Margaret Fay Shaw lived from 9 November 1903 to 11 December 2004. She was an American writer who did much to record the music and culture of South Uist. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Margaret Fay Shaw was born near Pittsburgh. She was the third generation descendent of John Shaw, who had emigrated from Scotland to Philadelphia in 1782. Her parents died while she was still young, and Margaret was brought up by relatives. In 1921 she spent a year at St Bride's School in Helensburgh. While there, she heard Marjory Kennedy-Fraser singing her "Songs of the Hebrides" at a school concert and decided she wanted to find out more about the original Gaelic versions of the songs she had heard. In 1924, between her training to concert standard as a pianist, she undertook a cycle tour with her sister that included large parts of North West Scotland. In 1926 she cycled from Castlebay on Barra along the length of the Western Isles to Port Nis in Lewis.
In 1929, having had to give up the piano because of rheumatism, she moved to live with two sisters, Mairi and Peigi MacRae, in their traditional croft on South Uist near Lochboisdale. She remained there until 1935, learning Gaelic and recording the songs and folklore of the island. The result, published in 1955, was Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist. Such was her contribution to the recording of Gaelic culture that she was later awarded honourary degrees by the Universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, as well as from St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, and the National University of Ireland.
In 1935 Margaret Fay Shaw married John Lorne Campbell, who shared her love of Gaelic culture and tradition. In 1938 they purchased the island of Canna and established a home there, from which they continued to gather traditional songs and material, later extending their interest to the Gaelic culture of Nova Scotia. In 1981, Margaret and John gave Canna to the National Trust for Scotland, along with their extensive archives on Gaelic culture. John Lorne Campbell died in 1996, and after his death, Margaret continued to live on Canna until she died in 2004 at the age of 101.
This biography draws on research first published in "The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women".