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10 Oct 2018

A tale of five sisters

Written by Lily Barnes, Documentation and Digitisation Officer
A building in a street
This simple photograph was the first piece of the puzzle - © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House
Margaret Fay Shaw’s photographs are well-known for depicting everyday life in the rural Hebrides. However, hidden among them is a story of a medical marvel which formed a dark chapter in the history of Canada.

On the surface, this photograph seems relatively straightforward: it shows a building on a street. There are no mysterious people or unfamiliar farm tools to identify. We also know from previous research that this image was likely captured during Margaret and John’s trip to Nova Scotia in 1937. However, as I've been working on these photographs, I’ve come to realise that it always pays to delve a bit deeper. One way to do this is to look for clues in the image itself.

Can you see a landmark? A street sign? Or perhaps a car number plate that you could track to a specific country? Can you see an advert for a regional product? Or a person in a uniform that could be identified? All of these things have helped me narrow down the times and places other photographs were taken. So, when I first came across this image I zoomed in to study the background and scour details for clues.

Two men sitting at the edge of a cliff by the sea
Fortunately, the ‘building on a street’ contains lots of potential clues, but this image of John and a friend shows that is not always the case - © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

A sign above the shop reads ‘Madame Legros and Madame Lebel’. With a little digging I discovered that Legros and Lebel owned this shop, which was a tearoom. However, the pair had gained fame for an entirely different reason – their professional training as midwives. Legros and Lebel were the reason John and Margaret were in this town and took this picture in 1937, for the two women were partly responsible for setting up one of the biggest tourist attractions in Canada at the time: Quintland.

On 28 May 1934, Elzire Dionne – assisted by a Dr Dafoe and Mesdames Legros and Lebel – gave birth to a baby girl named Yvonne. Shortly afterwards, she gave birth to Yvonne’s four sisters: Annette, Cecile, Emilie and Marie. All five girls were identical and all five survived their infancy, becoming the first-ever set of quintuplets to do so. Nobody could believe it, and everybody wanted to see the children for themselves.

Five small silhouettes of babies decorating the balcony of the tearoom
A closer look at the tearoom reveals five small silhouettes of babies decorating the balcony - © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

The girls were symbolic of the progress in medicine in the 20th century, and became objects of national pride to Canada. Their health was delicate and they were dubbed ‘incubator babies’ by Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibition – who had offered to display the girls to the public when they were only four months old. The Canadian government quickly saw that the girls had to be protected, especially given the financial pressure being exerted by five new mouths on the parents, who were relying on external support to fund their growing family. But at the same time the government themselves saw the potential economic value of building an exhibition around them that people would pay to visit. As a result, in 1936, the five girls were taken from their parents and given a new home in Callander, Ontario.

Far from being a warm and familial environment for the girls to grow up in, Quintland was built as a tourist attraction, with an open-air playground equipped with a viewing gallery from which visitors could watch the girls during the day. So that they could be told apart, each girl was given her own colour (red, green, white, blue and pink) and a personal symbol – a maple leaf, a turkey, a tulip, a teddy bear and a bluebird – which was branded onto everything the girls owned.

Tourists outside the tearoom and exhibition
While visitors wiled away the time to the ‘next showing’, they could look through pictures of the babies and see their ‘original basket’ - © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

Dr Dafoe lived on site (today his home is a museum dedicated to the girls), the midwives opened their tearoom and the girls’ father opened a souvenir shop. The girls were put on show from 1936–43. In 1998, the Canadian government issued a formal apology to the girls and they received compensation. At the time, however, few seemed to give a thought to Quintland’s exploitative potential. On the contrary, it was extremely popular: in seven years, three million people visited the attraction. Though such an activity now seems unimaginable, approximately 6,000 people per day climbed to the viewing platform to watch the children play. Two of those people were Margaret Fay Shaw and John Lorne Campbell.

John Lorne Campbell with an unknown woman at Quintland
This image places John firmly at the attraction, with Margaret behind the camera - © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

That small shop sign at the start of this story tells us so much. These images are proof that it’s always worth taking a closer look. Beyond names, dates and places, it can lead you to fascinating, strange and unexpected stories. First, it places Margaret and John in Ontario, not Nova Scotia (the focus of their Canadian trip). Second, it’s evidence that John and Margaret undertook a c3,600km round-trip to visit Quintland, suggesting they went out of their way to visit the baby attraction. This was not a chance rest-stop on a research trip.

But these images alone cannot shed light on their motivation to go there. Given our perspective on this attraction today, their visit does seem hard to explain. It’s also difficult to reconcile with what we know about Margaret and John. They were certainly not exploitative people, by contemporary or modern standards, regularly demonstrating palpable and genuine empathy with the communities they lived in and interacted with. Why then would they be drawn to an attraction which now seems so obviously exploitative?

On an academic level, we could speculate that they were visiting from an investigative perspective. Perhaps, like us, they also thought Quintland sounded bizarre and wanted to go there for anthropological reasons. However, in other aspects of their work, Margaret and John favoured a personal connection over the outsider’s gaze demanded by Quintland. There’s also evidence that they may have had a more personal reason for their visit.

John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw a few weeks after their wedding in 1935
John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw a few weeks after their wedding in 1935 - © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

In his biography of John, Ray Perman wrote that the Campbells were unable to have children. He notes that in 1938 Margaret suffered what would be a final miscarriage. The pair ‘stoically’ resigned themselves to this sad fact and rarely spoke about it – Margaret makes no mention of it in her autobiography. These photographs were taken in 1937 when the couple were still trying to start a family. Though they had not given up, Margaret had already suffered at least three miscarriages in the two years since their marriage, and it was apparent that the road ahead would not be easy. Perhaps the pair were drawn to Quintland because it offered hope. Here were five healthy, thriving babies where there should be none; five girls who had survived where none had before. If they could beat the odds, perhaps the Campbells could too.

It was not to be. But as Margaret was convalescing after her final miscarriage in 1938, John arrived with news. He had bought the island of Canna. In the face of the reality that they would never have children, and despite all the hardships they had endured in trying to do so, Margaret here displayed her ‘spine of Pittsburgh steel’. She had only one thing to say: ‘Wonderful!’

The Morton Charitable Trust has been funding fieldwork on the National Trust for Scotland’s photographic collections since 2014. In 2018–19, this work will further raise the profile of the collections through research, articles, talks and dedicated projects. The project will also involve the digitisation of the Margaret Fay Shaw photographic archive of mid-20th-century Hebridean life, leading to an updated database with high-quality images.