See all stories
4 Aug 2020

Margaret Fay Shaw’s diary – the voyage to Scotland in 1920

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna House archivist
Black and white image of a woman on board a ship standing next to the rails. On the right is a brochure of the Anchor Line Passenger List.
In 1920, Margaret Fay Shaw sailed to Scotland for the first time, on her way to school in Helensburgh. Read about her hilarious adventures and see the images she took on board the TSS Columbia. The unique spelling and punctuation is her own!

Saturday 11 September 1920

Black and white photo of a steam ship with three large funnels, sailing on the sea
Margaret’s image of the TSS Columbia

Set sail one o clock on TSS Columbia. Had a very queer feeling at first but it soon passed away. My room mate, Miss Agnes Niven is a teacher, thoroughly scotch. She is about 45 should think. We havn’t had much to do except walk the deck and lounge on the steamer chairs. The weather is fine and the Atlantic like a mill pond. You would never know the boat moved except for an un-appetizing little tremor.

Black and white photo of two women aboard a ship.
Miss Niven and Margaret on board the TSS Columbia

We had a beautiful night and watched the steerage dance Irish jigs with the stars for light. The man played “Beautiful Ohio” on his hurdy-gurdy. Made me feel might queer, but such is life!


Made 294 miles from yesterday till 12 o clock today.

We had a very sleepless but interesting night. I think all the engines are under My bed.

Black and white photo of a cabin aboard a ship, with a single bed on the left and two sinks.
The stateroom on the TSS Columbia (© Museum of City of New York)

They washed the decks all night spending at least eight hours under one window. But this AM and I feel fine and had a good hot salt bath. The sea is getting very rough and everyone looks “right seedy”. There’s lots of nice people onboard. I walked the deck – miles – with a nice Mr Waldern who is making his 64th trip. We’re having quite a storm and very few were at the dinner and quite a few left while dinner was in process!!

In a letter home from the ship, Margaret later wrote that her friend Marshall was sick for the first 4 days for it was awful rough and we went “Wop with a wiggle between”’ a reference to Rudyard Kipling’s poem Fifty North and Forty West.


Last night was rather rough and today is even more so. There are very few on deck. We spent most of our time reading in deck chairs and walking the deck. I havnt missed a meal and am enjoying the best of health. I cought [sp.] a bird on deck – I think it’s a peteral [sp.]. Its very tame and is bunking in our room in a shoe box. For night we played poker with Mr Douglas – an old Scot from St Louis and I lost everything and hope to get a few pointers from the deck steward who is very nice!! (its rolling hard).


Still very rough. Slept like a log last night. Cabell Marshall came out on deck and feels much better. I hope she’ll be about soon as shes the only girl my age and I need someone. We saw Cape Race lighthouse 8 miles away. Last land mark till Ireland!!!

Newfoundland stamp of Cape Race for 20 cents.
Cape Race stamp

Captain Boone has a daughter at St Brides. Mr Walden is becoming rather a bore. Oh yes the bird died during the night. I was very sorry as it was very tame and rather pretty. Really feeling much better – enjoying my meals. Etc. Its getting very cold with a strong wind.


A lovely day. Not any sunshine but warmer with a calmer sea. Played shuffle board – and put the disk overboard at first shot. However I’m improving. There’s a very nice little boy traveling all by himself to Dundee.

Black and white photo of two small boys in hats on board a ship.
Two boys on the TSS Columbia

We have quite some fun. Especially at mealtimes. Mr Walden (he sits at our table) had extra dry port wine for us for dinner. He didn’t like my not taking any. He drinks all the time – stout for lunch, 3 whisky sodas between meals & wine for dinner etc!!!

Black and white photo of a dining saloon on board a ship, with the tables all set for a meal.
The dining saloon on the TSS Columbia (© Museum of City of New York)


Discovered a lovely hurdy-gurdy piano on deck – it’s used for church & dances but about falling to pieces – but you still can make her “jazz”. The piano in the saloon has a beautiful tone and sounds better for good music only.

Black and white photo of a music room on a ship.
The music room on the TSS Columbia

Played shuffle board today with Mr Kelly, one of the chief officers. We won 2 out of the 3. The weather is perfectly wonderful – bright sun and blue water with lovely white caps. Theres also many gulls. We had a fire drill this afternoon which was rather interesting! “the old gal is rolling”.


