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Margaret Fay Shaw: Seascapes and Gaelic Song

Maggie Langford | Anglia Ruskin University

Emigrating from Pennsylvania in 1929, a young middle-class woman in her early twenties travelled to Scotland making her way towards the Hebrides, settling in a remote crofting community in South Uist. Margaret Fay Shaw fell in love with the islands and found the old Gaelic songs sung by the local crofting families mesmerising and set about recording them for posterity.

Margaret on South Uist (National Trust)

A small sparrow blown off course was a phrase Margaret Fay Shaw chose to describe her journey as a young single woman, sailing courtesy of a steamship across the wide expanse of Atlantic Ocean from America towards the British Isles during the early years of the twentieth century. An orphan with adult siblings, all married, living in Pittsburgh. As the youngest child, she was often deemed a troublesome predicament to her elder sisters. The family were wealthy, middle class with an ancestry that led far back into the rural hills of Scotland. When Margaret suggested the idea of returning to Scotland, having studied for a year in Helensburgh a few years before, the family agreed with some relief. Her hopes of becoming a concert pianist had been dashed by severe rheumatism in her hands, consequently leaving her at a loss of what to do next. Arriving on British soil Margaret gradually made way her towards the Outer Hebrides, finally arriving on the small island of Uist in 1929. Whilst staying at the South Lochboisdale Hotel Margaret had been welcomed by the owner to play the piano during a local celebration and it was here that she had first heard the voice of Peigi MacRae, whose vocal expression of Gaelic song evoked a profound and unsettling effect on the young visitor. The two women became instant friends and when Margaret asked if she could stay with the McRae sisters she was accepted without reservation. From the allowance her family had provided Margaret was able to financially contribute to this small crofting household which allowed her elderly host Peigi to give up some of her more strenuous paid work out in the local community. Margaret remained with them for over five years.

Margaret in the doorway of the MacRaes’ house. (National Trust)

For Margaret and the sisters this had been a fateful meeting, not least because it had provided some grounding and stability for this highly spirited young American. More significantly, Margaret had finally found her life’s purpose. She had decided to devote herself to learning the history of this stunningly remote place. She walked endlessly along ancient routes, strolled within the wild machair, clambered through hills and towards the cliff tops. She sat listening to the wild seascapes hoping to understand an essence of the island’s topography. Margaret had begun to immerse herself fully into this unique and primeval landscape absorbing snippets of Gaelic and folklore. Her intuitive and instinctive ability to understand Gaelic music was a gift that she had used to optimum effect, transcribing the notes of folksongs meticulously and methodically onto reams of music paper.

Margaret’s passion was ignited, prompting her to seek out as many new songs as she possibly could, leading to many journeys and meetings across the Hebridean islands. Much later in 1955 she compiled a collection of these fables, songs, sea shanties, recipes and folk tales and put them into print. She writes how the ‘tune just carried the words along’; it was the words themselves that reflected the thoughts and feelings of a Gaelic heart, and it was important that the first impression received by a listener was the ‘poem’ itself. During the winter months Ceilidh gatherings would permeate from within the crofts creating an atmosphere of song that cut deep into the core of Margaret’s young heart; she absorbed the music like a symphony of sound as it reverberated in such glory and magnificence making the transcription of sounds a delight rather than a chore. During her time living in Uist she had met several people who would influence her future life, most notably a young man she had been introduced to. The scholar and intellectual John Lorne Campbell came from a long line of Scottish Laird’s with strong ancestral ties to the Hebridean isles. More importantly, he shared Margaret’s passion for Gaelic folklore and later when John acquired new recording devices so that they could tape record the songs directly. The National Trust, in collaboration with Project Reveal and the Morton Photography Project are currently in the process of digitising many of these recordings, including Margaret’s written accounts and dairies. Most of the archival evidence will be stored at Canna House on the Isle of Canna. In her introduction to Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist, Margaret notes how her collection had been ‘an attempt to give a true record of a splendid people’ and that their ‘generosity and patience’ had made her book possible.

Margaret and Campbells courtship had been a strange affair. She had written in her letters how she was confused and unsure of his intentions, not knowing if he would ever propose. During a short trip to America together during the spring of 1930 their engagement was announced, and they married shortly after. Their early married life had been spent in South Boisdale, but in 1938 Campbell purchased the small island of Canna, located a few miles to the west of Mull. Margaret’s arrival in her new home on Canna had followed a short period of convalescence in Edinburgh owing to the sadness of a fourth miscarriage. Although beautiful, it was not her beloved South Uist and in the early days Margaret describes in her memoir the many struggles and challenges they had faced as a couple and her dread of those harsh cruel storms that would blow across the island during the long winter months. Campbell too had suffered bouts of ill health which had left her alone for months to manage the farm and the running of the estate. A contention heightened between the couple on his return and became prominent when he realised Margaret had purchased some highland cattle, who were, according to her husband, not sustainable on a small remote homestead. The cows remained for many years however, despite their lack of profitability. Life at times was harsh yet the couple shared a common thread; they were both committed to the preservation of Gaelic tradition and spent many hours in pursuit of its progression.

