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A documentary about a remarkable American woman who came to live on a Scottish island to record Gaelic culture and a way of life that was beginning to disappear, has revealed that she was close friends with the famous author of Whisky Galore.
Compton Mackenzie, who wrote Whisky Galore in 1947, which was adapted into a film in 1949, visited Margaret Fay Shaw and her husband John Lorne Campbell at their house on the Isle of Canna so often that the typewriter he used to write the famous novel along with his slippers, smoking jacket, a handkerchief with his initials and a cigar case, complete with two cigars, are still there.
There are also two Whisky Galore bottles, salvaged by a local on South Uist from the wreckage of the real-life S.S Politician, which ran aground while carrying 28,000 cases of malt whisky near Eriskay in 1941. This was the inspiration for the book and the bottles were a gift from Margaret’s former landlady Peigi Macrae from South Uist to celebrate the publication of her book, Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist, in 1955.
Fiona Mackenzie, archivist at Canna House, became interested in Margaret’s work after buying the book 25 years ago and she gives a fascinating insight into the couple’s life in the Hebrides and the priceless legacy Margaret left behind for generations to come.
Margaret sailed to South Uist from America when she was in her twenties after falling in love with the place on an earlier visit when she cycled and walked the length of the outer islands.
In the documentary Margaret says: ‘It attracted me like a magnet and it still does after all these years. Everyone was so happy and sang, it was their accompaniment to life.’
Margaret met John in the Lochboisdale Hotel on South Uist. He was involved with the Sea League at the time, alongside Compton Mackenzie, and requested photographs from Margaret for his book.
After living in a house on Barra, where Compton lived for a number of years, John decided he’d like to purchase a traditional highland estate within a Gaelic speaking community, so they bought the island of Canna in 1938.
Fiona said: ‘Compton was actually meant to share the cost of the island with them, but he changed his mind at the last-minute leaving John to find the extra money to complete the purchase on his own. He paid just over £9,000 for the island and about £2,000 for the animals.
‘Compton had become a close friend when they lived in Barra and John wanted to continue to live near him, but it took a bit of time before Margaret and Compton got along, she always believed that he was slightly jealous of Margaret’s relationship with John!’
The island of Canna and Canna House is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland after the couple gave it to them in 1981, and the house still contains thousands of photographs, films, papers and recordings of Gaelic songs, many of which would have been lost forever without their efforts.
Margaret’s films and photographs show a world of old crofting traditions such as men and women working on the land, carrying seaweed from the shore in creels on their backs, ploughing with the cas-chrom – a type of foot plough – and reaping the oats with a sickle.
Fiona added: ‘Margaret realised that when people died a wealth of Gaelic songs were lost with them, so she started collecting and recording the songs because she wanted to keep them alive.
‘What made her work unique from any other folklorists, was that she lived within the communities. She was not a visitor and the people respected her.
‘She was a remarkable woman. Her friend Fred T Gillies said that “if there was a dying ember, she blew on it and brought it to life again”.’
The programme also pays tribute to Magda Sagarzazu who came to Canna from the Basque region of Spain as a child and made it her mission to preserve and popularise Margaret and John’s work as Gaelic scholars. She was archivist at Canna House for 20 years and died of cancer in June this year aged 70.
Solas: Margaret Fay Shaw of Canna airs on BBC ALBA on Thursday, July 30, at 10pm.