John and Margaret: a love story in words and music

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the death of John Lorne Campbell – an excuse to celebrate his life and his legacy rather than his passing. Birlinn is reissuing The Man Who Gave Away His Island – a third edition with a new chapter – and Pitlochry’s Winter Words festival will be the first of what I hope will be a series of celebrations.

The Pitlochry event on February 14 (you can see the programme here) should be special – not because of me, but because of the special people who will tell the story with me.

A page from the programme showing The Campbells of Canna in Words and Music

It will be Valentines Day, appropriate for a love story – although were John and Margaret Fay Shaw able to be present they would spit tacks at me for describing their 60-year life together in that way. They were not very demonstrative of their affection, at least in public. But their partnership was a close one, forged in times of hardship as well as happiness.

Theirs was also a love story of a different kind, not just one between a man and a woman. It was a love of a language, which was native to neither of them, but became their shared passion. It was a love of a culture, which accepted and welcomed these two people who, for different reasons, were misfits in the surroundings in which they were brought up. And it was a love of a geography, the islands of the Hebrides.

I shall describe their early lives and how they came to meet on a rain-soaked night in South Uist, but leave them in their first married home – a corrugated iron house on Barra without electricity, hot water or an inside lavatory where they found happiness. Margaret used a wedding gift to buy a piano – a Dreadnought of a Steinway grand, which had to be brought to Barra by puffer and manhandled into the tiny house.

The story will be taken on by Hugh Cheape, reknowned Gaelic scholar and the man who helped John and Margaret prepare many of John’s last writings for publication. He will tell the story of the purchase of Canna and their quest to record and preserve the songs and stories they heard from friends throughout the islands. He will illustrate it with some of the thousands of Margaret’s pictures from the Canna House archive, some never before seen in public.

Fiona singing with arms outstretched

Fiona Mackenzie

The highlight of the event will be the final session from Fiona Mackenzie, Canna House archivist and Mod Gold Medal singer. She will bring alive the work of John and Margaret by singing some of the songs they collected and published – beautiful melodies and haunting words which might have been lost forever except for their work.

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