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10 Apr 2020

A Helensburgh spring – Margaret Fay Shaw’s diary of 1920/21

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Archivist, Canna House
Three black and white images of a young woman
Pittsburgh teenager Margaret Fay Shaw sailed to Scotland in 1920
We delve into the Canna Archives for a glimpse into the life of a teenager at school in Scotland in the 1920s. Is it any different to today?

Exactly 100 years ago, in 1920, an awkward, music-obsessed and ‘difficult’ 17-year-old girl from Pittsburgh was sent by her family to attend school in Helensburgh, to see if Scotland, the country of her forefathers, could ‘sort her out’. Her name was Margaret Fay Shaw and she went on to become one of the world’s most important collectors of Scottish Gaelic songs and stories, as well as one of the world’s first female photographers of the 20th century. She came to live permanently in Scotland in 1929 and lived here until her death in 2004 at the age of 101. She bought the island of Canna with her husband, John Lorne Campbell, in 1938 and they lived there until their deaths. In 1981, they gifted the island and all the treasures contained in Canna House to the National Trust for Scotland.

This is part one of Margaret’s diary from that year at St Bride’s School in Helensburgh. While she was there, she lived in a house called Birkhall, which still exists today.

We get an insight into her life as an early 20th-century school pupil. In these days of lockdown and extended school holidays, it’ll be interesting for today’s school pupils to see whether their scholastic lives are similar – or perhaps not so! The doodles of her teachers are all Margaret’s own work, as is the spelling [sp.] and grammar, which we’ve left uncorrected. The original photos are examples of her early work as a photographer. Margaret wrote her diary back to front and we have reproduced it as she wrote it.

Margaret’s diary

Mon 10 January – We said farewell to Aunt Annie and Uncle Hugh this morning and so departed from London and its charms. We felt very low in our minds and so with Jesse Robertson and Isabel McMason and Miss King for a ‘chap’ [chaperone] to Glasgow, we sped mid sleet and rain. Everyone slept but my mind was in Sewickley wandering from house to house. We arrived rather late and missed our connection so had hot Bovril and biscuits in the bar at the station …

Large secluded detached house surrounded by trees, with a plume of smoke coming from the chimney,
Sewickley, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

12 January – Back at the same old work – some Virgil and French to do that I didn’t finish and a hugh [sp.] hole in my sheet where I put my foot through it!!

13 January – Miss Armstrong has a new costume & hat, lovely purple and the hat has willy plumes ...

Extract from a handwritten diary with a doodle of a person wearing a hat.
Margaret’s diary entry about Miss Armstrong’s hat

14 January – A glorious day that ended with a sublime concert. A singer with a divine baritone voice – good looking – but his name is “Topliss Green”. But he was most charming – and sang slushy love songs with one hand on his heart and the other bracing himself against the piano. Mr Edgar Barratt play [sic.] the accompaniment and looked most important in a dress suit 3 times too large. He was muchly annoyed for we all snorted and giggled in the front rows. Miss W MacBride played also, great technique but no soul …

Black and white photograph of the head and shoulders of a man with a moustache.
Edgar Barratt

24 January – A lovely day – because we had some real snow and I also had a lovely music lesson. I’m busy working so hard at my Chopin’s Etude in G♭ and also the 1st Prelude. We walked home to Birkhall through the one inch snow and threw snow balls – especially when the snow stuck to our shoes and melted in a large puddle on the cupboard floor.

6 February – We went out to tea to High Mayfield [23 Montrose St., Helensburgh] and had the yummiest tea – I ’spose yummiest should have two m’s. But nobody got homesick and I had had such a grand time that I couldn’t think ...

7 February – The worst music lesson I’ve had on the side on the water – Mr Barratt was too sarcastic and mean to suit me and I never got so blithering mad! He kept slamming USA etc. – just wait till next lesson and I tell him were [sp.] to “head in”!

Handwritten extract from Margaret's diary, with a doodle of a man.
Extract from Margaret’s diary with a doodle of Mr Barratt

28 February – I began the day by being miles late for breakfast. The rest of the day morning I wrote letters, argued with Celia and helped Bea and Eileen make sealing wax beads. We consequently made a dreadful mess and set the paper on the table on fire three times by upsetting the candle – We ate, drummed on the piano all afternoon and tonight the others returned and we ate some more junk and teased Mary Crabbe by hiding her raiment! Got a biff on my nose and feel like a boiled owl.

Handwritten page of a diary
Extract from Margaret’s diary from 28 February

1 March – Back at school this morning with a heart for any fate.

9 March – Had my English exam today. It was fearfully hard. Six questions in three hours. Made an awful mess of it. Bea’s temperature is normal. But Mary Crabbe is in bed with a bad cold and temperature. Grace has an ear-ache and we all have colds. Saw a four mast schooner and a big Anchor-Brocklebank liner going to India on the Clyde today.

Black and white photograph of a schooner on the water.
Four mast schooner

14 March – Sewed on my new collar and went to the Cadzows for the day. Archy Cadzow and a gentleman friend came for Ishbell and me in an automobile. We had a glorious ride with the top down and the wind was freezing. We past [sp.] Dumbarton Rock and through Bowling, past [sp.] Mary Queen of Scots camping place. We arrived at a dear farm were we were met by Mrs Cadzow & Charlie – we had dinner of roast chicken and triffle [sp.] with sherry. We later had a grand walk in the woods and an ‘ice’ at a Italian shop.

Black and white photograph of a man in between two women.
One of Margaret’s early photographs, but unfortunately we don’t know for sure who the people are

23 March – [at 25 Coates Gardens, Edinburgh] Just arrived and don’t know whether I’m coming or going. We travelled in a tea carriage and fed our faces all the way and then dispersed at Haymarket. We met the family and walk to our boarding house. It is a very ‘parch’ establishment run by a French Madamoiselle, a fat little body, who wears purple velvet and a lace collar with a large flat bow of black velvet on her head. The other inmates are all women and not interesting. Uncle H & I had a long walk up Princes St. to see the Castle which looks weird and haunted under the grey sky.

Black and white photograph of Edinburgh Castle in the distance.
Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street

Easter Sunday – My first sporting of the new tweed suit, no spots or zippings, also my new hat. I was rather disappointed in St George’s for there wasn’t a flower and not a mention of it being Easter, no Easter hymns. Whole was very boring except for congregation. Afternoon, Gilbert, Doctor & I had a long walk our near Corstorphine. We had a wonderful view of the Pentlands. Went to St Andrew’s [church] in the evening with Miss Douglas – I liked Mr Strachan a lot.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this first instalment of Margaret’s diary. Watch out for part 2 soon.

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