Glean: Focus on filmmaking, Fri 27 Jan 2023, 7pm

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Credit: Jenny Gilbertson (with Cuthbert Cayley) 1938/39, courtesy of Shetland Museum & Archive

This online event focuses on early 20th Century women filmmakers in Scotland. Chaired by Professor Melanie Bell, (Film History, School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds), whose area of expertise is in Gender and Film as well as British Cinema History, the event will discuss the film production of that period, the ethics of filming others, and caring for their work. It will also reflect on how the women filmmakers saw themselves and their motivations for making film. This discussion is with Ros Cranston (Curator of Non-Fiction Film and Television at the BFI National Archive, BFI National Archive), Shona Main (PhD researcher, University of Stirling and The Glasgow School of Art); Janet McBain (founding Curator, Scottish Screen Archive); Professor Sarah Neely (Theatre, Film & Television Studies, University of Glasgow, Dr Isabel Seguí (Film and Visual Culture Department, University of Aberdeen) and Jenny Brownrigg (The Glasgow School of Art, curator of Glean). 


Melanie Bell is Professor of Film History at the University of Leeds. She examines production histories through a gendered lens and has published widely on many aspects of women’s film history including documentary directors, costume designers, and foley artists. She uses oral histories, labour records, photographs and ephemera in her scholarship, and is especially interested in life narratives and occupational identities.   

Jenny Brownrigg is Exhibitions Director at The Glasgow School of Art. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Scottish women artists. She is curator of the exhibition ‘Glean: early 2oth century women filmmakers and photographers in Scotland’, at City Art Centre, Edinburgh, Scotland (2022 / 2023).

Ros Cranston is a Curator of Non-Fiction Film and Television at the BFI National Archive. She has a special interest in women documentary filmmakers, and leads The Camera is Ours: Britain’s women documentary makers project. She also led the BFI project This Working Life, which celebrates Britain’s coalmining, shipbuilding and steelmaking heritage on film.

Shona Main has just submitted a SGSAH-supported practice-led PhD thesis at Stirling University. A filmmaker herself, she is interested in the quietly radical ethical practice of the early documentary filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson (1902-1990) who filmed Shetland crofters in the 1930s and Inuit of Coral Harbour and Grise Fiord in Arctic Canada in the 1970s – when she was in her seventies. Operating alone and outside the film industry, Gilbertson’s DIY approach to filmmaking allowed her to take the time to attend, listen and build and sustain friendships with the people she lived and filmed with. 

 A graduate in Scottish history, and former Survey Officer for the National Register of Archives Scotland, Janet McBain joined the Scottish Film Council in 1976 at the inception of what was to become the Scottish Screen Archive. Since then she has overseen the development of the archive into Scotland’s national collection of some 35,000 reels of film and video reflecting Scottish life and cinematic art in the film century, and has been researching and promoting the history of film production and cinema exhibition in Scotland. She is the author of ‘Pictures Past – Recollections of Scottish Cinema Going’ (pub Moorfoot 1985) and contributor of essays, articles and conference papers on many aspects of film in Scotland.  In 2006 she was awarded the Outstanding Achievement in Film by BAFTA Scotland for her work in preserving and presenting Scotland’s film heritage and in 2016 was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters (DLitt) from the University of Glasgow.

Sarah Neely is Professor in Film and Visual Culture at the University of Glasgow. Her current research focuses on the areas of film history, memory and artists’ moving image.  Recent publications include Between Categories: The Films of Margaret Tait – Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place (Peter Lang, 2016) and, as editor, Personae (LUX, 2021), a non-fiction work by Margaret Tait.  She is currently writing a book on memory, archives and creativity. 

Isabel Seguí is a Lecturer in Film and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Aberdeen. Her work has appeared in academic journals such as Latin American PerspectivesFeminist Media HistoriesFrameworkJump Cut, and edited collections like Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image (Balsom & Peleg eds, the MIT Press, 2022) or Incomplete: the Feminist Possibilities of the Unfinished Film (Beeston & Solomon eds., UC California Press, 2023). She is a member of the steering committee of RAMA (Latin American Women’s Audiovisual Research Network).

Research Note 10: Orkney Library & Archive

Orkney Library & Archive, Kirkwall Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2022)

The photography of Dr Beatrice Garvie (1872-1956) has come to my attention solely through the ongoing meticulous work of artist and researcher Fiona Sanderson. Sanderson had come across Garvie’s photographs through her own connection to North Ronaldsay, Orkney. As part of her time on the island as the community doctor in the 1930s and 40s, Garvie had photographed Sanderson’s grandmother ‘Jenny South Ness’. Sanderson has, over several years, presented her ongoing research as part of a number of events including ‘Holm Sound’ (Episode 7: BLØM, 2022); and XPoNorth’s podcast series ‘Unforgotten Highland Women’ (2022). As an artist involved in a ‘Culture Collective’ project in North Ronaldsay, Sanderson has also introduced Dr Garvie and her work to North Ronaldsay schoolchildren. As part of her  research, Sanderson has contacted Garvie’s family, and, through her own connections with North Ronaldsay, the families of those in the photographs. This has allowed Sanderson to work collaboratively to name and caption, when not noted in Garvie’s own captions. Sanderson also recognises the ethical issue of use of the photographs in further public platforms such as exhibitions and events, asking permission as some may not wish to have photographs of family members shown. This research approach is also echoed in Shona Main’s work with Jenny Gilbertson’s early films in Shetland, asking communities to name those beyond the central islanders involved.

Like Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004), who lived with the MacRae sisters in North Glendale, South Uist for five years in the early 1930s’, Dr Garvie also lived in the community she was photographing for 15 years from the 1930s to ‘40s. As can be noted through the work of Shetland filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson who also, latterly as a teacher, lived and worked in the community she had documented, this sustained period of immersion allowed for a full understanding and recording of the changing seasons and their impact on the island.  For Gilbertson,  ‘A Crofter’s Life in Shetland’ (1931) was filmed over the period of a year, showing seasonal farming and fishing cycles. Seasons can also be perceived in Garvie’s work through the types of farm labour she photographed. The weather is also apparent, for example, in one sequence  of unloading the boat ‘The Earl Sigurd’, with snow lying on the pier in the foreground. As Sanderson points out, Garvie as a doctor is likely to be the only woman photographer to have taken photographs of the babies and children she brought into the world, there is a sense of time passing in her photographs of the children beginning to grow up, from babies into toddlers. Dr Kenneth Robertson, a physician in South Uist from 1956-1981, is a later example of a doctor in Scotland photographing the community they served.

