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Little did the Pennsylvania relatives of Margaret Fay Shaw know in 1920 when they packed her off to the home of her ancestors in Scotland to ‘sort her out’ as they called it, that the orphaned teenager would one day be celebrated as one of the world’s first female photographers/cinematographers.
And now a new film celebrating the footage collected by Margaret will premiere at an event in South Uist tomorrow (Friday May 3) as part of the Moladh Uibhist weekend.
Created by the National Trust for Scotland’s Canna House archivist, Fiona J Mackenzie, Solas – Gaelic for light – uses rediscovered film shot by the US-born folklorist who dedicated her life to documenting Gaelic song.
Margaret Fay Shaw left the world a fascinating collection of images and invaluable film of a lifestyle which no longer exists.
She not only took film and photographs in the Outer Hebrides but also on Canna, where she lived with her husband and fellow folklorist John Lorne Campbell from 1938, when they bought the island, until her death, aged 101, in 2004.
As a teenager, the young Margaret was sent to St Bride’s School in Helensburgh, and it was here, at a school recital, that she first heard Gaelic being sung by Victorian song collector Marjory Kennedy Fraser.
Margaret decided there and then to make finding the ‘pristine version of Gaelic song’ her ‘life’s quest.
She spent six years living in the remote hamlet of North Glendale, South Lochboisdale, South Uist, between 1929 and 1935 and over the course of these years, she documented a disappearing way of Hebridean life.
This film collection was recently re-digitised by the National Trust for Scotland, which has cared for the island since 1981, to ensure its preservation.
During this process, archivist Ms Mackenzie uncovered some previously unseen film, including footage of the first plane landing on the Cockle Strand on Barra in 1936.
Solas uses Margaret’s images, films and words to tell the story of her life and the people in that life.
Using two broadcasts which she made for the BBC in the 1950s and the words of her close friend and companion, Basque-born Magda Sagarzazu, their own recorded voices tell how their lives were affected by the islands, the people, the animals, crofting, the birds, the songs and the sounds.
The film also uses samples from the sound archive recorded by Campbell during the 30s and 40s in the Hebrides, primarily Barra, South Uist, Eriskay and Canna.
During the production of the film, Ms Mackenzie was also keen to demonstrate how an archive can inspire new and current creative work.
Lewis piper James Duncan Mackenzie, a member of the band Breabach, was commissioned to produce a new soundtrack for the film. He and fellow musicians spent a week in Canna House, using the films to produce a suite of new music.
Ms Mackenzie said: ‘I am delighted we have produced this lovely piece of work, to profile the work of an incredible woman who had the foresight to save for the world today, a piece of Scottish lifestyle which would have otherwise disappeared.
‘It is only right the film is premiered in the middle of the community which took Margaret to their hearts and were so generous with their time, language, love and culture.
‘Margaret said Uist was the place ‘where she was loved the best’ and we hope that this will be evident in the film.
‘We are very grateful to the National Trust for Scotland USA Foundation for making this project possible and for the opportunity to prove that archives can be a living entity, not merely a collection of boxes on the shelf.
‘All of the people involved in the production, the editor, the musicians, the studios, have been inspired by the work of Margaret and John Lorne Campbell and all are keen to continue this work, using the wonderful resources contained in Canna House to celebrate the life and work of these two incredible people.
‘John and Margaret Campbell would be delighted we are using the old to create the new.’