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24 Apr 2020

John Lorne Campbell – ‘a Scottish patriot of unique stamp’

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna House Archivist
A black and white photo of a man sitting on a chair playing a bass flute. The photo is superimposed on another black and white photograph, in a grey tone, showing the same man standing in front of a grand house in 1938.
John Lorne Campbell as a student at Oxford in 1931, with his favourite bass flute, and in front of Canna House in 1938
Using excerpts from Professor Hugh Cheape’s obituary for John Lorne Campbell in 1996 and images from the Canna photographic archives, we take a snapshot of John’s life and his contribution to modern Scottish history.

‘Margaret Fay Shaw and John Lorne Campbell moved to Canna in 1938 after living on Barra for three years and with them came their love of life, animals, music, art, knowledge and stories. Every corner of Canna House holds a story as does every tiny object. Many of these will stay in the memories of us who knew them well but many others will never be heard again.’

So wrote Magda Sagarzazu in 2019, previous archivist for Canna House and lifelong friend and companion of John and Margaret Campbell.

Colour photograph of the head and shoulders of two women outside a stone house.
Fiona Mackenzie and Magda Sagarzazu, Canna House, July 2019

Magda knew the Campbells better than anyone else alive today and her life with them was one which she described as ‘a time filled with adventures, inspiration and many a revelation, added to the clarity one gets when living on a remote island’.

Magda first came to Canna from the Basque Country in 1960 as an 11-year-old with her sister and father and spent much of her childhood on the island, where she formed a very special bond with the Campbells, particularly John. She lived on with Margaret (or Marguerite as she still refers to her) in Canna House after John’s death in 1996, carrying on his work of cataloguing and documenting his extensive collections of archive papers and books.

It’s thanks to Magda’s dedication and commitment to the Campbell’s work that we’re able to produce this story of John’s life.

Colour photograph of a girl and two men sitting outside a grand stone house.
Magda with John (left) and her father Saturnino (middle), 1966

Most people who know of the Isle of Canna have heard something of John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret, but few will know the details of John Lorne’s own story and how he came to buy and live on Canna.

John died suddenly, whilst on their annual holiday at the Villa San Girolamo, part of a small convent retreat in the small town of Fiesole, Italy, on 25 April 25 1996.

Colour photograph of an elderly man and woman in a garden in front of a large urn filled with flowers.
John and Margaret on their last trip to Fiesole

John was interred, as he requested, ‘where he died’ in Italy, but was reinterred on his beloved Canna in 2006, in the bluebell woods he himself planted as a young man.

Gravestone of John Lorne Campbell, with pebbles in front of it.
John Lorne Campbell’s grave on Canna

Here, in commemoration of John’s death, we use the words of Professor Hugh Cheape, his executor and Vice President of the National Trust for Scotland, to tell us John’s story. The images are from the Canna archives, immaculately compiled and looked after in Canna House since his death by Magda, until she retired in 2015.

Colour photograph of a man and woman standing outside a house. The man is holding a dog.
John and Margaret outside Canna House, c1975

Obituary – John Lorne Campbell

by Professor Hugh Cheape, Thursday 2 May 1996

John Lorne Campbell of Canna was a Scottish patriot of unique stamp, a scholar of exceptional quality, and a generous friend to many both at home and beyond the shores of Scotland. His roots lay in the old heartland of the Scottish kingdom, where his pedigree of the Campbells of Craignish and Clann Thearlaich bear witness to the single-mindedness and fierce independence of spirit which was Campbell’s own mark.

The eldest son of Col Duncan Campbell of Inverneill on Loch Fyne and his American wife, Ethel Waterbury, of New Jersey, he was educated at Cargilfield School, Edinburgh, and Rugby.

He went on to St John’s College, Oxford, to read Rural Economy under Professor Sir James Scott Watson and Celtic under Professor John Fraser of Jesus College, graduating in 1929 and receiving his MA in 1933.

An interest in Gaelic from boyhood was fostered by Fraser, the gamekeeper’s son from Glenurquhart who became Campbell’s mentor. Campbell began work while at Oxford on a Gaelic anthology which became his first publication, Highland Songs of the Forty-Five, in 1933.

Top half of the frontispiece of a book: Highland Songs of the Forty-Five edited by John Lorne Campbell.
Frontispiece from John’s first published book

After Oxford, Campbell’s career took a fresh and momentous turn. Invited to Barra to study crofting conditions and colloquial Gaelic, his arrival in the Outer Hebrides on 4 August 1933 marked the beginning of a long and extraordinary life’s work of recovery and transmission of the Gaelic song, literary and linguistic record.

Black and white photograph of a man standing on rocks holding a fishing rod and equipment, with the sea in the background.
John Lorne Campbell at Northbay, Isle of Barra, taken by Margaret Fay Shaw

Sharing in the coterie which Compton Mackenzie had established at Northbay in Barra, Campbell himself stayed with the exceptional John Macpherson, County Councillor and postmaster, known to all as the Coddy.

With him, and other Barra notables, such as Neil Sinclair, the Sgoilear Ruadh, and Annie and Calum Johnston, he began to explore this unusual world of the Hebrides, then still, as in his own words, ‘like the old Highlands of the early 19th century’. Here Campbell became the pioneer of the modern collection and preservation of Gaelic song and story.

Black and white photograph of four older women, a man and a dog, with the sea behind them.
A rare image of Annie Johnston (left) and brother Calum (far right) together

Campbell was also a pioneer of technical methodology. His recording work advanced in step with contemporary developments; beginning with an Ediphone Recorder using wax cylinders, he progressed to a Presto Disc Recorder both obtained in New York as state-of-the-art equipment. He would often recall ruefully the difficulties and suspicion which he met in trying to get his equipment through the bureaucracy of customs.

Black and white photograph of a Presto sound recorder. The photo is superimposed on another photograph showing other recording equipment.
Recording machines

The linking of Scotland and Nova Scotia was another facet of Campbell’s innovative approach to Gaelic studies. ... He visited eastern Canada and Cape Breton in particular to discover the Gaelic oral tradition among the descendants of 18th- and 19th-century emigrants very much alive even after a separation of over 100 years. He also recorded the history and traditions of the Micmac Indians, the aboriginal inhabitants of the Maritime Provinces, while he was in Nova Scotia (1937). The significance of Cape Breton for Gaelic tradition was in his own words, as ‘a Highland Community where there are no lairds’.

Black and white photograph of a man standing at the entrance to Glenbard Cemetery.
John at Glenbard Cemetery, Cape Breton

Wishing to play a more active part in Hebridean affairs, John Lorne Campbell adopted the persona of laird and farmer when he bought the islands of Canna and Sanday in 1938, midway in the Minch between the mountainous seaboard to the east and the Outer Hebrides of the Uists and Barra to the west.

Black and white photograph of a man standing on an island with the sea behind him.
John on Canna in 1938

No celebration of Campbell's life could omit his marriage of 60 years to Margaret Fay Shaw of Glen Shaw, Pennsylvania, whom he met in South Uist in 1934 where she was collecting traditional Gaelic songs.

This rare partnership brought together her musical talents with his lexical skills, creating the treasure house of their lives and work in Canna.

The Isle of Canna was presented by John Lorne Campbell to the National Trust for Scotland in 1981, together with his library, archives and sound recordings and this gift of his life's work to Scotland was a gesture of enormous magnanimity.

John Lorne Campbell, Scottish Gaelic scholar, born Argyll 1 October 1906; FRSE 1989; OBE 1990; married Margaret Fay Shaw 1935; died near Fiesole, Italy, 25 April 1996

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