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.
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.
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.