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25 Aug 2020

It’s a dog’s life – Canna’s Cairns and other canines

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie – Canna House Archivist
A black and white photograph of a small dog standing on a wooden raft, floating in a still bay. The dog is looking at the camera. Cliffs and rocky beaches can be seen in the background.
Cairn terrier Mr Smith is set adrift in Canna Bay, 1938
Margaret Fay Shaw said that ‘people who work with animals are never lonely’. To celebrate National Dog Day, we take a look at some of the canines in the lives of the Campbells of Canna over the years and how they are represented in the Canna Photographic Collections.

The Canna Photographic Collections contain many delightful images of dogs and their human companions, but not all of them were taken by the main contributor Margaret Fay Shaw. Here’s an early image of one of Margaret’s family in the US with her little, no doubt cosseted, companion.

A black and white photograph of an Edwardian-looking young woman sitting in a chair and turning towards the camera. In her arms she holds a small white fluffy dog, who also looks towards the camera. The woman wears a long dark dress with a lace collar and cuffs. She also wears a black hat.
A much-loved furry friend is captured in an early photograph.

The Thom family owned the Isle of Canna before John and Margaret Campbell bought it in 1938. They were keen animal lovers and also keen early photographers. They’ve left us some delightful images of the pets who surrounded them in Canna House and Tighard (the house up the hill), including stray seagulls, rabbits and even a monkey. Here’s a lovely image of one of their spaniels and a tiny white puppy. We’re not quite sure whether the little creature on the right is a hairy guinea pig or a hairy wee dug!

Three dogs sit in a row on a white bench. The spaniel-type dog in the middle has curly black fur and is wearing a hat. To the left is a very tiny white puppy, sitting on some cloth. To the right is a very tiny terrier puppy.
Some of the Thom family pets posing nicely on a bench.

Margaret Fay Shaw first came to Scotland in 1920 as a schoolgirl and spent the next 9 years of her life travelling between Scotland and her home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She had a passion for animals from a young age and captured stray pooches with her camera on all her travels. Here’s an image of some retriever puppies which she took whilst on a visit to Edinburgh from her school, St Bride’s, in Helensburgh in 1921.

A black and white photograph of a woman and a man sitting on a wooden bench outside a stone house, with four black retriever puppies sitting between them. The man on the left leans out of the shot. The woman on the right wears a tweed skirt, white blouse and a tie.
Retriever puppies in Edinburgh, 1921

Margaret’s sister Elizabeth (Biddy) also visited Scotland, and Margaret captured her in 1921 playing with Bill the dog. The fashions in these early images immediately give us that crucial ‘sense of place and time’. The theme of using cats and dogs as ‘props’ for her photos continued right through Margaret’s long life, until her death in 2004.

When Margaret moved in with the Peathraichean NicRath – the Macrae sisters Peigi and Mairi, more often known by their Gaelic patronymic name ‘Peigi is Mairi Anndra na h-Àirigh Molaich’ – her life became largely centred around the people and animals of North Glendale, South Uist. She often spoke of the people’s kindness to animals, sometimes upon whom their very lives depended. Croft animals may have been largely working beasts but they were still very much members of the family. Margaret recounts in her biography the December night she walked to Daliburgh (some 5–6 miles from North Glendale), took tea with a friend and then went to walk home, accompanied by a neighbour’s young collie, Pat. She could see nothing, but Pat kept her to the side of the path, away from the treacherous bogs and deep drains where she could fall and drown.

I remember Pat running ahead of me in the moonlight, which was then brighter with the fog not so thick. He would run ahead and then lie down flat, absolutely exhausted on the road until I caught up with him and then hed get up and start off again. Instead of coming home at five or six oclock, I didnt arrive till after midnight.’

A black and white photograph of a sitting collie dog, with a white belly, in a grassy area with rocks.
Pat the collie

When John and Margaret got married in 1935, they moved to live on the island of Barra. Like most of the Hebridean islands, Barra is a paradise for dogs, with wide open moorland and long stretches of deserted beaches. The Campbells’ home was a little tin-roofed house on the shores of Northbay, where their animal family could sit on the doorstep and watch the whole world go by.

This little house was frequented by their many friends from near and far, friends who have become famous tradition bearers of lore and legend over the years. They often brought their pets with them to recording sessions! Here is Calum Johnston, famous piper and singer of Barra, and brother of another folklore legend, Annie Johnston. He’s playing the Highland bagpipes in this rendition of Thàinig Mo Rìgh air Tìr am Mùideart (‘My king has landed in Moidart’), recorded by John in 1962.

Mr Smith and the kitten may look the best of friends in the picture above but it was not always so! Margaret captured them on early film outside the house. Peigi Macrae accompanies the film, singing a little port a beul (dance song): ‘Mo Gheala Chas thu’ (‘My white-footed one’), recorded by John. Margaret also transcribed the song in her notebooks.

Mo Gheala Chas Thu, accompanied by Peigi Macrae

Mr Smith was a very inquisitive little dog and is seen below trying to unearth a rabbit! It was this inquisitiveness which became his downfall. He came to Canna with John and Margaret in 1938 and was very prone to chase rabbits up on the high cliffs of the island. One day he disappeared and after several days with no sign, it was assumed that he had chased rabbits on the cliffs and sadly chased them too far over the edge. He was much missed but he set the tradition for having cairn terriers on the island!

The steps of Canna House were the perfect setting for many of the images taken over the years of the Campbells and their canines. Here are two images of Margaret, taken 36 years apart but in the same spot – different cairn terriers obviously but still very much part of the family.

A montage image of two photographs of a lady sitting on stone steps outside a house with a small dog. On the left, the black and white photo shows a young woman with a cat in her lap and a small dog sitting on the step beside her feet. A door mat lies at the base of the steps. To the right, the colour photo shows an older woman standing on the steps. She wears a pink cardigan and is holding a small dog in her arms.
Margaret Fay Shaw with her beloved cairn terriers on the steps of Canna House, on the left in 1938; and on the right in 1974.

To conclude our celebration of the Canna canines, here are two delightful studies taken in the 1930s by Margaret of her nephews, sons of her sister Biddy.

Dogs on both sides of the Atlantic were central to the lives of John and Margaret Campbell, and they deserve just as much focus as the better-known Canna purrfect pussycats. We wish you a very happy National Dog Day!

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