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9 Feb 2021

Hebridean fleas, false teeth and fine dirigibles

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna House Archivist
Two sheets of an old, handwritten letter are displayed side by side. The paper is a parchment type, written on with black ink. There are several brown water marks on the sheets.
A letter from Margaret Fay Shaw to her sister, from North Glendale, South Uist, 1930
‘Hebridean Odyssey’ is a new documentary on BBC Radio 3, casting new light on the life of folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw in South Uist in the 1930s. Archivist Fiona describes the creative process and reveals previously unseen memories and anecdotes of Margaret’s in her letters and diaries.

Folklorist and musician Margaret Fay Shaw was born in Pittsburgh in 1903. She moved to the island of South Uist in the 1930s, learning Gaelic, collecting songs and taking photographs of the communities around her. She lived in a tiny croft house in North Glendale, South Lochboisdale between 1929–35, when she married her renowned folklorist husband John Lorne Campbell. They then moved to Barra, where they lived until 1938 when they bought the Isle of Canna in the Inner Hebrides. They left the island to the National Trust for Scotland almost exactly 40 years ago, in June 1981. Their collections of priceless Celtic and Gaelic folklore and song remain in Canna House today, where they form the world’s most comprehensive and diverse Gaelic folklore archive in existence.

A black and white photograph of two men, one older and the other younger, standing outside a large stone house. They stand beside an old motor car with a laden cart attached to the back. A large plank of wood lies on the gravel between them.
John Lorne Campbell and his father outside Canna House, 1938

Margaret’s time in North Glendale has recently been explored in a new radio documentary ‘Margaret Fay Shaw’s Hebridean Odyssey’ (broadcast on Radio 3’s Sunday Feature and still available online for the next few weeks). As the Canna archivist and a first-time national radio presenter, I was asked to take the listener on a personal journey through Margaret’s experiences in Uist, and to chat with people who knew Margaret herself, either as a friend or family member.

I was given the opportunity to travel to South Uist with Yamal Productions, a radio production company who are based in Ardnamurchan and Belfast, and I spent a weekend literally living in Margaret’s footsteps. When Margaret lived in South Uist, she lived with sisters Peigi and Màiri Macrae in their tiny little croft house called Taigh Màiri Anndra (‘House of Mary Andrew’), tucked away at the top end of North Glendale, overlooking Loch Boisdale itself.

After the sisters died in 1969 and 1972, the cottage gradually fell into disrepair for many years, until it was bought by a young family, the Macdonalds, who have now renovated it to make a very comfortable, and unique, tiny holiday home. Peigi and Màiri would have trouble believing their basic, little, rough stone-walled, thatched house could look like this now! Lighting in their day had to come from oil lamps; now, what was Margaret’s bedroom (known as ‘The Room’) is lit by a diamante chandelier! Peigi had to cart water from the nearby burn for cooking and bathing, heating it on the stove to; now, there’s an instantly heating shower with flashing neon lights!

I was lucky enough to stay in the cottage for the weekend and see the same landscape and hear the same sounds as Margaret did in the 1930s.

I spoke to Maria, who owns the cottage and is South Uist-born and bred, about her connections to the landscape and to Margaret. I also met with Paul McCallum, who still lives in North Glendale and knew Margaret well. As a trained classical singer himself (as well as a double Mod Gold medallist), Paul gave us his insight into her musicianship and why her name is still spoken of with love and reverence in South Uist today.

Margaret’s nephew Neill Campbell was also recorded for the documentary, on Canna in 2020. He told us some of his memories of holidaying with John and Margaret as a child.

It’s important to know that this documentary was largely recorded in and outside Taigh Màiri Anndra. As the listener can visualise the setting, the tapestry of landscape, sounds, colours and textures will become all the more vivid and add to the appreciation of the story.

During her years in North Glendale, Margaret spent much of her time writing letters home to her sisters, friends and aunts. We’re fortunate that we have, in Margaret’s archives, many letters received by her. However, we do not have many that she sent, so we have to work out many details of her life through her early diaries and photographs.

An old green leather diary, with a brass clasp on the side, lies on a wooden table. The diary has My Five Years printed in gold at the top of the cover.
Margaret’s diary, 1930

Recently, I was delighted to receive a package of letters written by Margaret, from her great-niece Maggie VanHaften who lives in the USA. Maggie was passed the letters through her family, and she was keen, after our chatting for the documentary, to pass on the extra insight these letters give us as to what made ‘Great Aunt Marge’ tick!

I have transcribed one letter in particular that helps us to picture in greater detail both Margaret’s daily life and also her personality. She was a great storyteller, and even in her letters she writes with humour and ‘American grit’ as she would say!

A close-up view of an old, handwritten letter, written in black ink on a parchment-type paper.
Letter, 1930

This is the very first time this letter has been published. I have illustrated it here with images that Margaret took around the same time as she wrote the letter. Read the letter at the same time as listening to the documentary, and meet Margaret Fay Shaw, the person ...

