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12 Jun 2020

Magda Sagarzazu: Keeper of Canna’s Flame

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie
A close-up of a woman sitting, wearing a navy fleece with a pink and white scarf.
Magda Sagarzazu of Canna and the Basque Country
The name of Magda Sagarzazu will long be associated with Canna and Canna House. On the sad occasion of her passing, at the age of 70, we’re remembering her colourful life and the immense contribution she has made to Scotland’s heritage and culture.

‘My idea of an island as a child was a piece of land with palm trees! But I arrived to a beautiful real island. Canna House, the garden, the cats, the Steinway grand piano, books in every room on all topics – it had a great charm for me immediately.’

So wrote Magdalena (Magda) Sagarzazu, ‘adoptive’ Scot, of her first visit to the Isle of Canna in April 1962. Magda herself was never quite sure when she first came to the island with her father Saturnino Sagarzazu (who was a close friend of folklorist John Lorne Campbell) and her sister Maria Carmen, but Canna House diaries and visitor books give us the exact date of their arrival: Sunday 29 April 1962. That fateful trip on Bruce Watt’s boat, MV Western Isles, was the beginning of a long and fruitful love affair with Canna.

A colour photograph of three men and two women standing outside a grand stone building in the 1960s.
The Sagarzazu family and John Lorne Campbell standing outside the Morar Hotel in 1962, with Mr MacKellaig, hotel owner. I believe this image was taken the night before the family first came to Canna.

Magda came to Canna from the Basque Country, after the death of her mother in 1958. That first visit lasted almost six months and was to become an annual trip for the family. The family lived in TighArd House, which sits above Canna House. Magda and her sister spent their summers exploring every nook and cranny of the island’s beaches and moors, fishing for lobsters and swimming off the Traigh Bhàin on the neighbouring island of Sanday.

A colour photograph of a man rowing a dinghy in blue waters, close to the shore. A young woman sits at the front of the dinghy and a small terrier dog stands at the side.
Magda and her father, Saturnino

Magda described her time on Canna as an ‘education itself. There was so much. It was a house of many languages – we would speak French at the table and with Margaret (Fay Shaw Campbell), until we learnt English. That is why to this day (2018) I call her Marguerite. With Juan (John) we would speak Spanish and sometimes a little Basque, with my sister and father.’ This multi-cultural, multi-lingual environment grew to include Gaelic and Gaelic song. At that time, she had little idea of how this culture would become the pivotal focus for her adult working life.

Colour photograph of a girl and two men sitting outside a grand stone house.
Magda (aged 16), John and Saturnino outside Canna House

The library, photographs and the hundreds of sound recordings in Canna House became part of her daily life when living on Canna. They had such meaning for her that, after training in administration and commerce in Spain, she decided to retrain as a teacher to enable her to spend long summer holidays on Canna, helping John with his literary work and the cataloguing of the extensive collections. When John died in 1996 in Italy, it was Magda and Maria Carmen who accompanied Margaret back to Canna to assist with the legalities of John’s estate and sort out his considerable paper archives. It was Magda, too, who dug a place for John’s remains to be eventually laid in Canna soil after the statutory ten years in an Italian ossuary. In 2006, she chose a shady glade in the little bluebell woods that John himself planted as a young man in the 1930s.

A smiling woman crouches in a doorway and pets a small dog. An elderly man sits on the outside wall beside her, also smiling at the camera.
Magda and John Lorne Campbell

When Margaret decided to stay on Canna, Magda took the decision to give up her teaching job and move to Canna full-time to continue John’s work and be a companion to Margaret, then aged 93.

Her work grew into that of an archivist and she was appointed to this role by the National Trust for Scotland, to whom John had gifted the island in 1981. Magda lived in Canna House with Margaret until Margaret’s death in 2004. She then took up residence in the little white, iconically Hebridean, cottage Doirlinn, with the green gate looking out over Canna Bay.

Over the years, that house became the focus of many soirées where the Gaelic, Basque, Spanish, Italian and English tongues could be heard in equal measure, accompanying songs, darts matches, dancing and, of course, pintxos – that Basque gastronomic delight. Spanish/Gaelic classes were the norm of a winter evening and Magda welcomed in any stray or stranded visitor to the island, offering hospitality, a glass of Cava and a warm smile. Her welcoming nature and sense of fun became her signature ‘default’; there is not a man on earth who did not crumble when confronted by her twinkly eye and her preciosa grin.

A woman stands on a stone pier, smiling at the camera. Hills and woods can be seen in the background, on a bright sunny day.
Magda on Canna pier

Magda’s professional contribution, not only to the heritage contained within Canna House but also to Scotland and the wider world, is immeasurable. She fiercely promoted and advocated the work of the Campbells, increasing awareness in every letter, lecture, broadcast and newspaper article. After John and Margaret died, Magda continued with the archiving and cataloguing of the Campbells’ extensive paper archive of correspondence, manuscripts and research writings. She answered the daily research enquiries that came from right across the world, from some of the most hallowed halls of learning including Harvard, Oxford and Dublin, and she established close relationships with many chairs of academia. Her name became synonymous with Canna House. The work carried out by Magda is very likely the greatest contribution to worldwide recognition of Scottish cultural significance to be found anywhere.

