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Whatever happened to the Class of 1980? Acclaimed photographer catches up with his old classmates as they turn 50

Photographer Donald MacLellan caught up with his old school mates as they reached their 50th birthdays and photographed them doing their jobs. He has created an exhibition showing all his classmates.
Photographer Donald MacLellan caught up with his old school mates as they reached their 50th birthdays and photographed them doing their jobs. He has created an exhibition showing all his classmates.

IT started with a visit home to the Highlands.

There, hanging on the wall of Mallaig Heritage Centre, was his old secondary school class photo from 1980.

It gave acclaimed photographer Donald Maclellan the impetus to fulfil a long-held ambition, catching up with and photographing his old classmates.

Now, after an 18-month quest and some 3000 miles travelled, his photography exhibition My Class @ 50 tells the story, in words and pictures, of what happened next.

Donald said: “I’d wanted to do something for over a decade but when I was showing my daughter Ishbel the photo it struck me that everyone turning 50 would be the perfect reason.

Photographer Donald MacLellan

The photographer, who now lives in Banbury, Oxfordshire with Ishbel, 15, and wife Tamar, spent months tracking down his fellow Mallaig High pupils, who were frozen in time in their second year photograph.

He said: “I think 50 tends to be the age where you’ve generally made your choices in life and you’re looking back rather than looking forward.

“So, I wanted to find out what jobs they did and what else had happened to them since they left.”

Donald, whose work is in the permanent collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, has previously featured famous faces like Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton and Brian Cox in his exhibitions.

This was to be something very different and very much more personal.

Donald was at high school in the Lochaber port between 1979 and 1983.

He said: “I hated every single minute of it.

“I never felt the academic side worked in that school. You sat an exam at 13 as the school only had the facility to do O Grades, not Highers.

“If you passed you went to Fort William High School and you really progressed.

“For the rest of us, if our education didn’t exactly stop then your prospects were certainly limited. Now there’s a new school and all that’s changed.”

Having not seen many of the pupils for 35 years, Donald was starting with a clean slate as far as tracking down his classmates was concerned.

Old fashioned detective work, phone book trawls, internet searches and word of mouth steers took months before he could start shooting.

Most of those he contacted were surprised but curious and willing enough to get involved. All were to be photographed, with the same lighting for consistency, at their place of work and Donald travelled not just all over Scotland, but to Ireland for the sessions.

Daughter Ishbel was his trusty assistant on the shoots and took the 24th shot, Donald, herself.

“It was an absolute pleasure catching up with them all,” admitted Donald.

“They’re lovely people and you still had that connection as you have that shared background, the teachers and the stories.”

Having hoped he might manage to track down 20, ending up with a total of 24, was a bonus for Donald.

My Class @ 50 runs from April through September 30 at Mallaig Heritage Centre with hopes of a nationwide tour.

So… what did the class of 1980 do next?

Alistair Duncan (Donald MacLellan)
Alistair Duncan (Donald MacLellan)

Alistair Duncan

Lives in Mallaig

Able seaman on the Grampian Talisker

Spending his life at sea was no surprise for Alistair who – despite early plans to become a farmer – reckoned rightly that fishing was what he’d be doing when he reached 50.

Married to Pauline, the couple have two daughters, Rhian and Iona. Hometown boy Alistair still reckons that Mallaig is his favourite place in the world and wouldn’t change anything knowing what he does now.

Achievement/Regret? “My best achievement was being the assistant manager and acting manager at the fish farm in Lochailort; my biggest regret was getting paid off.”

Angela Johnson (Donald MacLellan)

Angela Johnston

Lives in Drogheda, Ireland

Retail assistant manager

Angela has three kids, Samantha, Stacy, who is in Australia, and Pearce, who is back in Mallaig working in the fish factory. Grandson Dylan also lives in Ireland with Samantha.

The biggest decision of her life was moving to Ireland which she says she finds very expensive. Schooling costs especially were a major shock. She went into retail after a spot of B&B in Mallaig and is still doing it.

Change Anything? “I would have listened to my mother more, most definitely! I would have been less strong-willed, I think.”

Brian Ferguson (Donald MacLellan)

Brian Ferguson

Lives in Inverness

Financial adviser

Working life didn’t follow the kind of path Brian, who’s married to wife Eileen, expected. Keen golfer – and more recently keen gardener and baker – Brian worked in the fishing industry for years before making a switch when he saw it in decline.

