Margaret Fay Shaw

Collector of the Gaelic songs and folklore of the Hebrides
Click to follow
The Independent Online

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