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Canna House Archive




John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw were both fascinated by folklore and ancient culture and language, especially Gaelic, and during their lifetimes collected – and indeed created - an enormous amount of information of historical importance. The Canna House archivist Fiona Mackenzie is very happy to help visitors with information on the archives and collections and here, retired  archivist Magda Sagarzazu,a personal friend of the Campbell's introduces the Canna House archives.

​New archive room​​

The Literary Archive contains more than 900 items, including diaries, photographs, music, original letters and manuscripts. There is an immense amount of correspondence between individuals and organisations from all over the world, including John Lorne Campbell’s research for his publications on Hebridean history and folklore.

Canna House Library

Canna House Library contains more than 3,000 items, including a wealth of information on Scottish history, linguistics and folklore. There are rare and valuable Gaelic texts and first editions, including Alexander MacDonald’s Poems (1751) and a first edition of Martin Martin’s ‘A Late Voyage to St Kilda’ (1968); information on the grammar of the Mi'k Ma'k ( a First Nation people) of Nova Scotia; and a collection of Margaret Fay Shaw’s music books.

Wax cylinder recorder

As part of his mission to record for posterity the spoken-word heritage and songs of Gaelic culture, John Lorne Campbell also made sound recordings of traditional storytellers and folk songs. The Canna House sound archive is one of the most important in Scotland, and the complete collection has been digitised and is available online – visit and search for Canna Collection. However, the original recordings, made on early portable recording devices, remain in Canna House...


​There are 274 Ediphone (wax cylinder) recordings, made on the nearby island of Barra and in Cape Breton in the 1930s, when, as well as recording the Gaelic songs sung by the descendants of Scots cleared to Nova Scotia, John Lorne Campbell made the first recordings of  the Mi'k Ma'k First Nation peoples.


​There are also nearly 200 vinyl disc recordings in Canna House, including 110 of Gaelic folksongs recorded by JLC in Barra and Uist in 1938. These were the first electrical recordings of such material and are a valuable resource – many of the singers recorded had died before the arrival of magnetic tape recordings. Ten of these songs were published in 1950 by the Linguaphone Co on behalf of the Folklore Institute of Scotland, of which JLC was president.

Margaret Fay Shaw

Margaret was an accomplished pianist and her Steinway Grand piano still stands in the house . A  collection of Margaret Fay Shaw’s material – diaries, music, notebooks, correspondence and other documents relating to her book ‘Folklore and Folksongs of South Uist’, her autobiography, and some other small publications are currently in the process of being catalogued.​ Margaret Fay Shaw is also well known for her photography and, as well as a vast collection of around 9,000 negatives, prints and colour slides, the Canna House Archive contains her original equipment, including her Graflex camera.

Margaret embraced the advent of cine film, and the archive also has a collection of 16mm films, which have been digitised in video form, along with 40 spools of colour film.

Butterfly collection

The Butterfly Room, as its name suggests, houses the entomology collection. As well as collecting Gaelic songs and literature, John Lorne Campbell was a keen collector of butterflies and moths, and this room contains 30 drawers of butterflies and moths mainly from the Hebrides; 24 drawers of specimens collected in different parts of the world; and an early collection of 24 drawers dating from the 1920s. It also contains copies of Entomologist magazine from 1933 to 1969, which published John Campbell’s reports, plus diaries, notebooks and correspondence.


Some of the exhibits are very old and fragile and much work has been carried out in order to preserve and photograph the collection.

​Canna House  | A home

And, last but not least, there are the objects in the house itself. This is a home where people lived, loved and laughed, and it is still just as the Campbells left it, with their personal effects, furnishings and possessions. Everything in the house has a story to tell – some sad, some hilarious, all memorable. The piano that Margaret Fay Shaw played stands in the living room; the collections of periodicals they read are in the magazine racks; jigsaws to be done are on the desk; gifts from visitors dot the shelves; bottles of whisky from the SS Politician are on the table; and there is even a stuffed spoonbill in a case on a stand in the hallway – a relic from the days of the Campbells’ predecessors as owners of the island, the Thoms. Indeed, the Thoms have left photos, furniture and artefacts that also make an important contribution to the Canna House archive.

Canna House and its contents, the garden, its flower borders, orchards and paths, are testimony not just to the lives of two people who are now gone, but also to the promise of a future. I think of Canna House as an intimate museum – not a shrine, but a place to come and celebrate a special sensitivity to beauty, music and a wonderful sense of fun.

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