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12 Jun 2019

Stories, songs and starlings

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie (Canna Archivist)
A black and white photo of a lady wearing a tweed suit, holding a shot glass high in the air.
Pèigi Macrae raises a toast to herself in Tigh Màiri Anndra, South Uist!
Pèigi Macrae was Margaret Fay Shaw’s closest friend and main contributor of Gaelic songs and stories in the 1930s and 40s. On the 50th anniversary of her death, we take a closer look at Pèigi’s life and that of her sister Màiri.

In her autobiography From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides, Margaret Fay Shaw Campbell of Canna described the beginning of her folklore adventures in the Hebrides in 1929.

Margaret sits at a typewriter at a paper-covered desk. A tall anglepoise lamp stands beside her.
Margaret Fay Shaw at the typewriter on which she wrote ‘Alleghenies’

In order to make my collection of songs, it was necessary to have a speaking knowledge of Gaelic … The first few months I spent in Lochboisdale and there I learned a little of the language from the lessons of the local minister … On a certain New Year’s Day I had my dinner with the house of the merchant farmer and after dinner as a treat for me, friends were asked to sing. One of two sisters were there of a certain age and they were particularly fine singers … One sang an emigrant song – the words and the tune was rare. The sisters said that if I would come to see them at their own cottage that they would teach me the song and many more. It was necessary to cross a wide sea loch and in a small boat and walk a distance to reach the cottage, followed by the path by the edge of the shore and up a wide glen, passing a few scattered cottage crofts. My way was two miles off the road, nine miles from the pier and the easiest approach was by sail boat across Lochboisdale. It was in a clachan of cottages of twelve or fourteen houses and mainly thatched.

A black and white photo of a young lady standing in the doorway of a thatched cottage. She stands with her legs crossed at the ankle, and her hands folded in front of her.
Margaret in the doorway on her first visit to Tigh Màiri Anndra

When I saw the white thatched house with its Virgin’s blue door, with a little entrance cut in it for the cat, I knew that I had found my reward and I persuaded the Lady to take me in and there I remained for four winters. I was able to make a unique collection of songs, stories and folklore without leaving the little glen.

Two ladies stand smiling, arm in arm, in front of a thatched stone cottage, with a gateway just visible behind them,
Pèigi and Màiri at Tigh Màiri Anndra

The story of Margaret Fay Shaw and John Lorne Campbell has been well documented over the years but who were Pèigi and Màiri Macrae, and why did they feel that they could embrace this young American woman without a word of Gaelic, and bequeath their culture and language to her? In April 1951, on a visit to Canna, John and Margaret recorded and transcribed Pèigi’s reminiscences of her life, revealing many details of a Hebridean way of life long since gone.

The Macrae sisters’ father, Andrew Macrae, was born in Glenelg in 1838 and died in 1918. He was married to Marion MacCuish of Bernera when he was 25 and they went to live in North Uist where he was a shepherd. They made a home at Langass near Lochmaddy. Pèigi was their fourth child but only their second to survive infancy. Even Pèigi wasn’t sure exactly how many siblings she had; she thought that 11 were born in North Uist then 2 more later in South Uist. Life was hard – she tells the story of one of her siblings, who was dropped by a young girl. The girl was looking after the children while her mother walked 3 miles to get milk for the baby. The baby suffered a broken back and died shortly afterwards. Pèigi’s father was ‘in the militia’ in the Highlanders and away for years.

Pèigi recounts another story of how hard it was to find food for such a large family:

James [her brother] and I used to get a board and we’d tie string to it and we’d go to a ruin called the Shepherd’s ruined house and take butter and pieces of bread and a linen cloth with us, we’d spread the cloth on the ground … Before you could say “Jack Robinson” the cloth would be full of starlings eating the bread. When the cloth was full of starlings, we’d let out the rope and the board would fall on top of the starlings and we’d have a potful of starlings. They were good – anyway at the time we thought them good, they were so fat then. There was really gravy on them, so fat they were!

A black and white photo of a young man and a woman standing in a field. The man is holding a calf on a rope; a dog is jumping up at the woman and resting its paws on her cane.
Màiri and her son Donald with a Highland calf

Animals played an important part in the lives of the crofters and Pèigi also recounts stories of the local cows:

Some of the Highland cows are good for milk. The first beasts we had were Highlanders. They were very good for milk. The ones today have more milk, but it isn’t as good. Mairi Ruairi Macdonald near us has a Highland cow, she doesn’t give much at all, but her milk you can put right in the churn and make butter from it as it comes from her. There’s a great difference between her milk and that of the Curries cow beside her. That’s thin. They have a shorthorn, the Curries … Every cow has a name. The Morrisons opposite us have Daisy and Sonasag. Iagain Thearlaich has a cow called Blarag.

