Obituary: Margaret Fay Shaw ; Collector of the Gaelic Songs and Folklore of the Hebrides
Cheape, Hugh, The Independent (London, England)
MARGARET FAY SHAW was a woman of rare qualities and achievements as the distinguished collector and editor of Scottish Gaelic song and important traditional material, writer, and photographer and recorder of the way of life of the Scottish Hebrides.
She was born at Glenshaw, near Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, in 1903, the fifth and youngest of the children of Henry Clay Shaw and his wife Fanny Maria Patchin, of a New England family from Old Bonnington, Vermont. Margaret recounted her family history with relish and charm: she was descended through three generations from John Shaw, who had emigrated from Scotland to Philadelphia in 1782 and cast the first cannon which armed the ships that defeated a British squadron on Lake Erie in the War of 1812. The family had settled on a grant of land in the west of the state and built a house, "Glenshaw", where Margaret herself was brought up.
Following the death of both her parents when she was still a girl, Margaret was looked after by her eldest sisters and attended local elementary school and then boarding schools at Bryn Mawr near Philadelphia. Conventional schooling was irksome and unfulfilling but music struck a hidden chord. She learnt to play the piano by ear and later was taught to professional level in New York, Paris and London.
Meanwhile, at the suggestion of a Scottish family friend in 1921, Margaret was sent across the Atlantic to spend a year at St Bride's School in Helensburgh. She heard the folksong collector Marjory Kennedy-Fraser singing her Songs of the Hebrides at a concert in the school and decided she wanted to learn them for herself. These were "art songs" rendered in English: Margaret became determined to discover the music in its original forms and words.
Back in America she was convinced that she must return to Scotland in her search. She toured parts of Britain including the Island of Skye with her sister in 1924 and then in 1926 undertook, even by the standards of the time, an extraordinary journey by bicycle the length of the Hebrides from Castlebay to Port of Ness. She gained many enduring impressions on this odyssey but one in particular was to change her life; of all the places she visited, the personality and spirituality of South Uist moved her most strongly and, in her own words, "There was something about South Uist that attracted me and never left me."
After recurrent rheumatism, for which she received treatment in New York, and against her family's wishes, she returned to Scotland and to the Hebrides as a form of self-healing. She was to recall the advice of an elderly academic in the United States: "Now, Margaret, don't let anybody do any of your thinking for you."
From 1929 until 1935 she lived with two sisters, Mairi and Peigi MacRae, in their croft house in the township of North Glendale by Lochboisdale in South Uist. She learnt Gaelic from these two remarkable people and their neighbours, who were also richly endowed with a wealth of song of great beauty, and sang with no instrumental accompaniment. Without recording apparatus, knowledge of Scottish Gaelic was essential for transcribing the songs with their diversity of modes and scales, which Shaw herself well understood, and she took down and annotated folksongs and the essential stories behind the songs.
The material collected in those years was later published in the meticulously edited Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist (1955), with subsequent editions in 1977, 1986 and, in paperback, in 1999. The book comprises songs in significant cultural variety - songs in praise of Uist, love songs, laments and songs of exile, lullabies, songs for dancing (the popular puirt-a- bial or "mouth-music"), milking songs, spinning songs, waulking songs, clapping songs and quern songs - with traditional material including stories, anecdotes, prayers, proverbs, cures, charms and recipes, all vivid testimony to the amount and variety in the culture of a single community in the early 20th century, and, in Margaret Fay Shaw's treatment of it, a unique and sympathetic insight into a world that has largely disappeared. …