their intellectual or creative attributes, appear to have con formed to the restrictions of their social 'class': domestic service and then marriage.

It is noteworthy that all seven McTaggart children left Kintyre, and that only one, Archibald, who had no children, returned, so there are no direct descendants there, though the broader family is represented, in genes if not in name. The parents, Dugald and Barbara, themselves moved, in 1860, to Glasgow, where Dugald would die in the following year (Barbara would return to Campbeltown and die there in 1884).

For many years I have wondered how the various MacTaggart families in Kintyre might connect with one another; I am now researching the question, for a future article, and will welcome any information.

For assistance with this article, I am indebted to my wife Judy for internet research and to Murdo MacDonald for documentary research in Lochgilphead. 'Caw', 'Errington' and 'Kvaerne', cited in the text, are the main authors on William McTaggart, and their bibliographical details can be found in Dr Eleanor MacDougall's 'Main Sources' on p 17 of the article following this.

Duncan (1831-99)

Duncan, the eldest child of Dugald McTaggart and Barbara Brolachan, was born on 27/4/1831 - just over a year after his parents' marriage, on 4/4/1830 and baptised seven days later. His birthplace is not stated, but may be assumed to have been Aros, a farm west of Campbeltown, in the Laggan of Kintyre. By the census of 1841, Dugald and his family were in town, and Aros was without a resident tenant-farmer, just three agricultural labourers with their families, comprising 20 individuals in total, living on the farm.

In that census, Dugald and family were in School Lane, which appears to have led off Argyll Street towards Fleming's Land on the Castlehill. Duncan appears in that record, aged 10, but 10 years later, in 1851, when the family was in Main Street, he is absent, perhaps living elsewhere and plying his trade as a tailor, the occupation he followed throughout his life.

He was certainly living in Glasgow in 1859, as a tailor at I Duke Street, when he married Elizabeth Campbell Morrison, a dressmaker at 10 George Street (brother Dugald's address when he married four years later). Duncan described his father as a 'carter' and identified his mother as 'Barbara Brodie'. Elizabeth 's parents were James Morrison, 'land steward', and Margaret Buchanan. The witnesses were 'W. McTaggart', presumably the artist, and Isabella Paterson, who also witnessed Dugald's sister Barbara's marriage 10 years later and may have been a relative.

Censuses show that Elizabeth Morrison was born in Kilmichael-Glassary Parish, and that is where the McTaggart family is found in I XX 1, with one Glasgow-born daughter, Margaret (19), a tailor's machinist, and three other children - Dugald (10), James D. (X) and Mary (7) - all born in Lochgilphead. The family was recorded at 20 Church Street, Lochgilphead, but Duncan was absent, visiting his widowed mother at 11 Millknowe Terrace, Campbeltown. There was one other visitor at number 11, Margaret Blair, a 14-year-old 'dressmaker apprentice', born in Greenock. Dugald's mother would die three years later, aged 79, at G1ebe Street, Campbeltown, as 'Barbara Brodie' (Argyllshire Herald, 22/11/1 884), the surname 'Brolachan' being by then unfashionably outlandish.

Of Duncan's time in Lochgilphead, little is known. Murdo MacDonald checked 'Annals of Lochgilphead and Mid Argyll', a series of articles by Archibald Carswell published in the Argyllshire Advertiser in the 1930s, but found only two indirect references. On 23/3/1938, in a piece describing the various sports and games played on village greens, a notable high-jumper Alick McNair was described as 'an apprentice tailor with Mactaggart, tailor (a brother of the well-known Scottish painter) in Argyll Street'; and on 12/10/193X, in a description of the shops and other businesses on the east side of Argyll Street: 'Mactaggart, the tailor, did business here for a time. He was a brother of the well-known and honoured Scottish artist. Many of the local youth passed from Mactaggart's bench to take important places in the world of sartorial experts.'

Duncan McTaggart and his family moved from Lochgilphead to Taynuilt in the mid-1880s. On 9/5/1 XX4, he was granted a feu charter of 994 square yards of ground on the south side of the road to Taynuilt railway station. He had moved there by 31/1/IXX7, when granted a 'Bond I()J' £400 and Disposition in Security' for that ground. (Register of Sasines, Argyll) Presumably the bond was money borrowed to pay for the building of his house, which he would name 'Aros Villa', after his birthplace in Kintyre. The house appears in a postcard of Taynuilt which Murdo MacDonald has seen and comments on thus: 'The front of the house on to the street is built of squared hammer-dressed blocks of grey granite, probably from the Ben Cruachan quarry, and must have provided quite a contrast to the humble thatched houses directly opposite.'

Of William's four brothers, Duncan, remarkably, was the only one given an obituary in the Campbeltown newspapers. He died on 28/9/1899, aged 68, and his obituary - copied from the Oban Times - appeared in the Argyllshire Herald of 14/ I 0/1899. The following is an extract: 'Although never taking any active part in public affairs, Mr MacTaggart was keenly interested in local matters. He was of a kindly and genial disposition, and will be missed by many friends. He is survived by a widow, two sons, and one daughter. Mr MacTaggart's death is the first break in a family of five sons and three daughters. Of his brothers, all noted for their intellectual powers, one is the famous artist, W. MacTaggart, whose pictures are so well-known all over the world.'