Garvie captured communal work in North Ronaldsay, from re-roofing the baker’s shop, to repairing the unique wall that encircles the high shore line around the island, keeping the seaweed-eating sheep on the foreshore. Her photographs really have a unique sense of ‘place’, with the lighthouse, as a main landmark, often discernible in photographs where she has focussed on farm work, such as of a woman scything. There are several sequences of activities relating to ‘tangle work’, such as men and women piling up kelp in heaps; and then placing these in ‘kilns’ on the shore to set light to. A handwritten description on the back of one of the photographs reads:

‘Tangle stacks. Tangle is collected from the beach during winter… left on this ridge of stones above the beach – about July is forked into circular shallow pits… and burned, becoming lumps of dark grey material. This is shipped to Grangemouth Chemical Works.

As I have noted before, some of the male photographers of this period were keen to perpetuate the idea of island Scotland as a romantic and remote location, however Garvie’s description firmly links the labour of the islanders to Scottish industry, on this occasion, in Grangemouth. As we see later, the boat and the plane, also recorded in Garvie’s photography, link up North Ronaldsay to Orkney mainland and mainland Scotland. Jenny Gilbertson’s film ‘A Crofter’s Life in Shetland’ also shows modernity and tradition living side by side in this period.

One of the key aspects of Garvie’s style is her ability to catch ‘movement’. Her photography often captures a ‘live’ rather than staged, activity. She has made no effort to edit or to ask for the action to be repeated or frozen, for the benefit of the camera. The hands of those working the land are often a blur. In one  photograph, she captures a man throwing a rope to the incoming boat. His body is in a diagonal, with the black of the boat’s hull providing a backdrop for the water droplets cascading from the rope to be seen against. As well as the movement of the subject, when seeing an activity in photographic sequence, such as the tangle work, Garvie’s own movement as a photographer becomes apparent. She ranges round the point of focus, photographing up close, then moving behind to photograph the same activity at a distance. Sanderson is currently working with Garvie’s relatives to identify the type of camera she used. From the low angle of the camera looking up, as was synonymous with the period, it looks likely that that camera was held at waist height.

A second aspect to note in Garvie’s style as a photographer is that her compositions often revolve around strong shapes. This may be the distinct curve of a furrow connecting up to horses and plough in the foreground, or placing the large stone circle of a shallow pit on the shore as the immediate focus in the photograph, with the islanders burning kelp in another pit, in the far distance. This sense of shape also comes into her pictures of children. In one, a triangular composition is dominant; a large triangular wooden frame is echoed by the triangle of a mother’s body (who is sitting perched within it), which in turn frames the baby, dressed in white, that she holds in her lap. These shapes and her liking for the abstract is also followed through with unusual cropping in her framing of the subject. A young boy on top of a gate post is framed from just below his shoulders down. This, and Garvie’s innate understanding of perspective, sets the triangle created by his legs echoed by the chimneyed end of a cottage in the distance.  In looking at Garvie’s photography as a whole, in the 500-strong collection of photographs, these are not unintended compositions but a preference for strong and unusual compositions.

This is carried through to Dr Garvie’s aerial work. Orkney Archive holds the Gunnie Moberg (1941-2007) collection where, in Moberg’s work such as ‘Stone Built’ (1979, Stromness Books & Prints), Moberg took photographs from an airplane of Orkney’s archaeological sites and stone structures, including the ‘seaward wall’ of North Ronaldsay. It is pleasing to think that in the same archive, Dr Garvie is a forerunner to Moberg. Garvie photographed aspects of an aerodrome being built on North Ronaldsay and the excitement of island events such as the first Royal Mail flight in 1939 linking up the UK to North Ronaldsay. Again drawn to abstract shapes, Garvie also photographed North Ronaldsay, Kirkwall and Caithness by air, the shape of the white wing  sometimes visually echoing that of an island peninsula. In compositions that focus soley on dark and alternating light strips of fields with the dots of the haystacks, her aerial work is at its most sublime.

Just as the women photographers Violet Banks and Margaret Fay Shaw kept their work in photograph albums, the holdings at Orkney Library & Archive show that Dr Garvie kept the majority of her work in albums too. However, whereas Banks’ albums were only found through the sale of the dresser that they were kept in, Sanderson discovered that the accession of the albums had begun following the death of Dr Garvie, with North Ronaldsay islanders asking Garvie’s relatives for the return of the photograph albums. Their importance as an archive of a generation of islanders, to their families, is a key part of these works.

The  forthcoming exhibition ‘Glean: Early 20th Century Women Filmmakers and Photographers in Scotland’, at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, (12 Nov 2022-12 March 2023) will feature the work of fourteen women. A selection from Dr Garvie’s work will add important co-ordinates, those of North Ronaldsay and Orkney, to the breadth of locations these fourteen women worked in. Furthermore, Dr Garvie’s work brings with it a distinct style and approach to recording a Scottish community over a prolonged period of time in the 1930s and 40’s. Sanderson will be developing an event as part of this exhibition programme.

With thanks to Fiona Sanderson, and to Lucy Gibbon and Colin Rendall at Orkney Library & Archive.

Research Note 9: Edinburgh Central Library and Highland Folk Museum

The latest research visits (April & May 2022) have been on the trail of a particular series of photographs by Dr Isabel Frances Grant (1887-1983) that are part of the IF Grant Photographic Collection. I moved from one digital archive, am baile to two physical archives- Edinburgh Central Library which holds the photographic collection itself and Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, which is the embodiment and repository for IF Grant’s wider work as the founder of Am Fasgadh.

