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Argyll & The Isles

The Hill House

Our team at the Hill House have created this page to celebrate the notable influence of women associated with the Hill House, often overlooked or in the shadow of the more prominent Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Walter Blackie.

The Blackie women

by Ruth McKechnie

The Hill House was first and foremost designed as a family home. The Blackie family lived here from 1904, when the house was completed, to 1953 when Walter Blackie died, marking nearly five decades of life within its walls. The Blackies were a family predominantly made up of women. Walter and Anna Blackie had five children: four daughters and a son. They also employed mainly women as staff. And yet those we immediately associate with the Hill House are men. As for many women in history, we unfortunately know relatively little about the women of the Blackie family. However, the information we do have reveals that they included academics, writers, war workers and creative spirits.

Anna Blackie was born Anna Christina Younger and was part of a wealthy Glasgow family. She married the prominent Glasgow publisher Walter Blackie in 1889. In keeping with the values of the time, Walter spent most of his time in his Glasgow office or in his study at the front of the house, meaning Anna oversaw the household while her husband worked. She loved flower arranging and was part of a flower arranging club in Helensburgh. Her curated bouquets often decorated the house while the Blackies lived here.

Although Anna is understood to have not been keen on the house at first, she definitely played a significant role in parts of its design, forming a close bond with Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. One notable piece in the house that was designed specifically for Anna was the writing desk, which is currently on display at Kelvingrove Art Gallery.

The Blackies’ eldest daughter Jean began classes at Cambridge in 1909, attending Girton College. Jean was the first woman in her immediate family to attend university, although she did not receive a degree equal to that of her male counterparts. Jean’s daughter Margaret also later studied at university, receiving a degree from the University of St Andrews, which shows the importance of Jean taking the first step into this field.

A black and white college photo of rows of young women in the early 20th century. All wear white blouses with a dark narrow tie. At the top of the photo is a handwritten label, detailing the girls' names.
Jean Blackie, 1909 © The Mistress and Fellows, Girton College Cambridge

Alison, the second eldest of the Blackie girls, was 10 years old when she moved into the Hill House and she was profoundly influenced by being surrounded by art at such a formative age. At 15 she became a keen, self-taught photographer and had a dark room installed in the attic of the Hill House. She undertook a ‘finishing year’ in Paris, a common practice for wealthy families at the time, and then received a diploma from the Glasgow School of Art in 1924.

Alison was a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse during the First World War, training in the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow and going to France to serve. Her ‘finishing year’ in Paris would have given her language skills and knowledge of the country that proved useful during her time there.

A black and white photo of two young Edwardian women, picking tall daisies in a garden with long grass. Both women wear long white dresses and darker hats with wide brims.
Jean and Alison in the garden

Ruth Blackie, the third daughter, spent a month at The Whins Medicinal and Commercial Herb School at Chalfont St Peter in Buckinghamshire, which was set up by the founder of the National Herb Growing Association, Maud Grieve. Maud formed this association as part of the war effort – learning how to grow and store native herbs for medicinal use. Her school was attended by educated women and produced written pamphlets as well as offering tuition and practical courses.

Thanks to records donated by a descendant of the Blackie family, we know that Ruth was involved in the Dunbartonshire Herb Growing Association, set up during the First World War to grow medicinal herbs for use on the home front and the front lines. Similar to food imports, medical imports had also been affected by the war, so the government encouraged communities to turn to our own wild flora and fauna for medicinal purposes. Ruth took over the position of treasurer when a male counterpart was called up through the National Service Scheme.

Agnes, the youngest Blackie daughter, was educated like her sisters and followed in their footsteps by furthering her education at Bedford College, University of London. Agnes obtained a degree in history and went on to be an avid reader and a fountain of knowledge all her life. During the Second World War, Agnes worked in Edinburgh in the censor’s office, editing soldiers’ letters. This was to ensure no vital strategic information was leaked inadvertently. Governmental powers of censorship ended in 1945. In 1950 she wrote a short history of Blackie and Sons Ltd, showing her life-long investment in her father’s firm.

