Obituary: Magdalena Sagarzazu of Canna and the Basque Country, the Keeper of the Flame

Magda Sagarzazu

By Fiona Mackenzie, Canna House Archivist

“My idea of an island as a child was a piece of land with palm trees! But I arrived to a beautiful real island. Canna House, the garden, the cats, the Steinway grand piano, books in every room on all topics- it had a great charm for me immediately”.

So writes Magdalena (Magda) Sagarzazu, ‘adoptive’ Scot , of her first visit to the Isle of Canna in April 1962.

Even Magda herself was never quite sure when she first came to the island with her father, close friend of folklorist John Lorne Campbell, Saturnino Sagarzazu, and her sister Maria Carmen, but Canna House diaries and visitor books give us the exact date of their arrival – Sunday , April 29, 1962.

That fateful trip on Bruce Watt’s boat, “The Western Isles”, was the beginning of a long and fruitful love affair with Canna.

Magda came originally to Canna from the Basque country, aged 12, after the death of her mother in 1958.

That first visit lasted almost six months and was to become an annual trip for the family.  The family lived in TighArd House, up above Canna House and Magda and her sister spent summers exploring every nook and cranny of the island’s beaches and moors, fishing for lobsters and swimming on the Traigh Bhàin on the neighbouring island of Sanday.

She described her time on Canna  as an “education itself. There was so much. It was a house of many languages – we would speak French at the table and with Margaret (Fay Shaw Campbell), until we learnt English.

That is why to this day (2018) I call her Marguerite- with Juan (John) we would speak Spanish and sometimes a little Basque, with my sister and father”.

Magda and Joaquin

A multi-cultural,  multi lingual environment which grew to include Gaelic and Gaelic song.

At that time she had little idea of how this culture would become the pivotal focus for her adult working life.

The library and the sound recordings of Canna House became part of her daily life when living on Canna and came to have such meaning for her that after  training in administration and commerce in Spain, she decided to retrain as a teacher to enable her to spend long summer holidays on Canna, helping John with his literary work and cataloguing of the extensive collections.

When John died in 1996 in Italy, it was Magda and Maria Carmen who accompanied Margaret back to Canna to assist with the legalities of John’s estate and sort out his considerable paper archives.

When Margaret decided to stay on Canna, Magda took the decision to give up her teaching job and move to Canna full time to continue John’s work and be companion to Margaret , now aged 93.

Her work grew into that of Archivist and she was appointed thus by the National Trust for Scotland, to whom John had gifted the island in 1981.

She lived on in Canna House with Margaret until Margaret’s death in 2004 and she then took up residence in the little white, iconically Hebridean cottage, “Doirlinn” , with the  green gate looking out onto Canna Bay.   

Over the years, that house became the focus of many soirees where the Gaelic, Basque, Spanish, Italian and English tongues could be heard in equal measure accompanying songs, darts matches, dancing and  of course,  “pintxos”, that gastronomic Basque delight.

Spanish/Gaelic classes were the norm of a winter evening and Magda welcomed in any stray or stranded visitor to the island, offering hospitality, a glass of Cava and a warm smile to all.

Her welcoming nature and sense of fun became her signature ‘default’ and there is a not a man on earth who did not crumble when confronted by her twinkly  eye and  her  ‘preciosa’ grin.

Magda’s professional contribution not only to the heritage contained within Canna House, but also to Scotland and on into the wider world is immeasurable and she fiercely promoted and advocated the work of the Campbells across the world, increasing awareness in every letter,  lecture, broadcast and newspaper article.

After John and Margaret died,  Magda continued on with the archiving and cataloguing of the Campbells extensive paper archive of correspondence, manuscripts and research writings.

She answered the daily research enquiries which came from right across the world, from some of the most hallowed halls of learning including Harvard, Oxford and Dublin and established close relationships with many of the most learned and revered Chairs of Academia.

Her name became synonymous with Canna House. The work carried out by Magda is very likely the greatest contribution to worldwide recognition of Scottish cultural significance to be found anywhere.

Her friend over the years and executor of John Lorne Campbell, Professor Hugh Cheape, said of Magda: “Magda won the hearts of all of us who work or have worked in the area of our cultural heritage.

“She was keenly aware of the international significance and ‘reach’ of the life’s work of the Campbells of Canna and she worked tirelessly and with great passion to preserve and propagate this. She knew the archives from end to end and worked under often difficult circumstances of isolation to refine them and bring them into a state fitted for the scholarship of the 21st century.

“We are lost for adequate words of thanks for her life’s work in Canna”.

Friends for years, in 2015, Magda took me under her wing as her little preciosa, her ‘little bird’ and guided me through the enormous, privileged task of becoming the first point of call for information on John and Margaret Campbell.

Magda had wanted to retire some years before she actually did but felt she needed to find someone who might understand and love the Collections, as they deserved to be loved.

Many is the time , sitting in the sitting room window of Canna House, that she would entrance me with her memories of Marguerite’s pithy stories and John’s sense of fun, the pranks he played and the  travels she had with them  across the globe.

Her story of why there is a hole in the gate to Doirlinn now – to allow her little Cairn terrier Patxu, to have lovelorn conversations with the little seal who visited the shore every day.

The National Trust for Scotland were indeed fortunate to have in Magda, an employee who so selflessly devoted her life to the Isle of Canna and who has preserved for us and for future generations, the legacy of her friends, the Campbells.

Her work was recognised by the NTS in 2015 when she was presented with the George Waterston Memorial Award for an employee of exceptional integrity and commitment.

She was also recognised the following year by the Saltire Society as one of Scotland’s Outstanding Women of the Year, alongside First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and author JK Rowling.

Magda also contributed to several learned publications including her paper on “Alexander Macdonald – Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair, Bard of the Gaelic enlightenment “ (Islands Book Trust 2013).

Magda had a long battle with health issues but retained to the end her sense of fun and sparkle to all.

My last conversation with her, my best friend, a few days ago, we talked of the Canna cuckoo returning to the trees in the Garden, the lambs in the fields, the new Beltie calves with their ‘Oreo’ tummies and the pink Rum sunsets returning for the summer.

Her heart remains on Canna, the island which she often said was her ‘healing island, wrapping its arms around her’.

In my efforts to continue her work, I will keep her enduring friendship close and sit amongst the bluebells for her, every Spring.

Magda Sagarzazu passed away in San Sebastian, Wednesday June 3rd, 2020 with her husband Joaquin and family around her.

Her family in Scotland were unable to travel to be with her but hope to have a memorial in Scotland when travel restrictions ease.

Magdalena Sagarzazu. September 16th  1949 – June 3rd 2020.