Alison Mayne: Bursary Winner Report – Textile Treasures in the Hope MacDougall Collection, Dunollie

I was delighted and surprised to be awarded one of two Women’s History Scotland Research Bursaries for 2019.  It meant that a ‘pipe dream’ plan to spend time absorbed in the archives at Dunollie Castle and Museum could be realised.  I had intended and expected a small scale study of some of the knitted textiles and knitting ephemera which I knew to be conserved there.  However, this bursary has been the starting point of a much larger and even more exciting prospect.

The story began in 2018, when I put a call out for participations for a project related to amateur makers’ devotion to Scottish wool.  Catherine Gillies of Ergadia Heritage and long-standing Heritage Director at Dunollie responded, explaining that the project caught her eye and might I be interested in visiting the archive as it contained a host of knitted artefacts?  Indeed, I would.  Other projects completed and with the Women’s History Scotland Bursary facilitating accommodation near Oban, I finally travelled to Dunollie in mid-September 2019.

Dunollie and the Hope MacDougall Collection

Dunollie – its castle and house museum – is the seat of Clan MacDougall.  In addition to its more well-recorded legacy as part of Argyllshire, Highland and Scottish history, Dunollie also nurtured an extraordinary coterie of women over the twentieth century.   Hope MacDougall was the youngest daughter of the house and with her sisters, Jean and Coline, cared for and curated a large family collection of significant historical artefacts and records.  However, Hope MacDougall’s’ passion extended to the wider heritage of Highland life and practices of living and working on the land around Dunollie in particular.  Inspired and mentored by her mother’s friend – Dr Isabel Frances Grant, founder of the Highland Folk Museum now housed at Newtonmore, Hope was committed to the collection and preservation of artefacts which spoke of Scottish rural existence.

Hope MacDougall’s fascination with creating a space to celebrate such a distinct collection expanded from the mid-1960s, when she was no longer responsible for caring for her parents.  She had turned her large house in Ganavan, near Oban, into a museum to store and display a spectacular range of objects which reflected skills and crafts which may have been at risk of being lost.  Following her death in 1998, Hope MacDougall’s vast collection was moved to Dunollie, with selected artefacts on display in the 1745 house museum and scores carefully stored in the archive.

The focus of Hope MacDougall’s collection is the process of craft in its widest sense –the myriad of different ways that an everyday activity could be completed, the techniques and tools which enabled this and how both tools and techniques may change over time.  It centres on the domestic and rural life of Highland and islands of Scotland but also contains examples from around the world as comparisons, illustrating the rich range of artefacts employed for an everyday task.  Accompanying handwritten records of the collection are a delightful jumble, with notes about a basket from Algeria squeezed between details of a Shetland shawl and an illustrated record of heavy metal chain from a fishing boat. 

Exploring the collection

My aim for 3 days was to explore the lace knitted textiles in the collection.  Before my visit, I made assumptions that Hope MacDougall herself was a handcrafter but the significant majority of the knitted items in the textile collection are recorded as gifts, donations and purchased items.  Whilst she was a weaver, working on a James Porteous & Co pattern loom to reconstruct the MacDougall tartan in the 1950s, Hope was more interested in collecting knitted artefacts which represented the very best examples of wool work in the Highlands and islands.  For Hope MacDougall, as in contemporary understanding of knitting tradition, this means the wool and lace designs of Shetland.

The lace knit pieces in the collection are placed in context by a huge array of knitting and handcraft ephemera – there are spinning wheels, a heavy suspended hand spindle (seductively different those traditionally associated with Scottish spindles), baskets of wool, a twisted skein of handspun Shetland wool and bags of ‘henty laggets’ (Fig. 1)– the scraps of fleece collected from fences and gates as sheep graze.  The collection contains several gansey sweaters and swatches of gansey designs sewn to pieces of tweed, alongside boxes and boxes of Fair Isle and stranded colour work.  There are folders and exercise books filled with notes about and samples of natural dyes for wool, as in Figure 2.  Written in a range of handwriting, these are probably the work of Jean MacDougall and her cousin Eilidh.  They provide details of the variety of colours possible in using bark, roots and petals and different mordants from the local environment.

