This year brings the tenth anniversary of the death of Margaret Fay Shaw, surely one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century, and a life – and a life’s work – worth celebrating.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1903, Margaret came from a rich family, but her childhood was marred by the death of both her parents before the age of ten. In contrast to her high achieving older sisters, she did badly at school in everything except music, where she had a natural gift. Sent to Scotland for a final school year, she did no better academically. But this is where she first heard the Gaelic songs which were to transform her life.
The full story is told in her charming autobiography, From the Alleghenies to the Hebrides, (written just as she spoke – with humour, energy and candour). A few years later she was living in a croft house in South Uist, where she stayed for five years, learning and collecting the songs and stories of the local people. The subsequent tale of her marriage to John Lorne Campbell and their move to Canna is told in my own book, but in her heart she never left Uist and chose to be buried there.
Her great contribution to Scottish culture is Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist, now sadly out of print, although you can still pick up second hand copies. I found a new copy of the fourth edition, published by Birlinn in 1999, offered on Amazon for £566, with used copies fetching between £35 and £131. You can also pick up occasional copies of the previous editions, although first editions are becoming rare.
What made the book an instant success when it was first printed in 1955 was its wonderfully evocative language and original songs. Margaret proved to be not just a talented musician (she took the words and music of the songs down by hand, without immediate recourse to a piano or any sort of audio recording), but a natural writer. The book has sold steadily since.
Yet it would never have happened without the encouragement, practical help and occasional cajoling of her husband John Lorne Campbell. Although she hoped eventually to publish the material she collected, Margaret lacked the skill and the confidence to do the job on her own. It was John who helped her get the songs into print and – to overcome the scepticism of the publishers that there would ever be a market for a book about the life and music of “primitive” people who used an obscure language – put his own cash into the project.
His faith was rewarded. He got his money back very quickly and basked in the public acclaim of his wife’s success. The book transformed her from an amateur enthusiast into a professional ethnomusicologist – evidenced by the four honorary degrees awarded to a woman who said, self-deprecatingly, that she never achieved even a school certificate. But she never lost sight of the people who had given her the songs and stories. She returned often to South Uist and is still revered there.
John was already a published author and collector of Gaelic songs and stories in 1955, although his materworks, the three volumes of Hebridean Folksongs he published with the musicologist Francis Collinson, were still in the future. Together John and Margaret were the most significant collectors and preservers of Scots Gaelic culture in the 20th century.
I can’t say more at this stage – but Margaret did not publish everything she collected. Perhaps the anniversary year of her death will see a new edition of her book and some new work?