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16 Apr 2019

Premiere set for film celebrating Canna folklorist

Solas debuts in May
Solas debuts in May
A new film showcasing the pioneering cinematography of Canna’s Margaret Fay Shaw will debut soon at Moladh Uibhist.

A new film celebrating the footage collected by Margaret Fay Shaw will premiere at an event in South Uist on 3 May.

Created by the National Trust for Scotland’s Canna House archivist, Fiona J Mackenzie, Solas (Gaelic for light) uses rediscovered film shot by the US-born folklorist who dedicated her life to documenting Gaelic song.

Solas uses Margaret’s images, films and words to tell the story of her life and the people in it, and particularly two BBC broadcasts from the 1950s in which Margaret and her close friend and companion Magda Sagarzazu explain how their lives were affected by the islands, the people, the animals, the birds, the songs and the sounds.

Sisters Peggy and Mairi Macrae, Margaret’s landladies, with Finlay Mackenzie of the Lochboisdale Hotel, c 1934. Finlay carries Margaret’s Graflex camera.
Sisters Peggy and Mairi Macrae, Margaret’s landladies, with Finlay Mackenzie of the Lochboisdale Hotel, c 1934. Finlay carries Margaret’s Graflex camera.

Fiona Mackenzie, Canna House archivist explains how Margaret’s interest in both Gaelic song and film and photography began:

‘Margaret Fay Shaw first came to Scotland as a teenager from Pennsylvania, in 1920. She had been orphaned at an early age and her family decided to send her to St Bride’s school in Helensburgh, in an attempt to get Scotland, the home of her forefathers, to “sort out” this “difficult” teenager.

‘It was in Helensburgh that Margaret first heard Gaelic being sung and she decided there and then to make Gaelic song her life’s quest, to find the pristine version.

‘She spent six years living in the remote hamlet of North Glendale, South Lochboisdale in South Uist between 1929–35, and over the course of these years, she became one of the world’s first female photographers and cinematographers, documenting a disappearing way of Hebridean life.’

Image of Canna looking to Rum, taken from Canna House Garden in 1938
Image of Canna looking to Rum, taken from Canna House Garden in 1938

Margaret also took film and photos on the Isle of Canna, where she lived with her husband fellow folklorist John Lorne Campbell from 1938 when they bought the island until her death in 2004.

As part of our work to protect the cultural archive left behind by the couple, the Trust has recently re-digitised Margaret’s film collection in high resolution, thanks to the support of the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA.

In the process of carrying out this work, previously unseen footage was discovered, including film of the first plane landing on the Cockle Strand on Barra in 1936.

Solas trailer


In the autumn of 1929, I sailed for South Uist. My ambition was to learn Gaelic and note down unpublished songs.

When my new friends understood that I wanted to learn their language and to say the songs they took endless trouble to help me. I knew only kindness from the first day, and that glen was a lasting home for me.

I showed this film of men and women working on the land. My audience was most interested. One anxious businessman asked, ‘Tell me, these people, are they as happy as they look, smiling and laughing. Is it real?’. ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘it is real. They are truly happy’.

Solas, which lasts half an hour, portrays all these aspects of Margaret and John’s lives and is accompanied by clips of some of the sound archive recorded by John over his lifetime.

The film also features a newly commissioned soundtrack by Lewis piper James Duncan Mackenzie. The Canna House front door, the Canna Steinway piano, Margaret’s typewriter and the servants’ bells all make an appearance in the music.

Fiona worked together with editor Peter Wolsey to produce the film which will be premiered in South Uist as part of the Moladh Uibhist weekend, 3 May, in partnership with Ceòlas, the Uist-based arts and culture organisation.

Sheep on Canna
Sheep on Canna

Fiona adds: ‘I am delighted that we have been able to produce this lovely piece of work, to profile the contribution of an incredible woman who had the foresight to save for the world today, a piece of Scottish lifestyle which would have otherwise disappeared.

‘We are very grateful to the NTS USA Foundation for making this project possible and also for the opportunity to take a creative approach to sharing the important Canna collection and spreading the word about all it has to share.

‘All of the people involved in the production, the editor, the musicians, the studios, have been inspired by the work of Margaret and John Lorne Campbell and all are keen to continue this work, using the wonderful resources contained in Canna House today and under the protection of the National Trust for Scotland, to celebrate the life and work of these two incredible people.’

Canna has been in the care of the National Trust for Scotland since 1981 when it was bequeathed by John Lorne Campbell.