The archive contains many items made by well-respected Shetland knitters – Mrs Mouat and Mrs Priest. Hope MacDougall had cultivated a relationship with these sisters who lived on Unst which began as part of collecting for the archive but developed into years of friendship, with letters exchanged through to the sisters’ passing.  With a reputation built on knitting Shetland lace hap shawls for sale and for the Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh, Mrs Mouat and Mrs Priest provided superlative pieces for the collection.  One example can be seen in Figure 3 and uses a range of natural, undyed shades of Shetland wool to construct a hap of approx. 1.5 metres with its large, square garter stitch centre and edging formed of repeated rows in the Old Shale lace pattern.  Figure 4 is of a more personal project – a gift for Hope MacDougall’s birthday:  This is a smaller shawl in a slightly thicker, possibly handspun wool, which uses a similar construction but is less aggressively stretched or ‘blocked’.  This shawl can be seen in photographs of the MacDougall collection kept at Ganavan, as part of a display about Shetland knitting ephemera.  Sadly nailed to its display casing during this period, it has significant rips at the corners. 

Other pieces which use traditional Shetland lace patterns and materials include accessories such as the example below left – a more contemporary scarf from perhaps the 1950s.  It uses Shetland wools in natural shades with a soft, dyed lavender and combines Old Shale lace with multiple stitches into yarn-over loops to create dramatic fan shapes. From a similar period, the dress below right is a calf length knitted dress produced by Highland Home Industries – the brand which provided homeworkers with an opportunity to sell handmade Scottish knitwear across the globe.  Another, similar dress – with notes indicating it was possibly made in the late 19th century but having undergone adaptation and repair – was donated by the younger generation of a New Zealand family who felt the dress should come home to Scotland and would be well cared for in the collection.

The late C19th fingerless mittens in Figure 7 are probably the oldest knitted item in the collection.  Donated in the late 1980s and described by their original owner as ‘about 100 years old’, they are constructed in simple ribbing and a delicate leaf lace pattern at the hand.  Made in very thin laceweight wool, they are perhaps examples of the Victorian obsession with the colours made possible by synthetic dyes such as Aniline purple or Perkin’s mauve.  Bleached by the sun from their long display at the original museum in Ganavan, their vivid colour is only present on one side.

Fig 7. Victorian Fingerless Mittens 

One of the most exciting pieces in the archive was the sampler of 7 different stitches hand knit in alternating green and pink wool seen in Figure 8.  It is described as an exemplar to illustrate a range of lace and gansey stitches which may be used as stocking tops. The bands are labelled as Horseshoe, Shell, Triangle, Bramble, Fraser, Lacy and Cable. Because of its size (approx. 1 metre) this is a helpful supplement to other, smaller stitch samplers in the collection and provides some insight into the creativity and design process which hand crafters of knitted stockings or kilt hose could experiment with. It also possibly reflects Hope MacDougall’s connections with fishing communities in Angus and Banff, where gansey knitting would have been embedded in everyday life.

          Fig. 8 Sampler of stitches for stocking tops 

And next?

Amongst Hope MacDougall’s papers in the archive are letters from Hugh Cheape, then Director of National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  They shared a concern that the materials in the archives at Dunollie represented a significant, important collection which required conservation and protection.  This went beyond the practicalities of keeping the collection together and safe but extended to the essential commitment that it should remain in the Highlands – part of its particular heritage and belonging to the local place and people.  Such pressures and commitments remain the same now.

The treasures I explored at Dunollie are so rich it became clear that the next stage of research and sharing knowledge about the collection cannot be for me alone.  I am now working with Catherine Gillies and Dunollie to prepare several funding bids with the aim of bringing a range of textile and material culture scholars to the archive in order to promote its potential and gain a better understanding of its enormous potential and significance.

I would like to thank Catherine Gillies for so much – the initial contact which began this process, the time she devoted to working alongside me in the archive as we searched out interesting artefacts and her generosity in sharing her vast knowledge of the heritage and significance of the clan, castle, museum and collection.  Huge thanks go to the staff at Dunollie – especially Jayne Mulqueen, Jane Isaacson, Shona Scott and Donald MacDougall – for looking after me and providing such full access to materials.  I am extremely grateful for the support of Women’s History Scotland for the bursary which facilitated my trip and launching what will become a considerable project for the future.

Dr Alison Mayne @knittyphd

All images © Dunollie Castle and Museum

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