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10 Oct 2018

Around the world in 100 years

Written by Lily Barnes, Documentation and Digitisation Officer
Margaret Fay Shaw and her sister Biddy at Blarney Castle
Margaret (right) and her sister Biddy at Blarney Castle - © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House
Although her collection mostly consists of images from the Hebrides, Margaret Fay Shaw also used her camera to record her travels around the world.

In the 1920s, Margaret’s travels took her to the Hebrides for the first time, as she and a friend rode bicycles from Oxford all along the west coast of Britain. Reaching the islands was certainly high on Margaret’s list of priorities, but they were by no means her sole destination. The cold Scottish winds had made her wrists and ankles ache, and she longed for warmer climes. So, in 1929, she and her elder sister Elizabeth (known as Biddy) embarked on something of a European tour.

The first stop, unsurprisingly for two young ladies in the 1920s, was Paris. The photographs from this trip do nothing to undermine the glamorous stereotype of the City of Lights during this time. Young women with bobs and dark dresses appear in almost every image. Margaret’s tales of music lessons with Katharine Wolff (an assistant to the celebrated pianist Nadia Boulanger), trips to the ballet, and new dresses made by skilful Russian émigrés bolster this idea. Her many encounters with bed bugs, however, do not.

A group of unidentified women snapped by Margaret at her hotel on Rue Stanislas, Paris
A group of unidentified women snapped by Margaret at her hotel on Rue Stanislas, Paris - © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

Next, the pair visited Ireland. Margaret’s interest in folklore drew her to Inishmaan and Inishmore, but the sisters also stopped in Dublin. Here Margaret took photographs of Trinity College and the Old Parliament building, encircled by a hectic storm of cyclists, carriages and hatted pedestrians. And, as over 200,000 people do every year, they also made the trip to Blarney Castle. In Margaret’s autobiography, she writes that the sisters were too short to be able to kiss the Blarney Stone. Fortunately, they were able to enlist the help of some policemen, who held their ankles so that they could complete the ritual. Margaret notes that she scratched the back of her hands in the effort, and that the stone itself ‘did nothing for [their] tongues’.

Policemen at the Blarney Stone
Margaret recorded the faces of the policemen who helped her and her sister kiss the Blarney Stone - © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

Later in life, Margaret would revisit Ireland with her husband John Lorne Campbell and some friends. While these images are seemingly unremarkable, they act as a reminder of the sheer size and scope of Margaret’s collection. Her photographs really do span the entire 20th century. It’s easy to get caught in the clear historicism of the earlier images – black and white views of the 1920s feel very much like remnants of past times. In contrast, photographs from her trip to Ireland in 1979 seem distinctly modern. With the transition to colour, the appearance of recognisable fashions and props, and the simultaneously nostalgic yet recent-seeming Kodak brand, these seem part of our own time. Rather than precious evidence of a bygone decade, they could be holiday snaps from any of our family albums.

Strip of photographic negative with various images of Ireland
John and Margaret returned to Ireland with friends – they were just as keen to sightsee as Margaret had been 50 years before - © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

John and Margaret had also travelled together extensively in the early years of their marriage. After honeymooning in in Norway, they journeyed across a rapidly changing Europe. Margaret noted her relief to leave a Germany which was in the early throes of Nazi rule. The pair were thankful to return to Scotland, travelling through a peaceful Holland to do so.

The view from the ferry in Torshavn in the Faroe Islands – the Skansin lighthouse is visible in the background
The view from the ferry in Torshavn in the Faroe Islands – the Skansin lighthouse is visible in the background - © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

In 1937, John and Margaret travelled further afield to Nova Scotia, making recordings of songs and stories from communities displaced there during the Highland clearances. They made connections within these communities which would last the rest of their lives. Aside from meeting Gaelic speakers, however, John was also eager to be introduced to Gabriel Sylliboy, chief of the local Mi’kmaq tribe. He recorded Gabriel describing in his own language the arrival of Scottish people in the area. Fellow Mi'kmaq Levi Poulette also allowed John to record him singing a traditional song.

Mi’kmaq chief Gabriel Sylliboy (right) and Levi Poulette
Mi’kmaq chief Gabriel Sylliboy (right) and Levi Poulette. A print of Margaret’s photograph of the pair is held in the Nova Scotia Museum in Halifax - © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

During my work documenting these photographs, many of the images from Canada were easy to place and identify. Some have inscriptions on their reverse, and it is a time in Margaret and John’s lives which is relatively well-documented. However, some of the images still raised questions.

When you think of people researching heritage collections, it’s probably images of intrepid librarians scouring dusty tomes which spring to mind. Sometimes, though, a clue is hidden in the image itself, and a chance internet search will give you the answer you need. And, sometimes, that answer is not the one you expected …

Read A tale of five sisters  to find out more.

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.