The value of his estate, at £ 130 3s 6d, was relatively small, at least compared with those of his brothers. His will was written just a week before his death, and his executor was named as Dugald Archibald McTaggart, 'crofter, Taynuilt', a son. (Calendar of Confirmations & Inventories)

He was buried at Muckairn graveyard, Taynuilt, and his name was the first inscribed on the stone, but successive names and dates are jumbled. He was followed by his wife Elizabeth (died 1/8/1908); a grand-daughter, Barbara Brodie McDonald (17/9/1889); daughter Margaret, wife of Donald McDonald (2/7/1891); daughter Barbara (9/11/1893); son Dugald Archibald (4/8/1934); Donald McDonald (25/9/1936); Duncan McDonald (4/6/1916, in Calais); daughter Mary Elizabeth (7/11/1946, at 'Ardvoiach', Bishopbriggs). Son James McTaggart, eight years old in 1881, is missing from the inscriptions.

Daughter Mary Elizabeth, in 1945, the year before her death, recalled her uncle with affection in a letter to James Caw (9/3): 'I remember visiting an exhibition of Uncle Willie's pictures ... It was like the sun suddenly shining on a dull day What a great thing he did for the world, in leaving behind him such beauty I always think he put a bit of himself into them, and that is what made them so beautiful. It was himself'

Archibald (1833-1907)

Archibald was born on 27/4/1833 and baptised the day at1erwards. In Census 1851, when the McTaggart family was in Main Street, Archibald was described as a 'Grocer's Assistant'. He later joined the Inland Revenue and married Isabella Hunter, who was born in Campbeltown on 14/8/1 845. Her parents were William Hunter Jr., a watchmaker, and Jane Montgomery, both Campbeltown-born, though William's father, a clock-maker, was from Cumbrae. They appear to have been childless.

From Murdo MacDonald's researches, Archibald returned to Campbeltown presumably as an Excise Officer attached to one of the many local distilleries in 1875, when he took the tenancy of a house in High Street. Dalintober. A year later he leased another house, in George Street, still in Dalintober, and remained there until March 1890, when he bought Bayview, Low Askomil (Registers of Voters, Burgh of Campbeltown), a substantial house facing south across Campbeltown Loch. He would die there, in retirement, on 10/5/1907, aged 74. His estate was valued at £3,730 1s 3d, a very substantial sum in modem values.

To my disbelief, no obituary to him appeared in either the Argyllshire Herald or the Campbeltown Courier. He was a native of Kintyre; held a respectable position in town, in connection with the principal industry of the time; had been a resident of Campbeltown from 1875 until his death; and was known to be the artist's brother. When 'William McTaggart R.S.A.', by McTaggart's son-in-law, James L. Caw, was copied into the Argyllshire Herald (1/9/1894) from the August issue of Art Journal, a footnote was attached for the benefit of the readership: 'Mr McTaggart is a Campbeltonian and brother to Archibald McTaggart, Askomil Walk.'

In all the censuses recording Gaelic speakers in which Archibald appears 1881, 1891 and 1901 - he evidently denied knowledge of the language, which is remarkable, because he shared an upbringing with William, his brother, and was two years older than him; and William was known to be a fluent Gaelic speaker - see, e.g., p 16. (In The Companion to Scottish Gaelic, published in 1983, the editor, Derick R. Thomson, writes three lines about McTaggart, and Duncan Macmillan, under 'Gaelic art in modern times', specifically states, in the 20 lines devoted to McTaggart, that 'he was not a Gaelic speaker'.) There were, however, at that time, issues surrounding Gaelic and its perceived social worth. Archibald, who had climbed the social ladder to a comfortable middle-class perch in a community from which Gaelic was fast disappearing, may have let the language go and considered the question personally irrelevant.

Dugald (1838-1909)

Dugald was born on 10/4/1838 and baptised two days later. His birthplace in the parish register is given as 'Aros', which, as far as I can ascertain, is the only contemporaneous mention of the place in connection with the McTaggart family, apart from Dugald Senior's identification as an illicit whisky-distiller at 'Arus' in an earlier document. (A. Martin, Kintyre Country Lifee, p 194)

Dugald's birth at Aros in 1838 means that an assumption about the family's movements in the late 1830s should be revised. Errington (p 15), followed by Kvaerne (p 17), considered it 'likely' that Dugald McTaggart Snr., who was at Aros as a cottar - i.e. .. a smallholder without a lease - moved to the flush, between Campbeltown and Stewarton, when the farmer at Aros, Donald Maclean, gave up his tenancy in 1836. Dugald was supposed to have built a 'cottage' at the Flush 'with his own hands' (Kvaerne. p 17), but, if he did, he got little use of it, because by 1841, three years after young Dugald's birth, the McTaggart f~l1nily was resident in Campbeltown.

In the 1851 Census, Dugald Jnr., at the age of 13, is an apprentice tailor, the occupation he, like his brother Duncan, would pursue and turn into a self managed business. There were, in the mid-19th century, at least three McTaggart tailors/clothiers in Campbeltown - Edward, Malcolm, and John - and it is tempting to speculate on the exploitation of family connections in securing apprenticeships for Dugald's sons; but the genealogies of the MacTaggart families in South Kintyre must form a later project.

