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2 Sep 2022

Following in Margaret’s footsteps

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna House Archivist
Then and now: a photograph of Margaret Fay Shaw in the doorway of Tigh Mairi Anndra, 1930
Canna archivist Fiona recounts her holiday in the Hebrides, tracing the adventures and photography of renowned folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw.

When someone has leave from work, normally they want to go somewhere entirely unrelated to their normal day-to-day environment: to go climbing in the Alps, a shopping trip to the city, visit a sun-sodden foreign beach, just lie about the garden or go on a cruise. As I sit in my little storm pod in South Uist, staring out through the rain-streaked glass doors at the ‘white horses’ on the normally calm Loch Baghasdail (Gaelic for Boisdale) – with thunder clouds cracking overhead, terrifying my two collies – I ponder on this, and wonder why: Why have I come on what is a real busman’s holiday?!

As the archivist for Canna House, I spend my time immersed in all our wonderful research papers amassed by John and Margaret Campbell of Canna over the course of their long lives. I also spend a lot of time working with the media collections of Margaret, mostly taken in South Uist, Barra, Mingulay and Eriskay in the 1930s and 40s. I have come to know the collection of over 6000 images very well over the last seven years, and I learn something new every time I look at them.

Margaret’s story of how she came from her privileged family background in Pennsylvania to a rough croft house in South Uist has been described in stories I have written previously, but suffice it to say that she arrived in Scotland to live permanently in 1929 and devoted her life thereafter to collecting and documenting in word, picture, film and music manuscript, the lifestyle of the people with whom she lived in a tiny glen for many years.

As I wait for the rain to go off, I look out across to the loch where I can just make out, through the descending mist, the winding road which meanders down to the track in North Glendale. This track leads up to the little house (Tigh Màiri Anndra) where Margaret lived for nearly six years with Peigi and Mairi Macrae.

Fiona (and Marag) surveying the landscape from the South Uist storm pod

I realise that I have the luxury of at least having electricity and hot running water in my little pod, luxuries which were only a dream to Margaret in the early 1930s. And yet she left us with this amazing collection of images of a lifestyle now no longer in existence.

Following in Margaret’s footsteps was not an activity I had intended to include in my holiday itinerary when I planned my trip but sitting here, waiting for the clouds to break, it suddenly seemed to me to be the logical thing to do. Margaret has been such an immense part of my life for nearly 30 years, that to ignore the opportunity to learn about even the smallest influence on her life here was not an option. As one of the National Trust for Scotland’s key values is being ‘Curious’, this seemed like the obvious opportunity to be just that, and in turn learn more, absorb more, appreciate, and understand more about what made Margaret Fay Shaw ‘tick’; why this landscape, and the people who live in it, meant so much to her.

I also realise that I am now looking onto the exact same landscape which Margaret opened her curtains to every day. And so I decide to try to put myself into, as near as possible, the exact same spots which occupied Margaret’s footsteps and take images of what she captured nearly 100 years ago.

I arrived the day before to the exact same harbour, Lochboisdale, which she sailed into so many times on the little boat belonging to Angus John Campbell.

The bank and church were in the same place. The ferry port is of course somewhat bigger now than it was in the 1930s but the outlook is the same. I drove up the same road past the Lochboisdale Hotel where she spent so many hours with her friends, as well as having the occasional hot bath and Sunday dinner! The hotel exterior has changed little.

It was here that Margaret made the acquaintance of the then-proprietor Finlay Mackenzie, who engineered the ‘chance’ meeting between Margaret and her husband-to-be, John Lorne Campbell, in the back smoking room of the hotel where Margaret was playing for the piping of Pipe Major John Macdonald. I managed to talk to the current owner of the hotel and together, we worked out exactly which room was the back smoking room. For me, it helps to ‘build the picture’ to set myself back into Margaret’s shoes and let the stories talk. The owner was also able to show me the original plans of the hotel, and I could try to imagine which room Margaret might have called hers.

Margaret took pictures frequently at the hotel, and of Finlay and his wife Millie, both of whom corresponded frequently with Margaret long after she came to live on Canna in 1938. It is fascinating to see images of the exterior of the hotel and place ourselves in that setting. Margaret even had the foresight to take pictures of the underside of the pier, the view which met you as you approached in any small boat.

From the hotel, I walked up the road towards what is now the bank in the village. Margaret took several images from here, looking down towards the harbour.

The haystacks are there no longer and there is now a carpark where the field was. The road itself takes the exact same path to the village of Daliburgh where Margaret visited the local minister to learn Gaelic, and the lilies in the lochan bordering the road have not moved or changed in nearly 100 years.

She photographed Daliburgh church may times and I managed to find almost the exact spot where she took this image. Apart from the building of the Borrodale Hotel to the left, the view has not changed much. I am sure that Margaret would thoroughly have approved of the building of the new Cnoc Soilleir building to the left of the church, a new enterprise between the UHI and Ceolas (the Arts and Heritage organisation in South Uist, dedicated to the local Gaelic heritage and language), providing opportunities for everyone to learn and promote the culture.