He says his biggest regret is not having a family and he reckoned he’d probably still be local, but with kids, when he reached his half century.

Biggest lifetime change? “I needed to change occupation in line with the way things were going. I went to work in the fishing industry and saw it in decline, joined the banks and they went into freefall!”

Colin Macdonald (Donald MacLellan)

Colin MacDonald

Lives in Inverness

Construction site manager

Dad-of-three Colin admits he didn’t think he’d be doing what he was when he reached 50 but says it’s a job he’s happy with.

The change he’d have made is sticking in more at school, giving him better career prospects rather than turning to the Open University later. He’s a football coach for primary school kids and loves holidaying in Ibiza as well as walking on the beaches at Morar.

Achievement/Regret? “Best achievement, probably my children and my partner Sue. Biggest regret? In my younger day, I probably drank too much.”

Fiona Bark (Donald MacLellan)

Fiona Bark

Lives in Selkirk

Farming services

Fiona was just 10 when she decided what she wanted to do. She told her career’s officer she wanted to work with sheep and says at 50 she was exactly where she thought she’d be.

Her best achievement are her two sons and reckons the biggest decision she’s had to make was whether or not to get divorced. Hill walking, camping and orienteering were her favourite school memories, all the out-of-school activities.

Biggest influence? “Oh, that’s easy. My uncle, who’s a farm manager, and who I just followed when I was young.”

John Angus Macdonald (Donald MacLellan)

John Angus MacDonald

Lives in Inverness

Dispatcher, Inverness Airport

Come his 50th birthday John imagined he’d be working in the ice factory in Mallaig – instead he’s getting planes in the air. He never saw a careers officer and had no real plan.

Getting married is his best achievement and he can’t think of any regrets or changes he’d make knowing what he does. Playing golf, watching football and walking his dog Cruz are his pastimes.

Biggest lifteime change? “Probably just the change of everything up here. The way it has progressed, the airport, the way it has grown a wee bit.”

Mary McDougal (Donald MacLellan)

Mary MacDougall

Lives in Mallaig

Social care assistant

Mary joined the YTS after school and knew then she wanted to do nursing training. Although she moved on from nursing, she has no regrets at the switch.

The biggest lifetime change she’s seen has been the switch locally from crofting to tourism. Although she and her husband don’t have kids of their own, they have 21 nieces and nephews.

Change anything? “No, because I think you just go along with life’s events. Lots of things happen, not very nice things, and you just have to try and make the best of each day.”

Robert Summers (Donald MacLellan)

Robert Summers

Lives in Mallaig


Robert has a permanent reminder of his family when he takes to see as the boat’s name Rebecca Janeen comes from wife Noreen and their two daughters Jennifer and Rebecca.

The biggest change, he feels, is yet to come with Britain leaving the EU and even bigger if Scotland gets independence. His favourite spot in the world is sitting with a beer at Sydney Opera House.

Change anything? “As much as I love the sea, and as much as I love going to sea, I would probably live my life differently because I never saw my kids growing up.”

Jacqueline MacDonald (Donald MacLellan)

Jacqueline MacDonald

Lives in Mallaig

Gift Shop Owner

Career planning wasn’t something to the forefront for mum-of-two Jacqueline as she admits she doesn’t even remember speaking to a careers officer.

What she did reckon was that she’d still be in Mallaig at 50. As it turns out it’s as a successful businesswoman, running her own toy and gift shop. Buying it ranks as her biggest decision. Rachel and Aimee are the daughters she has with her husband Simon.

Change anything? “I thought going to university was a huge step at the time, but now I think it would have been a good move.”

Susan Doherty (Donald MacLellan)

Susan Doherty

Lives in Fort William

Maths and computing teacher

Susan reached her milestone birthday back in the classroom, as a teacher not a pupil having done a computer questionnaire which steered her in that direction.

She moved to Aberdeen but is now back on the west coast in Fort William with her husband and three kids. She would have liked to have travelled more when younger, but didn’t feel ready.

Biggest lifetime change: “The way that we interact with each other. Especially teaching teenagers. Just trying to get them to speak to each other and not be on their devices all the time.”