He married Margaret Abercrombie Johnston within the Established Church on 20/3/1863 in Glasgow. He was a 'journeyman tailor' living at 10 George Street, the address Elizabeth Morrison gave when she married his brother Duncan four years previously. Margaret gave her age as 20, was also living in Glasgow, and her parents were James Johnston, 'master tailor' - another tailor! - and Jane Glass. Dugald described his father as a farmer and his mother was 'Brodie' rather than Brolachan. The witnesses were W. McTaggart, presumably the bridegroom's brother, and Jane Johnston, presumably the bride's sister.

In the 1881 Census, 'Dougal', tailor and clothier, was in 96 Thistle Street, Glasgow, with his Dundee-born wife and nine children, all born in Glasgow: Dougal (17), tailor; Jane G. (15); William (13), office boy; Margaret A. J. (11); Barbara B. (9); Mary M. (7); Catherine J. (5); Grace H.T. (2); James (2 months). Dugald, who predeceased his wife, died, aged 71, on 19/9/1909 at 13 Temple Gardens, New Kilpatrick, Dumbarton, from senile decay and cardiac failure. His father was again a farmer. Dugald's death was registered by his daughter Barbara Brodie McTaggart, who, incidentally, was married to my wife Judy's great-great-uncle, William Nicol, a tailor and clothier in Hamilton.

William in 1853 painted a portrait of Dugald, which is reproduced in Kvaerne, p 23. It is a dark study in which Dugald, hands clasped over the knee of a crossed leg, resembles nothing less than a handsome swarthy Spaniard. Two letters from Dugald to William, undated, but belonging to the 1850s, touch on the poverty of the painter's family which he had left behind in Campbeltown. In the earlier letter Dugald enthuses: 'I was quite proud to hear of your sucksess - I think it was the first Paper I saw father Reading he was reading about the same spot always - you may guess what he was reading ... They were going to sell father's horse to pay the Roadmoney he is owin abought £2-15s he got them Peacsified for a litel.' In another letter, probably from 11\59, Dugald mentions his 'father's cough' and appeals for money to pay three months' rent arrears. William sent his family £6. (Kvaerne, p 32)

Barbara (c. 1840-).

Curiously, no record has been found for either Barbara's baptism or death, but she appears in the first national census aged four months and was therefore probably born at the end of 11\40 in School Lane, Campbeltown. Ten years later, when the family was living in Main Street, she was a 'scholar'. Whatever the duration of her education, at a time when the schooling of children was still a voluntary arrangement, she left school literate, for in 1860, when preparing to leave Campbeltown for domestic service in Glasgow, she wrote an appeal to her brother William for financial assistance: 'I was wishing you would send me what would help me to get a cloth c10ack to me before I would go away.' (Errington 1989, p 20) In that same year, she went through to Edinburgh and stayed with McTaggart for several weeks while he finished his painting The Wreck of the Hesperus, for which she was the model for the captain's dead daughter, lashed to a mast among the wreckage on the shore. (Caw 1917, p 33)

In 1861 she was at 220 Dumbarton Road, Glasgow, as a domestic servant to John Young and his wife Jessie. Young was a plumber and brass-founder and employed 14 men and eight boys in his business.

In 1869, she was living in Market Street, Greenock, when she married Samuel Orr, also in Greenock. He gave his age as 24 and she claimed to be 25, but was actually 28. In describing her father Dugald as a 'farmer', she committed another little deception, of which most of her siblings were also guilty. Singularly among her siblings, however, she gave her mother's name as Barbara 'Brolochan', using the Gaelic form which ultimately mutated into 'Brodie'. Samuel, who was unable to sign his name, worked as a 'sugar boiler'; Greenock was, of course, a centre of sugar-refining in Scotland. Their Free Church marriage in Glasgow was witnessed by Isabella Paterson and Charles Thomson.

In Census 1881, she was still in Greenock, at 43 Holmscroft Street, with her husband Samuel, described as 'sugarhouse labourer', born in Ireland, and two sons, Samuel Orr (7) and William Orr (2), both born in Greenock.

John (1843-1916)

The youngest of William's brothers, he was born on 20/10/1843 and baptised nine days later. He appears as a seven-year-old 'scholar' in the 1851 Campbeltown Census. In his brother Duncan's obituary, he is described as holding 'a position of great trust with Messrs Fisher and Bowie', painters in Glasgow, and he was a pall-bearer at his brother William's burial in Echo Bank (now Newington) Cemetery, Edinburgh, in 1910. (Argyllshire Herald, 9/4/1910) He was the last McTaggart brother when he died on 23/1/1916.

The 'position of great trust' quoted above was as cashier with C. T. Bowie, Fisher & Company. This was a firm of painters, but of an 'up-market' kind, and it is tempting to speculate if John's employment with the firm owed something to the influence, direct or indirect, of his famous brother. The business was established c. 1850 by an artist, Campbell Tait Bowie, who was joined some ten years later by a master house-painter, Daniel Fisher. The firm was based at 26 Bothwell Street, Glasgow, and executed a broad range of commissions, from city centre department stores to churches.