IF Grant described Am Fasgadh as ‘a pioneering attempt to create a Highland variant of the well-known folk museums of Scandinavia’. [1] She originally organised an exhibition in Inverness in 1930, in the hope that someone upon seeing the history and the material culture of different areas of the Highlands and islands, would create such a museum. Whilst the exhibition, lasting 7 weeks and receiving ‘close on 20,000 visitors’ [2] proved popular, no one came forward. IF Grant then went on to tour over Scotland to collect and buy artefacts, which she subsequently housed in three iterations of Am Fasgadh (‘The Shelter’). Grant saw Am Fasgadh as ‘providing a shelter for homely Highland things’ [3] in Iona (established 1935), Laggan and Kingussie. Following gifting her collection and museum to the four Scottish Universities [4] in 1954, Am Fasgadh was taken over by Highland Region in 1975.

The IF Grant Collection online at am baile and held at Edinburgh Central Library brings together IF Grant’s own photographs with the work of other photographers that she purchased, including Margaret Fay Shaw and Violet Banks. All the photographs depict different aspects of Highland life. Shaw’s photographs augment a gap in the collection on South Uist; whilst Banks’ works are of the ‘Last remaining inhabited thatched cottage’ in Eigg and a white thatched cottage in Sconser, Skye.

Grant’s own photographs, (attributed to her in the IF Grant Collection), depict a keen interest in different building styles and variations of thatched cottages across Scotland. Whilst there are examples from the larger islands of Lewis, Mull, Skye, and Arran, Grant also photographed buildings in Colonsay, Ulva and Lismore. She took examples across the north of Scotland in Thurso and Durness, around to north west, in Mallaig and Morar. Intriguingly, there is also a sub section of Grant’s photographs which are of ruinous cottages, which on one emotive level illustrate that this way of life was fast disappearing. Grant notes the cause in the early 1930s as ‘the Scottish Board of Agriculture was carrying a housing drive. Every steamer I travelled in appeared to be loaded with piles of window frames, sanitary equipment, etc… one began to wonder if any cottage of the traditional style would be left’. [5]

My research day at Highland Folk Museum, concentrating on IF Grant’s own photography, has proved to be three-fold – seeing the volume of photography that Grant commissioned from other photographers, mostly relating to Am Fasgadh; the subsequent usage of that photography to disseminate the existence of the museum further afield; and, some context relating to her own photography series of the cottages. Firstly, Grant worked with different photographers as well as postcard publishers Valentines and JB White, to document artefacts, interiors and exteriors of the three iterations of Am Fasgadh. She then utilised this documentation for spreading the word of the museum, in particular as saleable composite image postcards for museum visitors. A number of the photographs also illustrate articles on the museum in Scots Magazine and The Listener. Names that crop up repeatedly in her photograph album captions are Glasgow photographer John Mackay, who took photographs of the objects such as stools, chairs and farming implements, on mostly stark white backgrounds; and Donald B MacCulloch, whose address stamped on the back of one loose photograph in an album places him in Aviemore. In amongst another archival box, several visitors mailed IF Grant photographs of their day at the museum, which illustrates cameras were very much everyday objects used by the general population.

Cover of photograph album, with IF Grant’s handwritten index Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2022)

In the photograph albums held in Am Fasgadh, Grant’s own captions provide a good level of detail relating to the authorship of photographs of the museum interiors and exteriors. An example is ‘Large photograph by D.B. MacCulloch’. However, on the pages there are also smaller, unattributed photographs of the museum. One option would be to surmise she did not note when a photograph is one of hers, but it is difficult to be sure of her authorship when she worked with numerous photographers. In Box 6, there are two foolscap sheets of paper, which are the only visual reference to the series of thatched cottages held at Edinburgh Central Library. There are 6 photographs affixed across the two sheets, with captions relating to object and place, in IF Grant’s handwriting. ‘1. A ruined cottage in Inverness-shire’ shows the pared back gable, stripped of thatch. It sits on the page next to ‘2. A very primitive cottage in Barra with hearth in the middle of the room’. The photograph captions do not state the author, however the image of the Barra interior, is definitely one of Margaret Fay Shaw’s. The Edinburgh Central Library holds larger reprints of this image, correctly attributed to Shaw. On the second foolscap page, the photograph with caption ‘5. Lewis houses’, reverts back to likely being taken by Grant. In this example, is the blurring of authorship down to IF Grant’s larger role of collector? Did she see her own photography as part of a larger collection, alongside other photographers’ work?

In Box 5, commissioned Aviemore photographer Donald B MacCulloch appears again, this time writing an article ‘Am Fasgadh: The Iona Museum’, for Scots Magazine and Scottish Country Life. MacCulloch states, ’She [IF Grant] has also formed a remarkable collection of old thatch cottages, and of various domestic activities carried on throughout the North Country and islands’ (P.48). This is the first external appraisal of the series as part of a collection.

Furthermore, the inclusion of these photographs in the exhibition catalogue for the ‘Highland Exhibition Inverness’ 1930, pre-dates this series to Grant’s subsequent establishing of Am Fasgadh’s first iteration in 1935. The introduction essay on P30 notes:

There will be a collection of portfolios [in the exhibition] for those who care to spend more time … there will be a large collection of photographs of old Highland cottages and of familiar work scenes.

The last entry in the catalogue reads: ‘Portfolio of Photography of life in the Highlands, lent by Miss IF Grant, Balnespick.’ Grant saw this particular portfolio’s purpose as one which augmented the exhibition, for those interested in the subject.

It is not unusual to traverse ground between archives to understand better the motivations and aims that each of the women photographers and filmmakers from early 20th Century in Scotland had for their work. The path between Edinburgh Central Library and Highland Folk Museum is no different. In a photocopied bibliography of Dr IF Grant’s written work, held at Am Fasgadh, it is noted ‘”Random recollections of the distribution of Local Types of Cottages”, typescript, 17pp, deposited with Edinburgh City Libraries, a companion piece to IF Grant Collection of photographs (1965)’. I shall look forward to returning to Edinburgh Central Library to learn more about this portfolio of images, and, hopefully, to shed more light on the photography she authored.