It was at the inaugural Ceolas festival in 1996 that I bought my first copy of Margaret’s seminal book on Gaelic song, Folksong and Folklore of South Uist, a book which was to become my bible of Gaelic song, and remains so to this day. I remember feeling what I can only presume were some of the same emotions which Margaret felt when she began living and working amongst the people who were to become her lifelong friends. In the pages of her book, she painted a complete portrait of a lifestyle; not just songs, but of characters, human and animal, of food and work, of leisure and of life in general.

The landscape of South Uist is that of contrast. From the autumnal hued, seaweed-strewn shores of the loch and sea to the peaks of Beinn Ruigh Choinnich, Easabhal, Beinn Mhòr and Hecla, and from the flat fertile machair bordering the Atlantic to the rough moorland – home to thousands of hardy hill sheep – the landscape is as varied as was the life of Margaret Fay Shaw. It was a landscape which captivated Margaret from the first moment she saw it and she felt at home instantly, something which she wrote about frequently.

On the machair, I went to visit Margaret’s grave at Cladh Hallan cemetery, and on the way there passed the telecommunications masts which stand on the roadside, dominating the landscape. Margaret caught this in a grainy image of the cattle bring driven to graze on the machair in the early 1950s.

Visiting Margaret’s grave is a very moving experience. She chose to be buried there, alongside her lifelong friends Peigi and Mairi Macrae, when she died in 2004 at the age of 101. Standing at her graveside, with the Atlantic to your back and the hills to your front, it is easy to see what attracted her to the island.

Having placed a shell from Canna on Margaret’s grave, I carried onto North Glendale, the tiny glen where Margaret lived for nearly six years with Peigi and Mairi, collecting and manually transcribing songs and stories. On the way there we passed Boisdale House, where Margaret first heard what she was seeking: the ‘pristine’ Gaelic Song, from Mairi Macrae.

The tiny thatched cottage, Tigh Mairi Anndra (note the different spelling, modern Gaelic orthographic conventions require TAI-gh instead of TI-gh) has undergone a transformation in recent years to become a comfortable little holiday home, but my one thought when seeing it was what stories these walls would tell, if they could talk! It is a very special feeling to look down on the same fences, hills and houses that looked back at Margaret nearly 100 years ago.

From there we took a trip out to Polochar Inn on the far south of the island, looking over to Eriskay and Barra. The hotel has not changed much since then although it has been extended and painted white. It still has the most incredible outlook onto the sea. Barra was to become Margaret’s home for three years when she married John Lorne Campbell in 1935 and so it always remained very special to her.

Coming back up the island, I took the opportunity to slip in a little bit of extra work and go and check on some of the collections from Canna Archives which are currently on display in Kildonan museum. The museum has been displaying some of our most precious Gaelic manuscripts for the last few years, collected by John Lorne Campbell: those of Maighstir Ailein Domhnallach, or Father Allan MacDonald, the renowned Gaelic folklorist, poet and priest, born at Fort William in 1859 and who died in 1905. I wanted to check on exhibition conditions of the papers. I was re-assured to find all the pieces are in fine condition, well looked after and, I am glad to say, extremely popular with visitors and researchers!

On our way up the island towards our next stop on Lewis, we passed many places where Margaret continued her photographic journeys and where we were literally following in her footsteps. One example is Borve Castle, a ruined 14th-century tower house, located at the south-west of the island of Benbecula.

And passing over the causeway between the islands, there are stunning views over to the hills of North Uist and on to Harris.

Driving over the causeway which links the Uist archipelago | Image by Fiona J Mackenzie

On our way to our next stop to stay in North Shawbost we passed Garynahine, where Margaret photographed the inn on her fist visit to Lewis in 1926. The inn is not now visible as it was then, tucked into a woody glade. We travelled on to Calanais, again, which Margaret visited in 1926 and where she took great delight in getting someone to take pictures of herself at the foot of the main stones.

It was only after her trips up through the archipelago to Lewis that she eventually settled on South Uist as the place she wanted to make her home – but she did take the time to let each corner of the Hebrides speak to her, trying to persuade her to make that corner her home. We can only wonder what the story would have been had she chosen a different island to be her muse.

My journey up through South Uist to North Uist, and on to Harris then Lewis, was more than a physical following of Margaret’s footsteps. In the process, I believe I was able to experience just a little of what Margaret felt and thought as she did likewise, almost 100 years ago. She was as she called herself, ‘A Little Bird Blown Off Course’, and by undertaking these long journeys, often on foot, she embraced the lifestyle, the landscape and the lore of the people amongst whom she lived. It is not a lifestyle or a landscape which is for everyone, but it is one which she felt uniquely attracted to and which had an impact upon her whole life, even after she came to live on Canna in 1938.

Standing in the same spot or walking the same stretch of road upon which Margaret walked countless times, the thought that I am seeing the same views, feeling the same wind and rain, seeing the same lochan and hills, that Margaret saw and was affected by so deeply, affects me also deeply in turn.

A privilege if ever there was one. Tha sinn fada nad chomain, a’ Mhairead (We are forever in your debt, Margaret).

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