He married Mary McKim, a 'housekeeper', on 23/6/1871 in Glasgow, within the United Presbyterian Church. Both had Glasgow addresses (his was 15 Salisbury Street). He described himself as a 'painter's clerk', gave his father's occupation as 'farmer' and identified his mother as 'Barbara Brodie'. His wife's parents were Thomas McKim and Jessie Blair, and the witnesses were Archibald McTaggart, his brother, and Maggie McKim.

In the 1881 Census, John was living at 5 Elgin Place, Pollokshaws, Glasgow, with Glasgow-born Mary. He was described as a 'clerk to house painter' and there were no children recorded. At the time of his death, he lived at 'Carlton', 8 Campbell Street, Helensburgh, but he died - as a 'mercantile clerk' - at 194 Renfrew Street, Glasgow, described as a 'nursing home'. His death, from 'senile hypertrophy of prostate and cystitis', was registered by a nephew, Daniel Fife, in Renfrew. His estate, valued at £1,993 12s 5d, went to his wife, Mary.

Isabella (1847-1923) and Jean/Jane (1847-1924)

The twin sisters, Isabella and Jean, born on 27/7/1847 and baptised three days later, were the last children of Dugald and Barbara. They were not with the family in Main Street almost four years later, when the 1851 Campbeltown Census was taken, but I found 'Jane McTaggart', aged three and a 'visitor' in the Main Street house of Isabella McMillan, a 70-year-old widow, and her two dressmaker daughters, Janet (34) and Margaret (30). I am certain Jane McTaggart is the twin Jean (of which 'Jane' is an alternative form) and presume she just happened to be with the McMillans when the enumerator called.

But where was Isabella? Ten years on, in the 1861 Census of Campbeltown, a 13-year-old Isabella McTaggart was living at 10 Roading with an aunt, 55-your-our Jean Brodie, an unmarried 'seller of milk' and clearly the sister of Barbara Brolachan or Brodie, Isabella's mother.

Like their older sister Barbara, and many another young female in Scotland, the twins travelled into domestic service. In 1881, both were in Dunbartonshire. Isabella was alone in Rocklee House, 'Row' (Rhu), presumably having been left in charge in her employer's absence. Jane was in Hillside Villa, Old Kilpatrick, as nurse and domestic servant to Robert Assheton Napier - a ship-owner, lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve and scion of a famous engineering family - and his wife and five children.

Jane was married on 26/11/1891 at Jamaica Street, Glasgow, in the Free Church. Her husband was Jacob Cassidy, born in Ireland, a gardener in Pollokshaws, and son of James Cassidy, 'factory machine oiler', and Helen O'Brien. Jane was a domestic servant at Rossdhu Cottage, King Street, Helensburgh, and gave her father Dugald's occupation as 'crofter' and her age as 38: she was actually 44, and there is no evidence of any offspring. The witnesses were John Gilmore and Rosanna West,

In 1901. they were at 35 William Street, Helensburgh. Jacob described his occupation as 'gardener, not domestic', and was an 'employer', so he would appear to have been in business for himself.

Jane died of heart failure on 3/9/1923 in the Victoria Infirmary. Helensburgh. Her address was given as Woodbank Cottage. Helensburgh. Although her husband Jacob was still in life, Jane's death was registered by Mary McTaggart, wife of her brother John. who also lived in Helensburgh.

Isabella married two years after Jane. on 4/12/1893, and her husband, too, was a gardener. Like Jane, consciously or not she made herself younger: 41, when she should have been 46, but unlike Jane she elevated her father's occupation to that of 'farmer'. She and John Foulds wed at Kinning Park Free Church, Glasgow. He gave his age as 51, his address as 478 Pollokshaws Road, Glasgow, and his parents as Robert Foulds, gardener, and Lillian McKim. The name McKim is rare, yet Isabella's brother John's wife was Mary McKim. Was there a family connection between the two women'? Isabella's usual address was stated as 40 Dalziel Drive, Glasgow.

In 1901, Isabella and John were at 33 George Street, Millport, Isle of Cumbrae. He gave his birthplace as Perthshire and he was still working as a gardener. They had a daughter, Lilly, aged six and born in Dunoon. Isabella would have been 48 when Lilly was born; might Lilly have been adopted'?

Isabella died in Glasgow, at 108 Oran Street, Maryhill, on 25/11/1924, a year after her sister. She, too, had heart trouble and the cause of death was 'cardiac failure'.

Neither of the twins is mentioned in any biographical account of William I have seen. These omissions may be attributable to the 15 years which separated them in age - they were just four when he made his big move to study art in Edinburgh - and to the vastly different lives they led, the twins existing modestly in the West and William enjoying fame and its financial rewards in the East. Yet, they must have kept in touch with one another, perhaps more than is now possible to realize. Certainly, when the time came to register Isabella's death, the informant was 'H. H. MacTaggart, nephew, Hillwood, Loanhead, Midlothian'. He was named after his maternal grandfather, Hugh Holmes, and was William's first son by his first wife, Mary Brolochan Holmes, whom he married in 1863. She died in 1884 and William in 1910.

