Little Bird comes home

It was very fitting that A Little Bird Blown Off Course, the musical tribute to Margaret Fay Shaw devised and performed by Fiona Mackenzie, should have premiered on South Uist, the island where she started her work and her lifelong love of the Hebrides, and finished its first run on Canna, the island which was her home for 70 years.

Camus Art Centre in glorious sunshine

Camus Art Centre

The show, part of the Blas Festival, was performed in the Camus Arts Centre – formerly known as St Edwards Chapel, which has had such a troubled and uncertain existence for the last 18 years, but now has a new future as a charming, intimate performance space. True it posed challenges for Fiona and the four talented young musicians who accompanied her (the acoustics of a church are designed to let the sound rise up to heaven, rather than out to an audience), but they triumphed over them.

The piece tells Margaret’s story – from her childhood in Pittsburgh, via school in Helensburgh to South Uist, to her marriage to John Lorne Campbell and their purchase of Canna – in her own still pictures and ciné film. That provides the context for many of the songs she collected, mostly sung in Gaelic by Fiona in a beautiful clear voice to a sensitive accompaniment on fiddle, guitar, keyboards and percussion.

Little Bird cast photographed outside Camus Art Centre

Fiona Mackenzie (centre) with the excellent musicians who supported her

I have seen lots of Margaret’s photographs and some of her film before, but painstaking work in the Canna archive by Fiona with invaluable help of archivist Magda Sagarzazu has brought out many which were completely new to me and made fascinating viewing, not only to illuminate her own life, but also the daily life of the Hebrides. I particularly liked the film of Margaret’s Steinway grand – a veritable Dreadnought of a piano – being manhandled into the tiny corrugated-iron house in Northbay, Barra, which was John and Margaret’s first home.

Of the songs she collected, one of the most haunting is An Gille Donn, sung by Fiona in its original time signature, but also as an up-tempo arrangement with a lively backing by the band. It is perhaps not the most obvious arrangement for a lament for a brown-haired lad drowned in the Sound of Canna, but if released as a single I think it could be a hit.

Of course Margaret, who died in 2004, was not there to see it, but I like to think she would have been thrilled to see that the work she began nearly 90 years ago is still inspiring singers, musicians and audiences today. I referred to the performance as the last in the first run because I sincerely hope that the National Theatre of Scotland, which commissioned the work, and the National Trust for Scotland, which supported it, will be able to find a way to have it performed many more times.


This entry was posted in Canna Island, Island news and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Little Bird comes home

  1. colin irvine says:

    It was indeed a moving and fitting tribute to Margaret Fay Shaw and it was a pleasure working with the National Theatre for Scotland and Fiona Mackenzie on one of many projects we as the Canna community have secured for the Camus Arts Centre.We hope to work again with the national Theatre For Scotland in the near future.The Arts centre is completely community run and organised and is leased by the community from the trust.This project has been financed by the Canna community development trust.The hard work restoring,cleaning , Refurbishing and fitting out with lighting and sound as well as seating is a true reflection of a hard working and now a very strong dedicated community working towards a very promising and productive future for Canna.

  2. I love hearing about all these goings on on Canna. I haven’t been there since 1997, the last time I saw M Shaw as we referred to her. Sometimes just M. She was a family friend and my employer for several summers in the 1980s. How I wish I could see this performance Little Bird. She would have been completely delighted, I know. Will there be a video of the performance at some point? Viewable online?

  3. Andrew Deuchar says:

    As a first time visitor to Canna, who came specially for ‘Little Bird’, I think it is fantastic that a small community like this is willing both to take the risk and to give wholehearted support to a project which brings life to a building, which might otherwise fall into disrepair, and opens up great opportunities to both performers and audiences to experience music, art and drama in one of the most profoundly beautiful, poignant and charismatic spots I have ever been to; and Fiona and her colleagues demonstrated unequivocally the significance of place in performance and in spirituality.

  4. Hi Lucy, we won’t be releasing a video of the performance but if there is any announcement of new productions or tours of favourite work, we’ll share all the details on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

  5. David Edgar says:

    Thank you Ray for writing this blog. I spent my 15th birthday on Canna in 1965 as part of a Wildlife Exploration Group funded by the Norfolk Education Authority.We spent an idyllic 2/3 weeks there. I think of it often and would love to return someday.

Comments are closed.