Calm again. I had some dandy games of shuffle board with Chief Officer Kelly as a partner. Chief Engineer Moncier took seven of us through the engine rooms today. Way down. 5 feet between Yours Truly and the merry blue sea. Saw the coal furnaces and the poor stokers. The air was bad and smelt heavily of oil. It made your head terribly light, but it was wonderfully interesting. Saw a school of porpoises today. We have a new moon and the piano still works with 3 admirers to listen to it!!!


More shuffle board but lost heavily. Explored with Enid Bell, most of the ship steerage & 2nd class – alright except for the bad odors. We’re going to see land tomorrow – Ireland and land at Moville late at night. We arrive in Glasgow Monday afternoon. Tonight we went to a concert down in 2nd class. All local talent – most of them very good – the best singer was our deck steward Mr Edmundson(?). He sang “Dear Old Pal”, heavenly. One other performer was so pickled he couldn’t stand and nearly all the rest were a little tipsy.


Very quite [sp.] and peaceful. Went to church in the saloon. Dr Ross preached – and it was very interesting – he being on his way to India as a missionary. The rest of the afternoon was spent in walking the deck with Freddy who told me all about the 1st Division in France. He was very entertaining. Last hours were spent on deck, feeling very sad & homesick as it is our last night. At 10.30 we saw a lighthouse on the coast of Ireland. We are nearing the end of a perfectly Wonderful trip. (I’m getting cold feet!!).


Got up at 4.45am. We were just coming into Moville. Still black as pitch, hardly able to see the top of the hills. The water black & only about 3 stars out – 2 red light houses at the mouth of the river and 2 lights at Moville but a battle cruiser is standing not far off with every light on as the sinn feiners [sp.] are blowing up the light houses. The sun suddenly came up among lots of big gray clouds and lit up the town – perfect – everything laid out in squares and the lovliest little houses. Reminded me of Oz. The passengers were let off in tenders, sorry to see them go. Will never be able to describe the scenry [sp.] from then on. Wonderful is mild – We passed the Giant Causeway & started up to Scotland. I’ll have to finish this tomorrow.

Black and white photo of a low-lying coastline, with a rowing boat in the foreground on the sea.
The coast of Ireland


The rest of the journey was lovely, quite a lot of rain but it soon passed away leaving lovely big gray clouds. We had lovely calm weather and the scenery was marvellous, especially Arran with the tops of the mountains hidden in the clouds and the hill sides dotted with cattle and sunlight!

Black and white photo of the sea, with land in the distance.
Almost there!

We passed Helensburgh on our left and soon came in to the narrow Clyde just at the setting of the sun. The great cranes & scaffilding [sp.] being siluated [sp.] against the red sky! We arrived at six but did not disembark until 8.15 in the dark. I had a hard time getting off as they insisted on Marshall & Charlie & I waiting until somebody claimed us. But at last they got us off and some kind young gentleman friend of the captains grabbed me by the arm and right out in the middle of a horrible crowd in the middle of a street, and yelled “Hodge”, “Hodge” and all the police yelled Hodge and suddenly out of the tumult appeared Gilbert with Aunt Annie so I was saved.

The top half of the page of a hand-written diary.
Diary excerpt

We had no trouble with our luggage and soon arrived at a funny old boarding house called Lorna Doone near the Botanical gardens. I had a lovely sleep and next day (Tuesday) spent in seeing Glasgow & buying a few necessities for school, sp, hats etc Then I went at 3.30 to the Duchesses for tea (Mrs C Beith), with Aunt Anne. I was crazy about her. Her house was lovely. Reminded me greatly of Dickens for she had a funny old coal fire & she sat in a chair with a very high back and everything was covered with funny pink figured cretons [sp. cretonnes!] The tea was dilicious [sp.] with 7 different kinds of cake. Yum! Yum! Then in the evening we went to call on the Millers. Had another lovely time. Bea had to travel by both tram & wheelchair for she has a sore toe (this all happened Tuesday). Wednesday we all packed – Gib & Aunt A for London on Tuesday, & Bea and I for Helensburgh.

Black and white photo of a large house, with an advert for a school superimposed on it.
Advert for a high school in Helensburgh

We left for St Bride’s that afternoon with piles of luggage & arrived within a great time. First ride on an English train! We hired a cart and got to Birkhall just at tea – met Miss Renton*. She has the coldest, lonely, horrible office I was ever in. Everything old & ugly – she included ...

*Miss Renton was the Headmistress of St Bride's School. She was very strict and demanded high standards in everything’.

Explore Canna

Visit now