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Friday 15 February 2013

A Christendom of Stories

Standing at well over six feet tall in his socks and still with a powerful physique even at the age of seventy-two, Angus Barrach MacMillan (1874–1954) of Griminish in Benbecula, made not only an impressive sight but was also a skilful storyteller. Born at Cnoc Fraoich, Benbecula, Angus was the youngest of a family of seven of Calum Barrach (1826–1916)—revealing a Barra connection—and Christy MacDonald. Apart from a sixteen-year long stint in the militia, taking him as far afield as Ireland and England, MacMillan was a crofter all his working days and remained more or less at home in Griminish for the best part of his life. 

Calum Maclean (1915–1960) first met MacMillan on an auspicious spring day in 1947. Despite MacMillan complaining that not only was he suffering from a cold but that he had also sustained a broken rib from a fall a few weeks earlier, he told Maclean—something that would have been music to his ears—that “I have a Christendom of stories.” It all looked very promising indeed: 
He started off that day by chanting a heroic lay dating back to the Viking times, the lay of the one-footed smith from Lochlann who enticed the Fingalians to his smithy in order to stab them. I had not heard the traditional chanting of heroic lays before.
Maclean soon found this out the hard way for recording Angus’s stories alone—but not neglecting other storytellers—for a period of three years MacMillan’s repertoire was yet to be fully exhausted! A story recited by MacMillan has the distinction of being the longest ever to have been recorded in Western Europe. Called Alasdair mac a’ Chèaird (Alasdair son of the Caird), it took nine hours to tell and over a week to transcribe. MacMillan had over 40 of these types of stories in his repertoire which took around three hours to tell. The transcriptions of stories from MacMillan’s recitation that Maclean so laboriously worked on would go on to fill up thousands of manuscript pages. Like so many other storytellers, MacMillan’s family had been steeped in such oral traditions for generations: 
Calum MacMillan usually spent the nights twisting heather ropes, siomain fraoich. The twisted rope he coiled on the floor around his legs…While thus engaged Calum MacMillan told tales. When the hour of ten approached a three-legged pot of potatoes was hung over the fire for the family’s supper. When the potatoes began to boil, and the water streamed down the legs of the pot, the visitors knew it was time to go. The tale was then stopped to be continued the following night. 
When collecting in Scotland during the early 1950s, the American ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax (1915–2002), was assisted by his contemporary counterpart, who told him in his own inimical style, typical of Maclean, of his friendship with MacMillan:
Old Angus MacMillan was a storyteller with whom I worked in Uist for three years. I thought I would kill him before I’d finish with him, but he went nearer to killing me before he finished with me. I sometimes recorded stories from him: I’d start at four in the afternoon: by midnight I’d be exhausted but Angus MacMillan would show no signs of exhaustion. The longest story he told took nine hours to record. We started on Monday night and did two hours. We had to break off for the night. We continued the story on Tuesday night and did two further hours. On Wednesday night we did another two hours and on Thursday we did another two hours again and we finished the story on Friday night. It took us an hour to finish the story. It took me fifteen days to write that story: it was the longest story I have ever written and I think it was really the longest story that has ever been recorded in the history of folklore recording. If I had sufficient stamina Angus MacMillan would have continued the story uninterrupted for nine hours. 
As Maclean later recollected, such was MacMillan’s renown for being an entertaining storyteller that it could even lead to members of the audience becoming spellbound and to forget completely about either work or to even bother to return home:
I remember someone telling me that an old woman disappeared one night to the well to get a pail of water. It was seven o’clock on a winter’s evening. By midnight she hadn’t reappeared so a search party was sent out. They finally discovered her in a house where Angus MacMillan was telling a story.
It is no understatement that MacMillan was one of the very best storytellers that Maclean—who had encountered not a few in his day—had had the privilege to meet. Something of MacMillan’s spirit was captured by Maclean when he recalled leaving the storyteller’s house in 1948 on a winter’s night around 4 o’clock in the morning: “That night was dark, cold and showery due to stormy weather coming in from the southwest. As I was leaving, Angus saw me to the big door. I can still recollect that large, burly frame of his that blocked the light from inside. On parting, he said: ‘Come early tomorrow night, my dear laddie. I have remembered another long, long one.’” 
Reflecting upon the style in which MacMillan told his tales, Maclean made the following interesting observation: 
The story’s subject matter was always the uppermost aspect that caught Angus’s attention. Nevertheless, every single word had to be said and to be set in its own place. Long dialogues used to pepper his stories where kings and princes would speak and talk to one another in such a way as if to suppose that Angus himself imitated them through his own character as the conversation went on. People would swear that Angus actually saw everything he actually recited. When Ossian was hunting, you could see the deer and hounds. Every mental picture he conjured up was as clear as that.
Maclean had the presence of mind to take down MacMillan’s life-story which to this day remains in manuscript and the resulting narrative makes for a fascinating read where there are more than a few anecdotes that leave a lasting impression. One day a wild bull turned on Angus so that he had to hit it on its horn with his walking stick. The bull fell down unconscious. “You’ve killed it,” a neighbour said to him. “If I had not killed it,” Angus said, “then I would have been dead.” Three quarters of an hour passed before the bull regained consciousness. Another day Angus was ploughing with a pair of horses. A report of gunfire was heard which frightened the wits out of the horses so much so that they ran off with the plough still attached. Angus, still gripping the plough for dear life, was pulled through bog and mud until the poor beasts were eventually tired out. Not one to suffer the scorn of others, MacMillan even had the temerity of ending his schooldays by giving the schoolmaster a good thrashing.
Writing his obituary, Maclean noted that: “He was the perfect example of the untaught and unlettered but highly cultured and refined mind…Eminent scholars in several European countries are today proud to have numbered Angus MacMillan among their friends. To folklorists Angus was much more than a mere source of information. He was a phenomenon. His feats of storytelling are unequalled in the history of folklore recording.”
Even in MacMillan’s own day storytellers such as himself were not that common and certainly there were not many whose repertoires were as varied or as extensive. Self-effacingly, MacMillan admitted that he only had around a third of the stories that his father, Calum MacMillan, could recite. Whether this is a case of modesty or not, MacMillan was a storyteller that was held in high esteem not only in scholarly circles and by academic folklorists but more importantly by his fellow-islanders.

Calum MacGhill'Eathain, ‘Aonghus agus Donnchadh’, Gairm, air. 10 (An Geamhradh, 1954), tdd. 170–74
Photograph of Angus MacMillan c. 1952. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives

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