Dan McDonald (1899 - 1988)

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Dan McDonald was born in the parish of Kingston on the South bank of the Clyde on 13th November 1899 - a product of the “Gay Nineties” as he liked to recall. At that time, Kingston was a thriving community of working class Highland and Lowland country Scots, who had migrated to Glasgow in search of respectable employment, with a goodly number being captain or chief engineers who preferred to live close to the quayside where their ships berthed.

Clearly bright as a youngster, he was taught to read by the age of four before being enrolled at Shields Road Primary School and was working his way through the books of Captain Marryat, R. M. Ballantine, Jack London Joseph Conrad and whatever else of a nautical nature was available in Kingston Public Library. This quest for knowledge was further enhanced by prowling around the dockside, where he was able to question and yarn with those who served on the ships.

By carefully saving his Saturday pennies, he was able to buy his first, second-hand, camera to photograph ships, thereby making a permanent record of his hobby and was still active as a ship photographer over seventy years later. Leaving primary school with a bursary to Bellahouston Academy, then a fee-paying school he there won another bursary which could have taken him to Glasgow University. Indifferent health prevented him following a career at sea and he chose, instead, to leave school with a Highly Proficient Certificate and join the Glasgow Corporation Parks Department, where he remained for the rest of his working life.

Employment with the Corporation was interrupted during the First World War when he served in the King’s Own Borders and, later, with the Glasgow Division of the Highland Light Infantry, before returning to his desk on demobilisation in 1919. In 1925, along with a friend Andrew Roulston, he purchased AILIE, a 4 ton 22’0” auxiliary sloop, which they used for weekend and holiday sailing, refitting her at Port Bannatyne, where she was laid up for the winter months. Following their wedding in 1930, he and his new wife used the yacht to explore the sea lochs in the Clyde area and elsewhere, indeed, one of his lantern slides shows AILIE berthed at Whithorn on the Galloway coast.

All the while, his collection of books, written articles and photographic records increased, as did his correspondence with other shipping enthusiasts throughout the world. About this time he photographed in detail and made copious notes about the many coastal sailing craft, which continued to trade to and from the Clyde before their demise in the 1930’s. Ocean going sail was not overlooked and his negatives of deck equipment and other features, being different from the usual run of exposures, will be of value in future years.

Most of these activities were curtailed by the outbreak of the Second World War, when, due to poor eyesight, he was prevented from joining the Royal or Merchant Navies. Such an affliction mattered little in 1940, when he joined the Local Defence Volunteers, later to become the Home Guard. Now his ready wit and entertaining anecdotes were put to good use as producer of No.3 Platoon Concert Party, providing entertainment for the local population and war-wounded recuperating in Hairmyres, Roadmeeting and Mearnskirk Hospitals, located outwith the City boundaries.

With the lifting of wartime restrictions at the end of hostilities and the disposal of Government surplus stocks - just about the only source of photographic material at that time, Dan was able to record events on a much changed river. Vessels which had survived, being reconditioned by their builders, others, once part of the Allied fleet and managed by British shipowners, tied up and facing an unknown future, as well as the use of obsolete tonnage of all types, were part of the river scene at that time.

His negatives later begin to reflect the major changes in ship design that took place after the rush to complete wartime losses was at an end, with larger more specialised vessels, such as bulk carriers, products tankers and container ships, now becoming the norm. Fortunately, the Clyde puffer still clung on to a pattern of trading to the Island which had some years left to run, and he took an opportunity to join some of them going about their business for his annual holiday, making, as far as can be seen, about seventeen different passages between 1949 and 1972.

In so doing, he became the recognised authority on what might loosely be described as the “puffer trade” and after much cajoling from his many friends was, at the age of seventy six, persuaded to write a book on the subject. Sadly, his publisher saw little merit in a text which recounted the history and operation of these craft, producing instead, a much shortened volume of illustrations and anecdotal account, which was a great disappointment to him. Since then the original publisher has ceased trading, The Clyde Puffer has been reprinted may times and is still available.

Over the years Dan became a member of numerous clubs and societies which reflected his many interests. As a regular contributor to the Old Glasgow Club, Kinning Park Camera Club and others connected with most forms of land and sea borne transport, he was much in demand as a lecturer on these and other subjects. Being made an Honorary Member of the Cape Horner’s and Master Mariners’ Club, was a much cherished achievement and well merited reflection of the esteem in which he was held by others.

All of this came to and end, however, in 1982, when, by now a widower, he was diagnosed as suffering from senile dementia and his useful life was effectively closed. Nursed on a round-the-clock basis by his only daughter Muriel for the years that followed, Dan died on 4th April 1988.

The preceding paragraphs serve to give an indication of the background of the man who chose to record, in photographic terms, the history of the river Clyde over a period of forty years from 1920 to 1980. Leaving as his legacy to future generations, a collection of over five thousand negatives showing, in the earliest exposures an active bustling pattern of trading, leading to the scene of apparent inactivity so obvious by the late 1990s.

Text by William Lind (written for the introdution to the catalogue for the Dan McDonald collection of photographic negatives)

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