An Image of St Andrews in 1845

The photograph known as St. Andrews, North Street, Fishergate, Women and Children Baiting the Line depicts a group of fisherfolk, predominantly women and children, baiting fishing lines. Found today in the National Galleries Scotland, it was taken by the hugely influential photographers, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, and is estimated to date from 1845. 

Yet, this image would be revisited and reworked throughout the ages and across media. The earliest surviving moving images of St Andrews – dating back to 1916 ­– also depict fisherfolk and show a remarkably similar image, taken from almost exactly the same spot on North Street, of women working baiting lines. By 1916, the image represented a world, and culture, that was now disappearing, but it would be preserved through this film, and the photograph that preceded it. Indeed in 1963, the footage was shown again at the Cinema House to mark its fiftieth anniversary and even today, the images of the Fisherfolk remain enduring images of St Andrews’ past and, a significant marker of the town’s rich photographic heritage. 

Hill and Adamson’s reputation was already established by the time of this photo in 1845. Indeed in 1844 the King of Saxony had his portrait taken at their studio – established a year earlier – while visiting Edinburgh (Caledonian Mercury, 5 August 1844). Their work was informed by the photographic process they adopted, the Calotype. This was an early process developed by William Henry Fox Talbot, which consisted of coating paper in silver iodide. The name derives from the Greek – Kalos and Tupos meaning beautiful and impression – and Hill certainly saw this in the Calotype process: “The rough and unequal texture throughout the paper is the main cause of the calotype failing in details … and this is the very life of it. They look like the imperfect work of man … and not the much diminished perfect work of God” (The National Galleries Scotland. “Hill and Adamson”). We can see photography as an art form starting to develop here.  

When revisiting this 1845 photograph, it is important to remember the careful planning and staging involved. The technical limitations of the time – a long exposure meant that subjects needed to remain still for up to a minute – ensured that Hill and Adamson had to carefully choreograph their image. Many of the decisions made here would appear to be aesthetic choices, for example adding depth by showing the woman holding the child, walking across the street. However, the Fishergate Calotypes can be found in the Series of Calotype Views of St Andrews which Hill and Adamson published in 1846, alongside “straightforward architectural and topographical calotypes of St. Andrews,” which were primarily presented as historical documents (Smith, 1981, 34). 

Graham Smith notes a tension here, as the Fishergate photographs’ foreground people not buildings. He concludes that “it is evident that the calotypes are elaborately composed tableaux rather than casual or journalistic records of the daily activities of the St. Andrews fisher folk” (Smith, 1981, 34). There may also have been a social or political motivation here as well, drawing attention to the squalid conditions of the fisher people. For audiences today, the photographs undoubtedly offer both artistic and historical value.  

The photograph assumes additional significance given Hill and Adamson’s prominent place in the early history of photography. John Adamson, Robert’s older brother, had teamed-up with David Brewster, a physicist and lecturer at the University of St Andrews and in 1841, they had developed the first Calotype portrait in Scotland (made possible as Talbot never patented his process in Scotland). John then taught this technique to his brother. It was around this time that David Brewster introduced Hill, who was struggling with a commissioned painting, to Robert Adamson. Their partnership would significantly advance photography and the visual arts, both globally but also in St Andrews, where their legacy could be felt across the many photography shops that appeared over the next half century

Cameron Mumford (2020)

Works Cited: 

“The King of Saxony,” Caledonian Mercury, 5 August 1844. 

Daniel, Malcom, “David Octavius Hill (1802-1870) and Robert Adamson (1821-1848),” The Met Museum, October 2004. 

“Hill and Adamson,” The National Galleries Scotland

 “Robert Adamson & David Octavius Hill, St Andrews, North Street, Fishergate, Women and Children Baiting the Line,” The National Galleries Scotland.  

Smith, Graham, “Hill & Adamson at St. Andrews: The Fishergate Calotypes,” The Print Collector’s Newsletter Vol. 12, No. 2 (May-June 1981), 33-37.