EXACTLY 100 years ago, in 1920, an awkward, music-obsessed and ‘difficult’ 17-year-old girl from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was sent by her family to attend school in Helensburgh, to see if Scotland, the country of her forefathers, could ‘sort her out’.

Her name was Margaret Fay Shaw, and she went on to become one of the world’s most important collectors of Scottish Gaelic songs and stories, as well as one of the world’s first female photographers of the 20th century.

She bought the island of Canna with her husband, John Lorne Campbell, in 1938 and they lived there until their deaths.

In 1981, they gifted the island and all the treasures contained in their home, Canna House, to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).

Canna House archivist, Fiona Mackenzie, has been researching Margaret’s diary entries, which give a fascinating glimpse into the life of a teenager at school in Scotland in the 1920s. Is it any different to today?

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Margaret attended St Bride’s School, the independent all-girls school in Helensburgh which, 57 years later, would merge with Larchfield School for boys to form today’s Lomond School.

While she was in Helensburgh, the teenager lived in Birkhall House, which still exists today.

Her diaries give an insight into her life as an early 20th-century school pupil. In these days of lockdown and extended school holidays, it’ll be interesting for today’s school pupils to see whether their scholastic lives are similar – or perhaps not!

The doodles of Margaret’s teachers in the archives are all her own work, as is the spelling and grammar, all of which has been left uncorrected.

Helensburgh Advertiser: In addition to her written thoughts of her time as a pupil at St Bride’s, Margaret’s diaries also include several doodle drawings of her teachersIn addition to her written thoughts of her time as a pupil at St Bride’s, Margaret’s diaries also include several doodle drawings of her teachers

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January 10

We said farewell to Aunt Annie and Uncle Hugh this morning and so departed from London and its charms.

We felt very low in our minds and so with Jesse Robertson and Isabel McMason and Miss King for a ‘chap’ [chaperone] to Glasgow, we sped mid sleet and rain.

Everyone slept but my mind was in Sewickley wandering from house to house. We arrived rather late and missed our connection so had hot Bovril and biscuits in the bar at the station...

January 12

Back at the same old work – some Virgil and French to do that I didn’t finish and a hugh [sp.] hole in my sheet where I put my foot through it!!

January 13

Miss Armstrong has a new costume & hat, lovely purple and the hat has willy plumes ...

January 14

A glorious day that ended with a sublime concert. A singer with a divine baritone voice – good looking – but his name is “Topliss Green”.

But he was most charming – and sang slushy love songs with one hand on his heart and the other bracing himself against the piano.

Mr Edgar Barratt play [sic.] the accompaniment and looked most important in a dress suit 3 times too large. He was muchly annoyed for we all snorted and giggled in the front rows. Miss W MacBride played also, great technique but no soul…

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January 24

A lovely day – because we had some real snow and I also had a lovely music lesson. I’m busy working so hard at my Chopin’s Etude in G flat and also the 1st Prelude.

We walked home to Birkhall through the one inch snow and threw snow balls – especially when the snow stuck to our shoes and melted in a large puddle on the cupboard floor.

February 6

We went out to tea to High Mayfield [23 Montrose St., Helensburgh] and had the yummiest tea – I ’spose yummiest should have two m’s.

But nobody got homesick and I had had such a grand time that I couldn’t think...

February 7

The worst music lesson I’ve had on the side of the water – Mr Barratt was too sarcastic and mean to suit me and I never got so blithering mad!

He kept slamming USA etc. – just wait till next lesson and I tell him were [sp.] to “head in”!

Helensburgh Advertiser: Margaret and a friend pictured during her first visit to ScotlandMargaret and a friend pictured during her first visit to Scotland

February 28

I began the day by being miles late for breakfast.

The rest of the day morning I wrote letters, argued with Celia and helped Bea and Eileen make sealing wax beads.

We consequently made a dreadful mess and set the paper on the table on fire three times by upsetting the candle.

We ate, drummed on the piano all afternoon and tonight the others returned and we ate some more junk and teased Mary Crabbe by hiding her raiment! Got a biff on my nose and feel like a boiled owl.

March 1

Back at school this morning with a heart for any fate.

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March 9

Had my English exam today. It was fearfully hard. Six questions in three hours. Made an awful mess of it.

Bea’s temperature is normal. But Mary Crabbe is in bed with a bad cold and temperature. Grace has an ear-ache and we all have colds.

Saw a four mast schooner and a big Anchor-Brocklebank liner going to India on the Clyde today.

March 14

Sewed on my new collar and went to the Cadzows for the day.

Archy Cadzow and a gentleman friend came for Ishbell and me in an automobile. We had a glorious ride with the top down and the wind was freezing.

We past [sp.] Dumbarton Rock and through Bowling, past [sp.] Mary Queen of Scots camping place. We arrived at a dear farm were we were met by Mrs Cadzow and Charlie – we had dinner of roast chicken and triffle [sp.] with sherry.

We later had a grand walk in the woods and an ‘ice’ at a Italian shop.

March 23

[At 25 Coates Gardens, Edinburgh]

Just arrived and don’t know whether I’m coming or going.

We travelled in a tea carriage and fed our faces all the way and then dispersed at Haymarket. We met the family and walk to our boarding house.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Margaret took this picture of Edinburgh Castle and St Cuthbert’s Church on a trip to the capital in March 1920Margaret took this picture of Edinburgh Castle and St Cuthbert’s Church on a trip to the capital in March 1920

It is a very ‘parch’ establishment run by a French Madamoiselle, a fat little body, who wears purple velvet and a lace collar with a large flat bow of black velvet on her head. The other inmates are all women and not interesting.

Uncle H & I had a long walk up Princes St. to see the Castle which looks weird and haunted under the grey sky.

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Easter Sunday

My first sporting of the new tweed suit, no spots or zippings, also my new hat.

I was rather disappointed in St George’s for there wasn’t a flower and not a mention of it being Easter, no Easter hymns. Whole was very boring except for congregation.

Afternoon, Gilbert, Doctor & I had a long walk our near Corstorphine. We had a wonderful view of the Pentlands.

Went to St Andrew’s [church] in the evening with Miss Douglas – I liked Mr Strachan a lot.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Margaret (right) with family in EdinburghMargaret (right) with family in Edinburgh

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It is clear that there are many common themes throughout Margaret’s diary that apply to teenagers today.

We can all remember the feeling of the school bell ringing on a snowy winter’s day, knowing that as soon as you leave the gates your friends will be waiting outside for a snowball fight; the dreaded lead up to final exams and the bundle of nerves and panic that come with them; and finally, the exciting day trips to the big city.

We can even draw parallels with her family feeling unwell!

* The NTS archivists are planning to release another selection of Margaret’s diary entries towards the end of summer, with a third to follow in the autumn/winter. Look out for those in the Advertiser later in the year!

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