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Margaret Fay Shaw

Margaret Fay Shaw

Born: 1903 in Pennsylvania
Died: 2004
First Book: Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955)

Margaret Fay Shaw was born in Pennsylvania in 1903 and became an orphan when she was just eleven years old. She first crossed the Atlantic to Scotland to visit family friends when she was sixteen, and stayed on to attend school in Helensburgh for a year, where she was introduced to and became enthralled by Gaelic music and culture.

She studied music in New York and then in Paris, but longed to return to Scotland, which she felt was her spiritual home. She embarked on a bicycle tour of the UK from Oxford to the Isle of Skye, supporting herself by selling her photographs to newspapers and magazines such as the Listener.

Finally she arrived on South Uist, a place of which she later said, ???There was something about [it] that just won me; it was like falling in love; it was the island that I wanted to go back to.’ She lived on the island in Lochboisdale for six years with two sisters, Mairi and Peigi Macrae, whose family maintained a strong Gaelic oral tradition. The sisters shared this tradition with Margaret, who transcribed and learned their songs and tales with great enthusiasm. This collection of song and lore was eventually published by Routledge and Kegan Paul in 1955 as Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist. Providing a valuable insight into life in the small crofting community of South Uist in the 1930s, the book has never since been out of print, and a new edition was published by Birlinn in 1999.

Margaret Fay Shaw met the folklorist John Lorne Campbell when he was co-producing The Book of Barra, a collection of the island’s history and traditions. In need of striking illustrations for the book, and having heard of Margaret’s photography, the young Campbell volunteered to go to meet her. The two were married a year later in 1935 and initially lived on Barra before buying Canna, a small Hebridean island to the south-west of Skye. In 1981 they gave the island to the National Trust for Scotland.

John Lorne Campbell died in 1996 and Margaret lived on to the remarkable age of 101, witnessing many changes to Hebridean life during her years there and making invaluable contributions to the survival of the Scottish Gaelic tradition. She was laid to rest in 2004 on her beloved island of South Uist.

Margaret’s autobiography, From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides, was published by Birlinn in 2000. It is an outstanding account of the life of a truly remarkable woman.

Picture by Kirsty Anderson

Related books

Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist
Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist