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8 Apr 2019

In your Easter bonnet

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie (Canna House Archivist)
A lady lies on her tummy on the grass, with a straw hat covering her head. A book and some binoculars lie by her head. A sheep's skull has been balanced on the hat.
John Lorne Campbell’s secretary, Sheila Lockett, relaxes in the sun wearing a pretty straw bonnet.
The Easter bonnet was made popular by Irving Berlin in the 1930s, inspired by the Easter parade in New York. But Margaret Fay Shaw had been enchanted by them a number of years before. Here we show some of the millinery creations found in the photographic collections at Canna House.

Canna House on the Isle of Canna was the home of John Lorne and Margaret Fay Shaw Campbell. The Canna photographic collections – comprising Margaret’s own photos, those of the Thom family before the Campbell’s time and early images of the Shaw and Campbell families themselves – tell us so many stories about the eras they were taken in.

They contain several images of elaborate, and sometimes not-so-elaborate, headgear, worn over a lifespan of more than 100 years. Here is a lovely example of some Easter bonnets, taken in Pennsylvania, 1906. Just look at the swan-like creation of Sara Lloyd, on the right!

A family pose for a photograph, all wearing Easter bonnets. The man stands to the left, next to a young girl, a smaller boy and then a seated lady on the right. The lady wears an elaborate hat shaped like a swan.
Margaret’s relations: Finlay H, Elizabeth, Finlay H Jnr and Sara Lloyd

Margaret, one of the first 20th-century female photographers, possessed a distinct knack for using headgear as a way of reinforcing character in her images – she had an inherent ability to capture a ‘sense of place and time’. Perhaps this was an unconscious talent but nonetheless it’s one that invaluably enhances our contemporary appreciation of that period in history.

Two women sit on a boat. The lady to the left looks directly at the camera; the lady on the right has her eyes closed and rests her head on her friend's shoulder.
Margaret’s friends ‘Laughing Jessie Stinson and Biddy’ on a trip through Skye in 1924

Margaret’s travels as a student in the 1920s, whether by bicycle, boat or buggy, gave her plenty of opportunities for capturing her companions in their travel finery. However, not all of Margaret’s travel mates were so enamoured with travel at the time …

It’s said that the wearing of Easter bonnets or smart hats represents an old tradition that entailed wearing new clothes at Easter to coincide with the approach of summer, and a promise of renewal and redemption. In particular, during the depths of the Great Depression, a new hat at Easter (or even a refurbished old one, perhaps with a feather or scarf) was a simple luxury for many without ‘breaking the bank’.

Four girls sit in a row on a wall, each wearing a straw hat and holding a pet: (from left to right) a young gull, a dog, a kitten and a smaller dog.
The daughters of the Thom family in smart straw boaters. Accompanied by a menagerie of pets, the Thom family of Greenock owned Canna from 1881–1938, when it was purchased by John and Margaret Campbell

When Margaret went to live on South Uist in 1929, she was presented with many opportunities to photograph her friends and neighbours in their array of contrasting millinery styles.

A man and a lady sit on a hillside. The lady is in the left foreground, wearing a smart hat with a flower to the front. The man sits in the background, smoking a pipe and holding a stick.
The smart versus the practical. The man in the image is the famous Uist bard (or poet) Seonaidh Caimbeul c.1933, South Lochboisdale, Uist

Canna House today still contains many of the hats worn by the Campbells, which also appear in many of Margaret’s images, taken between 1938 and the 1970s. How many can you spot in these images?

John Lorne Campbell also recorded many songs that feature hats and bonnets. This audio clip was recorded in Canna House in 1958, from Agnes Currie, who sings a ‘port a beul’ or ‘mouth music’ song set to a 6/8 march. The main subject is ‘Alasdair’s peaked bonnet’.

Margaret Fay Shaw clearly had a passion for hats, whether they were fancy fedoras, tantalising titfers or fundamental flat caps. We still take our hats off to her photographic eye today! 

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