Margaret Gardiner was born in 1904 in Berlin, where her father Sir Alan Henderson Gardiner, a well-known Egyptologist, was working. Her mother Hedwig, Lady Gardiner, came from a mixed Hungarian-Jewish/Scandinavian family. At the outbreak of World War I, the Gardiners returned to England and Margaret was educated at the Bedales School in Hampshire. She originally read modern languages at the University of Cambridge, but switched to moral sciences (philosophy). Her memoir Footprints on Malekula (1987) told the story of Bernard Deacon, a lost love of the 1920s. She attended a training course at the Froebel Educational Institute, and then began a brief teaching stint at an elementary school. When it ended, she decided to devote her time, energy and financial support to her circle of artistic and literary friends, including Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden, and J.D. (Desmond) Bernal, whom she wrote about in A Scatter of Memories (1988) With Bernal, she had a son, Martin, and founded a group that campaigned "For Intellectual Liberty" in the 1930s and 1940s. She later organized Britons opposed to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In 1979, she gave her valuable art collection to Orkney, installing it in the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness.