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Fiona J McKenzie (ed) – Eilean: The Photography of Margaret Fay Shaw

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Photographs of island life long gone and a glimpse of the woman photographer behind them

Image of Fiona J McKenzie (ed) – Eilean: The Photography of Margaret Fay Shaw

Fiona J McKenzie’s subject Margaret Fay Shaw was a remarkable woman. Born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1903 and educated at the exclusive Bryn Mawr, she had ambitions to be a concert pianist and travelled to New York, London, and Paris before finally settling on the island of Canna in the Scottish Inner Hebrides in 1938. Her great-great-grandfather emigrated from Scotland to America in 1782. This distant Scottish association was clearly a strong one. In the modern parlance she was the quintessential “affinity Scot”.

She manually transcribed sung Gaelic songs seeking their “pristine” originality. She became a folklorist, a local historian, Gaelic scholar, and a keen photographer and, with her husband John Lorne Campbell, she became a generous host in a house full of music and laughter, Siamese cats, and cairn terriers. Eilean: The Photography of Margaret Fay Shaw reproduces a number of photographs of island life – Canna, South Uist, Barra, Skye – from the 1930s to the 1950s.

The photographs are of a Scotland that’s long vanished – the snug crofts with their thatched roofs and peat stacks, old grandmothers with their spinning wheels, fishermen on Uist digging lugworms for bait to catch flounder at the Sound of Eriskay. The work of crofting and fishing was hard and the rewards meagre so it’s small wonder that many Scots emigrated to Canada, the US, and Australia.

Farming folk stand awkwardly posing for this strange incomer (many had never seen a photograph of themselves before) and Shaw’s big scary camera sent small children running – a heavy Graflex with large-format 4×5 inch negatives and a weighty lens. No lightmeter meant exposure times were guesswork. Her eye for composition and detail is unmatched. In the book, captions to the pictures are taken from Shaw’s own writings and although her strongest images are hugely atmospheric the choice of uncoated stock was perhaps not the best. Glossy or silk paper would have given the pictures the extra lift that they demand. Considering the original negatives were large format, it’s odd that so many of the pictures are grainy and a tad fuzzy. A map of the islands visited by Shaw would not have gone amiss either.

The book doesn’t quite capture Shaw’s very un-Scottish joie de vivre and the rather glamorous salons (described as a Bloomsbury of the Hebrides in one obituary) she and her husband hosted, which attracted musicians, naturalists, archaeologists, artists and writers.