We have a recording of Pèigi singing a milking song, ‘Till an crodh’.

Pèigi did not stay in Uist all her life. She paints vivid pictures of her days as a herring girl in Shetland and the repercussions of that for both her and her sister Màiri:

There were 80 of us in one big room [on the Staffa steamboat to Lerwick]. They were very good to us, one man going round with glasses giving us drams. We were happy at Lerwick all the time. People were kind to us. The first trough which I was gutting, there were Swedish girls there, all were Swedish except for myself and Mary Ann and Flora. The Shetlanders were always knitting, carrying peats in baskets, they had pointed shoes. They were always knitting, making big black shawls and white shawls, every kind of shawl. I only went to Shetland for one season … Then my mother died (that was in 1922) and I was at home for a while and then I went to Boisdale House and I was there for a year looking after the child. After I left Boisdale House, I didn’t leave Uist again [for work].’

A black and white photo of three men standing with a horse and cart outside a stone building. Baskets and crates are piled up beside the wall.
Outside Boisdale House

Pèigi was in Shetland for 11 weeks. On her return she heard that her sister was to have a baby. As a single woman, Màiri had to stay at home to look after him. The croft ‘couldn’t keep the two of us’, so Pèigi had to go away to work to look after Hamish Ferguson of Boisdale House, where she was not terribly happy.

Pèigi and Màiri’s generosity in opening their home to Margaret meant that she had the opportunity to experience the Hebridean culture in a way no folklore collector had ever done before. Margaret recognised she had to live among the people in order to transcribe accurately in terms of language as well as in music. For John, living on South Uist meant that he was able to observe farming methods and traditions that he would later use on his Canna farm.

A black and white photo of men and women working on a thatched roof. A man stands at the top, holding a rope. Another pegs it down by the top of the wall. A small boy stands to the side, watching.
Traditional South Uist thatching techniques captured by Margaret Fay Shaw

Two of the most important principles in the collection of folklore are accuracy and provenance. Pèigi and Màiri Macrae recognised that by telling their stories they were helping to inform future generations. They saw in Margaret and John that drive and talent to preserve, in ways that they could not do themselves. They were secure enough of their family and their lives to be able to share these stories with an utmost generosity. By looking at Margaret’s photographs and diaries, and listening to John’s painstaking audio recording of their stories and songs, we can piece together a much more holistic view of life in South Uist at that time – although no one piece in isolation can give the whole picture.  

An early colour photograph of a family group standing outside a thatched stone cottage. A large yellow can is to the left of the people.
The Macrae family with Alex as a young boy, outside Tigh Màiri Anndra

However, one of the loveliest stories to come from that little croft house is a more recent one. Alex Macrae, of Easdale, is Pèigi and Màiri’s great nephew and he has fond memories of many summers spent on the croft at North Glendale as a child. At the time, they were just ‘The Aunties’ to him but now he feels a strong connection to the land and history through them, and the stories and songs they left behind. 

The front cover of the book ‘The Voices’, showing ruined croft walls with croftland, a loch and mountains in the background.
‘The Voices’ by Alex Macrae depicts a derelict Tigh Màiri Anndra

A few years ago, Alex wrote The Voices, a book featuring the stories and pictures of Pèigi, Màiri and their family over the course of their long lives (Pèigi died in 1969 and Màiri in 1972). Alex returned to Tigh Màiri Anndra to take some pictures. The roof of the cottage had long since fallen in and the floor was covered in thistles and grass. Incredibly, Alex upturned some rubble and found Pèigi’s personal photo album, filled with photos. Some were taken by Margaret; others included the whole family, on picnics, at weddings; and others were proud shots of soldiers and seamen.

The album was in a remarkably good state and gives us a glimpse of the unknown side of the Macrae sisters’ story. We remain ever grateful to Pèigi and Màiri for leaving us such a rich legacy of voice and of image, and to John and Margaret Campbell of Canna House for having the foresight to record this disappearing life for us to enjoy and learn from today. 

An early colour photograph of Canna House, seen from the garden on a sunny day.
Canna House by Margaret Fay Shaw

Although they were from South Uist, Pèigi and Màiri’s story is very clearly evoked in Canna House today. From the spinning wheel in the kitchen to the beautifully knitted socks and stockings in the drawer, and of course the whispery voices of old songs playing throughout the house, this is a house of song and secrets …

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