Our archive collection highlights some aspects of the lives of the Blackie women that were separate from their usual roles as wives and mothers. All of the daughters (apart from Agnes) did marry, but they were also individual women with unique experiences and skills.

The education, war work and artistic endeavours of the Blackie women speak to the slowly shifting attitudes of the time towards women and their role in society.

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh

A black-and-white photograph of Margaret, seated and looking directly at the camera.
Margaret Macdonald

by Emma Hamilton

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh was born in 1864 near Wolverhampton, one of five children. Her father was Glaswegian, and his work brought the family back to Glasgow. Margaret’s relationship with her younger sister Frances is significant, as Frances was a talented artist and her first artistic collaborator. The sisters studied at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) from 1891–94 at a time when women were welcomed and taught equally alongside men. In this forward-thinking environment, Frances and Margaret developed unique artistic voices and honed their skills, working across a variety of artistic mediums. It was here that they also met their future husbands and artistic collaborators: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Herbert McNair. In the mid-1890s, upon leaving the GSA, Margaret and Frances set up an independent studio in Glasgow and worked together until 1899, when Frances moved to Liverpool and married Herbert. Margaret married Charles a year later and they embarked on a lifetime of creation that took them all over the UK and mainland Europe.

Quote
“Margaret has genius, I have only talent.”
Charles Rennie Mackintosh

The quote above hangs by the window in the Drawing Room of the Hill House, in which we can experience some of the best examples of Margaret Macdonald’s talent. Her stunning gesso panel The Sleeping Princess sits prominently above the centre of the main fireplace, inviting us to pause awhile and to lose ourselves in its swirling lines, layers of colour, texture, glass beads and pearls, all of which glisten as the light catches them. Meanwhile, the bold geometric antimacassars, that once protected the settle from gentlemen’s hair oil, echo the lines and curves of the wall stencilled design as well as enhance the sharp lines of the settle. The antimacassars display the typical colour palette of the Glasgow Style, with lilac, green and pale pink on cream and black. A table and chairs (designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh) sit in the centre of the room. Both chairs have embroidered stylised rose leaves, with shimmering dew-like blue beads growing up the long slender back, providing the beginnings of the roses stencilled on the walls.

Upstairs in the White Bedroom, visitors will find two embroidered panels, hanging on the large headboard of the main bed. Affectionately referred to as ‘the skinny ladies’ by the Blackie children, these panels are believed to be copies of ‘bed curtains’ once owned by Emil Blumenfelt, first seen at the Vienna Secession exhibition in 1900. The elongated female figures mirror one another, with closed eyes and soft halos, their bowed heads look down upon the sleeper. Simultaneously, two lone eyes look out, perhaps alluding to the Egyptian symbol for the Eye of Horus, which represented protection, health and restoration – a talisman for a good night’s sleep. In these panels and the antimacassars, we see how Margaret embraced and expanded the new possibilities that embroidery offered as well as how she enjoyed this art form at the time. Her use of gesso also demonstrates her individual take on, and mastery of, historical techniques.

In terms of the rest of the house’s interior design scheme, Margaret no doubt worked closely with Charles and contributed as she did on so many projects. However, due to a lack of documentation, we are unable to say definitively who did what – we would love to better understand their individual and joint creative design process.

Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh was gifted in a variety of artistic mediums, ranging from watercolour and gesso to embroidery and metalwork. She exhibited widely and internationally, most notably in the renowned 1900 Vienna Secession exhibition, where she met (and likely inspired) Gustav Klimt. In the 1902 First International Exposition of Modern Decorative Arts in Turin, she received a diploma of honour. Taking inspiration from a variety of sources, Margaret’s work was considered unconventional and radical for her time. Margaret’s designs are often enigmatic and emotionally charged, featuring a mixture of stylized and reimagined figures and natural elements. Lines and curves contrast and overlap in her highly textured and layered works, encouraging us to look closer and unravel the many meanings and experiences hidden within. In 2008, The White Rose and the Red Rose gesso painted by Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh in 1902 was sold at auction for £1.7m. This set a world record for a Scottish artwork sale at the time; yet her work and name remain largely unknown.

