I’ve paid my money to Caledonian MacBrayne and had twelve wonderful days exploring the Small Isles (Eigg, Rum, Canna, Sanday and Muck). I’ve heard cuckoos and corncrakes, dodged great skuas doing their Hitchcock impressions, climbed An Sgurr, visited little museums of island life and met some very interesting people.
The Hebrides have a long tradition of poetry and I particularly wanted to visit Canna House. It was the home of John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw, whose great contribution to Gaelic culture was to collect a vast amount of material – songs, poetry, folk lore, traditions, history, photographs, recordings.
Canna House has a very personal feel. It is as if its inhabitants have just popped out for a few hours to help with the harvest and might return any time. There are a couple of hens scratching around and their last cat is still alive and well on the island. The rooms are full of their pictures, furniture and ornaments and there is music open on the wedding-present Steinway grand that Margaret managed to shoehorn into a tiny corrugated iron cottage on Barra when she was first married. It is not hard to imagine the many guests who were welcomed to Canna House – crofters who came to play billiards, scholars, artists, scientists and writers who all came to talk, argue and be inspired, visitors from the Outer Isles who had known Margaret since the 1920s (she died at the age of 101 in 2004 - an inveterate chain-smoker to the end!)
The poet Kathleen Raine (initially brought by the painter Winifred Nicholson) came several times, a fugitive from her intense one-sided romance with Gavin Maxwell. She wrote some occasional poems for the Campbells. “A Valentine” lists the characteristic furnishings of the house, including “The cat-clawed Chippendales and the dog-haired cushions”. I imagine her sitting on the white bench in the garden, pen and paper in hand.
The Scottish poet, Helen Cruikshank, was another visitor. Margaret first met Helen on Barra and invited her to join a rather damp picnic. When Margaret recited lines from a poem she had enjoyed and learned by heart years ago (“I met a man in Harris tweed/As I went down the strand”) Helen was surprised and delighted – “I wrote that!”, she said.
In the hall of Canna House there is a framed illustrated poem (“Margaret Fay Shaw”) by the Scottish writer Angus Peter Campbell and half a mile down the road at the dairy museum there is Hugh MacDiarmid’s translation of part of the 18th century Gaelic poem “The Birlinn of Clanranald” by Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair. Alasdair lived and worked on Canna for a while. It is said that he composed part of the poem while lying under an upturned boat at the head of Canna harbour – one way to get some peace and quiet. I found a leaflet about Alasdair with translations of his poems by Ronnie Black and Derick Thomson.
The Campbells were remarkable people. Margaret was a determined American, a gifted pianist, who fell in love with Gaelic music and went to live on the island of South Uist in her 20s. She lived in a small crofter’s cottage and collected the material which eventually became her book Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist. She was an excellent photographer and sold pictures of Hebridean life to the British press. Both Margaret and John worked ceaselessly to preserve the land, wild life and culture of the Hebrides. After their marriage they lived for a few years on the island of Barra and then bought Canna and settled there.
The house is full of their books, papers, recordings (the earliest on wax cylinders!), photographs, films and diaries. A Gaelic treasure trove, some of which has yet to be catalogued. There is plenty of work for the archivist, Magda (who knew the Campbells from her childhood), and her part-time assistant, Kirsteen, both of whom are full of enthusiasm for their work. When Margaret first went to the Outer Hebrides she was entranced by everything she saw and heard (though a bath at the Lochboisdale Hotel was appreciated now and then). It was only some years later that she realised that she and her husband were chronicling a disappearing way of life.
While visiting the Small Isles I re-read my copy of Laughing at the Clock by Aonghas MacNeacail, a gifted contemporary Gaelic poet. The book has Gaelic originals and English translations side by side. The words from “poet’s congress, at the house of chida-san” could apply to the Campbells’ lives in the Hebrides:
“among yellow fields of corn
a harvest of words
ascends to the sky,
a great shoal of blackbirds, singing”