My fascination with the work of Iain Latharna Caimbeul/ John Lorne Campbell (1906-96) (styled Fear Chanaigh) and Mairead Fay Sheathach/ Margaret Campbell (née Shaw) (1903-2004) of Barra, Uist and Canna, began many years ago when I first studied Gaelic song in South Uist. Margaret’s book Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist (1955) was the first Gaelic song book I owned and instantly became my Gaelic song bible for the picture it presented of a unique culture and people. I never dreamed that one day, I would be given the opportunity and honour of looking after and promoting the collection.
Canna House, owned and directed by the National Trust for Scotland, is a collection of collections. Margaret and John amassed probably the world’s most eclectic and important collection of Scottish Gaelic and other Celtic-language folklores, all housed uniquely, on the tiny island of Canna. John’s collection of recordings of Hebridean songs, stories, musical performances – and cats- recorded between the 1920s and the 1960s, are housed in Canna House along with Margaret’s written transcriptions. Over 1000 of those recordings are now available online on the Tobar an Dualchais site. Together with Margaret’s extensive black and white collection of Hebridean photographs from the 1930s onwards, the Canna collections represent a unique tapestry of Gaelic ways of life, oral literature, and cultural practices, often recorded during times of rapid change.
Canna House is currently closed to visitors for extensive renovation works by the National Trust for Scotland but I hope to blog here again for Seanchas, sometimes in Gaelic and sometimes in English, with sound recordings, links and photographs to hopefully whet the appetite for the wonderful potential of the work of these two incredible people.
In the meantime, we all know that the birds can (or could?) speak Gaelic and apparently now dogs can learn Gaelic in only three weeks, but do cat’s speak Gaelic? Have a listen here to John and Margaret’s Siamese cat Pooni (pictured), and decide for yourselves!
Fiona J Mackenzie is Gaelic Artist and archivist of The Canna Collection for The National Trust for Scotland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org