Collaboration was key to Margaret’s success. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s quote reminds us that in noticing and elevating another person, we are not diminishing ourselves or anyone else, but rather making room for and enriching our understanding of our own and other’s valuable contributions.

The Hill House is a perfect example of what can be achieved when people work together.

Margaret Brodie

A black and white photograph of a woman sitting on a sofa in between an older man and his teenage son. They are smartly dressed and holding drinks. They seem to be in a lounge, with a large standard lamp behind the sofa and a full bookcase to the right.
Margaret photographed in 1955, with Sir Hector MacLennan, the Scottish gynaecologist and later president of the Royal Society of Medicine, and his son Robert.

by Sophie Torrens

When considering the history of the Hill House, it is often believed that Charles Rennie Mackintosh was the only architect involved. However, the architect Margaret Brodie is also very significant in the history of the house, as she was consulted by the Lawson family about solutions for the water penetration issues that have plagued the house for decades.

Margaret Brodie was born in Largs in Ayrshire in 1907. She grew up in an enlightened family, who believed girls should receive the same education as boys. Margaret studied at the Glasgow High School for Girls, before gaining a place on an architecture course at the Glasgow School of Art. She became one of the first fully qualified female architects in Scotland after graduating in 1928. She worked under John James Burnet, who had lost out to Charles Rennie Mackintosh on the chance to design the Glasgow School of Art.

Margaret was responsible for designing a 15,000 square foot ‘women’s pavilion’ for the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow. It housed three exhibition halls, a fashion theatre and a reception room with an adjoining tearoom. In the third hall, a painting depicting different women’s professions, painted by Glasgow artist Sadie McLellan, was displayed. Across the top read ‘Blessed is she who has found work’, a slogan that felt especially meaningful in this building designed by a female architect.

An old colour poster design of a pavilion building designed in the 1930s, with people milling around outside. At the top of the illustration is the line: Mitchell's Cigarettes. Beneath the image is a line: The Women of Empire Pavilion.
Image of the pavilion designed by Margaret for the 1938 Empire Exhibition

During the Second World War Margaret moved to East Anglia, where she designed aerodromes for the Air Ministry. After the war, she moved back to the west of Scotland, to Lochwinnoch, and set up her own practice. She decided to only select projects that she could undertake herself. She also combined her architectural practice with teaching at the Glasgow School of Art, where she was well known for her formidable (but not unkind) nature.

When the Lawson family moved into the Hill House in 1953, Campbell Lawson called on Margaret for advice about repairs to prevent water penetration, as she was well known within Glasgow circles at the time. She was very self-assured, and had even called Mackintosh ‘old hat’. She noted several issues with the house but the large chimney stack at the west of the house was the most concerning in terms of water ingress.

This same chimney stack was a significant area of concern in the infra-red thermographic imaging survey carried out in 2019. The 3D scan of the Hill House on the right shows thermal imaging superimposed onto the gable end to reveal the areas of damp.

Find out more about how we’re using technology to help us protect the Hill House for the future.

A 3D tech scan of the Hill House, with a thermo-graphic scan superimposed on the two gable ends. The thermographic scan shows mostly yellow and green areas on the walls, but the chimney stacks are blue.

Margaret was deeply involved in religion throughout her life. As an architect, she focused primarily on ecclesiastical design – an example is the Christian Science Church in Helensburgh. After serving 20 years on the Committee on Church Art and Architecture, Margaret became the first female convener in 1974.

‘Miss Margaret’, as she became known to the locals of Lochwinnoch, was seen as eccentric, driving around in her Porsche that friends would desperately avoid being a passenger in! She wasn’t interested in growing old, instead preferring a younger group of friends that she enjoyed challenging with never-ending questions. When Margaret turned 87, the Glasgow School of Art wanted to honour her by making her a fellow of the school, but she dismissed that to friends as ‘so much nonsense’.

