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Review of Folksongs & Folklore of South Uist, M F Shaw


Margaret Fay Shaw was an American writer who portrayed culture and music of South Uist in her work. Her early life was spent in Pittsburg and her parents died in her early age. Her interest in music originated when she took admission in St Bride’s School, Helensburgh. Her interest in Gaelic music increased when she heard various versions of Gaelic music. She started taking piano lessons but after five years she had to give up her interest in piano because of her joints pain condition. Her work Folksongs & Folklore of South Uist got published in 1955 and increased her popularity in Uist. She also got awarded various honorary degrees from notable universities. She married John Lorne Campbell in 1935 and moved to the island of Canna where she lived with her husband until her death in 2004.

The book Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist are the life collections of Margaret Shaw that she liked in her time in Uist. It is the collection of stories, photographs, and folk songs that describe the wonderful and magical history of South Uist and Gaelic folk music. This book describes the forgotten culture of Gael and its people and refreshes the memory of a magical world that is now forgotten[1].


The book Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist uses a collection of pictures, songs and stories that she collected between 1930 and 1935[2], represent the culture of Gael. The author of this book starts by providing a very detailed introduction of Gaelic culture, its people and their common practices. The book progresses after the introduction to include many traditional beliefs, practices, folk stories, and beliefs that are a part of Gaelic culture since their origin. The book presents these concepts one by one in a very explanatory way she describes each and every part of the culture with so much detail that the reader seems to consider a part of Gaelic culture. With her perfect descriptive skills and attractive writing style, the reader gets amazed by the cultural history of Gaelic people and developes an interest in it. This interest motivates the reader to read further. The stories are described with the help of pictures and additional pieces of information and helps the reader develop an image of the Gaelic culture in his mind. The book includes the history of the Gaelic culture that shaw experienced in her trip with her sister. The pictures included in the book are her own recordings of the breathtaking views of the remains of Gaelic culture.

The second part of the book is composed of a collection of Gaelic folk songs. These songs which are a part of the Gaelic culture for centuries are explained in the book in their original Gaelic language and its English translation to be understood by the reader. The songs are written by transcribing the recordings that shaw found while her time in South Uist. These transcriptions were made by a native Gaelic speaker. Repeated attempts were made to record the correct punctuations and tunes of the songs[3]. The transcriptions have added with them punctuations and are formulated in the form of stanzas so the reader can differentiate the verses and have an idea of the original folk song. The translations to every song are provided by Shaw’s own words and are described in detail. Each song is provided with its origin, and belonging as well as its purpose in Gaelic culture. In some songs, the provider name and location is also provided. The book when compares the content with other writers, proper bibliographic references are given.

According to Schwartz and Holtorf, the songs are categorized by their theme and purpose, the theme includes songs of war, hunting, happiness as well of daily practices[4]. Margaret Shaw on various places writes about the customs related to sun wise movement of waulking cloth[5] by women. The strange culture of music that Shaw describes at various locations in her book describes this unique ritual, in which a long cloth is rolled and placed on the table. Women use to sit around the table and make beats by the cloth while singing turn by turn and passing the cloth by the table.

The author mentions that she is not sure about the original purpose of the waulking ritual but believes it was meant for a good purpose[6]. Although many other books have included Gaelic songs in their literature but Shaw’s book is specific for its section of Waulking songs. The author tries to explain the relationship between poetry and music of the Gaelic songs and describes their relation to each other.[7]


The folklore and folksongs collections though not is a perfect compilation and complete description of the Gaelic culture because it is reproduced by analysing these practices and events, but they present a good understanding of the Gaelic culture and how it was once a part of majestic history. the incomplete description of the content in the book, however, does not make it a bad quality writing, it is enough explaining the concept to the reader. the book allows the reader to develop the sense of Gaelic culture in his own mind and gets mesmerized by the magical history of Gaelic culture.


Gazin-Schwartz, A. and Holtorf, C.J. eds., 2005. Archaeology and folklore. Routledge.

Lamb, W., 2013. Reeling in the strathspey: The origins of Scotland’s national music’. Scottish Studies, 36, pp.66-102.

Sparling, H., 2005. Song Genres, Cultural Capital and Social Distinctions in Gaelic Cape Breton (Doctoral dissertation, York University).

[1] Sparling, H., 2005. Song Genres, Cultural Capital and Social Distinctions in Gaelic Cape Breton, 116

[2] Gazin-Schwartz, A. and Holtorf, C.J. eds., 2005. Archaeology and folklore. Routledge,  120

[3] Shaw, M.F. ed., 1986. Folksongs and folklore of South Uist. MacMillan Publishing Company

[4] Gazin-Schwartz, A. and Holtorf, C.J. eds., 2005. Archaeology and folklore. Routledge.

[5] Shaw, M.F. ed., 1986. Folksongs and folklore of South Uist. MacMillan Publishing Company. 14

[6] Ibid, 13

[7] Ibid 72, 73



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