Within the walls of their Inner Hebridean home, they were the odd couple on a mission to preserve and capture Hebridean culture.

American-born Margaret Fay Shaw and her aristocratic husband John Lorne Campbell became known for their immense contribution to collecting and documenting Gaelic song and stories, while their home, Canna House, would go on to hold an incredible archive of nationally important material.

There, they pursued a host of other passions: socialising with writers and musicians, collecting random books that caught their interest, tucking away haphazard items that brought back memories and others that intrigued their enquiring minds.

While scattered throughout the 19th century Isle of Canna property was the ordinary detritus of everyday life, stuffed in drawers and tucked in cupboards, each telling a story of their owners’ characters, interests and passions.

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It all passed into the ownership of the National Trust for Scotland in 1981: a precious time capsule that held their huge archive of Gaelic culture and heritage, and personal belongings that shone light on the couple’s lives and loves.

Now with work underway to conserve and repair Canna House, their huge array of belongings and Gaelic archives – numbering tens of thousands of individual items – have been painstakingly packed and stored.

The immense task has taken NTS staff charged with gathering up the contents of Canna House down a rabbit hole, revealing previously undetected elements of the couple’s characters, fresh insight into the people they mixed with and their eclectic interests.

While the physical challenge of carefully documenting every single item - from the smallest butterfly collection to accomplished pianist Margaret Fay Shaw’s Steinway Grand piano - has involved going to mindboggling lengths and paying meticulous attention to detail.

The Herald:

John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw

Spanning months of preparation, the task even included capturing countless photographs of individual items and their positions, so they can be returned to precisely the same spot as when the couple were in residence, busy cataloguing their archive, sifting through recordings, photographs, stories and songs.

The packaging up of Canna House’s contents is part of a year-long conservation and restoration project that has included re-roofing and repairs to the building’s fabric.

It is being carried out by teams of specialist workers – their numbers have doubled the population of the island.

It will eventually see Canna House fully open to visitors for the first time next year, as a new visitor attraction that will tell the inspiring story of the couple and their contribution to preserving Gaelic culture and heritage.

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Edinburgh-born John Lorne Campbell became interested in island heritage and culture after overhearing a conversation in Gaelic which inspired him to read rural economics and Celtic studies at St. John’s College, Oxford.

He went on to dedicate his life to recording Gaelic culture and traditions, using what was cutting edge equipment of its time to capture spoken word heritage, folk songs and the voices of traditional storytellers.

His collections of Hebridean folk songs are regarded as a valuable resource by musicians and folklorists, while in Canna House there are nearly 200 vinyl disco recordings, including 110 Gaelic folksongs recorded in Barra and Uist in 1938 against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Hebridean landscape.

At around the same time, Margaret Fay Shaw, born in Pennsylvania of Scottish heritage and sent to live in Helensburgh after being orphaned as a child, was pursuing her own fascination with Gaelic music.

The Herald:

John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw

She was staying in South Uist in 1934 when their paths crossed. They  married a year later and in 1938 bought the island of Canna for £9,000, where they started a crofting community.

Canna House became a social hub for writers, scholars, artists and storytellers.

According to Indigo Carnie, the Trust’s Collections Care Manager on Canna, every corner of Canna House tells a story of the couple’s interests and lives, while the scale of the project was breathtaking.

“They came from a generation that tended to keep things, plus they were on an island where it’s hard to get rid of anything.

“And they had a collecting mentality.

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“In the end, we had 11,500 objects and 15,000 books,” she says.

“Every object needed a different approach. We used hundreds of metres of bubble wrap and tissue, and 1,400 different boxes.”

The house revealed 50 different types of textiles – from rugs which have had decades of use, to curtains. Each had to be carefully wrapped in acid-free tissue and covered with protective polythene.

While huge collections of ceramics and glass ornaments were packaged in special ‘drop proof’ boxes to protect them.

The vast range of items in the home reveal much about the couple’s individual personalities  – from Campbell’s butterfly and moth collections to his wife’s hoard of show New York show programmes and concert fliers found in an old battered ladies’ suitcase.


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They hark back to when she spent time as an usher in New York, working at the Carnegie Hall and enjoying spectacular musical productions: a particular moment in her life overshadowed by her later life.

Among the rooms to be emptied and packed away was the couple’s library. There the NTS team found more unusual topics alongside thousands of books spanning Scottish history, linguistics and folklore.

“They were interested in politics and psychology, but they also had personal interests - they loved cats and there are a huge number of books about cats,” Indigo adds.

“And there’s a section of the bookshelf for books about UFOs and witchcraft.”

Preparing their books for storage was a particularly poignant moment, with personal inscriptions – including some written by their author friends like Gavin Maxwell – tickets, postcards and bits of paper tucked inside the pages.

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“When you go through someone’s belongings like their book collection, it feels very personal and you build up a picture of their interests and preoccupations,” she adds.

“Theirs is eclectic, disparate collection of items.”

The conservation project is part of the National Trust for Scotland’s 10-year strategy Nature, Beauty & Heritage for Everyone, and is being funded by supporters of the conservation charity, including the NTS USA Foundation who have contributed $600,000.

Clea Warner, Regional Director for the Highlands and Island at the National Trust for Scotland, said: “The vast archive within Canna House has made this an arduous yet increasingly rewarding experience.

“It was a meticulous process, packing up over 50,000 items, including Gaelic songs, stories and photographs.

The Herald: Canna House


“We are pleased to be making progress on this programme of repairs which will protect Canna House and its important collection and ensure that everyone can enjoy the nature, beauty and heritage that makes this place so special.”

In addition to the work underway on Canna House, NTS is working with the Canna community to support important projects on the island, including the creation of a Canna visitor hub.

It will provide improved facilities for visitors and the community on the island, including a space for the NTS ranger and facilities for visiting health workers.

Chief Executive Phil Long OBE said: “After many years of careful planning, it is a great step forward to have started work on this ambitious and complex project.

“Canna is a very special place that is loved by many because of its unique nature, beauty and heritage.”