With thanks to Helen Pickles, Highland Folk Museum and Iain Duffus, Edinburgh Central Library

Am Fasgadh entrance Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2022)


[1] P.11, ‘The Making of Am Fasgadh: An account of the Origins of the Highland Folk Museum by its Founder’, Isabel Frances Grant, (2007, National Museums Scotland).

[2] From Report of the Joint Honorary Secretaries to The Executive Committee of the Highland Exhibition 1930, typescript, (Accessions no: 2:1985), Am Fasgadh

[3] P.191, ‘The Making of Am Fasgadh: An account of the Origins of the Highland Folk Museum by its Founder’, Isabel Frances Grant, (2007, National Museums Scotland).

[4] P.10, Hugh Cheape, introduction, ‘The Making of Am Fasgadh: An account of the Origins of the Highland Folk Museum by its Founder’, Isabel Frances Grant, (2007, National Museums Scotland).

[5] P.30, Ibid.

Overlaps: Island Post Office

Post and Telegraph Office, Eriskay, South Uist. Photographer and year unknown

I was invited by Shalmali Shetty to write a short piece for her publication this cloud may burst (2020), which was submitted as part of her GSA MLitt in Curatorial Practice (Contemporary Art). Shetty invited four researchers and artists – Debi Banerjee, Sean Patrick Campbell, Katri Heinämäki and myself – to reflect on ideas of loss and preservation of memory around their use of archival material in their work. The publication has an overview A memorial to memories by Shetty.

For my contribution, Overlaps: Island Post Office, I look at one post and telegraph office, on the Hebridean island of Eriskay. In the course of researching early twentieth century women photographers in Scotland, I began to notice periodic overlaps of subject matter, locations or even people in their photographs.  From trawling their archives, I saw that Edinburgh photographer Violet Banks (1896-1985) and American photographer and folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004) had separately photographed the same post and telegraph office. The writing begins with the photographs made by these two women, then tracks this particular example of the island post office to the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow.

Post Office and Tower, The Clachan, Empire Exhibition, Scotland 1938. Valentines and Son Limited (Dundee and London)

this cloud may burst can be purchased from Good Press retailing at £10.

With thanks to Shalmali Shetty for the invitation to contribute. Images below from Good Press listing.

‘The event which is in front of her eyes: 1930s’ Scottish Highlands and Islands life – the documentary photography and film of M.E.M. Donaldson, Jenny Gilbertson and Margaret Fay Shaw


‘The event which is in front of her eyes: 1930s’ Scottish Highland and Islands life – the documentary photography and film of M.E.M. Donaldson, Jenny Gilbertson and Margaret Fay Shaw’, is my first essay to be published following Research Leave Oct-Dec 2015 from The Glasgow School of Art. The essay is published in The Drouth Winter / Spring 2016 Issue 54 ‘Interstices’, p64-82. ‘Interstices’ has been guest edited by Nina  Bacos and Ben Rush.  I am grateful to Shetland Museum & Archives, Mrs Ann Black, Canna House (National Trust for Scotland), Inverness Museum & Art Gallery and National Library of Scotland for permissions. Also to Shona Main, Dr Sarah Neely, Magdalena Sagarzazu,  Fiona Mackenzie and Lesley Junor for their support and knowledge.

The essay looks at the motivations of M.E.M. Donaldson, Jenny Gilbertson and Margaret Fay Shaw, for making the work they did; and how they represented the subject of Highland and Islands Scotland in front of their camera. Through comparison of their work and processes to their better known male contemporaries who were also documenting Scottish rural communities, I also frame their work in a wider national and international context of the documentary photography and film making of the inter-war years.



Research Note 2: Margaret Fay Shaw – Canna House research visit, November 2015

Salutations, Margaret Fay Shaw

Front door, Canna House Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Front door, Canna House Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Mrs Shaw Campbell, Mrs John Campbell, Dear Mrs Campbell, Dear Mrs Lorne, Dear Margaret, Dear Margarita, Dearest Maggie, Maggie love, Dear Meg, My dear Meg, My dear dear Meg, Dearly beloved Meg, Dearest Marge, Dearest Marcat.

These salutations are on letters addressed to Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004) ranging from the formal to the diminutive. These letters, both business and personal, were sent from all over the world and are part of a significant archive at Canna House, on the Isle of Canna, where Margaret Fay Shaw lived with her husband John Lorne Campbell. Both sought to record the everyday life of people living in the Hebrides.  Whilst John Lorne Campbell specialised in capturing the spoken word, in order to understand everyday Gaelic and its dialects, Margaret Fay Shaw focused on transcribing Gaelic songs and recording Hebridean island life predominantly through her photography.

Shaw, as a single woman, spent six years from 1929-35 living with the sisters Peigi [1874 -1969] and Màiri MacRae [1883 -1972] at their croft at North Glendale, South Uist. Màiri MacRae was forty-six and Peigi, fifty-five, when a twenty-six year old Margaret Fay Shaw arrived. Indeed, as Shaw’s own ‘amanvensis’ Magdalena Sagarzazu [1] narrates in her introduction to the book ‘The Voices’ by Alex MacRae [2], this time was so significant for Shaw, (leading to a continued friendship with the sisters), that she chose to be buried next to them: ‘Margaret Fay Shaw was buried beside her two friends and among the people of South Uist she loved so well at Cladh Halainn cemetry’. [3] Shaw recounted during the programme ‘Tir A’ Mhurain’ that Peigi and Màiri MacRae, ‘… taught me more than university, they were the most interesting and knowledgeable women’.  [4]

A trained musician, Shaw’s primary motivation to move from New York to South Uist was to transcribe Gaelic songs at their source. In her own words, she ‘… chose South Uist, as the island least visited by strangers and where there would be an opportunity to live amongst a friendly and unprejudiced people not self conscious of their unique heritage.’ [5]

