"Eilean: The Island Photography of Margaret Fay Shaw" is a magical, inspirational book. It captures aspects of a world that has in so many ways changed beyond all recognition in the decades since the photographs it contains were taken, mainly in the middle third of the last century. As a result it also evokes a sense of loss, a yearning for a world that with hindsight seems simpler and more innocent: probably wrongly. Mostly, though, this is a book that celebrates the amazing achievement of one woman, Margaret Fay Shaw.
Margaret Fay Shaw was an American writer and photographer who did much to record the music and culture of South Uist and the Hebrides more widely. She was born near Pittsburgh and was the third generation descendent of John Shaw, who had emigrated from Scotland to Philadelphia in 1782. In 1926 she cycled from Castlebay on Barra along the length of the Western Isles to Port Nis in Lewis. In 1929 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. In 1935 Margaret Fay Shaw married Scottish folklorist 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. In 1981, Margaret and John gave Canna to the National Trust for Scotland, along with their extensive archives on Gaelic culture.
"Eilean: The Island Photography of Margaret Fay Shaw" does exactly what the title implies. The book is superbly edited by Fiona Mackenzie,who is the National Trust for Scotland archivist at Canna House. She has tied together almost 200 of Margaret Fay Shaw's photographs with her words from various publications. The result is beautifully packaged and presented in a style reminiscent of an old family photograph album. After an introduction and a biographical note, we are led through collections of photographs of particular islands, from Skye, South Uist, Mingulay, Barra and Eriskay and St Kilda, not long before the population left. After a brief excursion to Ireland's Aran Islands, a large section looks at life on Canna, covering everything from fishing to pets. And people. Judging by the contents of this book, Margaret Fay Shaw was much more interested in the people who lived on the islands she photographed than in the landscapes of the islands themselves. The result is to bequeath a sort of immortality on many of the individuals looking out at us from the book's pages.
It's inevitable that anyone looking at this book will have their own favourite images. For us the frontispiece takes some beating: a photograph of Margaret Fay Shaw sitting on rocks with a huge camera on her lap, looking both down into the viewfinder and at the camera taking the photograph. She's wearing an old coat, and a pair of shoes that are badly worn. We were also struck by pictures of the first landings on Barra's beach airport in August 1936; and especially by the collection of photographs of St Kilda, including one of an islander catching a sea-bird on a sheer cliff face for food. The pictures leave you in no doubt that while the world depicted may (or may not) have been "simpler and more innocent", it was certainly much harder for many who had to make their way in it. A wonderful book, and one we will remember for a long time to come.