The image above depicts the material remains of Macpherson’s Sporting Stores, Inglis Street, Inverness, the supplier and taxidermist of choice to the Highland’s huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ fraternity for over eighty years. Falling out of business in the 1970s, Macpherson’s workaday material legacy was quickly acquired by Inverness Museum in recognition that they were only remainders marking the craftwork of the most notable taxidermy workshop in Inverness, a town which had been a centre for taxidermy for over a century through its enormous trade in sporting mementoes. The purchase largely consisted of the tools, materials and equipment used by the firm’s chief taxidermist, John MacDonald (1884-1969). Macdonald had worked at the firm for 58 years and his tools and equipment had lain virtually untouched since his death in 1969.
The workshop contents, once on public display, are now stored in the museum collections. Removed from their original situation or documentary context, objects and materials can lose meaning and significance. Yet, by working “in the grain of things” and with a knowledge of taxidermy practice, the fragmentary objects and illegible materials once part of MacDonald’s taxidermy workshop can be composed to suggest obsolete networks of use and affinity.
An oversized needle, boxes of brown no. 24 artificial eyes, a saw with chipped teeth and MacDonald’s workbench covered in saw notches, strange oily stains, and patches of waxy build-up all reference the heavy labour involved in the main specialism of MacDonald’s taxidermy work: the setting up of stag heads.
By comparison, fine paintbrushes, no. 4 black eyes, vivid paint colours and Japanese wire gimp for “repairing bird’s legs” bring to mind to the more delicate bird and fish taxidermy work MacDonald was also employed in. A copy of Gilbert’s Chemical Magic when viewed in conjunction with a bottle marked “Poison” and a box containing Sterilized Burn Dressing no.9 are suggestive of the hazardous nature of taxidermy work, a craft that often requires the use of poisonous and harmful substances.
A “Flit” fly-sprayer and other Rentokil products also hint at the pungent working environment that MacDonald would have had to endure when working with decaying animal remains. Yet it is the more personal items like MacDonald’s spectacles and wonderfully appropriate deer-skin apron that are most evocative.
Caitlin DeSilvey, following Benjamin’s theory of historical constellations, has pointed out that “potential awakenings” reside in objects and materials that people gather around them and eventually discard in the course of their lives and that encounters with such discarded items can “propose empathetic connection with the people who made and handled them” (DeSilvey 2007, 417).
The store’s material remains not only propose empathetic connections with the bodies at work at the site, they also tentatively propose connections with the bodies being worked-on. For example, other items in the collection allude to the wider human-animal cultures of deer-stalking and gamekeeping that MacDonald was entangled in through his taxidermy practice at the store. For example some leftover kill tags, noting kills at “Coire Mhor” in 1912 and “Ben Damph” in 1958, reference his work in mounting sporting mementos.
These tags also archive the absent-presence of the acts of killing and the animals themselves. While it has been argued that animal evidence is often scarce and indelibly marked by anthropomorphism within the historical record (Fudge 2002), substantial signs of animal life, or at least death, abound from MacDonald’s workaday material legacy. Actual animal remains, including bits of jaw-bone and teeth, horn cores and several sets of antlers, bespeak the beastly presence of dead animal bodies, while other materials like artificial glass eyes and other replacement animal-parts bear witness to the crafting of animal bodies by human hands.
The stores six ‘stuffing books’, archived alongside the material remains and spanning the years from 1917-1968, record the many thousands of animals that were sent to the store to be ‘set-up’ by MacDonald, further underlining the scale of the enterprise and the cultures of killing that he was implicated in as the town’s taxidermist of choice.
The customer lists, recorded at the front of each of the six ledgers, also read as a ‘who’s who’ of the British aristocracy, hinting at the uneven power-relations associated with blood sports and patterns of landownership in the Scottish Highlands. Lorimer (2000) has highlighted that the concentrated pattern of landownership in the Scottish Highlands can be understood in relation to the elite leisure activity of deerstalking. Opening the 1917-1928 ledger at any random page would certainly seem to corroborate this.
For example a page from the September of 1921 records that Lord Sands of Jura wanted eight stag heads mounted and five skins cleaned, Major Benskin of Ardverkerie estates wanted 5 stag heads mounted and one “skull only” cleaned and the Sutherland estates requested that 24 stag-heads be mounted on “dark polished oak shields” for various patrons of pretentious importance. Deerstalking was often dubbed ‘a millionaires sport’ at the time, as the shooting of stags on first-class estates like the Sutherlands would cost nearly £100 a day and that was before the additional cost of having the head mounted and shipped.
Yet it was not just the wealthy nobility that called on MacDonald’s services. For example, the ‘stock’ section of the 1935-1938 stuffing book details that MacDonald was receiving many skins of otter, wildcat, fox and various types of birds of prey from gamekeepers from the highland estates.
These animals and birds were considered a threat to the populations of grouse and pheasant that were bred on the estates. Macpherson’s would pay for these skins then send them on, at an inflated price, to either C.W. Martin and sons Ltd or Britz Bros Ltd, London in the stores end of year sale. This again highlights that the land management practices of the highland estates revolved around the maintenance of land for elite blood sports, as the lairds and landowners needed their estates to be ‘vermin’ free so they could charge premium rates for their shooting leases for grouse and pheasant (see Patchett et al 2011). The stuffing books thus speak of the embodied rituals of deer stalking and ‘forest’ management that produced what Lorimer (2000) has called the distinctive, and contested, ‘culture of nature’ of the Scottish Highlands.
By working in the grain of the things that remain to mark Macpherson’s Sporting Stores, intertwined, and politicised, histories of blood-sports, landownership, imperialism, and human-animal relations begin to emerge. While many historians would argue that such slim threads of evidence need to be supported and corroborated by more conventional sources and approaches, the sociologist Kevin Hetherington (2001: 26) argues, that this form of material montage ‘has indirect ways of telling us stories… about power, agency, and history’ that could be missed through more direct forms of historical enquiry and representation. Thus while it might prove to be possible to engage in a more ‘conventional’ recuperation of the history of Macphearson’s Sporting Stores, to do so would to be to deaden the lifeworlds and lifepaths that are so evocatively, if only fleetingly, glimpsed at through the fragments.
N.B. This is an extract of a longer forthcoming paper: ‘Historical Geographies of Craftwork: Differently Figuring the Working of Bodies and Bodies at Work’, for Transactions the Institute of British Geographers.
DeSilvey, C. 2007 Salvage memory: constellating material histories on a hardscrabble homestead, Cultural Geographies, 14 (3) 401-423.
Fudge, E. 2002 A Left-Handed Blow: Writing the History of Animals, in Rothfels, N. (ed.) Representing Animals, University of Indiana Press, Indiana, 3-18.
Hetherington, K. 2001 Phantasmagoria/phantasm agora: materialities, spatialities and ghosts, Space and Culture 24–41.
Patchett, K. Foster and H. Lorimer 2011 The Biogeographies of a Hollow-Eyed Harrier, in Alberti, S. (ed) The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie, University of Virginia Press, Virginia 110-133.
Lorimer, H. 2000 Guns, game and the grandee: the cultural politics of deer stalking in the Highlands Ecumene 7, 403-431.