Champion of Canna: Magda Sagarazazu obituary

Former Canna House archivist Magda Sagarzazu has died aged 70

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Tributes have been paid to retired Canna House archivist Magda Sagarzazu who died aged 70.

Mrs Sagarazazu  passed away on June 2 in San Sebastion with her husband and family by her side but there are plans to celebrate her life and work with a memorial back in Scotland when lockdown restrictions ease.

The former archivist, who was just 12 when she was first charmed by the Isle of Canna on a family holiday, became a personal friend of well known folklorist John Lorne Campbell and his Pittsburgh born  wife Margaret Fay Shaw as well as keeper of their enormous literary collection  featuring many  thousands of individual items including personal diaries, photographs, transcribed music, original letters and manuscripts as well as a sound archive of Gaelic song and stories.

Canna House and its contents was gifted to the National Trust of Scotland (NTS) in 1981.

Clea Warner, NTS General Manager for the Highlands and Islands said: ‘We are deeply saddened to hear of Magda’s death. The Trust is hugely grateful for her unique contribution to Canna, to conserving its important collections and to our conservation charity. Our thoughts are with her family and friends at this time.’

Mrs Sagarzazu wrote this about her first visit to Canna in 1962 as a child from the Basque country: ‘My idea of an island as a child was a piece of land with palm trees! But I arrived to a beautiful real island. Canna House, the garden, the cats, the Steinway grand piano, books in every room on all topics- it had a great charm for me immediately.’

That first visit lasted almost six months and was to become an annual trip for the family who stayed in TighArd House, up above Canna House.

The young Magda and her sister spent summers exploring every nook and cranny of the island’s beaches and moors, fishing for lobsters and swimming on the Traigh Bhàin on the neighbouring island of Sanday. She described her time on Canna as an ‘education itself’.

The library and the sound recordings of Canna House became part of her daily life when living on Canna and came to have such meaning for her that after training in administration and commerce in Spain, she decided to retrain as a teacher so the  long summer holidays could be spent on Canna,
helping John Lorne Campbell with his literary work and cataloguing of the extensive collections.

When he died in 1996 in Italy, it was Magda and her sister who accompanied Margaret Fay Shaw back to Canna to help with the legalities of John’s estate and sort out his considerable paper archives. When Margaret decided to stay on Canna , Magda took the decision to give up her teaching job and move to the island full time to continue John’s work and be companion to Margaret, writes NTS’s Canna House archivist Fiona Mackenzie.

Canna House archivist Fiona Mackenzie with her friend and former archivist Magda Sagarzazu.

Her work grew into that of archivist and she was appointed that role by the NTS, to whom John had gifted the island in 1981. She lived on in Canna House with Margaret who died in 2004 and she then took up residence in the little white, iconically Hebridean
cottage, Doirlinn, with the green gate looking out onto Canna Bay.

‘Over the years, that house became the focus of many soirees where the Gaelic, Basque, Spanish, Italian and English tongues could be heard in equal measure accompanying songs, darts matches, dancing and of course, ‘pintxos’, that gastronomic Basque delight.

‘Spanish/Gaelic classes were the norm of a winter evening and Magda welcomed in any stray or stranded visitor to the island, offering hospitality, a glass of Cava and a warm smile to all. Her welcoming nature and sense of fun became her signature ‘default’ and there is a not a man on earth who did not crumble when confronted by her twinkly eye and her ‘preciosa’ grin,’ said Mrs Mackenzie.

She added: ‘Magda’s professional contribution not only to the heritage contained within Canna House, but also to Scotland and on into the wider world is immeasurable and she fiercely promoted and advocated the work of the Campbells across the world, increasing awareness in every letter, lecture, broadcast and newspaper article.

‘After John and Margaret died, Magda continued on with the archiving and
cataloguing of the Campbells extensive paper archive of correspondence, manuscripts and research writings. She answered the daily research enquiries which came from right across the world, from some of the most hallowed halls of learning including Harvard, Oxford and Dublin and established close relationships with many of the most learned and revered Chairs of Academia.

‘Her name became synonymous with Canna House. The work carried out by Magda is very likely the greatest contribution to worldwide recognition of Scottish cultural significance to be found anywhere.’

Her friend and executor of John Lorne Campbell, Professor Hugh Cheape, said about Mrs Sagarazazu : ‘Magda won the hearts of all of us who work or have worked in the area of our cultural heritage. She was keenly aware of the international significance and of the life and work of the Campbells of Canna and she worked tirelessly and with great passion to preserve and propagate this.

‘Magda  knew the archives from end to end and worked under often difficult circumstances of isolation to refine them and bring them into a state fitted for the scholarship of the 21st century. We are lost for adequate words of thanks for her life and work in Canna.’

Mrs Mackenzie said: ‘Friends for years, in 2015, Magda took me under her wing as her little ‘preciosa’, her ‘little bird’ and guided me through the enormous, privileged task of becoming the first point of call for information on John and Margaret Campbell.

‘Magda had wanted to retire some years before she actually did but felt she needed to find someone who might understand and love the Collections, as they deserved to be loved. Many is the time , sitting in the sitting room window of Canna House, that she would entrance me with her memories of Marguerite’s pithy stories and John’s sense of fun, the pranks he played and the travels she had with them across the globe. Her story of why there is a hole in the gate to Doirlinn now- to allow her little Cairn terrier Patxu, to have lovelorn conversations with the little seal who visited the shore every day,  would become the pivotal focus for her adult working life.

‘The NTS were indeed fortunate to have in Magda, an employee who so selflessly devoted her life to the Isle of Canna and who has preserved for us and for future generations.’

Her work was recognised by the NTS in 2015 when she was presented with the George Waterston Memorial Award for an employee of
exceptional integrity and commitment and she was recognised the following year by the Saltire Society as one of Scotland’s Outstanding Women of the Year, alongside First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and author J.K. Rowling.