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25 Jan 2019

Photogenic felines

Written by Lily Barnes, Morton Project Documentation and Digitisation Officer
A black and white photograph of a large crayfish and a tabby cat sitting on a low stone wall beside a shoreline on Barra. The cat sits to the right, and leans down slightly to look at the crayfish.
Uilleam Dona (Wicked Willy) inspects a huge crayfish near the shoreline on Barra (taken by Margaret Fay Shaw c1935–36 ©National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)
Animals played a key part in the life of Margaret Fay Shaw, and were a mainstay of her photography. She shared her long life with cows, dogs, birds and even the odd seal. Perhaps her favourite animals, however, and the stars of so many of the images she left behind, were cats.

Margaret’s passion for cats started during her childhood in Pennsylvania. She and her four sisters grew up surrounded by all manner of ‘fine Toms with Old Testament names’. As is to be expected, the name of her favourite – Tiglath-Pilezar – simply rolls off the tongue! This love of cats seems to have been shared by her sisters. In what may be the only surviving image of all five Shaw women together, Margaret’s older sister Caroline ensures a cat takes centre stage.

A black and white photograph of five women sitting in front of a fireplace. At the centre, one of them is holding a cat.
The Shaw sisters – Katherine (Kay), Martha, Caroline, Elizabeth (Biddy) and Margaret – share a warm fireside with a feline friend (taken by Margaret Fay Shaw ©National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

Margaret’s photographs were taken over almost the entire 20th century, across a huge area of the globe. Yet, wherever and whenever they were taken, there’s no shortage of cats sunbathing, preening and prowling across them. Despite this abundance of meowing models, however, there are still a few celebrities.

The first of these entered Margaret’s life while she was living on South Uist. One day, while buying supplies from a shop in Lochboisdale, Màiri Anndra (Màiri MacRae) was persuaded to take a small brown kitten back to her blackhouse in North Glendale. Màiri probably didn’t take much convincing. Margaret noted that it became apparent that Màiri shared her love of cats shortly after Margaret moved in with her and her family. The ‘cute little brown furry kitten’ grew into a ‘woolly brown tabb[y] with [a] magnificent tai[l]’. He earned the soubriquet Uilleam Dona (Wicked Willy) and can be seen keeping Màiri company throughout Margaret’s photographs of South Uist.

A black and white photograph of an older woman knitting beside a fire place with a tabby cat on her lap.
Uilleam Dona and Màiri Anndra keep cosy by the fire (taken by Margaret Fay Shaw in 1931 ©National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

After marrying John Lorne Campbell in 1935, Margaret moved to the island of Barra. Màiri insisted that she taken Uilleam with her. Margaret took many photographs of Uilleam sitting on the front step of her house at Northbay, capturing in his expression the evident sunny disposition which perhaps earned him his name.

A black and white photograph of a tabby cat and a small pale terrier sitting on a stone step in front of a metal house.
Uilleam Dona and canine companion Mr Smith on the steps of Margaret and John’s first home at Northbay, Barra (taken by Margaret Fay Shaw c1935–38 ©National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

In 1938, John purchased the island of Canna, and he and Margaret soon relocated there. Uilleam went with them and, as the images of his abundant descendants prove, moving to the island of Canna did nothing to curb Margaret’s passion for cats. She described the island as a ‘paradise for cats’:

… no traffic nor traps, a world of their own to explore, fields and woods, moor and high hills, good hunting for rabbits and always a fireside with plentiful food as well as being petted or enjoyed.

Relocating also seems to have done nothing to dampen Margaret’s enthusiasm for dreaming up imaginative names for her pets. It’s true that she seems to have been struck by a lack of creativity when picking the name Leo for a particularly lion-like specimen. But she soon returned to form by taking inspiration from the Old Testament names given to her pets in Pennsylvania – a ‘saffron chest[ed]’ half Siamese named Reuben soon joined the brood.

A black and white photograph a woman sitting on the front steps of a house looking at a cat which sits to her left.
Sheila Lockett relaxes on the steps of Canna House with Reuben (taken by Margaret Fay Shaw c1950–69 ©National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

Perhaps it was also whilst flicking through the pages of her bible that she settled upon the name Satan for a sleek black Tom. The hellish origins seem not to have bothered Father Rutledge, the priest of Canna’s St Edward’s Church, who is photographed cuddling the malignant moggy.

A colour photograph of a priest holding a black cat with green eyes. The priest is bald and wears glasses and a black coat.
Father Rutledge getting friendly with Satan in Canna House Garden (taken by Margaret Fay Shaw in 1956 ©National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

Having a large house and plenty of land to herself also allowed Margaret to begin breeding Siamese cats, which is where the second star of the endless parade of cats comes in. Though John and Margaret loved all members of their growing tribe of felines, by far their favourite seems to have been Pooni. Amongst the hordes of Canna cats, Pooni is one of the most recognisable. The regal Siamese had a bent right ear, which made him easily distinguishable from the rest.

A black and white photograph of a Siamese cat sitting on the floor. He has a dark face, paws and tail and his body is white.
The much-loved Pooni, with his distinctive folded ear (taken by Margaret Fay Shaw c1938–56 ©National Trust for Scotland, Canna House)

In her autobiography, Margaret also notes Pooni’s ‘deep blue eyes’ and his ‘thick and soft’ coat. His fur was certainly attractive enough to catch the eye of a visitor to the island. Margaret remembers hosting an unnamed Canadian woman who – after attempting to book a room at Canna House, believing it was a hotel – noted that Margaret owned a large number of cats. Margaret replied that she bred and sold Siamese kittens. The visitor, running her fingers over Pooni’s coat, then felt it was appropriate to reply that Margaret would make more money if she skinned the cats and sold their pelts. We don’t know what reaction she was hoping for, but Margaret left the room without a word, thinking to herself:

I would nail her [the visitor’s] own hide to the barn door before I would skin a cat …

In 1956, rather than being sacrificed to clothe an ill-spoken visitor, Pooni passed peacefully due to natural causes. To honour his memory, John Lorne Campbell penned this eulogy to his beloved pet:

Pooni! Now you have gained Elysian Fields
Where perennial catnip carpets every glade
And every limpid fountain rich cream yields
While foolish rabbits scamper in the shade
Now you have wow'd your last wow
Roll'd over your last roll
Hook'd your last piece of cheese
And broken your last plate
Raided the larder once for all
Taken your ease Upon the warmest lap, enthroned in state
What will endure for us, in memory
Of friendship, playful elegance and grace
And so we bid you, all of us, farewell

No other cat can take your place ...

The last of the descendants of Margaret and John’s cats joined Pooni in the Elysian Fields in 2016. However, visitors to the island today can still catch a glimpse of a very different kind of Canna cat.

Read this article from Canna House Manager and Archivist Fiona Mackenzie to find out more!

The Morton Charitable Trust has been funding fieldwork on the National Trust for Scotland’s photographic collections since 2014. In 2018–19, this work will further raise the profile of the collections through research, articles, talks and dedicated projects. The project will also involve the digitisation of the Margaret Fay Shaw photographic archive of mid-20th-century Hebridean life, leading to an updated database with high-quality images.

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