A man of many parts


A native of Dunbartonshire takes a look at the fascinating life of a local Victorian artist and writer who reported on some of the biggest stories of his day and became embroiled in accusations of forgery over an archaeological dig near Dumbarton.

William A Donnelly attracted attention. Standing at over six feet tall, with a long, thick, curly, beard he wore his long red hair coiled in a plait on the top of his head. The hairstyle, he insisted, was not adopted for reasons of vanity but to ease a medical condition which caused his scalp to bleed if his hair was cut. To add to this already striking physical appearance Donnelly was also a something of a dandy often sporting a top hat, a long astrakhan trimmed frock coat and high boots, prompting the writer Neil Munro (of Para Handy fame) to describe Donnelly as a man ‘whose sartorial splendour made him in Glasgow the most conspicuous artist of his time’.

Donnelly’s grandfather, William Donnelly, emigrated from Wicklow to Dumbarton around the 1850s and became apprentice to a local calico printer, later setting up his own business to capitalise on the booming textile and dyeing industry which had grown along the banks of the Clyde. His son, another William, consolidated the family’s success and moved into fabric design, gaining an international reputation for quality work which, in the opinion of fashionable Glasgow ladies rivalled even the French designers. This William Donnelly was prosperous enough to open a Glasgow office in partnership with another Dumbarton man, Peter Ralston, and so the Donnellys were comfortably off.

By the time his son, William A Donnelly reached adulthood the family wealth was sufficient to ensure that he had no need to get a ‘proper job’ and instead could concentrate on his art and other interests. The census records of 1881 described William A as ‘at home’ with no employer or business, an artist and figure painter, supporting his family from his own means.
One of his more remarkable artistic ventures was to document his view of George Square, Glasgow over a year, always including, somewhere in the picture, a likeness of himself. The 365 sketches he produced were exhibited in the North British Hotel (now the Millennium hotel) facing GeorgeSquare. More than one contemporary newspaper reported the event but no more has been heard since. An investigation exercise for the future: Glasgow Museums are having a look.

Combining his artistic and journalistic talents, Donnelly became the Scottish correspondent for the London Illustrated News working for them for many years. As their man in Scotland, Donnelly covered all the headline stories of the time; the Tay Bridge Disaster, the 1902 Ibrox disaster and the opening of Glasgow City Chambers in 1888. William A was also the reporter on the spot when Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West show to Glasgow. Reportedly the two remarkable looking Williams (Cody and Donnelly) were photographed together before the start of an 1891 Scottish Cup tie between Rangers and Queen’s Park at Ibrox but sadly so far no copy has been located.

Donnelly’s journalistic connections and his social status gave him an entrée into society that was denied to most of his Irish Catholic neighbours. In 1878 he received a commission from the Prince of Wales to paint his hunting party on a visit to Scotland. Donnelly completed the work, found favour with the royal household and in the following years received regular commissions to commemorate royal public events in Scotland.

His other great passions were ornithology and archaeology and it was the latter that placed him at the centre of one of the great archaeological scandals of the time. Described by some as the Scottish equivalent of Piltdown Man, probably the most well-known archaeological forgery case in Britain, the discovery by Donnelly of ancient artefacts around Dumbuck in 1898 saw him face accusations of forgery by Dr Robert Munro of Glasgow University who had visited the site on the outskirts of Dumbarton during excavation.

At that time, at the end of the 19th century, archaeology was still something of a gentleman’s interest, a search for curiosities rather than a rigorous science. Donnelly’s interest in archaeology had developed in his middle age and he was a prominent member of The Helensburgh Naturalist and Antiquarian Society. He participated in the excavation of a number of sites in the area around Dumbarton, documenting (with a good deal of artistic licence) the excavation process and finds in his sketchbooks, which included his own romanticised imaginings of how the pre-history times would have looked.

It was an excavation at Dumbuie in 1898 that generated controversy and public scandal. Donnelly discovered and documented some carved artefacts which Dr Munro concluded were forgeries. The debate became acrimonious and public, filling the letters pages of The Glasgow Herald for some months. The limelight which Donnelly had enjoyed, even courted, over the years turned into public suspicion. His eccentric, flamboyant appearance now fitted a narrative that things were not quite right, that he was odd and untrustworthy. In 1905, aged 58, Donnelly died, his health broken by the scandal that had surrounded him. Donnelly’s son, Gerald, confirmed that his father had died broken hearted by what he saw as the loss of his reputation.

Dr Ludovic Mann, an archaeologist and friend of Donnelly revisited the site in 1932 in an attempt to rehabilitate Donnelly’s damaged reputation. Dr Mann claimed that the artefacts fitted with the prehistoric period and pronounced them genuine. Unfortunately Dr Munro continued to disagree and the dispute remained unresolved.

Another attempt to clear up the mystery took place a century after Donnelly’s initial excavation when Dr Alex Hale had another look at the mystery in his book Controversy on the Clyde. Visiting the site with a colleague Dr Hale was able to locate in situ an example of the artefacts but following examination he concluded that although the site of the crannog was genuine the artefacts themselves were fake. This latest investigation could cast no further light on the fakes’ creator.

Obituaries speak of Donnelly’s kindness and his support to his neighbours. Friends and supporters remembered the many occasions where Donnelly funded a deserving project or donated his artwork to raise funds for a local cause. His work for the London Illustrated News remains, some of his artistic work remains, largely unseen, in the collection of West Dunbartonshire Council. His rehabilitation is still a work in progress.

Florence Boyle is the Open House treasurer and a keen amateur historian.

Do you have a piece of local Scottish history you would like to share?

Send it to the editor at editor@openhousescotland.co.uk


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.