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30 Jun 2023

From Carnegie Hall to Canna – a collection of programmes

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna Archivist
A square black suitcase with the lid open, showing colourful cards and brochures inside.
Margaret’s suitcase, stuffed to the brim with programmes, menu cards and playbills
Margaret Fay Shaw, who lived in Canna House for many years, was a lifelong collector of programmes and playbills from all the concerts she attended. What stories they can tell us!

When Margaret Fay Shaw was a classical music student in New York in the 1920s, she began to collect the programmes and playbills from all the concerts and shows she attended. I discovered this during the recent decant of Canna House, in preparation for the programme of renovation works. I unearthed an old battered ladies’ suitcase, stuffed with these programmes and other items of incredible interest to us today.

In today’s increasingly paperless society, we tend not to keep items such as programmes, often thinking that they clutter up our desks and cupboards. But Margaret’s lifelong collection tells an incredible story of her musical and travelling life. Had we not found this suitcase, many of these stories would have been lost to us. In this article, I have picked out some of the most interesting and, in some cases, astounding examples of the pieces she collected.

As a young woman, Margaret worked as an usher in New York, looking after the ‘boxes’ in Carnegie Hall in her spare time. This helped her to make some extra money, but she could also listen to the musical giants of the time. She described in her autobiography From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides how she used to peek through the little door to the box and ‘hope the occupants would not feel the draft’! We have found a cover for a concert that she attended in Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh in 1935, by the composer-pianist Igor Stravinsky and violinist Samuel Dushkin.

In another programme from the same venue, slightly later that year, we find that Margaret doodled during performances too! A performance of Brahms’ Tragic Overture sparked cartoons of dragons and devil-like countenances. Did she know that, although the overture was not written for any specific tragedy, it has been suggested that it was possibly written when thinking about a commission to write some incidental music for Goethe’s Faust? Or was she just bored?

It appears that even after she married John Lorne Campbell in June 1935, Margaret continued to attend concerts in the US whenever she could.

Read more about John and Margaret’s wedding

She attended concerts by the famous English contralto singer Kathleen Ferrier and the supreme Steinway pianist Artur Rubinstein. By this time of course, Margaret’s own Steinway was installed in Canna House, having arrived by fishing boat in 1938. The photo below shows her prize Siamese cat Pooni draped over the piano around the same time that she attended this concert. Later, in 1956, she expanded her musical interest with a concert by Ravi Shankar at the Kaufmann Hall in New York.

However, it was not only concert programmes that Margaret collected. On her various travels she liked to keep the menus and embarkation lists of the ships on which she sailed to the US. These tell us so much of a different era of travel, perhaps a more leisurely experience than today! The menus are certainly more beautiful – works of art in themselves.

In Scotland, she did not only attend musical concerts. In 1948, she attended the Scotland v France match at Murrayfield with a crowd of 45,000. Scotland won by one point!

She was also invited to many very interesting events over the years, including the ceremony when William Drummond of Hawthornden was installed as the Makar by the Scottish PEN society. She was a keen visitor to the Edinburgh theatres and her tastes were diverse. She loved Rikki Fulton especially. She tried to attend the Edinburgh Festival every year if she could.

These programmes and menus collected by Margaret over the course of her life tell us so much about her interests, whether art, food, music or drama. They also help us to piece together her movements over the years, where events are perhaps missed out in diaries.

However, there is one piece I found in the ‘programme case’ that may forever remain a personal mystery. My father was an artist called Duncan Macpherson, born in 1933. He attended Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen but was from Glasgow. He lived most of his life in Moray and exhibited widely across the Highlands, and occasionally in the Central Belt. He specialised in dramatic Highland and island coast scenes, hills and lochs, usually in oils but latterly in watercolour too. He died suddenly at the age of 54. My house is filled with his paintings and they are part of my life, as much as Margaret’s art was part of hers. Here on Canna, we have a very large oil painting of a rockscape, which he finished painting in the late 1970s.

While I was researching Margaret’s programmes, I picked up the Edinburgh Festival brochure from 1958, at random, right from the bottom of the case. As I flicked through the pages, a photograph fell out. The rocks on the left are the ‘tester’ for my painting at home.

The young man on the first left is my father, Duncan Macpherson.

I have no idea how a photograph of him and his paintings came to be in Margaret Fay Shaw’s suitcase. I have never seen this photo before. I think it was probably taken around 1965 or so, and I believe it might have been taken at an exhibition – but that is all I know.

I may never know why Margaret Fay Shaw had an image of my father. Did she like his paintings? The lower image looks as if it could be a seascape looking to Rum and Eigg from Arisaig perhaps. Was that the connection? Did she attend one of his exhibitions? The one thing I do know is that it somehow tells me more about how and why I am so bound up in the life of Margaret Fay Shaw and John Lorne Campbell.

The collections of Margaret Fay Shaw and John Lorne Campbell just keep on giving. A simple little black suitcase, hidden away for years, can give up these seemingly small, but deeply meaningful, pieces of intrigue and life story.

Moran taing a’ Mhairead coir – Thank you dear Margaret.

A black and white photo of a man and a woman standing in a street. She carries gloves and a small bag. They both wear hats.
John and Margaret in Edinburgh, 1935

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