HE was the the adopted Scots author of Whisky Galore, a novel inspired by real-life sea accident in 1941 on the Hebridean island of Eriskay.

She was a young American folklorist, photographer and filmmaker who came to live on a Scottish island of Canna, fell in love with Gaelic culture and went on to establish an invaluable archive of the songs and stories of islanders.

Now a new documentary uncovers the friendship between Compton Mackenzie and Margaret Fay Shaw who would go on to create a collection of an unprecedented seam of music and verse from the early days of Hebridean culture.

The documentary explores how Mr Mackenzie, who wrote Whisky Galore in 1947 and which was adapted into a film in 1949, visited Ms Shaw and her husband at their Canna house so often that the typewriter he used to write his famous novel along with his slippers, smoking jacket, a handkerchief with his initials and a cigar case, complete with two cigars, are still there.

There are also two Whisky Galore bottles, salvaged by a local on South Uist from the real-life wreckage of the S.S Politician which ran aground with 28,000 cases of malt whisky near Eriskay in 1941.

The bottles, a real-life inspiration for Whisky Galore, were a gift from Ms Shaw's former landlady Peigi Macrae from South Uist to celebrate the publication of her book Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist in 1955.

Born in Glenshaw, Pennsylvania, Ms Shaw who died 16 years ago, became fascinated by the music and song of the Hebrides as a young woman and had lived amongst its people since the 1920s.

She first crossed to Scotland as a teenager to spend a year at a school in Helensburgh, inspired by a school recital, in which she heard Gaelic for the first time, sung by Marjory Kennedy Fraser, a Scottish folk singer and collector of Hebridean songs.

After studying music in New York and Paris, Ms Shaw sailed to South Uist when she was in her twenties after falling in love with the place on an earlier visit when she cycled and walked the length of the outer islands.

It was then that she began collecting Gaelic song and lore, which she was to publish in an important collection.


Fiona Mackenzie, archivist at Canna House

In her sojourns on Uist and Barra, Ms Shaw always had her cameras close to her, to record a vanishing way of life in still photographs and on film.

In the documentary Ms Shaw says: “It attracted me like a magnet and it still does after all these years. Everyone was so happy and sang, it was their accompaniment to life.”

Ms Shaw and Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell married after first meeting in the Lochboisdale Hotel on South Uist. He was involved with the Sea League at the time, alongside Mr Mackenzie, and requested photographs from Ms Shaw for his book.

After the wedding the couple moved to Barra, where they kept company with Mr Mackenzie, and the colourful local character The Coddy, their Gaelic mentor.

After living in a house on Barra, where Mr Mackenzie used to live for a number of years, Mr Campbell decided he would like to purchase a traditional Highland estate within a Gaelic speaking community so they bought the island of Canna in 1938.

Ms Shaw would with her husband create a nationally important archive of Gaelic culture and language at the island's Canna House.

Fiona Mackenzie, archivist at Canna House, became interested in Ms Shaw's work after buying Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist 25 years ago has given a fascinating insight into the relationship between the couple and Mr Mackenzie in the Hebrides and the priceless legacy left behind for generations to come.

She said: “Compton was actually meant to share the cost of the island with them, but he changed his mind at the last-minute leaving John to find the extra money to complete the purchase on his own. He paid just over £9,000 for the island and about £2,000 for the animals.

“Compton had become a close friend when they lived in Barra and John wanted to continue to live near him, but it took a bit of time before Margaret and Compton got along, she always believed that he was slightly jealous of Margaret’s relationship with John."

The island of Canna and Canna House is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland after it was gifted in 1981 and the house still contains thousands of photos, films, papers and recordings of Gaelic songs, many of which would have been lost forever without their efforts.

Ms Shaw's films and photos show a world of old crofting traditions such as men and women working on the land, carrying seaweed from the shore in creels on their backs, ploughing with the cas-chrom - a kind of foot plough – and reaping the oats with a sickle.

Ms Mackenzie added: “Margaret realised that when people died a wealth of Gaelic songs were lost with them so she started collecting and recording the songs because she wanted to keep them alive.


Magda Sagarzazu and Margaret Fay Shaw

“What made her work unique from any other folklorists, was that she lived within the communities. She was not a visitor and the people respected her.

“She was a remarkable woman. Her friend Fred T Gillies that ‘if there was a dying ember, she blew on it and brought it to life again.’

The documentary which airs at 10pm on Thursday on BBC Alba also pays tribute to Magda Sagarzazu who came to Canna from the Basque region of Spain as a child and made it her mission to preserve and popularise Ms Shaw and Mr Campbell's work as Gaelic scholars. She was archivist at Canna House for 20 years and died in June this year aged 70 of cancer.

The highly-respected keeper of the nationally important collection of Gaelic culture and language, passed away in San Sebastian with her husband Joaquin and family around her.