Margaret Brodie also seemed to reject feminism, telling young female friends to ‘never be a feminist, that’s important’. Perhaps she felt that feminism held no value to her, since she had already struggled to be recognised in the relative ‘boys’ club’ of British architecture. Despite this proclaimed rejection of feminism, her actions spoke differently: she always fought to ensure that her female students had the same opportunities as the men.

While she no doubt experienced a great deal of judgement throughout her career, the fact that Mr Lawson sought her expertise on the repairs needed for the Hill House is a sign of how much she achieved. Margaret Brodie’s story is a fascinating addition to those of the many women involved in this house.

Margaret paved the way for generations of women in architecture, and her determination and self-confidence serve as inspiration for women in male-dominated fields even today.

Margaret Morris

A sepia-tinged photograph of a young woman, holding flowers against her chest. She is wearing a strapless dress and also wears a garland of flowers in her hair.
Margaret Morris | Image: © Fred Daniels 1922

by Anne Stanley-Whyte

Quote
“Most people have never learned to use their eyes, and more general study of seeing and moving would lead to a far greater tranquillity and harmony of rhythm than we see around us at present.”
Margaret Morris, 1925

Margaret Morris was a remarkable woman: a dancer, an artist, a businesswoman and a visionary. Yet her achievements are often overlooked. She was the partner of John Duncan Fergusson, an eminent Scottish Colourist, and her biography of her lover (The Art of J D Fergusson) was published by Blackie and Son Ltd – the publishing company run by Walter Blackie who commissioned the Hill House. Campbell Lawson, the second owner of the house, was chairman of the J D Fergusson Art Foundation, which was founded by Margaret following Fergusson’s death in 1961.

A painting by Fergusson hangs at the top of the stairs in the Hill House.

A portrait of a young Edwardian woman. She wears a pink hat with a very wide brim, and a pale pink jacket with a lace ruffled scarf.
Portrait of Elizabeth Dryden

Margaret was born in London in 1891 but lived initially in France. She was bi-lingual and was reciting and performing at parties and concerts from an early age. With no formal education, she joined a theatre company when she was just 9, where she performed and sang. By the age of 12, she was choreographing shows as well as designing the costumes and scenery. By 1910, she was well placed to set up her own theatre school in London’s West End. In 1913, she took her dance company to Paris. Here she met J D Fergusson and they became life-long lovers. Around the same time, she opened the Margaret Morris Club, a private members’ club in Chelsea, where London’s literati and avant-garde could meet and exchange ideas. Members included Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret. Margaret Morris commissioned Charles to design a theatre and cinema for her, but a lack of funding meant that his plans failed to reach fruition. The couples became good friends and remained in regular contact.

A black and white photo of a young woman, standing in a ballet pose beneath a large palm tree. She is en pointe, and her arms are held stretched above her head. She wears a floaty skirt.
Margaret Morris | Image: © Fred Daniels 1925

Interested in the remedial aspects of movement, Margaret developed programmes for use in hospitals and was one of the first women to train as a professional physiotherapist. She created exercises for the elderly, disabled people, pregnant women, children and convalescents; she also designed special exercises for various sports. She taught many international athletes and gave classes to the British Army. Some of her methods were adopted by the Army, but they were reluctant to acknowledge her by name because of her gender.

As a strong proponent of the importance of teaching art and dance to youngsters, Margaret started the first school in England to combine standard educational subjects with professional training in dancing and acting. While her emphasis was on balance, agility and co-ordination, Margaret also considered that the teaching of art was an essential element in the syllabus. Sadly, the Second World War resulted in the closure of most of her schools, so Margaret and John relocated to Glasgow. Here, Margaret created the Celtic Ballet Company and later the Scottish Ballet.

The Margaret Morris Movement continues to this day, following the same syllabus and ethos set out by Margaret.

Classes and summer schools for students of all ages and backgrounds are still held around the world.