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27 Jun 2019

Margaret Fay Shaw’s photographs of the women of South Uist – Canna House

Written by Lily Barnes – Documentation Officer, Morton Photography Project
A black and white photo of an older woman spinning using a drop spindle. She stands outside wears a woollen headscarf.
© National Trust for Scotland, Canna House
Over the past few years, Project Reveal and the Morton Photography Project have been working to document and digitise the National Trust for Scotland’s historical collections. Along the way, they have discovered the stories of several women and girls. Some are already known to Trust staff and visitors, while some have been overshadowed by others associated with them, or simply overlooked and forgotten. Throughout this series, members of the project teams will share their experiences, thoughts and research to show how the objects we care for can reveal new ways of thinking about Scotland’s women.

Margaret Fay Shaw’s photographs and writings offer a unique glimpse into the lives of the women of South Uist in the middle of the 20th century. While the photographs are Margaret’s creations, the songs and stories recorded in her book Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist come directly from the women she photographed. What can these songs tell us about them and their position within their community? How does this compare with Margaret’s portrayal of them?

A black and white photo of two older women sitting on two large stones. Peigi MacRae sits to the right, holding a large book.
Two-thirds of the people who contributed to Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist, like the MacRae sisters, were women​. © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

The songs and stories in Folksongs and Folklore mention only four women by name: the Virgin Mary, Flora MacDonald, Queen Victoria and, most tellingly, St Bride. In the Gaelic tradition, St Bride was miraculously transported to Bethlehem to act as midwife to the Virgin Mary. She is also specifically linked to South Uist, coming to shore on the island with an oystercatcher (known as Gille Brighde or ‘Servants of St Bride’ in Gaelic) on each of her wrists. As such, she is a decidedly local icon, and emblematic of both girlhood and maternity. The importance of these traditional roles to the people of South Uist is reiterated throughout Folksongs and Folklore: half the references to women concern mothers and wives, while a further quarter deal with girls and maidens.

A black and white photo of a family seated on a hillside. Peigi Nill is at the centre, surrounded by children.
Margaret’s photographs support this idea, showing women at the centre of their families. © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

These standardised types seem to suggest that women’s experiences and activities were highly restricted by their gender. Furthermore, a large proportion of Folksongs and Folklore is dedicated to waulking songs. Waulking is a central process in the production of homespun cloth and was practised exclusively by women. This equation of women with the ‘soft’ work of making textiles reiterates their inherently domestic position in their communities.

A black and white photo of an older woman spinning using a drop spindle. She stands outside wears a woollen headscarf.
Margaret frequently photographed women engaged in different elements of textile production. © National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

However, the reality as revealed by Margaret’s photographs is extremely different. Life on South Uist was precarious, and required constant work. Women certainly did fulfil the traditional roles of wife and mother, but this was far from their only duty. They were required to take part in farming to produce food, and to undertake a number of physical tasks to maintain their land and homes. Some, like Margaret’s hosts the MacRae sisters, also supported themselves with jobs in domestic service.

With this in mind, the story of St Bride’s flight to the Virgin Mary, and her position as a role model, takes on new significance. Her holy midwifery, as well as her patronage of (among others) blacksmiths, poultry raisers and dairy workers, can be seen to symbolise the adaptability essential to the lives of the women on South Uist, and to their roles within their communities. Not just confined to the traditional ideals of domestic femininity, St Bride also achieves the impossible. Through their words recorded in Margaret’s writings, and their images preserved in her photographs, we see that the women of South Uist followed her example in their daily lives.

This article is part of the Revealing Scotland’s Women series – read about E A Hornel’s depictions of women and girls and the life of Miss Toward of the Tenement House.

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