Book review: Eilean – The Island Photography of Margaret Fay Shaw

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Margaret Fay Shaw and her husband John Lorne Campbell made so many contributions to preserving the culture, folklore, songs and traditions of the Highlands and Islands that it has taken many books to attempt to chronicle their great efforts.

In bequeathing the Island of Canna and its vast archives to the National Trust, they ensured that future generations could access and enjoy these rich fruits. The archivist on Canna and noted Gaelic singer, Fiona J. Mackenzie, has by her fine editorial work, provided a new and vibrant addition to Margaret Fay Shaw’s work.

Margaret was an American who came to South Uist in the 1920s and began to take photographs. The results, for many of her subjects, would have been the first time in front of a camera and many islanders in the book portray a touching innocence on their faces.

The pictures in this collection, a fraction of her vast archive, were taken on Uist, Barra, Mingulay, Eriskay, Skye, Canna, St Kilda and the Irish Aran islands. The subjects range from portraits such as the legendary “Coddy” or her Gaelic mentors, sisters Peigi and Mairi, wildlife and animals to historic events such as the first landing of an aircraft on the Cockle Strand in Barra.

Many of the photographs are captioned with words from Margaret’s published writings and these only serve to whet the appetite to visit these works in order to savour the full richness of this remarkable woman’s cultural bequest to us.

Margaret Fay Shaw was a woman of so many talents that it is hard to do justice to such a range. This collection is a fine contribution to celebrating her rich life and apart from enjoying the photographs in their own right, the reader will be left wanting to find out so much more about Margaret and her husband.

Few people in life are so fortunate as Margaret was in finding her nirvana, environmental and cultural, in the Western Isles. To her it was all so natural and when asked, she once said “I was just living.” Thankfully, she had a camera to hand to allow us all to share in that remarkable life and her journey through it.

Eilean: The Island Photography of Margaret Fay Shaw was edited by Fiona J.Mackenie, and is published by  Birlinn.

Eric Macintyre