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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Arts and Entertainment
Jennifer Saunders stars as Miss Windsor, Dennis's hysterical French teacher
filmJennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Life and Style
Sebastian Siemiatkowski is the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Klarna, which provides a simple way for people to buy things online
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: National Sales Account Executive

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company leads the market i...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager - Cyber Security

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Manager for Cyber Secur...

Ashdown Group: Service Desk Analyst - Application Support - Central London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Service Desk Analyst (App...

Ampersand Consulting LLP: 3rd Line Support Engineer (Windows Server, Exchange Server)

£35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: 3rd Line Support Engine...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum