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28 Jan 2019

Hebridean female crofters – in sharp focus

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie (Canna House Archivist)
A woman bends over in a grassy field, holding a sickle.
Mairi Macrae harvesting in the field at North Glendale, South Uist
Margaret Fay Shaw experienced the life of a crofter for nearly 6 years in the Hebrides in the 1930s. Here we take a look at the invaluable visual record she left us of what life was like for a woman then.

The daily life of an early 20th-century Hebridean crofter was a hard existence. Whilst the men worked on the peatland or were at sea fishing, the croft itself had to be tended to ensure the family’s daily sustenance. The man may have been seen as the ‘head of the household’ but the woman was undeniably the ‘head of the hearth’. However, her story has had to fight to achieve its rightful equal place in history.

A woman dressed in a long black coat sits in a chair in a field with her hands folded in her lap.
The matriarch presides

Attitudes towards women varied from island to island in the Hebrides. In the largely Catholic southernmost islands, whilst the man of the house was generally recognised as the breadwinner, it was understood that the household could not function efficiently without women. Their role became even more important during the two world wars, when many of the islands’ men left to join the armed forces. Women, and the older children, had to take up all the activities traditionally undertaken by men as well as their own chores. Margaret herself said that she had ‘never seen both men and women do such hard physical work’.

Two women and a boy pose with kelp baskets on their backs.
Mairi Macrae, her son Donald and Mrs Angus Campbell head out with kelp baskets.

When we examine collections of images depicting rural labour, the largest proportion will show men working. This is where the collection of Margaret Fay Shaw differs. There are as many images of women working as there are of men, possibly even more. Could this have been a deliberate ploy of Margaret’s to help redress the balance of society’s attitudes towards women and work? 

Seven women stand in a line, dealing with the herring catch. They lean over a long trough. A man stands in the background.
Barra herring girls

Margaret was certainly active at a pivotal point in history in terms of women’s rights, and we already know from studying her correspondence and writings that she did not believe in shying away from expressing her opinions. Perhaps the fact that she was American, and not bound by the ‘norms’ of Scottish ‘social commentary’, meant that she could express her empathy with her female companions. She was perhaps even in awe of their resourcefulness and strength of character; she was certainly not averse to getting her hands dirty and doing some of the heavy jobs on the croft.

Margaret Fay Shaw gets her hands dirty, cutting seaweed.

Whether subconsciously or not, Margaret used her unique position as a ‘proxy’ community resident to observe and document the lives of the Uist crofters in her photography. Living with two women gave her an insight into a Hebridean woman’s life. She had a knack for making her subjects relax and ‘open up’ to the camera, catching her friends as they went about their daily lives, with no requirement for formal posing.

In Margaret’s diaries and papers, she details the crofting year and the relentless round of activities and chores:

‘The spring work of the croft began in February, when seaweed, used as fertilizer, was cut with a saw-toothed sickle called a corran on the tidal islands of the loch at low water of a spring tide … then the year closes with all the harvest work done,  the women wash and card the wool and start the spinning wheels. It is the season for the fireside and the ceilidh, the rough weather and the short days.’

Margaret captured the spirit and beauty of the Uist croftswomen with deftness, an awareness of posture and ‘line’, sometimes with humour and always with a sense of preserving the humility and gentleness of those she regarded as her family.

A woman stands with a large rake in grassy croftland. A sheep is lying down behind her. In the background are hills and a crofthouse.
Mrs Angus Campbell (Bean Aonghuis Ruaidh) of North Glendale

Margaret’s daily life was her ‘source’. Her aim to document an ‘authentic’ lifestyle shines through her images of traditional Uist croftswomen. She could relate to her female friends’ hard lives for she was living that hard life herself. However, she was not averse to taking herself off to the Lochboisdale Hotel every so often ‘for a hot bath and dinner’!

A black-and-white photograph of the Lochboisdale Hotel. The sea wall, fenced at the top, is shown in the foreground.
The Lochboisdale Hotel, 1930

We already recognise the invaluable contribution that Margaret Fay Shaw made to the preservation of early 20th-century Hebridean culture. However, the contribution she made to the recognition and respect for the 1930s Uist croftswomen is ripe for further exploration. Her images give us a delightful insight into a world that no longer exists.

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