 After hearing Màiri MacRae sing at Boisdale House on her arrival in 1929, she was invited by Màiri to learn the song by visiting her at home in Glendale. On making the journey to their croft, which was two miles from any road and easier accessed by boat, Shaw asked if she could lodge there. Over the next six years Shaw transcribed the MacRae’s songs and those of their neighbours, further learning Gaelic over this period too. Michael Russell in his book ‘A Different Country: The Photographs of Werner Kissling’ attributes Shaw’s knowledge of Gaelic- ‘almost unique[ly] amongst photographers who worked in the Hebrides’ – as a way ‘to penetrate Hebridean culture more thoroughly and to get closer to the rhythms of place’. [6]

With her Graflex camera (the first on loan for two years from her brother-in-law Boone Groves until she was able to buy her own) and 16mm Kodak movie camera, Shaw photographed and filmed the Glendale community at work and at leisure. She did not own a light meter or tripod at that point: ‘I used piled up rocks for support or got someone to crouch on all fours while I balanced the camera on their back’. [7] Whilst a photographer such as Paul Strand, who over three months of the summer of 1954,  made single monumental portraits of South Uist islanders, [8] Shaw focussed on a single community and recorded it in its detail.  The time shared with the MacRae’s and their neighbours allowed Shaw to take numerous photographs, in particular of Màiri MacRae. Shaw records her digging the field with her son Donald; sything the oats with her sister Peigi; and shearing the sheep.

Like Shetland film maker Jenny Gilbertson [8], through the prolonged period of time spent living on a croft, Shaw was highly aware of its seasons and cycle. She records both in her diary, her transcript ‘The Outer Hebrides’ and subsequently in her life work ‘Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist’(1977):

The spring work of the croft began in February, when seaweed, used as fertilizer, was cut with a saw-toothed sickle called a corran on the tidal islands of the loch at low water of a spring tide’. [9]

The year closes with: ‘All the harvest work done, the women wash and card the wool and start the spinning wheels. It is the season for the fireside and the ceilidh, the rough weather and the short days.’ [10]

Beyond the archetypal image of crofters at labour, also denoted by other photographers and film makers of the era such as Werner Kissling (1895-1988) or Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (1899-1970) [11], Shaw’s photography goes further, recording everyday domesticity as well as the special occasion on the croft. In one photograph, Màiri MacRae stands in her doorway and holds a gifted salt cod up by its gills. The fish is viewed avariciously by the cats at her feet, with one reaching up to snatch at the fish’s tail. In another, Angus John Campbell sits with Màiri MacRae by the fireplace in an interior shot. The second of this short sequence shows him still seated next to MacRae and playing an accordion.

The sisters and their neighbours are often photographed in social situations and gatherings outdoors, one of these scenes being a tea party with Màiri MacRae, her son Donald and Peigi MacRae who all kneel on a white sheet that has been laid out on the grass. This gathering looks ceremonial; Màiri MacRae holds a china teacup with her left hand, raising it to camera, whilst her right hand keeps a hold of a sleeping cat who looks in danger of slipping off her knee. Peigi MacRae holds the teapot in her right hand and bannock in her left. Donald, the most surprising of the trio to contemporary eyes, sits in the middle with their dog Queenie. Whilst the man of the house, he looks barely in his teens in this photograph, but has a pipe in his mouth. A white piece of laundry can be discerned in the background. Like the snowcap of a mountain, it is laid out on the stone wall to dry in the sun.

The sound of the everyday is also wonderfully evoked by a typed document from Canna House Archives entitled ‘South Uist in Sound’ [12] where Shaw lists ‘characteristic sounds’ under headings including ‘Birds on the shore’, ‘The beasts of the croft’, ‘Conversations’ ‘Transport’, ‘The shop’, ‘Dancing’, ‘Songs and stories’ and ‘Agriculture’:

‘Inside the cottage.

Milking, churning, mending shoes, noises above the stoves, lids rattling, kettles boiling, setting dishes, spinning heel, carding (with appropriate songs), the loom and wool winders, the bucket to the well and back, washing clothes and ironing, noise of children, primus stoves and tilly lamps; clocks ticking, rats scuffling in the walls, cats growling under the dresser, dogs being cursed and told to lie down (in Gaelic), scratching fleas.

Magdalena Sagarzazu believes that the photographs cannot be viewed alone without relating them to music and culture; they sit holistically within a wider context. This is borne out through Shaw’s pencil notations on the songs’ original music sheets, held as part of the Canna House archive, as well as the printed transcriptions in Shaw’s ‘Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist’ where tune, words and sometimes composition are attributed to those who appear in her photographs from the Glendale community. For example, ‘Óran Fogarraich – An Exile’s Song’: ‘The tune, chorus and first verse from Miss Peigi MacRae, the second and third verses from Angus John Campbell.’ [13] Shaw records for most songs how the singer learnt the song: ‘Miss Macrae learnt the song from Miss Catriona MacIntosh while employed at Boisdale House when a young girl’. [14] The excellent online resource Tobar an Dualchais’ contains original recordings of songs sung by Màiri MacRae and Peigi MacRae, that were recorded at a later date by Campbell and Shaw when recording equipment was available. It also contains an extract of a song ‘Oran a’ Chutaidh’, sung by Donald MacRae, about a dog.

Canna House, The National Trust for Scotland Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Canna House, The National Trust for Scotland Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

The word ‘source’ crops up often in researching and thinking about Margaret Fay Shaw and John Lorne Campbell’s collection and archive at Canna House. The ‘source’ is the singer, the landscape, language, stories and lives. Martin Padget in his book ‘Photographers of the Western Isles’ [15] notes Shaw’s quest for authenticity, referencing the first occasion Shaw heard a Gaelic song, sung by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser (1857-1930) [16] and wishing that she could hear the song in its raw state sung by the original island singers.  The idea of authenticity and source also follows through to Shaw’s photography and her films, the latter which remained as unedited film rushes, purely made for her and the community’s enjoyment, until later television programmes on Margaret Fay Shaw used this footage. [17]

Furthermore, the very fact the archive is held at Shaw and Campbell’s home at Canna House means it is also kept at ‘source’, rather than in another repository on the mainland. This was not the Campbell’s holiday home but their only home, each room a collection in itself. All has been left as if the couple have just stepped out for a few moments. This condition, gives the opportunity when researching the archives at Canna House to feel closer to the life’s work of Margaret Fay Shaw, John Lorne Campbell and the lives of those that they recorded.