Margaret’s letter from North Glendale, 11 March 1930, to her sister Caroline

A black and white photograph of five young women sitting in a row on a wooden bench or chairs before a large fireplace. All have their backs to the camera, but have turned their heads slightly to see the camera. The lady in the middle holds a large white cat at her shoulder. The wall above the fireplace is covered with pots and pans.
The sisters at Glenshaw, Pittsburgh: Margaret (far right), Biddy, Caroline with the cat, Martha and Kay (far left), taken around the time Margaret left for Scotland, 1929

Dear Carry

Biddy (ed: her sister) tells me that Oscar went to the Valentine’s Party and did not return – Do let me know if he does as I am anxious to hear.

I am once more deep in the peat after a good time south. I have some new books and am busy reading Gaelic literature etc. One book I got called The Bronte Sisters by Abbè Dimnet is great, also another one of his called ‘The Art of Thinking’, which might interest the ‘Book Club’.

There is much food for a novel on this island – I wish I could write one but I would lose all my friends as a result. Today I had tea with old Mr Ferguson of whom you have heard me speak (ed: a merchant, owner of Boisdale House), the richest man on the island and lives very well. But he is far more ignorant than the poorest crofters. We sat before the drawing room fire – and while he told me of his trip to America, he took out his false teeth and gave them a little pruning with his pen knife and returned them to his pocket.

A black and white photo of a family group having a picnic. They are sitting on rocks on a grassy hillside. The young girl at the centre front is holding a cup to her mouth; the young lady beside her is smoking a cigarette. A young boy sits higher up on the hillside, playing an accordion.
The Ferguson family on a picnic; Donald Ferguson is second from the left.

At tea a young accountant who is employed by Mr F (the minister’s brother) and myself, drew him pictures to show him the difference between a dirigible and an aeroplane. He thought that an aeroplane wings flapped! But one would never believe these things to look at him as his tweeds and white Van Dyke (ed: beard) give a grand air & he is really awfully nice.

They are having a church sale of work and the lady missionary asked me to touch my rich friends in Edinburgh and London for checks. That made me furious as the debt they must pay is for renovating the Manse and they could quite well git (sic) the money from Ferguson himself – I have found that for the most part these Scotch Presbyterians are as mean as the tales of Aberdonians. In small things of course for they are very kind and hospitable.

I think I told you before that the school teachers and myself gave a dance in the school house to git (sic) money for a hot drink at lunch for the scholars who walk miles over the moor in terrible weather, half the time with too little breakfast and one piece of scone for lunch.

A black and white photo of a group of 14 young boys, standing outside a corrugated-iron school building, with a white framed window just above them. Most are smiling easily. Some wear very long ties around their neck!
Scholars (pupils) at North Glendale school

Kay had sent some money at that time and with some of my own I paid for the refreshments and the piper! They had done the same thing on the other side of the loch with the local intelligentsia and got much more money of course.

This school is really Mr Ferguson’s property and most of the children belong to men who are working or have worked for him. He bought one ticket at 1/6, about 30 cents, and said he had some coaco (sic) which he hadn’t been able to sell in the shop – he had had it three years – and he would give it to us. But he couldn’t find it so we’ve been buying it until he does! Ha! When I gave my treat for these children in Glendale (for all the kids between 5 & 14), they never took the slightest interest (that is the so called bigwigs) – also the big treat I gave at the pier for 56 kids, they (the bigwigs) never said thank you!

And from Mr Gillies (really Mrs Ferguson’s) shop I bought nearly $30 worth of stuff for these treats and by George he charged me four pence (.08c) for some little paper bags to put candy in.

I got a good deal of Xmas money and was able to do a lot of little things for some souls and they have been mighty kind to me. I have about six pairs of woollen socks – 6 yards of lovely tweed and a piece of delicate material that is very nice, and a wooden stool besides the songs and poems which are as much of a gift. Even hens and two dozen eggs. And all this from people who haven’t any money. This isn’t mentioning wild fowl (poached at that!), lobsters, crabs and what not.

I am sitting at the table in my room clad in flannel pyjamas which are the rendezvous of fleadom – every now and again I turn my coat inside out and shake, to no effect. I caught one however. The one thought against staying on after May is earwigs which flood the place. I remember being terribly bitten in Mrs Campbell’s cottage last year and I am told this side is much worse. (ed: of the loch)

I really must go to bed as it is nearly two AM. Much, much love to everybody and write soon to your affectionate Maggy.

PS Don’t let anybody read this letter who might get the idea I was trying to appear as Miss Give All!

A black and white photo of a young woman standing on a moor, with a steep hill behind her. A black spaniel-type dog sits at her feet. She wears a wool jacket and long skirt, and holds a walking cane in one hand.
Margaret in North Glendale, 1930

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