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2 Aug 2019

Making Canna’s photo collections digital

Written by Lily Barnes, Morton Project Documentation and Digitisation Officer
A black and white photo of a young woman sitting on a hillside in the 1930s. A mat is spread out next to her.
Margaret Fay Shaw
Morton Project Documentation and Digitisation Officer Lily Barnes tells us more about the digitisation of thousands of photographs in Canna House.

The Morton Charitable Trust has been funding fieldwork on the National Trust for Scotland’s photographic collections since 2014. Throughout 2018–19, I’ve been working to fully digitise and document the Margaret Fay Shaw collection.

Throughout her lifetime, Margaret Fay Shaw took thousands of photos documenting life in the Hebrides. Her work is significant for its scale, its subject matter, and the fact that she was a woman working in photography throughout the 20th century.

A black and white photo of a young woman sitting on some rocks with a large box camera around her neck. The woman has short hair tucked behind her ears and wears glasses. She is looking down at the camera.
Margaret with her Graflex camera at Inishmore, 1929. This object, along with the rest of the collection, is stored at Canna House.

What happens when a collection is ‘documented’ or ‘digitised’, and why is it so important?

Documentation refers to information connected to an object in our collection. This can include almost anything; the type of information we’re able to record depends on the type of collection – and how good record-keeping has been in the past. This information contextualises the object; it tells us how and why it’s important.

The aim is to have all the information we have about an object in one place. We begin by creating a digital record for that object, and by assigning it a unique identifying number. Then begins the more difficult task of filling in the blanks. When and where was the object made, and who by? What is it made of, how big is it, and is it damaged in any way? Where is it kept, and what does it look like?

A black and white photo of a woman standing at the shore edge, holding a large net. She is pointing along the beach.
Sheila Lockett on Canna

Some of these questions can be answered by the object itself. In this photograph, we can see the island of Rùm in the background, so we can tell it was taken on Canna, just in front of Canna House. The woman in the photograph is Sheila Lockett, who came to the island to work for Margaret’s husband as a secretary in 1950.

Other times it’s not so simple. That means it’s time do some research and to try and connect the photograph with other historical sources. Margaret wrote two books during her life, Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist and her autobiography, From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides. Sometimes these texts can help us to track down a particular person or place and to make sense of any object. We can also compare the photograph to others in the collection to try and find a match, and make use of existing catalogues and archival material. If all else fails, we can also take to the internet!

A row of fairly modern small gravestones in a cemetery. A low fence surrounds the plot. In the background are larger grave stones and monuments.
An online search of grave records allowed us to confirm this as the resting place of some of Margaret’s ancestors in Old Bennington Cemetery, Vermont.

Digitisation is less complicated. With regards to this project, digitisation means making high-quality, high-resolution scans of each object. These images act as a ‘digital surrogate’ for the object itself, meaning that – in future – it’ll be possible to access, use and research the collection without catching a ferry to the Small Isles. This means that more people will be able to learn from and enjoy the Margaret Fay Shaw collection, while also reducing the amount of handling and movement the objects receive, which helps to preserve them for future generations.

As with documentation, we try to capture as much information about the object as possible when digitising. For a negative, we create two images. The first shows the negative as a negative, which gives us an idea of the object itself. This image can also be ‘developed’ like a physical negative, meaning we could make multiple different versions of it in response to future needs. We also create an inverted image of the negative, so that we can see what it is the object actually shows.

A negative image of a polar bear in a zoo, standing on its hind legs. Ghostly white trees are behind the enclosure wall.
A polar bear in Edinburgh Zoo, 1936 – negative
A black and white image of a polar bear in a zoo, standing on its hind legs. Bare-branched trees are behind the stone enclosure wall. An object is blurring the bottom right corner of the image.
A polar bear in Edinburgh Zoo, 1936 – inverted image

We also create two images of prints, capturing the front and the back, so that we don’t miss any important inscriptions or markings, which might tell us more.

The reverse side of an old photograph with some handwritten notes as well as printed markings. The number 206216 is printed in the top right corner, along with the Velox water mark at various points. Handwritten is: Margaret Fay Shaw, Graflex camera, scan/print 05377 | Sol o mio! Dun Oghil, [unknown word]
This is the reverse of the above image of Margaret and her Graflex camera. Her caption tells us when and where the photograph was taken.

Sometimes it’s hard to see how information on the back of a print could be useful. But it’s impossible to know what might be relevant or important to future researchers, so we preserve it anyway.

After more than a year of scanning, measuring and detective work, we’ll be finished with the Margaret Fay Shaw collection in autumn 2019. After that, we’ll move on to document and digitise more of the Trust’s photographic collections, preserving them for the future, and for the love of Scotland.