Symbolism in the Work of William McTaggart
Eleanor MacDougall

The work of the artist, William McTaggart (1835-1910), may be divided into several distinct phases. During the 1860s, he produced a series of paintings depicting groups of children in landscape settings. Influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism, these were carefully arranged and poetic studies, linked by a theme of 'childhood innocence, contrasted explicitly or implicitly with the sadness of adult experience'.1 From about 1870, McTaggart turned to an exploration of the lives of fishermen and their families. Here, the work of painters of The Hague School had a significant influence, although the artist also brought his own understanding of boats and the sea to the subject-matter. McTaggart's sea-scenes are marked by a much freer oil-painting technique: through swift expressive brushstrokes, and an increasing emphasis on colour and light, he explored the essential harmony between people and the natural environment. A third phase occurred in the I 890s, when the artist embarked on themes sometimes referred to as 'Celtic'. Paintings from this period include images of emigrant ships leaving Argyll in the nineteenth century, and of St. Columba reaching the coast of Kintyre in the sixth century. Through these images, McTaggart explored both the loss and the value of his own Gaelic inheritance.

Symbolism - here, the use of symbols to express philosophical ideas - had an important role in McTaggart's work. This article traces that symbolism through the three phases outlined above. It focuses particularly on images of Kintyre, where McTaggart was born and brought up, and to which he would return regularly all his life. It demonstrates that, during the course of his career, his use of symbols expressed an increasingly complex understanding of the place of his birth. That understanding was most profoundly conveyed in the canvases of the 1890s.

In 1859, while he was staying in Campbeltown, William McTaggart began work on The Past and the Present (1860),2 a picture of children playing with some bricks in the graveyard at Kilchousland. The painting marked an important transition: not only had the artist abandoned the gloomy sentiment of some of his earlier studies of children, he was also turning away from the traditional Scottish use of brown tones, and using brighter colours. The painting was significant for another reason. In it, McTaggart began to explore the use of symbols. Thus, the ruined church and the graveyard represent the past, while the presence of an old man, seated in the shadow of the wall, hints too at time and mortality. The children, on the other hand, look forward to the future. It is symbolic that they are using the bricks to build something new; and significant too that the older girl pauses in her activity to gaze into the distance, as if in contemplation of life ahead.

Throughout the picture, McTaggart took care to integrate these symbols with the environment around them. The shape of the group of children and the balance between light and shade arc cohesive; and the artist used colour - the rose which appears in the bricks, the children's clothes, and the wall of the church, for example - to draw the various elements together. At an emotional level, too, the still sea and the bright sky correspond to the children's quiet preoccupation.

McTaggart continued to explore this visual and emotional integration in images of children in landscapes. In Spring (1864), for example, in which two girls rest on a grassy bank beside a stream, 'the landscape is more than mere background. The two little girls are in the landscape, they are in tune with if.3 Certain symbols - the sheep grazing and the smoke drifting gently from the chimneys of half-hidden cottages - contribute to this sense of harmony. Other symbols add more complex layers of meaning, however. The older girl's hat, lying abandoned on the grass, suggests the freedom to be enjoyed in involvement with nature. Like the lambs, the flowers which surround the girls represent spring, but also speak of innocence and purity. There are hints too of possible future sadness: the expression on the face of the younger child is pensive; and we know that the wild flowers which her companion has gathered, and on which she gazes so dreamily, will quickly fade.

A further, perhaps more profound, symbolism occurs in The Murmur of the Shell (1867). Here, three children are preoccupied with some shells which they have gathered on the sandy shore. Behind them, a wide, bright sea merges with the sky, intensifying the visual unity of the group - the children are depicted in a combination of dark shadow and bright light, and in more intense colour. Again, a hat lies tossed aside on the sand, symbolising the children's sense of freedom. A single shell, held to the ear of a little child by the older girl beside her, is central to the picture, drawing together both the attention of the children and the sound of the sea. François Barbe-Gall describes', the complexity of this action: 'To listen to the sound of waves in a shell is to reverse the laws of nature, the container (the sea) becoming the contents, and a microcosm becoming the shelter and source of the universe.,4 At the same time, 'the image of someone listening to the sea can be taken as a primary metaphor for childhood and/or purity of spirit, ready to embrace the world in its entirety, without having to take into account the limits of human understanding’.5

McTaggart's Pre-Raphaelite groupings culminated with Dora (1868), which the artist submitted to the Royal Scottish Academy as his diploma work in 1870. The picture was based on a poem of the same title by Alfred Lord Tennyson, in which estranged adults in a family are eventually brought together by the presence of a young and innocent child. Through literary reference, then, the contrast between childhood happiness and the difficulties of adult experience is stated more explicitly; and the group in the foreground comprises a child and a grown-up - the little boy and his mother - rather than a number of children. Although it is an autumn scene - in the background, the boy's grandfather can be glimpsed harvesting com - flowers once again symbolise childhood innocence. This innocence is emphasised by Dora's action: holding her son's discarded hat carefully in one hand, she weaves flowers around the little boy's head with the other.

By the late 1860s, McTaggart had established a pattern of working which he would follow throughout his career: every summer, he would leave his studio and spend several months studying nature at a rural sketching-site. Kintyre would always be a favourite destination, and it had an important role in the change which occurred in his work at around this time. His new interest in the lives of fishermen and their families as subject-matter was prompted by a working visit to Tarbert in 1868, for example; and while he was staying at Kilkivan, near Machrihanish, in 1870, 'the sea ... called him',6 becoming a major preoccupation in its own right.

