“She devoted her life to preserving and cataloguing the cherished age-old traditions of the Hebrides in photographs and written documents.” So began The Scotsman’s obituary for Margaret Fay Shaw, published in December 2004 following her death at the age of 101. “Had she not persisted,” the obituary continues, “an entire slice of Scottish culture could have disappeared.”
The poet Fred Gillies, a neighbour of Shaw’s on the island of Canna, where she lived for most of her life, expressed the same sentiment in a song he wrote about her: “An ember was dying: she blew on it and brought it to life.”
This month, the visual half of Shaw’s achievement is given a new lease of life in a new book entitled Eilean – The Island Photography of Margaret Fay Shaw, published by Birlinn. The expression “treasure trove” tends to be overused in relation to such projects, but in this case it is entirely justified.
Shaw was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1903, and after being orphaned at an early age she was sent to Scotland in 1921 to spend a year at St Bride’s School in Helensburgh. It was here that she heard the folksong collector Marjory Kennedy-Fraser singing Gaelic songs and decided to head west in order to hear the originals sung in their “pristine” state. She settled in South Uist in 1928, and began manually transcribing songs and learning the Gaelic language. Then, in 1934, she met the folklorist John Lorne Campbell. Brought up in Argyll, he was a student of Gaelic and was writing a book on Barra with the novelist Compton Mackenzie. Shaw and Campbell were married in 1935, and in 1938 they bought the island of Canna for £9,000, where they started a crofting community and did their best to live off what they produced. They also established a formidable archive of Gaelic folklore at Canna House, and in 1981 donated the house and the collection to the National Trust for Scotland.
In 1955, Shaw published a selection of songs, stories and photographs entitled Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist – a work that won her honorary degrees from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, St Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia and the National University of Ireland. She also published an autobiography, From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides: An Autobiography, in 1993. The photographs in this new book were chosen by Fiona J Mackenzie, the archivist for the National Trust for Scotland at Canna House, and they include images featured in both of these books, as well as many others from the 9,000 or so pictures in the Canna collection.
As Mackenzie writes in her introduction, the images “give a unique insight into a Hebridean lifestyle no longer in existence.” There are blackhouses being thatched on South Uist, a fishing boat being rigged on Eriskay and a man with a head for heights catching a seabird half-way down a cliff on St Kilda. These images aren’t merely of documentary significance – Shaw also had an artist’s eye for a dramatic composition. One of the stand-out images shows three men digging for lugworms at low tide at South Glendale on South Uist, their silhouetted figures forming a bridge between the empty expanse of sand in the foreground and the dramatic clouds overhead.
If these photographs and others like them record an age-old way of life that persisted in the Hebrides even as the rest of the British Isles were rapidly being overrun by railways, roads and factories, the collection also hints at how the modern world was starting to encroach even on this peaceful corner of the archipelago. Perhaps the most striking example is an image of the first plane to land at the Isle of Barra’s tidal airport in 1936 – a de Havilland Dragon Rapide. Shaw catches the plane just a few moments before touchdown, skimming the wide expanse of white sand at Traigh Bhain. It might only have been a fairly primitive aircraft with a maximum load of eight passengers, but from the moment its wheels touched the sand it changed everything, drawing the island several hours’ journey time closer to the mainland. At the moment Shaw pressed the shutter, however, the old Barra still had a few seconds left.
Mackenzie has interspersed the images in the book with extracts from Shaw’s writings, and the last of these perfectly sums up the way in which islanders view “remoteness” differently to mainlanders.
“I remember visitors arriving on shore from a yacht one lovely summer day,” she writes. “A neighbour was busy making a bee hive. ‘You’re far from the world here,’ said the yachtsman. ‘I’m in the centre of my world,’ was the reply.” n
Eilean – The Island Photography of Margaret Fay Shaw, edited by Fiona J Mackenzie, Birlinn, £25