With thanks to Fiona Mackenzie, archivist at Canna House and Magda Sagarzazu, retired archivist, Canna House.


[1] Magdalena Sagarzazu, retired archivist, Canna House, The National Trust for Scotland. Margaret Fay Shaw called Sagarzazu her ‘amanvensis’: a person employed to write or type what another dictates, or to copy. From an interview with Sagarzazu, 2014.

[2] ‘The Voices’, MAC RAE, A. (2010) Elk Classic Publishing. Alex Mac Rae is the son of Andrew Mac Rae and compiled the book ‘The Voices’: ‘Through a chance meeting with Margaret [Shaw], Peigi and Mairi’s nephew Andrew Bei Mac Rae was encouraged to record the ways of life of his family through images and sound. So he did and captured life in the 60s and 70s.’

[3] Ibid, P3.

[4] ‘Tir A’ Mhurain: Margaret Fay Shaw’, (9.3.89), TV programme.

[5] P10, ‘The Outer Hebrides: Margaret Fay Shaw’, SHAW, M.F. Undated. Typescript held at The National Trust for Scotland, Canna House.

[6] P32, ‘A Different Country: The Photographs of Werner Kissling’, RUSSELL, M. (2002), Berlinn Ltd.

[7] P4, Typescript of the Aran Islands, SHAW, M.F.  12 July 2002. Typescript held at The National Trust for Scotland, Canna House.

[8] ‘Tir A’ Mhurain: The Outer Hebrides of Scotland’, STRAND, P. (2002) 2nd Ed. Aperture Foundation.

[9] Jenny Gilbertson (1902-1990) was a filmmaker who in the 1930s’ began living on a Shetland croft, making documentary films about life in Shetland. She took up her film-making again in the 1970s’, where she went to live in the Canadian Arctic.

[10] P 96, ‘Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist’, SHAW, M.F. (2005) 2nd Ed. Birlinn Ltd.

[11] P21, ‘The Outer Hebrides: Margaret Fay Shaw’, SHAW, M.F. Undated. Typescript by Margaret Fay Shaw, held at The National Trust for Scotland, Canna House

[12] Alasdair Alpin MacGregor had an ongoing spat with Shaw, her husband John Lorne Campbell and Compton MacKenzie over their differing perspectives on how Hebridean islanders were depicted. This came to a head following the publishing of MacGregor’s book ‘The Western Isles’ (1949, Robert Hale Publishers) where MacGregor ‘endeavoured to give a contemporary account of the Islanders and their ways, free from any “nebulous twentieth-century impressionism”’ (preface, ‘The Western Isles’). MacGregor called the islanders lazy: ‘The characteristics of the people which the stranger to the Western Isles is swift to observe, certainly so far as the male population is concerned, are laziness and drunkeness. Many of the islanders are now so indolent and so spoilt by easy money that they no longer deign to cut peat, even though it is to be had on their own crofts.’ P234, ‘The Western Isles’. A letter from Shaw to MacGregor, held at Canna House, reads: ‘You ask me for an assurance not to express my opinion either by word of mouth or by writing. My letter to your publisher will be my writing. Of my speech I will condemn your book and your action in writing as long as I live’. (Jan 1950).

[13] P5, ‘South Uist in Sound’, SHAW, M.F. Undated. Typescript held at The National Trust for Scotland, Canna House.

[14] P96, ‘Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist’, SHAW, M.F. (2005) 2nd Ed. Birlinn Ltd.

[15] Ibid.

[16] P126, ‘Photographers of the Western Isles’, PADGET, M. (2010) John Donald, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd.

[17] Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser was a professional Scottish singer, composer and arranger. Including songs she transcribed from Eriskay, Kennedy-Fraser made three volumes of ‘Songs from the Hebrides’ published between 1909-1921.

[18] ‘Among Friends: Margaret Fay Shaw’, (2003) made by Mòr Media for BBC Scotland, and directed by Les Wilson. This programme was made to celebrate Shaw’s centenary.

This Research Note is part of my Glasgow School of Art Research Leave project ‘Documenting 1930s’ Scottish Highland and Islands Life: M.E.M. Donaldson, Jenny Gilbertson and Margaret Fay Shaw’.

Looking out to the bay from Canna House garden Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Looking out to the bay from Canna House garden Photo: Jenny Brownrigg

Hanna Tuulikki: Away with the Birds

You stand water-loud

From the poem Ben Eubhal, Mary Maclean, (1952) [1]

'Away with the Birds', Canna (2014) Image: Daniel Warren

‘Away with the Birds’, Canna (2014) Image: Stewart Connor

These words by the North Uist poet Mary Maclean (1921-2004) are addressed to her island’s mountain, where she describes the speed of its streams as moving fast from the summit then, ‘Gentle voiced to the quiet bevelled edge of the shore‘ [2].

The phrase ‘You stand water-loud’ is highly apt to describe Away with the Birds/Air falbh leis na h-eòin’ , a performance (29/30 August 2014) addressed to the surrounding sea, sky and land of Canna. Staged on the foreshore of Canna’s harbour, this location was noted by Martin Martin in 1695 as having ‘good anchorage‘[3]. Ten women dressed in costumes based on shore birds, such as the oystercatcher and redshank, performed a score composed by Hanna Tuulikki. The composition was drawn from fragments of traditional Gaelic songs where different birdsong is mimicked.

