William Johnston originally came to Wick to work as a plumber on the construction of Wick Parish Church in 1829. Wick was at that time beginning to grow and business opportunities were opening up, so William settled in the town, married and among his nine children were Alexander and James Johnston – who became the first of the photographic dynasty. Alexander was the first to develop an interest in photography and by 1862 he had established his photographic business.
Alexander’s relatively early death in 1896 left the business to be further developed by his brother James and Alexander’s son William, now seventeen. In due course, William’s son Alexander entered the business and it remained under his control until his retirement in 1976.
This unique collection of photographs represents the work of three generations of a local family of photographers. Between, 1862 and 1976 they captured images of many aspects of life in and around Wick. During that period, they produced around 100,000 glass-plate negatives. Of these, nearly 50,000 survive and are held in trust by The Wick Society.The many portrait photographs provide a social history of dress and fashion providing a rich source of information and discovery to genealogists world-wide while street scenes record the changes in the commercial centre of Wick, and there are many examples of trades and occupations throughout the years; all of this may be part of your story.
Wick of course was crowned the ‘herring capital’ of Europe and the brothers Alexander and James Johnston, Alex’s son and Alex’s grandson captured the busyness and extent of this era. The fishermen and their boats were photographed preparing their boats for sea, landing their catches, and the often intense activity of the support teams of workers who gutted, cured, packed and carted the salted herring barrels for export all over the world. The Johnston plates have also preserved details of the boat builders, the coopers, rope makers, basket weavers, plumbers, shopkeepers and others in the plethora of supporting industries
The Collection represents a unique record of the development of Wick in particular, but also across Caithness. This is a treasure waiting for you to discover – and maybe part of your story.
The Johnston Collection Images can be purchased online.
Visit the dedicated web site at