See all stories
12 May 2020

Margaret Fay Shaw’s diary of 1920/21

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna House archivist
A double page spread of a diary, with the right-hand side written in full.
A page from Margaret Fay Shaw’s school diary
You may not be able to physically visit our properties just now, but we can help you to access our collections in other ways. Here, we take another dip into the mind and diary of American teenager, Margaret Fay Shaw at school in Helensburgh, 1920/21 not long after the Spanish flu pandemic.

Margaret went on to become one of the world’s most important folklorists of Scotland’s Gaelic culture and heritage as well as being one of the world’s first female photographers. Part 1 described the winter Margaret spent at St Bride’s School. Here she tells us more of her life in school, her travels, her lessons and her teachers. As before, all the spelling and grammar is Margaret’s own, left as she wrote it. The original photos are examples of her early work as a photographer. Margaret wrote her diary back to front and we reproduce it here as she wrote it.

Black and white photograph of a terrace of a large Victorian building with several bay windows.
St Bride’s School, Helensburgh

Margaret begins her stories with a trip to Edinburgh.

Friday 1 April (1921)

Went with Aunt Annie to explore the High Street. Went through about seven hundred different closes. Went to lots of antique shops, the last being John Knox’s house which is filled with wonderful old books. I hope to be able to purchase one to take home. We went to visit a home for “Prevention of Cruelty to Children”. Lots of dear kids.

This afternoon went to Mackie’s with Mademoiselle, the English girls, Bea & Gilbert for tea. Had marvelous meringues

Saturday 2 April

Aunt Jeanie and Uncle Fred came to stay. Stayed for lunch so Gilbert and I went to Macvities for lunch as there was no room here. Had a good lunch and fought all the way home with Gilbert. We went for a huge long walk after lunch with Uncle H & Miss Douglas – over the Braids Hills and across to Liberton. It was a glorious day and the view was sublime. Heard and saw my first sky lark.

Tuesday 12 April

Back at school in the same old way – Lessons seem more interesting than I thought. Lots of mail from Kay, Jesse, Bid and Mrs Herspinger.

Black and white photograph of a family in 1909, all wearing hats.
This image from 1909 shows the young Shaw family. From the left, Katharine (Kay), Elizabeth (Bid or Biddy), Henry Clay (father), Fanny Patchin (mother), Margaret Fay, Martha (Caroline is missing)

Wednesday 13 April

Stayed at home because of slight cold – no mail – nuthin’ except plenty of rain.

Black and white sketch of a cartoon character holding an umbrella, with rain lashing down and wind.
Sketch from Margaret’s diary

Monday 25 April

A red letter day. – a music lesson. Mr Barratt was in a prize mood – and played all manner of pieces and talked all about music and concerts he had heard. We also conversed about Miss Renton, Scotch girls, Americans and how to get along with the Bogue. I came home feeling rather fatigue and as I blew my nose during tea I was sent to bed alas! Miss Brown didn’t know what a treat she was donating me by going to bed and I escaped doing my French essay!

Black and white sketch of the upper bodies of three people. Two look grumpy, one is smiling.
A sketch from Margaret’s diary, showing the ‘Bogue’

Tuesday 26 April

Stayed in bed all day and ate tea and hot milk or rather I drank it! I got a letter from Kay which told me about Ann Wells dying. If Heaven is composed of such souls as hers, what a divine place it must be. I never felt more sick of my ignorant, worthless self. I don’t know what to do or say but only can strive to …

Wednesday 27 April

Didn’t get up till tea time and after writing a few home letters, I went back to bed where I did my theory prep and sang new songs of my own making to R.L.S “Child’s Garden of Verses” – much to the dismay of Miss Cadzow who is like wise in bed.

Thursday 28 April

Got up for breakfast and stayed home from school all day. Walked down street with Miss Armstrong and enjoyed the weather (no rain), the lovely feeling of summer coming and the new blossoms on the fruit trees.

Two girls in Edwardian school uniform, wearing long skirts, white shirts and a tie. Both are standing in front of bushes with lots of blossom.
This is Margaret Fay Shaw (right) with her friend Beatrice ( Bea) Hodge (left) in the garden at St Bride’s

Wednesday May 25

After a very tiresome day I was called out of music class by Bogie to see an American! I went in office where I found Bea and her cousin Oliver Morse. He invited us and Margot to have supper on the boat – so with Miss Armstrong as ‘chap’, we got in a motor launch and in a rotten, rough sea, got to the boat.

[We’d love to know if anyone has any information about which ‘boat’ this might have been. One of the paddle steamers perhaps?]

Black and white photograph of the front of the LMS hotel in Edinburgh in the 1920s. Two cars are waiting outside, and a woman is walking past.
Edinburgh city centre

Thursday 9 June

First day back at school this week. Miss Brown was in Edinburgh for the day. I practiced very diligently and finished reading “Twenty Years After”, which I enjoyed tremendously. Terrible storm tonight. A huge gale and a deluge of rain. The Clyde looks like a boiling cauldron and the boats are nearly capsizing. Jean Holmes fell off her bike coming home from game to prevent hitting a wee kid. Jean hurt both hands dreadfully. A ‘postle’ from Margot who is having a great time.

Book cover of Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas. The lettering is gold-coloured on a plain red background.

Friday 10 June

Bea was sublimely ill during the night. Miss Brown called it a ‘chill’! Bea was clean off her trolley and so after our first scare she offered great amusement.

Mail came from Kay who is vacationing at Cincinatti, a wild letter from Jesse and Mrs Hersperger.

Went over to see Miss Renton who was very nice and civil.

The new “Cameronia” is anchored right out by the battle ships tonight. She looks powerful big. Bea is much better and got up this afternoon.

Black and white photograph of a boat steaming through the water.
The Cameronia

Saturday 11 June

Today we had the form picnic. So after cleaning up my bureau and darning my stockings, Bea and I pumped up our own bicycle tires and trotted up the Luss road where we met the rest of the form. We cycled to the Fruin river and had a glorious picnic, eating all many of junk and drinking bottles of ginger beer and lemonade. We watched some nice boy scouts build a camp and gave them all the cakes and sandwitches we couldn’t eat. We came home about 8 o clock more dead than alive and Bea broke two cups – as usual.

Part 3 will follow soon, with more stories and cartoons from Margaret’s own pen.

Support us today

Your donation to help us protect everything that makes Scotland special and unique is more important than ever.

Donate now