THEY were the haunting ballads that so enraptured an American heiress that she abandoned a hotbed of luxury for island life in Scotland.

So captivated was Margaret Fay Shaw by the songs of the two sisters that she never again returned across the Atlantic and instead stayed all her life in the Hebrides, painstakingly recording every aspect of daily Gaelic life.

Now the photographic archive of Mrs Fay Shaw’s collection of more than 9,000 negatives has been digitally remastered and chronicled or the first time and brings to life a long lost way of life for islanders.

The internationally important archive was shot entirely by her as she travelled across the islands.

Unlike most documentaries which are taken over a relatively short period of time, the Fay Shaw collection was created over more than 70 years and captures a way of life that has virtually disappeared.


The MacRae sisters 

It starts in 1929, when Margaret left her home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and moved to Lochboisdale on South Uist and lived with the Campbell family.

The opportunity to immerse herself more fully in Gaelic culture came one night after dinner at Boisdale House.

Her host, Donald Ferguson, encouraged his cousins Màiri and Pèigi Anndra (Màiri and Pèigi MacRae) – two sisters who worked at the house – to sing for the guests after the meal.

To Margaret ‘their songs were golden’ and asked the sisters if they would teach her their songs.

A week later she travelled to their small blackhouse in the village of North Glendale and the MacRae sisters agreed to take her in as a lodger.

She would live with them for the next six years and never again returned to the United States full-time.

Now her fascinating journey is being digitised by the National Trust for Scotland through funding by the Morton Charitable Trust.

Lily Barnes is the documentation officer carrying out the work and has being embarking on detective work to track down who and what is in all of the 9,000 images which are not captioned.


A South Uist islander

She said: "It is a really strange experience looking at people and a lifestyle that no longer exists and bring them into the modern day.

"This is a unique and extremely important collection as it is people going about their daily business, taken by one of their own who is living within them as part of their community.

"I then get to spend time exploring the images themselves, identifying people, places and activities, and writing their descriptions for our digital catalogue, so that they can be discovered by future users.

"I have also listened to the Gaelic tapes which were also recorded and through these I can place certain people in places at a given time even if they have their back to the camera. It is a fascination insight into what life was like almost 100 years ago".

Rheumatism in her finger joints made sustained piano playing impossible, but Margaret felt that she could still serve music by collecting Gaelic songs, scrupulously, at source.

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While she was living on Barra, Margaret Fay Shaw met another collector, John Lorne Campbell of Inverneill, author of Highland Songs of the Forty-Five (1933).

He had gone to Barra to learn colloquial Gaelic and record local singers and he and Margaret were married in Glasgow in 1935 and settled on Barra.

In 1938, she and John moved to the Isle of Canna after he bought it and it is here she would live for the rest of her life.

He divided his day between cultivating the land, and transcribing the hundreds of Gaelic songs and stories he had recorded on Barra, South Uist and in Nova Scotia.

Margaret accompanied him and recorded it all for posterity by taking photographs and cine films to capture every moment that he met and recorded Gaelic communities.


American heiress Magret Fay Shaw outside the MacRae sisters house

One of the films is of Margaret returning to Glendale in 1955, bearing as a gift for the MacRae sisters her newly published Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist, which she had collected and would not have been possible without the encouragement and knowledge of the sisters.

But while some of the cine films have been seen and some of the pictures published, this is the first time the entire collection will be chronicled, labelled and produced in chronological order from 1929 to her death in 1996.

The National Trust for Scotland intend to make it available online for future generations to enjoy.

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Ms Barnes added: "What I find fascinating is seeing how the communities interact with each other and everybody knows their role.

"It shows them all collecting kelp together for fertilising the land, shearing sheep together and everyone out cutting peat. Everyone knew what needed to be done and all mucked in, no questions asked.

"But they also capture how everyone had an individual role too and listening to the Gaelic tapes provides a fascinating soundtrack. There are songs to collect the kelp to, shear the sheep and to cut the peat, each with their own sounds and tempo.

"This is a truly unique archive and chronicles a unique way of life. It is a fascinating task bringing it all together and I hope to be enjoyed by future generations".