Photo Sleuthing – The Nairn Album

Photo-sleuthing Friday was a series first run on the Society’s Facebook page. In Victorian and Edwardian times, portrait photos were taken by a professional photographer, usually indoors in the studio. Relatively expensive, such photos were taken on special occasions, ranging from baptism to burial, with a range of events in between. With a little practice, the family historian can become adept at ‘reading’ old photos and may even be able to identify previously unidentified ancestors in the family album.

Because of its widely varying contents, one album featured twice in Facebook. It only contained thirteen photos and the first one (probably of the owner) had been removed. The images were of very high quality and had been taken in the UK, South Africa, Australia and India. The theme was mainly military.

19th century photograph of large family gathered in from of house
The McLennan family Nairn 1889

One photo was, however, different from the rest. It had been taken by a Nairn photographer and showed an extended family standing outside a house at a bleak time of year. Down the side was glued the torn remains of a newspaper cutting which read “…celebration of the… McLennan, aged… eighty two, his… No. 18 Grant… marriage were… grandchildren… r removal to… all, are still…many more… ‘s memory… of relating… years ago is… [mem]bers of the… various parts… America, and… “

I eventually identified John McLennan, general labourer, and his wife Margaret Munro, mainly by looking for elderly McLennan couples in Nairn with large families. The clincher was discovering their marriage on 5th February 1829 and realising that this chilly photo was of the couple’s Diamond Wedding Anniversary in February 1889. What continues to astonish me is the level of interest in the family. In Ancestry’s public members trees section, there are 55 charts for John McLennan and Margaret Munro, perhaps reflecting their large family, at least some of whom left Nairn for sunnier places.

James Callendar (c 1833-1896)

This photo was signed “James Callander, colour sergeant, died Subathu 26 April ’96”. The military museum at Edinburgh Castle provided details of James’ military career with the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) – his postings and medals – and I was soon able to locate his marriage in Gibraltar to Beatrice Mary Warrington and their three children. I suspect, however, that James was illegitimate and I have never satisfactorily resolved the identity of his parents.

Unknown Black Watch colour sergeant

The above photograph was taken by Grant Brothers of Cape Town. The company operated 1894-7 at 28 Buitengracht Street. The unknown sitter wears the same badge at the neck as James Callander (like a three pronged crown) and the same crossed rifles on the sleeve, but he has two plus a badge and has three pips on his left shoulder. He is also wearing Masonic regalia from a smaller branch of Free Masonry known as the Royal Arch. Its regalia is the same throughout the world and is used in Scotland, England and Ireland, so sadly this soldier could not be identified from his Masonic outfit.

Unknown Black Watch colour sergeant

This fine military man was a colour sergeant in the Black Watch – see the three chevrons with a crown above on his sleeve. He was clearly proud of his shooting skills and is posing with his cups and rosettes. He is presently unidentified but the shield shaped badge on his chest provided a useful clue. A USB digital microscope is an invaluable asset for a photo-sleuther, especially where the photo is of a high resolution. The wording on the badge reads ‘BPRA [i.e. Bengal Presidency Rifle Association] Meerut 1896’. The Association had been founded in 1863 to promote and encourage rifle shooting throughout India, its annual meeting was held in Meerut and our unknown soldier had bagged a medal!

If anyone is interested in these photos or believes they are related to any of the subjects, please contact me at

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