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Wednesday 6 March 2013

Fisherman and Teller of Tales: James MacKinnon of Northbay

In 1946, Calum I. Maclean (1915–1960) made his first ever trip to the Western Isles, and more specifically to the isle of Barra near to the southern tip of this archipelago. Maclean wrote that “I knew not one living soul in Barra: nor in any of the Outer Hebrides for that matter.”
Nevertheless, within a few weeks of getting to know the Barra people, Maclean finally met a storyteller from whom he had heard about from his friend and mentor John Lorne Campbell. Some eight years previously Campbell had included one of his stories in his book Sia Sgialachdan [‘Six Stories’]. Northbay, on the island’s north-eastern shore, marks the place in which their first meeting took place. The man in question James MacKinnon (1866–1957), styled Seumas Iain Ghunnairigh, had been a fisherman all his working days and in his semi-retirement turned to shoemaking to earn a living.
“For any folklore collector,” Maclean later wrote, “the crucial time is when contact is first made with the tradition bearer. To Seumas MacKinnon I was a complete stranger, and much depended on the outcome of our first meeting. Every folklore collector must be prepared to efface himself and approach even the most humble tradition bearer with the deference due to the high and exalted.”
Maclean true to his own words did just that and when he spoke to Seumas in Gaelic, the old man, then aged eighty received him warmly. “I noticed that he was very tall,” wrote Maclean. “His face was weather-beaten and his features were beautifully chiselled. He wore the blue-peaked cap of fishermen and blue dungarees. The life of eighty years had been spent as much on sea as on land. At eighty he was still a very handsome old man. He was the first practised storyteller I had heard in Scotland. His diction was crisp, concise and clear. Every sentence was short and perfectly balanced. His style was that of the traditional Gaelic storyteller. His voice was beautifully clear and pleasing. He stamped his own personality on every story he told, and his lively sense of humour enhanced his storytelling considerably. His aim was to delight and entertain, and he certainly did both.”
Considering that Maclean was later to record other storytellers, it is rather amazing to think that it had taken him so long to find one in Scotland. But he did have an excuse as he had, after all, been in Ireland throughout the war period and given that storytellers of such calibre were more or less confined to the Western Isles, a place he had only recently visited, it is perhaps not as surprising as it would first seem.
Although having never attended school nor being able to read or write and having only a smattering of English did not stop MacKinnon from having a prodigious memory. Some sixty years previously MacKinnon had learnt many tales from an old-bedridden man named Roderick MacDonald, who lived in a black house in Earsary, and prompted by Maclean a great deal of them came flooding back. As a young man MacKinnon along with a crowd of boys would visit old Roderick every winter evening for a ceilidh and as the old man lay in his mattress beside the hearth in the middle of the floor he would recite these stories to an entranced and appreciative audience. “Lift me up now, dear and beloved ones,” the old man would say to the young men. When propped up in a comfortable position, the old man told tales and continued until it was time for the visitors to depart. Recollecting such evenings of storytelling, MacKinnon stated that: “There is nothing like that today. Today there is only Death.” Maclean noted that what he meant, of course, was that the old order was passing.
From this reciter MacKinnon learnt his stock and trade of storytelling as Maclean recollects: “When we had conversed for an hour or so, he began to narrate his first tale. He had not continued long when I realised that he had mastered the art to perfection. Every sentence, every phrase was balanced. He was never at a loss for a word, and never lost the thread of his story. The first story of his was an international folktale. It was the tale of the three noble acts. A lady, who had promised her virginity to a farmer, was later wooed and won by a nobleman. On her bridal night the lady wept when she remembered her promise to the farmer. Her husband escorted her to the farmer’s house so that she could fulfil her promise. The farmer nobly declined her offer and told her to return to her husband. One her way home she fell in with a party of thieves. The leader of the party, on hearing her story, sent her home in safety. The three men acted nobly.
Before relating the story, Maclean and MacKinnon “had sat and spoke for some time. Eventually I told him I had come to Barra to look for old stories. “Oh!” said he, “it is a long time since I told a story. People have no use for storytelling now.”
According to Maclean, MacKinnon’s repertoire contained a great number of such tales:
Seumas MacKinnon could be most amusing and entertaining at times. He had a large number of tales of a distinctly Rabelaisian character. These he told sometimes to a mixed audience. But such could be done in Barra. The late Thomas MacDonagh wrote that while the people of Gaelic Ireland were sometimes coarse in speech, they were always impeccably proper in conduct. The same is true of the people of Barra.
From MacKinnon forty folktales, some taking almost an hour to tell, were recorded by Maclean and later transcribed. MacKinnon knew their intrinsic value and could appreciate the object of reciting the tales and having a written record made of them. This did not only make Maclean’s task an easier one but a far more enjoyable one:
It was always an easy matter to induce him to tell his stories. Today, even in Barra, storytelling has ceased to be the popular form of entertainment it used to be. Newspapers, radio, and films have superseded the storyteller. In an earlier generation Seumas MacKinnon and his kind were more appreciated than they are today. I feel very proud of the help and friendship of Seumas MacKinnon.
MacKinnon also told Maclean about his fishing days when, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the inlets of the west coast of Skye still contained plenty of herring. Smacks from all over would foregather there and after nightfall when the nets had been set the custom was for the fishermen to visit each others’ boats. MacKinnon tells of the time when listening to another Barra storyteller:
They were all below deck in the storyteller’s smack. It was early of a winter’s evening that he commenced storytelling. All night long he continued. The listeners were oblivious at everything except the story that was being narrated. All of a sudden they heard a series of loud bangs on the deck above them. They looked up and dawn was beginning to break. Their smack had dragged its anchors and was drifting perilously near a rocky shore. The crew of a drifter which had come alongside were throwing lumps of coal on to the deck of the fishing smack to warn the men below that danger was imminent.
Maclean spent some five months recording but only a little of his repertoire for it was nowhere near to being exhausted. The last time Maclean saw MacKinnon was when he visited him in March 1956, “resting after a hard day’s work planting potatoes.” With MacKinnon’s passing the following year, Barra had lost one of its last remaining traditional storytellers.

Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
────, Hebridean Traditions’, Gwerin: Journal of Folk Life, vol. 1, no. 1 (1956), pp. 21–33
James MacKinnon. Courtesy of of the National Folklore Collection / Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann UCD

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