For at least the next twenty years, the two most important elements in McTaggart's painting would be people and land or seascape, and '[m]uch of his time seems to have been spent in balancing the one with the other'.7 The overt symbolism of the Pre-Raphaelite compositions no longer featured. Indeed, as Lindsay Errington argues, from the early 1870s onwards 'things such as buildings, or any kind of equipment, tools or machinery' were largely absent from McTaggart's scenes.8 There were certain exceptions, however, and - in the work of an artist who clearly reflected on the 'meaning' of symbols - these may be considered significant. Houses can quite often be glimpsed in paintings from this phase: examples include the building on the headland in On the White Sands (1870), and the cottages in The Young Fishers (1876), Corn in the Ear (1887) and The Storm (1890). The artist was still using the motif occasionally as late as the mid-I 890s, as can be seen in Machrihanish, Bay Voyach (1894). Depicted in a few swift brush strokes, these small and distant buildings are not only symbols of an inhabited landscape; they imply that the people who feature in the paintings live and belong in the environment around them.

Items of fishing equipment were also an exception, appearing as they did in realistic images of people working at sea or on the shore. Nets drying on stakes can be glimpsed in On the White Sands and The Storm; and fish-filled baskets form part of the compositional dynamic in several images such as On the White Sands, The Fishers' Landing (1877) and The Bait Gatherers (1879). Boats, however, were the most important example of 'non-human, non-natural material' in McTaggart's sea paintings.9 He depicted them in accurate and realistic detail, and, in many of his images, a boat on the water is 'the link which unites the human organism with the ocean, the wind and the air'.10 Examples of such links can be found in Through Wind and Rain (1875), Fishing in a Ground Swell, Carradale (1883-86) and Dawn at Sea, Homewards (1891).

McTaggart achieved a new unity between people and their environment in Through Wind and Rain, which was started at Tarbert in 1871. In the picture, men steer a brown-sailed skiff through a squally wind. The boat is central to the painting: the angle of the craft emphasises the strength of the gale, as does the close concentration of the crew on board. Behind the skiff, other boats can be glimpsed dimly through the spray, each one leaning at the same angle. The tonal contrast which marked the artist's earlier compositions is less pronounced. The darkness of the sail is repeated in places throughout the painting - in the waves, in the boat itself, and in the sails of the other skiffs; and only the rain.filled sky is light. In addition, the artist used swift, expressive brushstrokes throughout the canvas to draw the various elements together. Thus, sea and sky merge in a hazy horizon, and the men are at one with the boat they handle.

Brushwork was fundamental to McTaggart's search for unity, and he explored it in a number of images in which the sea itself provided the subject-matter. In Machrihanish Bay (1878), for example, long rhythmic lines of paint represent the waves rolling towards the shore and the misty headland which divides the sea from the sky, while lively flecks and splashes of white create a line of foaming, breaking surf. This expressive handling of paint is taken further in The Wave (1881), in which 'the subtle modulations in colour of the underside of the advancing breaker form the whole subject'.11 Throughout the canvas, the paint is applied in long, fluid sweeps of colour. The restriction of tonal contrast was also important to the quest for unity, as can be seen in both paintings. In the first, the headland and a single breaking wave create a narrow band of shadow across a canvas which is otherwise filled with light. The Wave too is painted in a bright key, and the gently advancing wave, poised in the moment before toppling, provides the only darker tone.

McTaggart's son-in-law and biographer, James Caw, recognised something of the symbolic importance of the sea for the artist. 'In [McTaggart's] painting of the sea,' he wrote, 'one has the realisation of his observation "Like an attitude, a breaking wave is a conception".'12 Indeed, the single breaker of The Wave is a profound symbol, conveying both harmony and a sense of anticipation; and the artist would use it again in two versions of Away to the West from 1885 and 1895. In both images, McTaggart depicted figures looking westwards, across the sea towards the setting sun, in the hope of spotting returning boats - in the first version, a smudged sail is just visible on the far horizon, while in the second, two tiny distant vessels can be seen advancing homewards. Across each canvas, like a symbol of relieved tension and hope fulfilled, a single gathering wave begins to break.

At times, during the 1870s, McTaggart would add figures to a sea scene, after the long horizontal lines of paint representing the waves had dried. In

The Bait Gatherers

, for example, glimpses of the sea can be seen through the boy on the right, and across the child in the centre of the group. From the mid- '80s in particular, he began to make greater use of this method. At around the same time, he abandoned shadows almost entirely, in favour of light and colour. Caw suggests that, like the sea, light was of symbolic importance for McTaggart, and also that its significance was linked to his Christian faith: 'His passion for the beauty of light was deep and abiding. To him, as to the Psalmist, it seemed the very garment of God. "It is the most beautiful thing in the world,' I once heard him say. "Why wisdom and knowledge, we call them light. It is light that reveals everything to us.'"

In A Summer Idyll (1884), glimpses of land and sea - themselves merging with each other - can clearly be seen through the fragmented dabs of paint which represent the children. In place of tonal contrast, texture and strong colour predominate throughout the canvas. This method of working is even more apparent in the 1885 version of Away to the West. Here, the sea and the sky are painted in long streaks of bright colour: orange, scarlet, violet and turquoise. The artist used fragmented flecks of the same colour to depict the figures in the foreground, and both they and the rocky shore are almost without depth.

