Margaret Fay Shaw

Collector of the Gaelic songs and folklore of the Hebrides

Margaret Fay Shaw, musicologist, photographer and writer: born Glenshaw, Pennsylvania 9 November 1903; married 1935 John Lorne Campbell (died 1996); died Fort William, Inverness-shire 11 December 2004.

Margaret Fay Shaw, musicologist, photographer and writer: born Glenshaw, Pennsylvania 9 November 1903; married 1935 John Lorne Campbell (died 1996); died Fort William, Inverness-shire 11 December 2004.

Margaret Fay Shaw was a woman of rare qualities and achievements as the distinguished collector and editor of Scottish Gaelic song and important traditional material, writer, and photographer and recorder of the way of life of the Scottish Hebrides.

She was born at Glenshaw, near Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, in 1903, the fifth and youngest of the children of Henry Clay Shaw and his wife Fanny Maria Patchin, of a New England family from Old Bonnington, Vermont. Margaret recounted her family history with relish and charm: she was descended through three generations from John Shaw, who had emigrated from Scotland to Philadelphia in 1782 and cast the first cannon which armed the ships that defeated a British squadron on Lake Erie in the War of 1812. The family had settled on a grant of land in the west of the state and built a house, "Glenshaw", where Margaret herself was brought up.

Following the death of both her parents when she was still a girl, Margaret was looked after by her eldest sisters and attended local elementary school and then boarding schools at Bryn Mawr near Philadelphia. Conventional schooling was irksome and unfulfilling but music struck a hidden chord. She learnt to play the piano by ear and later was taught to professional level in New York, Paris and London.

Meanwhile, at the suggestion of a Scottish family friend in 1921, Margaret was sent across the Atlantic to spend a year at St Bride's School in Helensburgh. She heard the folksong collector Marjory Kennedy-Fraser singing her Songs of the Hebrides at a concert in the school and decided she wanted to learn them for herself. These were "art songs" rendered in English: Margaret became determined to discover the music in its original forms and words.

Back in America she was convinced that she must return to Scotland in her search. She toured parts of Britain including the Island of Skye with her sister in 1924 and then in 1926 undertook, even by the standards of the time, an extraordinary journey by bicycle the length of the Hebrides from Castlebay to Port of Ness. She gained many enduring impressions on this odyssey but one in particular was to change her life; of all the places she visited, the personality and spirituality of South Uist moved her most strongly and, in her own words, "There was something about South Uist that attracted me and never left me."

After recurrent rheumatism, for which she received treatment in New York, and against her family's wishes, she returned to Scotland and to the Hebrides as a form of self-healing. She was to recall the advice of an elderly academic in the United States: "Now, Margaret, don't let anybody do any of your thinking for you."

From 1929 until 1935 she lived with two sisters, Mairi and Peigi MacRae, in their croft house in the township of North Glendale by Lochboisdale in South Uist. She learnt Gaelic from these two remarkable people and their neighbours, who were also richly endowed with a wealth of song of great beauty, and sang with no instrumental accompaniment. Without recording apparatus, knowledge of Scottish Gaelic was essential for transcribing the songs with their diversity of modes and scales, which Shaw herself well understood, and she took down and annotated folksongs and the essential stories behind the songs.

The material collected in those years was later published in the meticulously edited Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist (1955), with subsequent editions in 1977, 1986 and, in paperback, in 1999. The book comprises songs in significant cultural variety - songs in praise of Uist, love songs, laments and songs of exile, lullabies, songs for dancing (the popular puirt-a-bial or "mouth-music"), milking songs, spinning songs, waulking songs, clapping songs and quern songs - with traditional material including stories, anecdotes, prayers, proverbs, cures, charms and recipes, all vivid testimony to the amount and variety in the culture of a single community in the early 20th century, and, in Margaret Fay Shaw's treatment of it, a unique and sympathetic insight into a world that has largely disappeared.

Shaw's book has preserved a rich store of music and folklore from one of the richest tradition-bearing societies in Western Europe and has brought it into a wider currency and popularity. Her extraordinary contribution to scholarship was recognised with honorary degrees from St Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia, the National University of Ireland and Aberdeen and Edinburgh universities. The book was richly illustrated with photographs by Shaw, showing her hosts and neighbours going about their everyday lives and the images also demonstrating her regard for them and a strong empathy with Gaelic in the Hebrides. On a recent visit to South Uist to participate in the opening of an exhibition at Kildonan, she was greeted with: " A Mhairead, thàinig sibh dhachaigh!" ("Margaret, you've come home!").

Another student of Gaelic language and tradition, the Oxford-educated John Lorne Campbell, met Margaret in Lochboisdale in 1934 and they were married in Glasgow the following year. They made their home at Northbay in Barra in a small corrugated-iron house with Margaret's Steinway grand piano. Campbell was studying crofting agriculture and Scottish Gaelic and shared there in the company of Compton Mackenzie and his Barra "Bloomsbury" set. His new bride did not at first find this as congenial as he, though subsequently she became firm friends with Compton Mackenzie. She inherited his 1930s typewriter, which she continued to use for the rest of her life, giving such a unique stamp to the stream of her letters to family and friends.

Campbell was also looking for a home on the West Coast and a place to make into a first-rate farm. They bought the island of Canna in 1938, where they created a hospitable home and Margaret set up a pedigree herd of Highland cattle. They continued their recording work, including trips to the Gaels of Nova Scotia, and had visits from the MacRae sisters, Uist and Barra friends and scholars of Gaelic folklore and music.

The "isolation" of a Hebridean island did not necessarily suit Margaret's temperament and this ensured a steady stream of visitors to Canna House to receive hospitality of a rare and memorable kind - "to enjoy the island and its peace" (in Margaret's words) and to savour her piano playing with equal ease from the classical traditions of Europe and the modal magic of Gaelic. As a lifelong devotee and carer of cats, she noted that they liked Bach but left the room with Bartók. And such was the reputation of the Campbells of Canna that the numbers of visitors sometimes had Margaret "growling with the cats".

This rich and extraordinary life has been recounted in her autobiography, From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides, first published in 1993 and written in a spontaneous and amusing style immediately reminiscent of her own voice. Her powers of memory and recall of people and events were always impressive, especially in South Uist, and the book's focus on Gaelic culture is enhanced with accounts of the Aran Islands in Galway and visits to Mingulay and to St Kilda on the eve of evacuation in 1930.

The Campbells presented the island of Canna to the National Trust for Scotland in 1981. Margaret continued to live there after the death of her husband in 1996. Her 100th birthday party with the island community was unforgettable, with drams and her own playing of Strauss waltzes and Uist lullabies, together with a celebratory BBC television programme, Among Friends, broadcast for the occasion.

An award of Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society was made in November of this year for a lifetime's achievement in promoting an understanding of the culture of the islands of Scotland, not only through her scholarly writings but also with her photography and film. In a Gaelic song in her praise, a friend and neighbour in South Uist, Fred Gillies, included the words of which she was justly proud: ". . . an ember was dying: she blew on it and brought it to life".

Hugh Cheape

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit