“Life for most of us may begin at forty, but let no-one worry if a few more years go by before the real excitement sets in.” With these words Margaret Fay Shaw’s sister Kay begins her account of an epic and adventurous journey to visit Canna in 1939.
If you have read Margaret’s autobiography, From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides, you will remember that Kay (Dr Katherine Lydia Shaw) and Margaret had both lived at the YWCA in New York while Kay was at medical school. Margaret had also described her first visit to Barra, Eriskay and South Uist in evocative letters to Kay.
In August 1939 John and Margaret had been living on Canna for just a year. Kay was keen to see the island and discover what Margaret thought the Hebrides had to offer “that makes her prefer them to anywhere else on earth.” Her problem was that she could only spare a month at most from her job and the passage from the US to Britain by liner took 7-10 days each way. The solution she hit on was to book a berth on one of the first air crossings of the Atlantic.
The Pan Am Yankee Clipper was a Boeing flying boat which did the journey from New York harbour to Southampton, via stops to drop mail or refuel in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and the west coast of Ireland. They left on Saturday morning and Kay was astonished to find herself walking the streets of London on Sunday afternoon. By Tuesday she was on Canna.
She was captivated by the island, its scenery, its history, its wildlife and John’s butterfly collection, but her holiday was shortened and overshadowed by the increasingly likelihood of war. Having come by air, she had booked her return journey on the French liner Ile de France, but when she returned to London to check in, she was told the French Government would not permit it to sail – presumably for fear of it being torpedoed.
There followed a long series of raised and dashed hopes, a return to Scotland, a journey across Ireland and finally a return on the Yankee’s sister aircraft the Dixie Clipper, made possible because the Duchess of Leinster, having been refused permission to take all her luggage and her dog on the flight, cancelled her reservation.
She met many interesting people along the way – not least the remarkable Fred Moir, businessman, African explorer, fighter against slavery and a family friend, who gave Margaret away at her wedding. Like Margaret, Kay had the ability to make friends with anyone she met – even receiving a tentative proposal of marriage from a fellow traveller on one occasion.
The story was told by Kay in a short memoir for her friends and family, written in October 1939 and now handsomely reproduced by her (and Margaret’s) niece Maggie VanHaften. It would be an interesting historical document, but what makes it much more is the wonder, amusement and interest with which Kay treats each new experience, good or bad.
The Memoirs of Katherine Lydia Shaw’s Trip to Scotland in 1939 and her ensuing challenge to get home. Edited and annotated by Margaret Roberts VanHaften