Now, the people in McTaggart's paintings were also of more complex symbolic significance. Increasingly, they were not simply in tune with their environment, but interwoven into its very texture. As children, at least, they were happy. In numerous images, they enjoy the freedom of sea and shore, paddling and swimming (see Bathers, 1886, and Girls Bathing. White Bay, 1890, as examples), fishing from the rocks (Fisher Children, 1876, and Their Native Element, 1882) or playing in the shallows (A Message from the Sea, 1883, and When the Smugglers Came Ashore, 1889). At the same time, McTaggart used images of people to explore two other themes which were important to him. The first was the passage of time. As he had hinted in the Pre-Raphaelite groupings, the happy innocence of childhood was transient. During the '90s in particular, the children in some of his scenes became fragmented and ethereal, appearing as little more, perhaps, than memories on the landscape. In Noontide - Jovie 's Nook (1894), for example (a picture which was painted on the east coast of Scotland), the sultry summer clouds seem more substantial than the two boys who idle on the shore beside their boat, and the sweeping lines of the water and the shore can clearly be seen through both the figures and the vessel. In Bay Voyach, too, sand and sea are visible through the flecks of paint which represent the figures in the foreground. Compared with the rocky headland behind them, these four fair-haired children are insubstantial and almost ghostlike.

The second - and related - theme was the vulnerability of humankind. As one who had been brought up in Kintyre (he lived there until the age of sixteen) and who took an interest in the lives of fishermen and their families, McTaggart understood the realities of working at sea. Despite the freedom enjoyed by children in many of his paintings, he also depicted them helping their parents at a young age - as in Fish from the Boat (1867) and Fishers' Landing (1877) for example - or gaining early experience of boats. In Fishing in a Ground Swell, the skiffs anchored off Port Crannaig are registered fishing vessels - the letters CN (for 'Campbeltown') are clearly visible on the side of the one in the foreground. In each boat, young boys are catching fish with hand lines. While boys were more actively engaged in fishing (see Fisher Children and Sun on the Waters - Fishing from the Rocks at Carradale, 1883, for example, in which girls watch while the boys fish with rods), girls too assumed responsibility at a young age. Even in scenes of play, an older girl is often depicted holding a smaller child - among many examples, see Girls Bathing, A Summer Idyll and Bay Voyach. The sea, despite its benign appearance at times, is depicted as a powerful force in many of these images, with huge breakers rolling on to the shore behind groups of children. Indeed, recognition of the danger of working at sea underlay the apparent serenity of the two versions of Away to the West. This danger was depicted more explicitly in Running for Shelter from 1887, in which boats race for home before a gale, while the woman and children on shore take refuge behind the rocks.

In 1890, McTaggart dealt directly - and dramatically - with the perils faced by fishing communities in The Storm. Storms themselves have symbolic significance in art: 'The storm, transcending human initiative and control, can be a spectacular ... phenomenon, making it a natural metaphor for spontaneous upheaval in the ordinary affairs of life.'13 In the painting, such upheaval is evident: a skiff is in trouble on the stormy turbulent sea, and while a group of tiny figures launch a rowing-boat in order to help, others look out anxiously from a hill above the bay. Throughout the canvas, powerful and expressive brush strokes indicate the strength of the wind and the churning force of the sea. Streaks and splashes of white predominate, but flecks of colour - scarlet, blue, crimson and ochre - can be seen everywhere too. Above the scene, '[a] claustrophobic effect [is] produced by the opaque black-purple cloud closing down like a lid'.14

As was usual now, the figures in the painting are entirely integrated with the environment around them - McTaggart depicted them in the same swift streaks and dabs of colour, so that they are 'nearly lost in the welter of swirling brushstrokes'.15 At the same time, however, these figures are also united with one other, not only by shared danger, but also by their concern for the group as a whole, and by their sense of common purpose. This extraordinary determination and strength of spirit means that 'emotionally their impact is strong out of all proportion to their diminutive size'.16 At the same time that McTaggart used figures to symbolise vulnerability, in other words, he also used them to indicate community cohesion and resilience.

When McTaggart undertook his first emigration painting, Emigrants Leaving the Hebrides, in 1889, he added figures and boats to a seascape which he had begun at Carradale in 1883. In both this picture and the second major canvas in the series, The Emigrants - America (1891-94), people gather on· an indistinct headland to bid farewell to migrants as they set off in skiffs for a ship on the horizon. Many of the same elements appear in both paintings - women looking out to sea, people carrying loads to the waiting boats, an old man clutching an infant, and dogs waiting patiently among the rocks. Interwoven with the texture of land and sea, these fragmented images convey a sense of haste and disruption, both to individual lives and to the community as a whole. This sense was especially evident in the second painting, in which glimpses of bare canvas can be seen between swift, scattered brushstrokes. The colours and the weather are more dramatic in this picture too. Instead of the bright blue of the first Emigrants, McTaggart used streaks of darker blue, scarlet, yellow and white to depict the sea; and the day is one of squally wind, and dark, rapidly changing clouds. The artist also introduced a new motif to the picture - a fragment of rainbow.

