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Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Angus MacLellan of Loch Eynort, South Uist

Only one tradition bearer in 1965, as far is known, has ever received an MBE in recognition of his services to folklore. That person was Angus MacLellan (1869–1966), styled Aonghas Beag mac Aonghais ic Eachainn ic Dhòmhnaill ic Chaluim ic Dhòmhnaill, from Poll Torain, Loch Eynort, South Uist, the youngest son of a large family of four other boys and four daughters of Angus MacLellan, grass-keeper, and his wife, Mary, née Wilson.
 
In 1961, the historian and folklorist John Lorne Campbell of Canna (1906–1996) edited and published in translation Stories from South Uist, representing but a selection of MacLellan’s repertoire. Moreover, Campbell also went on to edit and publish MacLellan’s autobiography as The Furrow Behind Me: The Autobiography of a Hebridean Crofter (1962); a fascinating read for it touches upon many facets that have both an historical and a sociological significance. The original Gaelic version of the text, one of the longest to have been published in colloquial Scottish Gaelic, appeared under the title Saoghal an Treobhaiche [‘The Ploughman’s World’] in a Scandinavian journal as well as in book format in 1972. Campbell wrote that: “His stories and his memories are told with a wealth of dialogue and characterization which would do credit to a professional novelist.”
 
Campbell in his introduction to MacLellan’s collection of tales provides a fine portrait of the ninety-year old tradition bearer:
 
Aonghus Beag is a sturdy, cheerful man, with a very alert mind. He looks far younger than his ninety years and still conveys the impression of the bodily strength developed by his former livelihood, that of a ploughman on mainland farms in Perthshire, Argyll, and Dumbartonshire…He has the reputation of having been one of the most skilled sheep-shearers in South Uist…and as a storyteller and conversationalist, he never wearies.
 
Dr Alasdair Maclean, a resident and GP in South Uist for over thirty years, and a brother of Calum Maclean recalled that:
 
Angus MacLellan…was clearly jealous if interest was paid to the potential of his richly endowed sister, Mrs Marion Campbell [known as Bean Nìll]. As they both lived in the same house, that required tactful handling. I can well remember Calum’s delight in getting from Angus a splendid version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, as well as many other priceless tales, but I often wonder if the old lady took to her grave many gems which he might otherwise have unlocked. Her daughter Mrs Kate MacDonald (Bean Eairdsidh) produced for him a phenomenal number of songs…
 
The Cattle-Raid of Colley is far too convoluted to give in full but the gist of the story may given that has Cuchulainn, a famous Celtic hero, as one of the main protagonists. Having killed a guard-dog he had to take its place instead for a period of seven years. Meanwhile his father died, and when his seven years were up, he took over the farm which had a fairy bull named Donn Ghuaillean which everyone fought over. Cuchullain did not wish for the bull to be stolen but others were only too willing to try and so a contemporary of Cuchullain, Fear Diag Daimhein, swore an oath to Cuchullain’s rivals that he would get the fairy bull. The ensuing fight ended with Diag Mac Daimhein dead and Cuchulainn dying but who still managed to kill a dog which was drinking blood – his last feat had to be same as first – and then he died, leaving Donn Ghuailleann to whoever claimed it.
 
It is altogether remarkable that a story should have survived at all into the twentieth century and one which is fairly faithful to the manuscript versions from whence it probably entered into the oral tradition of Uist via the MacVuirichs, the hereditary bards to the Clanranalds. The learned tradition of Gaelic culture as represented by these outstanding poets and historians had not a little influence upon folklore that was later recovered by various collectors during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: 
 
Last summer [1959] a variant of the Táin Bó Cúailnge was recorded from Angus MacLellan of Frobost, South Uist, the tale of Cu Chulainn that took shape in the 7th century or probably earlier and that was the subject of study by every great name in the Celtic scholarship of Europe from Windisch and Thurneysen onwards.
 
Maclean who later published the transcribed text in 1959 along with a translation and notes gives the following brief description of the tradition bearer telling the story:
 
On the 11th of June [1959] I saw Angus MacLellan of Frobost  uncover his head in honour of Cu Chullain and then proceed to tell the heroic saga of Cu Chullain’s first feat, his exploits to take forcible possession of the Donn Ghuailleann, and his death after he had slain Fear Diad Mac Deafain.
 
In his notes that accompany this ancient tale, Maclean records the background details of how it entered MacLellan’s repertoire:
 
Angus heard the story about 70 years ago from the late Donald MacDonald of Peninerine, Dòmhnall mac Dhonnchaidh, a stonemason who, it appears, built the MacLellan family house in Loch Eynort…Donald was the father of the late Duncan MacDonald, a storyteller…Donald MacDonald died, if I remember rightly, in the early twenties. He belonged to a line of noted storytellers and poets to the MacDonalds of Skye, who had lands in North Uists…
 
Given that another South Uist storyteller called Duncan MacDonald was reckoned by Maclean to have been the most skilful storyteller that he had ever met in either Scotland or Ireland, it is remarkable that this tale, one of the most prestigious stories to be in any storyteller’s repertoires, was not known to him, despite the very fact that MacLellan heard it from Duncan’s father himself:
 
Strangely enough, the Donn Ghuaillean story did not go further in the family than Donald himself, for his son, Duncan, did not have it, although he inherited a great deal of his father’s store. If the story came down directly in the family—although that cannot be ascertained now—it came, we can assume, from North Uist.
 
MacLellan’s repertoire, however, came from a variety of sources, numbering a good dozen or more, such as another outstanding South Uist storyteller:
 
Alasdair MacIntyre [Alasdair Mòr mac Iain Dheirg] was a shepherd and lived in a remote place to the east side of Ben More. It was from him that old Angus MacLellan of Frobost learned most of his tales, and old Alasdair used to walk from the back of Ben More to Ormiclate to record tales for the late Dr Alasdair Carmichael over 70 years ago…
 
Such was the storytelling prowess of both Alasdair MacIntyre and MacLellan’s father, also called Angus, that they could hold an audience captive for many a long hour:
 
Old Alasdair and Angus MacLellan’s father, Aonghas mac Eachainn, were close friends. One day Alasdair Mòr called at the MacLellan home on his way to Lochboisdale. “No one went to bed in their house that night. They all remained by the fire as the two old men went on storytelling,” said Donald [MacIntyre from Loch Eynort]
 
Over many years Campbell recorded, initially at the behest of Calum Maclean, many of MacLellan’s stories and reminiscences and, afterwards, was prompted to say something of his own lifestory. Of over one hundred and thirty items recorded from MacLellan’s recitation, forty-two were prepared for publication as well as his autobiography, recently reprinted. The range of material in MacLellan’s repertoire is representative of earlier collections such as those made by the collectors employed by John Francis Campbell during the nineteenth century.
 
At the grand old age of ninety-seven MacLellan died unmarried at Frobost, South Uist, on 19 March 1966, and was buried at Hanlainn on that island.
 
References:
Angus MacLellan, The Furrow Behind Me and Stories from South Uist, both ed. by John Lorne Campbell (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1997)
 
Image:
Angus MacLellan, c. early 1960s by Margaret Fay Shaw. Courtesy of Canna House Archive

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