MARGARET FAY SHAW 1903-
Margaret Fay Shaw died on Saturday the 11th of December 2004 in her 102nd year. On the blustery winter’s Thursday she was laid to rest – as was her wish -
Although she had lived on the Isle of Canna since 1938, she returned to her beloved South Uist whenever she could (the last time only four years ago) and retained many friends there. This was evident in the large turn-
The youngest of five sisters of Scottish descent, Margaret was orphaned when she was eleven years old. More interested in music than schoolwork she became an accomplished pianist, and went on to study music in downtown New York. In 1921 her aunts and elder sisters took up an offer from friends in Scotland to send their charge to boarding school in Helensburgh for a year. Having already been exposed to Scottish folk music and enjoyed Amy Murray’s book ‘Father Allan’s island’ about Eriskay, it was here that Margaret encountered Marjorie Kennedy Fraser and thus her interest in Gaelic song was well and truly kindled.
Determined to seek out the real thing, a year later in 1924 she coerced three friends to sail to England where they gradually made their way, by rail, ferry and bicycle to Inverness and Skye. It was here that Margaret had her first real contact with Gaelic music and song. She returned with another friend in 1926 to cycle from Barra (where she met the Coddy) all the way to the Butt of Lewis. Continuing her music studies in Oxford, she found the cold winter was affecting her joints so her sister recommended she move to Paris. This restless and rather Bohemian lifestyle instilled in the 20 year old a strong and independent spirit which remained with her to the end.
Back in the States a string of ineffective doctors failed to cure Margaret’s rheumatism, until one advised her that she had too many interfering relatives and she ought to do just whatever she herself wanted. So, despite the disapproval of her family, she returned to Scotland to collect songs. In all the Gaeltacht it was the island of South Uist that had attracted her most so in 1928 she arrived in Lochboisdale. That New Year Margaret was introduced to Peigi and Mairi Macrae who were working for their cousin Donald Ferguson in Boisdale House. Delighted at Mairi’s singing, Margaret asked if she might lodge with the Macraes in their little thatched cottage in North Glendale, and here she remained for five years learning Gaelic and writing down the songs that locals taught her.
Armed with a heavy Graflex 4x5 inch camera and a 17 inch lens, to which she later added a 16mm movie camera, the little five foot one inch American girl made a historic and unrivalled record of the lives and times of the Uists, all of which culminated in 1955 with the publication of her classic book ‘Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist’ (now in its third edition and still in print). No one in the Hebrides needs reminding of her wonderful story and the legacy she has left behind to future generations, which were reiterated in two television programmes in 2003, celebrating her hundreth year, one of which was repeated early in the New Year.
It was in Lochboisdale in that Margaret Fay Shaw met another folksong collector John Lorne Campbell, who was living and working in Barra at the time. With Compton Mackenzie, John championed the cause of local fishermen with the establishment of The Sea League. When John and Margaret married in 1935, they honeymooned in Lofoten where he was able to study local fishing methods! The couple first set up home in Northbay, Barra until, three years later, John bought the Isle of Canna where he could then begin to apply his agricultural training.
The justifiable prominence of the couple’s life’s work on Barra and South Uist, tends to obscure the role in which the beautiful island of Canna and its people were to play over the next half century. John, with farm managers Hector Macdonald and Big Hector’s nephew Ian Mackinnon turned around the farm so that Canna livestock were always (and still are!) highly sought after at the Oban mart. The Campbells also improved the housing and the pier. In an early spirit of conservation management, wildlife was protected and trees and bushes were planted to create habitat for butterflies and other creatures. He encouraged locals in lobster fishing around the island and long desired that more Hebridean boats base themselves in Canna to make its small population more viable. When it came to employing more shepherds preference was always given to Gaelic speakers.
John encountered a strong Gaelic tradition amongst the Canna folk, and from Angus Macdonald, for instance, he collected many stories and songs. He extended his interests to the Gaelic diaspora in Nova Scotia, and it was St Francis Xavier’s College (rather than any Scottish university) who were first to bestow honorary degrees in recognition of the couple’s academic achievements. Once dismissed by her teachers as ‘under-
Central to the famous Canna House hospitality was of course Margaret Fay Shaw. She relished company and was a wonderful host and conversationalist. She enjoyed playing her Steinway grand piano – even on her hundreth birthday -
From the outset Margaret Fay Shaw adopted the role of benevolent matriarch amongst the Canna folk, though she respectfully deferred to older islanders. Latterly however the roles became reversed as the Campbells came to rely on the islanders to run things in a manner sympathetic to the Campbells’ own life style and habits. Ian’s wife Nora had originally come from Donegal to act as housekeeper and became a close friend of Margaret. John enjoyed conversing in Gaelic with Ian, and in sharing with him ‘Gairm’ and other Gaelic texts. When John proudly displayed a notebook of old Canna placenames collected by a visitor in the 1920s, it was Ian who showed him on the ground exactly where all the places were. John wrote the definitive account of Canna’s history but Margaret’s wonderful autobiography ‘From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides’ (1993) gives a more intimate portrait of their long and happy life together on Canna, and of course of her time in South Uist. Although in her final years her thoughts turned to Uist again, she loved Canna and its people. ‘You can never own Canna,’ she often said, ‘only serve it.’
John Lorne Campbell gifted Canna and his library to the National Trust for Scotland in 1981 and died in 1996. Margaret continued to live on in Canna House, with Magda Sagazazu (a daughter of a lifelong family friend in Spain) as resident librarian. As recently as 2000 Margaret Fay Shaw was in South Uist to open an exhibition in Kildonan Museum about the South Lochboisdale bard Donald Allan Macdonald. Here she was ‘welcomed home’ by a host of her friends and relished hearing some of the songs she had written down still being sung by the young folk of the island.
A month before celebrating her centenary, a party from the Comunn Eachdraidh Uibhist a Deas voyaged to Canna on the ‘Swan’ to convey their good wishes (and to present some much appreciated struan, it being a few days before Michaelmas). Paul MacCallum sang, Donald MacNeill played the pipes and young Donald Campbell the accordion -
A few weeks after her 101st birthday Margaret suffered a minor fall and was taken to the Belford Hospital for care, where she faded quickly and died in the evening of 11 December. Although she was laid to rest in South Uist, the Isle of Canna -
‘an eibhleag anns an gann bha ‘n deo ‘an ember was dying;
Sheid I oirre, ‘s thug I beo a rithist She blew on it and brought it to life again.’
She touched all who met her and we will miss her greatly.