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15 Jul 2020

Té an ath-dhoras – the woman next door

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna House Archivist
A black and white photograph of a line of women, leaning over a long wooden trough on a shore.
Barra herring girls captured by Margaret Fay Shaw c1935
Fiona explores the many-faceted lives of women and examines how their lives do (or do not) change, by comparing their work, fashion, pastimes and families as they’re represented in the Thom family and Margaret Fay Shaw photographic collections of Canna House.

The photo on the left shows Louie Thom reading on the lawn of Canna House with one of her pet dogs, c1890. The ladies of Canna House at that time always wore a hat when outside, even on Canna, to save their complexions and conserve their modesty. We’re very grateful to the Thom family for letting us continue to look after the images of their ancestors in Canna House today.

Margaret Fay Shaw captured the image on the right of Mairi Macrae of North Glendale, South Uist, c1930, sporting a somewhat less elegant piece of headgear but much more practical!

Here, we see Mrs Macleod at her spinning wheel. Spinning was an important element of the daily domestic routine on Canna in the 1890s. The wheel on the left is very similar to the one still kept in Canna House today (right).

Women were involved in all aspects of farming life on Canna in the 1890s. In the photograph on the left, two women get their sleeves rolled up for folding the fleeces after shearing. The practice is still continued on Canna today.

Messing around on the shore is an occupation that doesn’t change much over the years when you live on an island. On the left are two of the Thom family with their prawn nets c1890, and then on the right we see John Lorne Campbell’s secretary Sheila Lockett with little Dugald Macleod, with their prawn nets, in almost exactly the same spot 60 years later.

Photography has been part of ‘the Canna story’ for almost 150 years. On the left is keen photographer Mrs J G Sewell (daughter of Robert Thom) with her camera on Sanday, Canna. Compare it to the more modern image on the right of photographer Margaret Fay Shaw, with her Graflex camera, in Dun Oghil, Inishmore, Aran Islands, c1929. Note the hole in the sole of her boot – she was always complaining of having wet feet ...

Canna House Garden has always provided a picturesque backdrop for family group portraits. The style may change along with the fashions but the impact remains the same – a representation of a particular moment in time. On the left, Mrs Jessie Thom, the Thom girls and wee lad Robin (grandson) are captured in a moment of formal summer stillness. In almost the exact same spot during wartime (we know this because of the haystacks in the garden), Margaret Fay Shaw (on the right) entertains her local ‘family’: the ladies and district nurse of Canna, along with her close friend and mentor Peigi Macrae (centre) from South Uist.

Some aspects of Canna House Garden never change. One constant over the last 100 years has been the iconic white cast-iron bench in front of what is now the Billiard Room window. On the left is Grandmother Jessie (Gilmour) Thom, displaying a fine catch of fungi collected locally. On the right, Margaret Fay Shaw sits on the bench in the 1980s with one of her beloved Siamese cats.

Margaret Fay Shaw liked to take images of her friends and other women around her just going about their daily lives, sometimes formally posed, sometimes in a spontaneous moment during their daily chores. Often their animals were around too. When she lived in South Uist between 1929–35, she had a special knack of making her subjects feel relaxed and confident. She lived amongst them and they trusted her.

Margaret was also keen on experimenting with creative poses, often injecting humour or pathos to reflect the subject’s personality.

A black and white photo of five girls posing beside some trees. Three stand arm in arm, while the other two crouch on the ground before them. The girls wear dressing gowns and loose robes.
Good friends, 1921

And finally, this scratchy image from 1921 gives us a hint of the drive that was developing in Margaret. She wanted to preserve, on film, moments for posterity, seemingly insignificant but actually telling us so much in their simplicity and candour. This image portrays the joy of Margaret’s school friends from St Bride’s School in Helensburgh, as they rise to meet the sun in their dressing gowns and wash their faces in the dew of May Day. Most of these girls remained close friends of Margaret’s for her whole life, and she continued to capture the faces and lives of the women ‘next door’ until she was in her 70s.

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