On leaving her family home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Margaret had been gifted a large Graflex camera by her brother-in-law and during her time living in the Hebrides she had gradually gained a reputation as an adept and skilled photographer. She was later to be recognised as one of the first female photographers of the twentieth century. Fascinated by the history of Gaelic traditions and her affinity with its inhabitants Margaret had found many opportunities to develop her newly found hobby. It had begun in the very early days, on her arrival in South Lochboisdale and her journeying had taken her far and wide. A chance encounter one day in early May 1930 had alerted her to the chance of joining a rare sailing to St Kilda by cargo ship. ‘The Hebrides’ set sale early one morning and Margaret paid the fee of three pounds and ten shillings to the crew as they passed between the sound surrounding North Uist and Harris, catching a glimpse of the scattered isles of Ensay and Berneray along the way. It had been a poignant and significant visit, one where Margaret had been allowed to capture on film the island inhabitants who she had described as ‘most courteous and friendly’. Just a few months later in August of that same year the inhabitants would be preparing to leave behind their homes and set sail for a new life on the mainland; their lifestyle having become unsustainable on St Kilda. Margaret notes the ‘row of houses with chimneys smoking and people with many dogs hurrying to the shore’ as she and her companions made their way towards land. It had been a sad and historic visit, yet Margaret was able to take many photographs, with a local young man acting as her guide, helping to carry her heavy equipment so she could survey the hectic clatter of the sea-birds as they flew high over the cliffs of Conachair. Margaret remembers in her autobiography the sounds and sightings of sea birds noting for her records ‘fulmars and puffins, guillemots, and gannets’. In some small, yet significant way, she was helping to preserve a vanishing way of life. By August of that year the last thirty five inhabitants of St Kilda had been relocated to Loch Aline in Argyllshire, with a few of them dying of tuberculosis shortly after.

Self portrait (National Trust)

For several decades Margaret and Campbell’s life on Canna had been happy and full of celebration. They had over the years welcomed many visitors including writers, artists and their good friend, archaeologist T.E Lethbridge. The primeval burial grounds scattered around the island were sacred and John Lorne Campbell as Laird had given strict instructions that they were never to be disturbed. During the fifth century Pergrini wanderers had slowly arrived from Rome, bringing Christian monks, settling in areas that surrounded the remote islands near Iona, sailing along the sea lanes from Gaul. They were an ancient tribe of travelling pilgrims, their occupation bringing poetic cadences and spiritual wisdom to these wild and untethered lands. For many the spiritual presence of St Columba and his followers still drifted tenaciously across the Hebridean Isles. His legacy remained solidly in place since his landing sometime in the sixth century, his pilgrimage having brought him across the sea from the shores of Ireland. Margaret writes how the tradition of faith was still strong amongst the islanders; its resilient religious ethos continued to be carried forward within Canna’s small rural settlement. In 1963, Margaret reveals how the community had gathered in the field of Keill to celebrate the ‘fourteen hundredth anniversary of St Columba’s coming to Scotland; their dwelling place belonging to Columba’s territory- to Iona’s domain’. There were several sailings from Rum, Eigg and Mallaig that morning, filled with people who came to join their Mass. It was she notes ‘the most beautiful day imaginable’ with candles and flowers adorning the ceremonial scene, the lush green velvet grass covered in buttercups and daisies, creating a most perfect picture of remembrance, especially poignant as Margaret progressed towards old age.


Further reading:

  • Margaret Fay Shaw, Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist (Birlinn, 2014)

  • Margaret Fay Shaw, From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides: An Autobiography (Birlinn, 2008)

  • Ray Perman, The Man Who Gave Away His Island: A Life of John Lorne Campbell (Birlinn, 2013)

  • Margaret Fay, Eilean The Island Photography, edited by Fiona J. Mackenzie (Birlinn, 2018)

Having completed an MA in Literature a few years ago Maggie went on to complete a PG Teaching Creative Writing course with ICE at Cambridge University. As a mature student she has recently started writing short essays/articles and in 2022 was shortlisted for the Working-Class Nature Writing Competition. History and literature are influential in her writing as she explores the lives of twentieth-century women artists, photographers, and writers.


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