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Life and times of a Hebridean heroine celebrated on stage

MARGARET FAY SHAW was a diminutive American who became one of the great Hebridean figures of the 20th century, a distinguished collector of Gaelic song and tradition and a photographic chronicler of island life.

LEADING VOICE: Award-winning singer Fiona J Mackenzie, on Canna ?? she will lead the National Theatre of Scotland??s production about Margaret Fay Shaw. Picture: Simon Murphy
LEADING VOICE: Award-winning singer Fiona J Mackenzie, on Canna ?? she will lead the National Theatre of Scotland??s production about Margaret Fay Shaw. Picture: Simon Murphy

Now the life and work of Shaw is to be celebrated in a new piece of music-theatre, A Little Bird Blown Off Course, which will open appropriately on South Uist where her love affair with Gaelic culture began in 1929.

It was also where Shaw, who was born in Glenshaw, Pennsylvania, met her husband, the Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell, in 1934; and where she was buried after she died nine years ago aged 101.

Shaw will be remembered during next month's Blas festival which celebrates the culture of the Highlands and Islands. The production of A Little Bird Blown Off Course will open on South Uist next week. Its final performance will be on Canna, which she and her late husband (Campbell died in 1996) owned and then gave to the National Trust for Scotland.

A Little Bird Blown Off Course is led by award-winning singer Fiona J Mackenzie and is presented by the National Theatre of Scotland in partnership with the National Trust for Scotland, with Capercaillie's Donald Shaw as musical director.

It uses extracts from Margaret Shaw's autobiography, letters, personal photography and previously unseen film footage of island life.

Mackenzie said it was an honour to be part of the production. "Margaret's book, Folksongs And Folklore Of South Uist, was my first contact with Gaelic song many years ago and has remained my 'bible' ever since," she said. "I feel like I know her. When I read her book I can hear her voice.

"Having the privilege to work on the original material with Magda Sagarzazu, the Canna archivist, has been one of the most enlightening and exciting experiences of my life.

"It is heartening to see major national bodies such as the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland working together with the Blas Festival, to produce a piece of work which will hopefully increase awareness and develop new audiences for Gaelic cultural events."

Shaw's family owned a steel foundry in Pittsburgh (or Pittsburg; it has been a matter of historical dispute) and she was the youngest of five sisters of Scottish descent. But at the age of 11 she was orphaned. She came to Scotland as a teenager and spent a year at school in Helensburgh.

An accomplished pianist, she went on to study music in Paris and New York. She returned to Scotland and settled on South Uist.

One New Year she was invited to Boisdale House and was introduced to Peigi and Mairi Macrae who were working there. When she heard them sing Gaelic songs she asked if she might lodge with them in their little thatched cottage in North Glendale.

There she remained for five years, learning Gaelic and collating the local songs and tradition.

Armed with a camera and later a 16mm movie camera, she also made a historical photographic record of the lives and times of islanders. This culminated in 1955 with the publication of her celebrated book Folksongs And Folklore of South Uist.

After her wedding in 1935 she and Campbell initially made their home on Barra where he had made friends with Compton Mackenzie, author of Whisky Galore. But three years later, Campbell bought the island of Canna.

They gave Canna to the National Trust for Scotland in 1981.

Shaw's autobiography, From The Alleghenies To The Hebrides was published in 1993.

Caroline Newall, the national theatre's director of artistic development said: "We are thrilled by the possibilities for incorporating traditional Gaelic arts into contemporary theatre performance, and A Little Bird Blown Off Course is our first foray into this type of cross-artform collaboration."

A spokeswoman said after this initial tour of the show, the company might look at taking it further afield.

The tour starts on September 4 on South Uist before visiting Culloden Battlefield Centre, Sunart Centre, Ardgay, Torridon, Ullapool, Strathpeffer and finishes at Canna on September 14.

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