Finlay of Colonsay: Stalker to Campbell of Islay

Robert Adamson (1821 - 1848) was a pioneer photographer whose subjects included Archibald McNeill (1803 - 1870), Sir John McNeill and "Finlay of Colonsay, a deerstalker to Campbell of Islay". There are three images of this Finlay, taken on 17 April 1846. (Was "Campbell of Islay" the same as Sir Archibald Islay Campbell Bt., representing the county as a Conservative, 6 June 1851?) These and other works are in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The portrait of Rt.Hon. Sir John McNeill G.C.B. is dated August 18, 1845.

It must be remembered that the principles of photography were only discovered in 1839, and yet within four years, by 1843, Adamson had established his studio in Rock House, Calton Hill, Edinburgh , based upon the Fox-Talbot calotype process. He worked closely with the painter David Octavius Hill and his brother Alexander Hill, a publisher of prints. A website of Glasgow University points out that the group had ready access to members of the most influential section of Scottish society and were able to produce 3,000 images in less than four years of collaberation, before Adamson's untimely death. Hill will be most familiar through his extraordinary portrayal of "The First General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland; signing the Act of Separation and Deed of Demission - 18th May 1843". Adamson will be remembered not merely as the pioneer of Scottish photography, but as remarkably gifted artist whose portraiture was light-years ahead of the technology of the day.

Colonsay is remarkably fortunate that one of her inhabitants was selected as a subject; the portrait was, of course, taken in a studio and one might imagine that Finlay was recommended for the study because of his occupation. With plaid and sporran, his weather-beaten features and powerful bearings will have made him a striking subject, but it was probably his stalker's ability to remain motionless for three or four minutes which led to his selection.

Fortunately, "Finlay" is an unusual name in 19th century Colonsay records and there are very few apparent candidates in the records. Less fortunately, it is very hard to guess the age of the person in the portrait.

Starting from the census records, we find that the 1841 census lists only four examples of the forename: Findlay McMillan, 50 yrs, with a wife and 4 children; Findlay, 13 yrs, son to Archibald and Christina Smith; Findlay, 15 yrs, son to Donald and Elizabeth McEachern; Findlay, 3 months, son to Archibald and Lucy McInnis; and Findlay, 15 yrs, son to Donald and Mary McMillan

Turning to the 1851 census, we see Finlay McMillan as being a "Wood Ranger", living at Loch End and only 48 yrs old but this must be an error. In fact a Finlay McMillan died aged 80 yrs. at Black Park (i.e. Loch End) on 6 June 1868, "rabbit catcher". He was therefore born c. 1788 and his parents were Archibald MacMillan and Margaret Galbraith. This particular Finlay would therefore have been c. 59 yrs old when the photograph was taken and perhaps rather too old to have been the subject.

The other persons from the 1841 census all raise difficulties. Findlay Smith would have been barely 18 yrs old by 1847 and was therefore too young to fit; Finlay McEachern appears in the 1851 census as a 28 yr old, a crofter's son, so in 1846 would have been between 20 and 24 years of age; Finlay McInnis appears again in 1851, as of 9 yrs., and is clearly too young to figure in the puzzle; and Findlay McMillan does not appear.

Working from the Parochial records, there are only two baptisms before 1830. Firstly, Finlay, to Donald McEachern and Lucy Brown (September 1821) - he seems to be the 28yr old crofters son recorded in 1851; it seems that his mother had died and his father and stepmother had been vague about his exact age. Secondly there was Finlay, to Donald McMillan and Mary Buie, April 1824 who had married on February 9 1806.

We see that a Finlay McMillan had married Margaret Smith on 23 December 1808…. very possibly he was a brother of Donald and an uncle of young Finlay, the man who appears as a "Wood Ranger" in the 1851 census. Donald McMillan and his wife Mary (“60” and “55) appear in Kilchattan in 1841, with Malcolm (35), Alexander(20), Findlay 15, Angus 12, Ann 25 and Francy 5 months – Malcolm, Ann and Francy may be a new family unit. By 1851, only widower Donald McMillan (70) and one son, Angus (22) remain on the croft. One might imagine that young Finlay had moved away, perhaps in pursuit of his career as “stalker to Campbell of Islay”.

Kevin Byrne believes that this latter Finlay McMillan is probably the correct "Finlay of Colonsay", not least because of his background and also because he would have been well-known to Archibald McNeill, who could have recommended him to Campbell of Islay for employment and whose own portrait was taken by the same photographer.

It would be interesting to know if a Finlay or Findlay MacMillan can be identified amongst the estate workers of Campbell of Islay, in and around 1847; also to attempt to trace his following career. His descendants, if any, would be very glad to have copies of the photographs.