Simon Skinner, Chief Executive Officer of the National Trust for Scotland, has paid tribute to Magda:

‘The National Trust for Scotland is thought of for the buildings, places and objects which are in our care. In truth, it is the people who work for the Trust who breathe light, life and meaning into our heritage, inspiring people to engage, value and continue to protect the cultural, natural and built markers of our past. While I didn’t have the pleasure of working with Magda directly, her contribution to and passion for Canna has made her synonymous with this special place, and the Trust’s role there.

‘As archivist for Canna House, Magda was deeply valued for her professionalism, knowledge and care of the internationally significant collection housed there. From the remoteness of Canna, Magda ensured that the collections were known throughout the Trust and across the world. However, what made Magda stand out, and what everyone I have spoken to has remembered, is that Magda was so much more than an archivist. Her innate knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, every part of the collection meant that she had a story about every part of the house, each document and the tissue-wrapped contents of every drawer. This care for the collection transferred seamlessly to everyone Magda came into contact with, and her extreme kindness, consideration and warmth are remembered by colleagues and by many within our Patrons’ Club, who have lost a very dear friend. I also feel as if the Trust has lost one of our closest friends – Magda was a direct link with John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw. She had a mission to spread the knowledge of Canna and Canna House, and did it with determination, grace and passion.’

A woman and man in conversation, standing in front of several National Trust for Scotland banners and a leaflet display. Both are smartly dressed.
Magda with Simon Skinner, Chief Executive Officer of the National Trust for Scotland

Magda’s work was recognised by the National Trust for Scotland in 2015 when she was presented with the George Waterston Memorial Award for an employee of exceptional integrity and commitment. She was also recognised the following year by the Saltire Society as one of Scotland’s Outstanding Women of the Year, alongside musician Annie Lennox and author J K Rowling. Magda contributed to several learned publications, including her paper on ‘Alexander Macdonald – Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair – Bard of the Gaelic enlightenment’ (Islands Book Trust, 2013). She also contributed a slide video to the Scotland’s Stories project a few years ago.

We had already been friends for years, but in 2015, when she retired, Magda took me under her wing as her ‘little bird’ and guided me through the enormous, privileged task of becoming the first port of call for information on John and Margaret Campbell. Many is the time, sitting in the sitting room window of Canna House, that she would entrance me with her memories of Marguerite’s pithy stories and John’s sense of fun, the pranks he played and the travels she had with them. She told the story of why there is a hole in the gate to Doirlinn now – to allow her little Cairn terrier Patxu to have lovelorn conversations with the seal who visited the shore every day.

A woman sits on a wooden bench inside a porch. She cuddles a black terrier on her lap.
Magda and Patxu

Magda’s warm smile and welcoming spirit inspired people across the globe to write about her. Celebrated Gaelic writer Angus Peter Campbell, with a South Uist heritage as solid as any of the Uist contributors whose songs and stories Magda spent hours cataloguing, wrote a poem about her in English and Gaelic for a National Trust for Scotland Patrons evening some years ago:

What a beautiful name to have flown all the way
from the Biblical plains like a butterfly right across Europe
to alight in our midst on the hive of Canna.
The bees have gone, those gathers of the nectar
which became the sweet honey of learning, the pollen of songs
and stories, the wax of our civilisation
And in the great orchard of Gaelic this summers day, what strikes the eye
moving in the crystal sky, is of course the Dealan-dé (butterfly)
the flame of God, carrying the whole world on it shimmering.

A display case with pinned butterflies and labels.
A tray of some of the butterflies collected by John Lorne Campbell on Canna

Magda had a long battle with health issues but retained to the end her sense of fun and sparkle. My last conversation with her, my best friend, was a few days ago. We talked of the Canna cuckoo returning to the trees in the garden, the lambs in the fields, the new Beltie calves with their ‘Oreo’ tummies and the pink Rum sunsets returning for the summer. Her heart remains on Canna, the island which she often said was her ‘healing island, wrapping its arms around her’.

In my efforts to continue her work, I will keep her enduring friendship close and sit among the bluebells for her, every spring.

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

Magda Sagarzazu passed away in San Sebastián on Wednesday 3 June 2020 with her husband Joaquin and family around her. Her family in Scotland were unable to travel to be with her but hope to have a memorial in Scotland when travel restrictions ease.

The Basque flag flies on a flagpole in a garden. A collie dog stands in the foreground.
Basque flag flying in Canna House Garden