A photograph of Wentworth Street, Portree, by Margaret Fay Shaw…the few cars that there were there, each took up so much less room!
Report by Roz Skinner
In 1929, a young American woman named Margaret Fay Shaw relocated to
South Uist to nurse her disappointed hopes. Her dream of becoming a
concert pianist had been crushed due to arthritis and she was
returning to the only place she had ever felt truly happy.
Her love of the Gaelic language blossomed as she shared a croft house
with locals, Peigi and Mairi Macrae. Wonderstruck with the culture
and the landscape, she took to documenting her surroundings with her
Her skills threw her into the path of John Lorne Campbell, who was
writing a book with Compton Mackenzie of Whisky Galore fame. Margaret
agreed to supply photographs for the book, marking the beginning of a
lifelong collaboration between the couple. They were married in 1935,
and Margaret always reminded John that he never actually paid her for
the use of her photographs that resulted in their meeting!
Both cherished a deep love of Gaelic culture, particularly when that
culture was expressed through music. This resulted in a lifetime's
worth of photographs, sound recordings and film collections.
Their story will be retold during The Skye Book Festival. The show,
entitled Campbells of Canna In Words And Music, begins with Hugh
Cheape, John's executor, talking about John's early life. Author, Ray
Perman, will then discuss John and Margaret's life together and their
preservation of a vanishing culture. The third stage will see singer
and archivist, Fiona Mackenzie, reveal a beautiful picture of the
couple's life and work. As well as bringing the songs to life on
stage, Fiona will also be showing excerpts of Margaret's films and
Fiona currently works as an archivist at Canna House, on the Isle of
Canna where Margaret and John spent 40 years of their life before
gifting the island to the National Trust for Scotland. She explains
why their life-long passion for preserving culture is so valuable,
saying: “Margaret and John collected a disappearing lifestyle, taping
songs and stories, taking over 6,000 photographs and making films.
John made over 1,500 recordings. Together, they created incredible
jigsaw pieces of Scottish life that you won't find anywhere else.
Putting the pieces of their collection together gives us a picture of
a long-gone lifestyle that we can show to future generations.”
One of the films currently stored at Canna House shows Margaret's
dream finally coming true. After moving to Barra with John, she used
the money from wedding presents to purchase a Steinway piano from
Glasgow. The film shows the piano arriving at their tiny house in
1935 and being manhandled up the stairs.
The collection makes accessible a world that was lost – a world where
sheep were driven through the middle of Portree on the way to the
mart – preserved in Margaret's photographs from Skye, the
Uists, Barra and Canna. The rich and fascinating collection is stored
at Canna House, currently in the throes of renovation. Fiona says:
“We still accommodate requests for information and people can still
visit the gardens. I'm very keen during the summer to have the door
open and people can hear the music or archive recordings wafting out
into the garden. I want them to feel the house is alive and has music
in it. I will also be singing at various events, reminding people of
the worth and potential that is here in Canna House. I'm very much
looking forward to the show in Portree. It's a beautiful story. You
get a feel for the tale of two slightly eccentric characters and how
their lives intertwined and together they achieved something they
probably couldn't have done on their own.”
The story of this ground-breaking couple will be brought to life at
the Aros Centre on Thursday September 1 at 8:30pm.