Twenty five years ago, Gaelic singer, Fiona J Mackenzie, bought her very first Gaelic song book, Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist by Margaret Shaw and it has been her bible ever since.
And then four years ago visited the island and fell in love instantly. Little did she know that she would end up looking after the very archive the collection comes from, on the remote west coast island of Canna.
Royal National Mod Gold Medallist Fiona has been appointed as the new archivist of folklorists John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw’s collections, kept at Canna House on the island owned by National Trust of Scotland.
John Lorne Campbell and American born Margaret Campbell (Fay Shaw) bought the island of Canna in 1938. He farmed the island for 40 years and made it a sanctuary for wildlife. At the same time he continued to record a disappearing Gaelic heritage and to write and publish extensively about Gaelic and Highland culture and together the married couple assembled an important archive of Scottish Gaelic song and poetry, including manuscripts, sound recordings, photographs and film.
Three years ago, Fiona had the chance to develop a new piece of Gaelic theatre for the National Theatre of Scotland and chose the Campbell’s story which led to the critically acclaimed production ‘Little Bird Blown Off Course’ which the Highlands and Glasgow, and Canna.
“The opportunity to develop a piece of devised theatre with the NTS was a pivotal point in both my performing and my research careers and one which gave me the creative confidence I needed to pursue my work on the Canna Collection”.
Fiona continued to research the Canna House collections whilst studying for her Masters in Song Writing and Performance at the University of the West of Scotland. She developed a new piece of work- An Sgàthan- based on the old songs collected by Fay Shaw and was the first ever Gaelic singer to receive the Master’s degree. And now she is looking forward to her next challenge.
Fiona said: “Since buying ‘Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist’ I have been I’ve been intrigued and fascinated with all the stories, songs, runes, recipes and prayers she collected so being given the opportunity to curate and develop this special collection is a dream come true. I never imagined that as someone who learned Gaelic as an adult, I’d be entrusted with the care and promotion of this priceless collection. I’m absolutely committed to creating more awareness and usage of the collections whilst respecting and maintaining the integrity of the Campbell’s work.
“The folklore collections in Canna House are unparalleled in terms of uniqueness and quality, as well as quantity. Not only is at home to Gaelic song but also one of the world’s most important collections of moths and butterflies, American Native Indian folklore. All in all it really is one of world’s most important Scottish libraries.”
Of the move from Dingwall to such a remote island (which will be home to only 22 residents when Fiona has moved) Fiona said: “The change of scenery will be very different too! I’m looking forward to being able to immerse myself in Canna life and my hope is that the Campbell’s legacy will continue, and that fellow musicians, singers and writers will visit the island frequently to use the valuable collection and pass on the songs and stories to younger generations as well as creating new material inspired by their surroundings.”