There was an inevitability about the meeting of John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw; their paths and their interests had been intertwining for years. Several times they had been in the same place at the same time, but had not met until a wet night in 1934, when he took the Lochearn to South Uist to address a meeting of the Sea League.
John had heard about the young American who was collecting songs and taking photographs and he hoped she might provide illustrations for his book. He might secretly have been longing for more than that.
Getting off the ship, he inquired at the Lochboisdale Hotel where Finlay Mackenzie, the manager, knew everything that was going on in the island. With the hotel only a few steps above the pier, it was the obvious place for passengers to wait for transport to their destination or to shelter from inclement weather. Hebrideans were seldom reluctant to pass the time of day. Mackenzie would certainly know the whereabouts of Margaret, but John probably did not expect to be told that she was in the hotel, playing the piano for pipe major John MacDonald, who was giving music lessons to local boys.
The hotel manager introduced John in the formal style as ‘Young Inverneill’. Whether Margaret lived up to John’s expectations, we do not know. While she later described the meeting in her autobiography, his notebooks are silent. The only public comment he made was in answer to a television interviewer 60 years later: ‘As so often happens, we didn’t take to each other at first, but we got to know each other and we were working in the same small world.’
Her initial impression of him was not good. He was gangly, shy and, she thought, conceited. He asked her to provide photographs, which she did despite being warned not to by a friend who told her that he knew John’s kind: ‘he’ll never pay you anything’. It was good advice: she never got paid.
The courtship was slow and cool. They were an odd couple, he tall and introverted, she short and direct. Some months after their meeting, he invited her to spend a week with him on Barra but left her alone for hours on end while he chased butterflies with a net.
The following year, in March 1935, she took him home to Glenshaw to meet her sisters and aunts. John claimed later that he had gone to Pennsylvania with the intention of proposing, but he spent most of the time in his room, pounding his typewriter to finish his manuscript. When he did emerge it was to collect moth cocoons in the woods. Margaret agreed with her family that he did not appear to have much interest in her. No one was more surprised than she when, on his final day, he asked her to marry him.
[Did they live happily ever after? The following 60 years is in the book…]