The foreshore defined as the area of land between low tide and high tide is a strange zone of land. Historically owned by the Crown, this land is always in a dance with the sea. The choreography of the piece, by Nic Green, deftly picked up on this. Over the duration of this one hour performance [4], the ten singers [5] moved over manmade and natural elements of terrain which included the old pier, new purpose-built jetties designed in the v-formation of a skein, and the seaweed coated rocks. The weather altered from overcast to a light rain, then sun. In the fourth movement entitled ‘flock and skein’, the tide had sufficiently drawn in over the wooden jetties for the crabs to run over the singers’ red neoprene feet. Further out in the bay, a curve of six horn speakers- each standing at four meters high- transmitted the calls of the women. During interludes, as the singers silently dispersed to re-congregate in another position, a series of field recordings by birdsong expert and wildlife sound recordist Geoff Sample, of birdsong from the Western Isles, was played. This clever shift in sound created a transitory space, suggestive of the women moving between human and avian form.

Tuulikki carefully evolved ‘Away with the Birds’ over a period of four years, with the score beginning with one person, moving to three, nine, then finally ten singers for Canna. As Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004) noted in her book Folksong and Folklore of South Uist, ‘To sing a complete waulking song alone without anyone to take up the chorus imposes a considerable strain on any reciter’. [6] The score is drawn from fragments of Gaelic lullabies, children’s songs, keening, dance and work songs from the Highlands and Islands (all women’s songs or sung from a woman’s perspective), from Barra to St Kilda, that include bird song within the narrative. Tuulikki, with Gaelic expert Mary Smith and Geoff Sample, analyzed the transcriptions of birds ranging from seabirds on cliffs, to redshank, oystercatcher, whooper swan, raven, Manx shearwater, geese and ravens. In the subsequent performance of ‘Away with the Birds’, through repetition and vocal techniques such as ululation, the score truly created ‘syllables that carry the air’ [7]. The vocalists who joined Tuulikki, all brought with them their own reasons for creating sound that makes a connection with nature, ranging from a belief in ‘wildness’ [8], a connection to Canna, (Nerea Bello is the niece of the Canna House Archivist Magdalena Sagarzazu), to a background in Gaelic singing. In the seven week rehearsal period that led up to the Canna performance, the group went ‘deep into the material’ [9] in a series of sessions around improvisation and play, in order for Tuulikki to organically develop the skeleton of the composition.

Tuulikki sourced a number of the songs from the Canna House Archive and John Lorne Campbell’s recordings. Magdalena Sagarzazu, whose life’s work has been dedicated to working with Canna House, describes this house and its remarkable contents perfectly:  “I often think of Canna House as an island within an island” [10]. This archive was created by the island’s previous owners, the photographer and folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004) and Gaelic scholar, environmentalist, farmer and folklorist John Lorne Campbell (1906-1966) who gifted the island and archive to the National Trust for Scotland in the 1980s. Canna House, their collective archive and preserved home, contains their lifelong work of recording Gaelic songs from the islands and chronicling Gaelic culture through its language and traditions. Also, contained in the House’s archipelago are Shaw’s photographs, Campbell’s butterfly collections and possessions including an engaging cornucopia of ephemera relating to cats. Pattern cascades across wallpaper and curtain material, with bird curtains in the bedroom (now archival room) and fish swimming across the walls of the bathroom.

The couple would have no doubt have greatly appreciated both the high spec technology embodied by the speaker horns and the sounds of women singing in ‘Away with the Birds’. A trawl through the Canna House archives shows that methods of recording and writing alter each time technology superseded itself, from recordings on wire, to reel to reel, to VHS. In Campbell’s own voracious correspondence and research, his notebooks and papers show that he utilized a typewriter, then carbon paper, followed by the earliest photocopies to the first computer printouts on voluminous concertinas of green lined paper with perforated edges.

Hanna Tuulikki

Hanna Tuulikki

Tracing the lines that Campbell’s correspondence took from the island as he compiled a Gaelic dictionary is like following the flight path of birds. The correspondence shuttled back and forth between Canna House and destinations from all over Scotland and the world, in the days before the internet. There were letters from Sister Veronica in Nova Scotia; Father Allan Macdonald on Eriskay; Annie Johnston from Barra (Tuulikki drew from Campbell’s recordings of Annie Johnston and her husband Calum); and correspondences with academics from the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen amongst others. They worked with Campbell to try and pin down Gaelic for phrases like ‘a crop of pimples or to describe specific types of seaweed or on phrases relating to ‘Strange Things’.[11] These lines of words in flight are very much present in the beautiful notations of Tuulikki’s scores for the performance, where the lyrics can form the chord [12] of a wing or denote the lift and fall of a bird in flight.

Both ornithologists and folklorists have established methodology to recognize particular song. With many versions of the same songs existing, due to locality, dialect and additions of verses, according to length of activity, Margaret Fay Shaw in ‘Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist’, identified it was often ‘the chorus called the fonn or ‘ground’ and is the means by which the songs are popularly identified’ [13]. For the bird-watcher, where the sound is often in advance of the sighting, the mnemonic is a human aide-memoir for identification. Tuulikki’s score gathers the Gaelic mnemonic along with the narrative. The techniques that Tuulikki and the nine singers developed, ensure mimicry through concentration on pitch, volume, complexity of sound. The numbers of voices in the acoustic structure cross over on notes. Some species of birds can split a note, to sing both at the same time. At times, the sound created by the singers is often spectral in its mimesis, which is no small feat given that the avian vocal organ, the syrinx, is at the bottom of the trachea unlike the human larynx which is at the top. In order to explore the voice as an instrument itself, Tuulikki has long used the ‘extended vocal technique’ and improvisation to “find ways to define self through similarity with the more than human world“. [14]

The costumes, designed by Deirdre Nelson, cleverly combine symbolism and pragmatism. The colouring and detail of the costumes reference the distinct visual appearance of waders, whilst also drawing upon their Celtic meaning. The name of the Oystercatcher, or gille-brìghde , translates as servant of St Bride. The book The Peat Fire Flame, Folk Tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Island, tells the following tale about this bird:

When Christ was being pursued from one Hebridean isle to another, he was hidden at low tide by two oystercatchers, who covered Him with seaweed, and kept watch over Him until His enemies had passed. [15]