The rainbow is, of course, a universal symbol of hope: 'After the storm, the rainbow appears, emblem of promise. So it was in the biblical story of the flood ... and so it has been ever since.' 17 Caw states that the Bible was 'the book [McTaggart] knew and loved best of all', 18 and it is certain that he would have understood the symbol in this way. Glimpsed above the waiting ship, the rainbow represents the fragile hope the emigrants carry with them to their new lives overseas.

The third painting, The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship (1895), is quite different from the first two. The ship departs under sail beneath a stormy sky, and above it, the fragment of rainbow fades - any hope is with the migrants, rather than with those who remain behind. Meanwhile, the skiffs are back at the headland, and most of the people have left. Throughout the canvas, the brush strokes are urgent and restless, and, again, glimpses of bare canvas can be seen between them. Compared with the bright dramatic colour of The Emigrants - America, the paint is chalky and the streaks of purple, rose and lemon are paler. On the shore, the remaining figures - an elderly couple, a young girl holding a baby, and a howling dog - are ethereal and almost transparent, and feelings of separation, loss and loneliness are strong.

Compared with the turbulence and anguish of the emigration paintings, the images of St. Columba are optimistic. In The Coming of St. Columba (1895), the saint and his followers sail towards the Kintyre coast in tiny boats on a bright, sunlit day; and on the hill overlooking the bay, a couple and their child quietly idle time away. The sea and the sky are painted in long, fluid brush strokes and cool, bright colours - blue, white and ochre. Caw noted that McTaggart, when looking at the picture, 'would murmur softly ... "What a day for such a mission"'.19 In the second painting, The Preaching of St. Columba (1897-98), we see the purpose behind the mission: the boats are now drawn up on the sand, and Columba - a tiny, white-clad figure - preaches at the water's edge. There is a celebratory feel to the painting: children play together on the grassy hill, while, below them, their parents listen intently to the word of God.

Clearly, in both the emigration paintings, and the scenes of St. Columba, McTaggart drew on the symbolism he had built up over the preceding decades. In all the images, people are depicted in the same colours and brush strokes as the environment around them, and are thus closely interwoven with land and sea. They are also integrated with one other as a community, especially at times of upheaval or celebration. Indeed, part of the trauma of nineteenth century emigration was that it fragmented families and communities irrevocably - the presence of a little baby in the final emigration painting suggests that the damage would have an impact for generations to come. In all the images, the sea is especially symbolic. In the emigrant paintings, the turbulent waters echo and reflect the upheavals being experienced by both individuals and community. In The Coming of St. Columba (1895), on the other hand, with its sense of 'spring-like expectancy' ,20 McTaggart returned to the long, gently breaking wave as a symbol of hope fulfilled.

As Errington points out, the two series of paintings were closely connected: The Coming of St. Columba and The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship represent respectively 'an arrival, and a departure, both by boat, from the same part of Scotland, though separated by thirteen hundred years of intervening Celtic civilisation'.21 McTaggart himself belonged to this so-called 'Celtic' - more accurately Gaelic - tradition: he was born into a Gaelic-speaking family and as an adult spoke the language 'with the fluency acquired from early use.22 In the emigration paintings, he mourned the damage done to his own culture by nineteenth century depopulation and upheaval; and he celebrated the arrival of that same culture in the images of St. Columba. These two groups of paintings, therefore, while on the one hand filled with complex symbolism, are also significant cultural symbols in their own right.


1. Lindsay Errington, William McTaggart 1835-1910 (Edinburgh: Scottish National Galleries, 1989), p 40.

2. This painting, and most of the others named in this article, can be viewed on the Art UK website at

3. Per Kvaerne, Singing Songs or the Scottish Heart: William McTaggart 1835-1910 (Edinburgh: Atelier, 2007), p 61.

4. François Barbe-Gall, How to understand a painting: Decoding symbols in art (London: Frances Lincoln, 2010), P 97.

5. Ibid.

6. James Lewis Caw, William McTaggart: A Biography and an Appreciation (Glasgow, 1917), p 56.

7. Errington, William McTaggart, p 57.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., p 68.

11. Ibid., p 61.

12. Caw, William McTaggart, p 203.

13. Ami Ronnberg (ed.) The Book or Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. (Köhn:Taschen, 2010), p 66.

14. Errington, William McTaggart, p 82.

15. Ibid., P 76.

16. Ibid.

17. Ronnberg, The Book or Symbols. p 72.

18. Caw, William McTaggart, p 212.

19. Ibid .. p 172.

20. Errington, William McTaggart, p 112.

21. Ibid., p 82.

22. From a speech by J. Macmaster Campbell, sheriff in Campbeltown 1910-39, and reported in Campbe/town Courier, 8/1/1927. I am indebted to Angus Martin for this reference.

Main sources

Barbe-Gall, Françoise. How to understand a painting: Decoding symbols in art (London: Frances Lincoln, 2010).

Caw, James Lewis. William McTaggart: A Biography and an Appreciation (Glasgow, 1917). Errington, Lindsay. William McTaggart 1835-1910 (Edinburgh: Scottish National Galleries, 1989).

Kvaerne, Per. Singing Songs or the Scottish Heart: William McTaggart 1835-1910 (Edinburgh: Atelier, 2007).

Ronnberg, Ami (ed.). The Book or Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. (Köln: Taschen, 2010).

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