On 20th August 1887, under the headline “A Curious Painting” the Campbeltown Courier announced the discovery of a life-size picture of the Crucifixion on the wall of a cave on the south-west side of Davaar Island at the mouth of Campbeltown Loch.
It was said to have been found by a becalmed yachtsman who rowed ashore to stretch his legs, wandered into the cave, struck a match to light his pipe and seeing the painting, promptly fainted. Shipmates who came looking for him took the man back to the yacht, and when the wind rose they sailed into Campbeltown to spread the news of their discovery.
The next day, hundreds of townspeople, carrying byre lamps and candles, hurried to the island which can be reached on foot by crossing the Dhorlin, a shingle-bank uncovered at low tide. “Nothing could be more suitable,” the Courier informed its readers, “for the contemplation of such a subject than the semi-darkness and rocky grandeur of the large cavern in which the picture is placed.”
Campbeltown was agog; who had painted it?
The mystery was solved in the Courier’s next issue when it was announced that a certain Archibald Mackinnon acknowledged the work to be his. “It is,” he said, “a subject which I have long had at heart. Early in the morning of the first day I began to paint, I awoke from a dream in which I beheld the body of our Saviour on the Cross shortly after his Passion.” The artist claimed to have been shown in his dream the actual rock face in the cave on which the work was to be painted.
It is remarkable that Campbeltown, between 1819 and 1865, with a population of some 7000, was the birthplace of five artists, all of whom, except Mackinnon, rose to considerable eminence. John McBride (1819-1890) a sculptor, became a member of the Liverpool Academy and lecturer in sculpture at the British Museum; William Mactaggart (1835-1910), John Campbell Mitchell (1865-1922) and Sir George Pirie (1863-1946) all achieved fame, Mactaggart and Mitchell becoming academicians of the Royal Scottish Academy while Pirie rose to be president of the RSA. Only Mackinnon failed to gain recognition and indeed he has always been a somewhat shadowy figure.
Nothing is known of his parentage. At 14 he went to Glasgow to work as a message boy, becoming an apprentice engineer and attending evening classes at Glasgow School of Art. This is probably the only formal tuition he ever received, but in 1886 he returned to Campbeltown as an art teacher at the local school at the same time advertising that he was to run a school of art in the town as a commercial venture.
He executed the cave painting in 1887 and is on record as having said that he had to tie the paintbrush to his walking stick to reach the topmost section. Shortly after admitting to the cave painting, he absconded from the town, apparently worried about the consequences of having used the school’s materials to carry out the work.
For a time he was in Liverpool, working at the Cammell Laird shipyard, but he next decided to become a full-time artist and settled in nearby Nantwich, and attractive town with more than its fair share of authentic half-timbered Elizabethan houses.
Here he took up residence at 7 Laburnum Avenue with his wife Mary Sophie and daughter Dorothy May. Laburnum Avenue is a pleasant, leafy backwater and next door at No. 8 still live Mr. and Mrs Timmis, a couple in their eighties who remember the Mackinnon family and with whom I recently spent an afternoon reminiscing. Archibald, whom they confirm was a full-time artist, had a studio elsewhere in town, now demolished as part of urban renewal. They recall him as a pawky, kenspeckle man, very Scottish, and apparently somewhat henpecked. They remember him shaking carpets in the back garden while his wife cried. “Harder! Harder!” from an upstairs window. Mrs. Mackinnon was a prim and proper person, neat and always well dressed. Their daughter, Dorothy May, owned a wool shop in the town. I was shown three of Mackinnon’s paint brushes, one of them made with hair from his wife’s head.
In the 1913 street directory of Nantwich, Mackinnon is listed as an artist, but he does not appear in the professional section with the doctors and lawyers. He was often absent from home for considerable periods which leads me to believe that he also worked as an itinerant artist making a living sufficient for his wife to stay at home in a town where it was traditional for wives to work.
An early commission in Nantwich was a portrait of Thomas Bateman, chairman of the town’s Board of Governors. The picture was considered very life-like, but, as with so much of Mackinnon’s work, has now disappeared.
However, occupying pride of place in the lounge of the Lamb Hotel is a painting of his depicting a scene of the street outside, in an earlier century, complete with red-coated horseman on a white prancing steed.
Mackinnon returned to Campbeltown to restore the Crucifixion in October 1902, and again in May and June 1934, this time at the invitation of the Town Council. His expenses were paid from the Common Good Fund. Thiry-two years had elapsed since the old man had been in the town and it was obvious to the great throng who watched him disembark from the Gourock steamer that he was deeply moved. The visit was extensively covered in the Press throughout Britain and every cinema newsreel carried the story of his return. On 6th June 1934, an inaugural ceremony was held at the cave attended by the provost, magistrates, town council, moderator of Kintyre Presbytery and the local Roman Catholic priest.
The following year Mackinnon died in Nantwich, aged 85, and is buried with his wife and daughter in the town’s Middlewich cemetery. The grave is now unkempt and the headstone fast becoming illegible. Mystery surrounds a derelict boarded-up house which the Nantwich local authority would like to demolish, but cannot because they do now know, nor can they find any clue, as to who owns it. The story goes that it belonged to Mackinnon.
In the 1950’s the cave painting was again restored, this time by Hugh McInally, Art Teacher in Campbeltown Grammar School, who took the sensible precaution of placing a strip of lead above it to divert water which was running down the wall. In the 1960’s the work was carried out by another CGS Art Teacher; Mr Ronald Togneri who is responsible for the picture as we know it today.
The few Mackinnon paintings which remain are faintly naive in their execution, but with a certain innocent charm. Two of them– “Campbeltown Fair in the Main Street 1880” and “St. John’s Night in Campbeltown” — hang in Campbeltown museum*, the former valued by Christie’s two years ago at 2,500 pounds.
Outside of Campbeltown and in the In the art world Mackinnon is sadly long forgotten, if indeed he was ever known, but his painting in the cave on Davaar Island must rank, if only because of its unique and striking situation, as one of the world’s most remarkable depictions of the Crucifixion.
* The Friends of Campbeltown Museum recently purchased another two of Mackinnon’s paintings;
Much of the source is From an article that originally appeared in The Scots Magazine April 1988.
(The oldest magazine in the world still in publication)
Read the excellent Tom Weir articles on The Scots Magazine, Tom was a contributor for 50 years and wrote a great collection of articles.
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Our grateful thanks to Lesley Bell for the picture of the artist in 1934, taken by her grandfather, Archibald Keith.