The costumes are a key element of production linking ancient belief in nature to the spiritual. The colour red in Celtic culture is associated with the otherworld. The redshank is the bird who sings to the soul on its departure to the next. Nelson references red in the singers’ legs and the pleated insert on the back of the tunics. The designer cleverly combines contemporary with historical fabric in the singers’ costumes. Local Canna wool made by islander Julie McCabe is used in the tunics, whilst hi-tech red neoprene creates the legs of the garment which allows the singers to move in the water. The hoods of the woolen shrugs, somewhat monastic in nature, are based on 1930s’ patterns of fishermen hoods, providing a protection against the elements. The hood is a key part of the outfit. When drawn up over the singer’s head it aids the visual transition of human turning into bird. The detail of the reveal is key too, with knitted white inserts in the sleeves under the arms, detailed with a ‘v’ pattern, mimicking a skein of birds in flight. Tuulikki mentions in a studio visit that she enjoys the wordplay of ‘skein’, meaning a skein of wool or birds. At the back of the charcoal grey tunics, an inserted red pleat accentuates choreographed movement. The transformation of the human form into the unknown is reminiscent of Margaret Fay Shaw’s photograph of islanders dressing up in sheep skins for Halloween.

One of Tuulikki’s source material songs ‘An Eala air Loch Chaluim Chille’ -‘ The swan on St Columba’s loch’- suggests the bird’s association with this Saint. The sonic properties of Sounds are recorded in the ‘Life of St Columba’, by Abbot Adomnán, where visitors frequently stand on the far shore of Mull, to call over the Sound to Iona, asking to be picked up by boat. Indeed, Canna’s original chapel was dedicated to Colm Cille, with Campbell stating in his book ‘Canna: The Story of a Hebridean Island’ that the Saint ‘certainly must have visited [Canna] on his missionary travels during his exile in Scotland, AD 563-97‘ [16]. ‘Away with the Birds’ fills the Sound of Canna with a new sound. Sailors coming in to moor in the bay during the rehearsals later remark on hearing mysterious, magical song.

A collective feeling is created by ‘Away with the Birds’  through the experience of meeting fellow spectators travelling to and from the island, from time camping together, a camp fire and chance encounters in the social spaces of the island at the community shop and café . By the time the audience gathers on the shore road to watch the performance, they form a migratory ‘skein’ from the mainland and Skye. Following the first performance of ‘Away with the Birds’, an illustrator, Kieran Austin, goes camping to Garrisdale Point, over on the west of the island. When he returns several days later to Canna Harbour, he finds it uncanny that two hundred visitors have flown and that the island has returned to normal. This humanity is also very much present too in the Canna House Archive where, as well as the scholarly interplay on Gaelic phrases, throughout this correspondence a warmth flows between the writers. Academic secretaries thank Campbell for Christmas gifts; anecdotes describing local situations are swapped; greetings are passed onto spouses and people promise to come to Canna again soon. Indeed, the table in Campbell’s office is a billiard table, which he used a respectable office ‘table’ during the week thanks to a sheet of wood placed over it, and as the site of an on-going billiards competition with islanders at weekends.

For the final movement ‘night flight to the burrow‘, the ‘birds’ move up to positions behind the audience to sing. Woven from fragments of a St Kilda lullaby, this movement is dedicated to the Manx shearwater,  a bird once prevalent on Canna (indeed Campbell commissioned a special stamp bearing its image).  Tuulikki sees this movement as an incantation for their return. The dramatic backdrop to the performance, Rum, which lies five miles away, is now centre stage. Geoff Sample observes this island beautifully in his field notes:

‘I find the architecture of Rum’s western mountains constantly satisfying. They aren’t quite as ruggedly spectacular as the Cuillin proper. But their serrated vertical ridges, swooping down to the sea, hemmed in lush green ribs, mark the course of the day like a sun dial, as the light changes.” [17]

At its conclusion, with any human physical presence removed from the scene, the sound more than ever filled the land and seascape. Whilst the people and their voice are the source of oral tradition, with Tuulikki taking her place with this rich interpretation, it is the land and the sea that will endure.

Return to the sea

                                    Breathe           [18]


[1] P.56, The Voice of the Bard: Living Poets and Ancient Tradition in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Timothy Neat with John MacInnes, Canongate, (1999).

[2] P.56, Ibid.

[3] P.167, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland Circa 1695, Martin Martin. Birlinn Ltd (1999).

[4] Attended 29.8.14 performance.

[5] Vocalists: Hanna Tuulikki, Lucy Duncombe, Nerea Bello, Anna Sheard, Judith Williams, Nicola Scrutton, Mischa MacPherson, Kim Carnie, Megan Henderson, Kirsty Law.

[6] P.73, ‘Folksong and Folklore of South Uist’, Margaret Fay Shaw, second edition Birlinn Ltd (1999). First published Oxford University Press (1977).

[7] P.73, Ibid.

[8] ‘My practice is wildness and not knowing’, Judith Williams. Vocalists biographies, ‘Away with the birds’ brochure (2014).

[9] From conversation in Tuulikki’s studio, 12.9.14.

[10] In conversation with Magda Sagarzazu.

[11] Any of the Gaelic words that Campbell could not categorise or that related to myths, second sight and ghosts, he entered into his ‘Book of Strange Things‘.

[12] In terms of birds and aeronautics, the ‘chord’ describes the imaginary line drawn between the leading edge and trailing edge of a bird’s wing.

[13] P.73, Folksong and Folklore of South Uist, Margaret Fay Shaw, second edition Birlinn Ltd (1999). First published Oxford University Press 1977.

[14] From conversation in Tuulikki’s studio, 12.9.14.

[15] P122, The Peat Fire Flame, Folk Tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands, Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, The Moray Press, (1937).

[16] P.1,Canna: The Story of a Hebridean Island, John Lorne Campbell, Fourth Edition, edited by Hugh Cheape, Birlinn Ltd, (2004).

[17] Geoff Sample, from his notes taken on Canna, Aug 2014.

[18] From verse (v), 5. Night-flight to the burrow. Away with the Birds score, Hanna Tuulikki.


‘Away with the birds’ is part of the Culture 2014 programme.

 Jenny Brownrigg, September 2014