When McTaggart finished his training at the Trustees' Academy in Edinburgh, he practised as a portrait painter with a minutely realistic technique. He became more interested in painting figures in landscape, and by the 1880s his handling of paint was much broader. He painted the sea and coastline, in works that are reminiscent of Courbet. The series of 'emigrants' that he painted combine these interests with a subject of serious social concern in Scotland, the emigration of people from the West Coast to live in Canada and Australia. McTaggart had first hand experience of such emigration in his own family.