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19 Dec 2022
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DONALDSON, Mary Ethel Muir (M.E.M.), born Norwood, Surrey, 19 May 1876, died Edinburgh 17 Jan 1958. Author and photographer. Daughter of Mary Isabella Muir and Alexander Donaldson.

Daughter of an emigrant Scot who had moved from Adelaide to England, M.E.M. Donaldson probably derived the means to research and write six substantial books from family connections with the Donaldson Shipping Line. In Scottish Biographies, she described herself as 'author and lecturer' and was often in demand for her illustrated topographical and historical talks.

M.E.M. Donaldson was a pioneer in the expanding field of photography. With bulky plate camera, heavy tripod and equipment, from about 1905 she explored remoter parts of western Inverness-shire and north Argyll, areas largely ignored by travellers and writers. The territory had been dominated by a cadet branch of Clan Donald, and she rationalised her interest as a return to her ancestral land. She was also attracted by the religious affinities of western Inverness-shire, with its strong relict Roman Catholicism and Episcopalianism. She denounced her adopted country's Presbyterianism in her outspoken critique, Scotland's Suppressed History (1935). Her remarkable and sensitive photographic studies depicted what she saw as disappearing aspects of life and subjects rarely photographed. Her work is remarkable for its aesthetic qualities, its engagement with its topics, and as surviving documentation of west Highland life in the early 20th century. Some books were illustrated by her life-long friend and travelling companion, Isabel Bonus, but according to Wanderings in the Western Highlands (1921), watercolour became too expensive. However, photography was already integral to her work, since she selected from 900 negatives to illustrate the book, while apologising for some loss of quality in reproduction.

In 1925, M.E.M. Donaldson built at Sanna in Ardnamurchan a house constructed of local materials: it demonstrated imaginatively how new buildings could harmonise with a landscape which she saw as becoming disfigured with abominable structures of alien materials. In 1935, she sold up and left Sanna for Somerset and later Edinburgh; some disenchantment is evident in surviving unpublished writings (NMS: MS 1979.23). Over 1,000 glass-plate negatives are in Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. Another 123 went to the NMS after being used in the affectionate tribute, 'Herself' (1979). HC

NMS: MS 1979.23, Typescript, unpublished 'The building of our home in the Highlands – And much else besides'.

Donaldson, M.E.M., Works as above, and (1919) Tonal Mactonal, (1926) Further Wanderings – mainly in Argyll, (1949) 'Till Scotland Melts in Flame'.

Dunbar, J.T. (1979) 'Herself': the life and photographs of M.E.M. Donaldson; SB.