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Wednesday 15 May 2013

The Longest Story Ever Told in Western Europe

On the 29th of January 1949, Calum Maclean began to record the longest story ever told in Western Europe from the recitation of Angus Barrach MacMillan. Maclean noted in his diary in Scottish Gaelic but here given in translation:                               

Around eight o’clock, I went over to Angus MacMillan’s house and I decided to record a story from Angus MacMillan tonight. I haven’t recorded anything yet since coming back. We began on Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird), a story about a lad that a drover purchased from the cairds. I’ve never heard this story at all before. And it’s quite long. We recorded seven cylinders worth of it in any case…
Then on the 2nd of February, a further instalment was recorded:
We began on the story, Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird) and we recorded another ten cylinders. The story isn’t even half-way through yet. Angus was in a good mood tonight. He’s keeping well these days but I know that he isn’t working as usual. It was nearly midnight by the time I got home.
Three days later, on the 5th of February yet more of the story was recorded:
Angus and I began on the story Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird). We recorded another eight cylinders and it now consists of twenty-five. The story isn’t finished yet.
The next day, after attending Mass, Maclean made his way as usual to Griminish and a further instalment of the story was then recorded:
Angus and I were in the living room and we had a big night of stories. He began Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird) again and he recorded another dozen cylinders tonight. It now consists of thirty-seven cylinders.
And on the 8th of February the final instalment of the story was then recorded:
Tonight Angus finished the story Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird). This is the longest story he has so far told. We spent five nights on it, a while each night. I don’t believe he has another story as long as that. The story itself is good.
Back in Raasay, it took Calum over a week to transcribe the story which is around 68,000 words in length. Hitherto, the longest story to have been recorded was Leigheas Cas Ó Céin (The Healing of Kane’s Leg) standing at 30,000 words. This portmanteau story was collected by John Francis Campbell and Hector MacLean in 1871 from the recitation of an Islayman, Lachlan MacNeill, a shoemaker and fiddler then staying in Paisley.

Maclean began the laborious task of transcribing on the 22nd of March:
I began on the Angus MacMillan’s long story, Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird). This is the longest story that Angus MacMillan has yet told. It consists of forty-four cylinders.
For the next fortnight Maclean continued to transcribe the story until he finally completed it on the 6th of April (NFC 1155: 243–306; 309–408; 411–486):
I began transcribing this morning around ten o’clock and worked on Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alexander, son of the Caird). I continued working on that until around four o’clock in the afternoon when I finished the story. This story consists of two-hundred and forty pages, the longest story that I’ve written down yet from Angus MacMillan, the longest story I’ve ever transcribed.
Maclean knew better than most that transcription was sheer drudgery and understandably at times he grew very tired of such a mundane task. He knew, nonetheless, that the fieldwork he was undertaking would be beneficial for it allowed a permanent record of fast-dying traditions to be kept for future generations. The recording was contained on forty-four wax cylinders and so roughly speaking there were 1,500 words recorded on each one. MacMillan recited the story at around 126 words per minute. Interestingly enough, publishers recommend talking books to be voiced between 150 and 160 words per minute. It took Maclean around 103½ hours (or 6183 minutes) to completely transcribe the story and so his transcription rate was around 660 words per hour and therefore he was transcribing this particular story at around 11 words per minute.
Reminiscing to Alan Lomax about Angus MacMillan and one of the longest tales that he had ever recorded, Calum Maclean had the following to say:
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. 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.
Maclean then gave Lomax some rather tongue-in-the-cheek advise not to visit MacMillan in the small hours:
Sometimes he’d start….he’d say that…he’d threaten to start that he was going to tell a story about midnight and everybody would…implore him not to tell a story because they’d never get home that night. So it was very difficult to prevent him from telling the story. However he has told his stories and will continue to tell his stories and if you go there Alan, go there early in the morning, not late at night.
When Angus MacMillan passed away in 1954 Maclean was unable to attend his funeral as he was then in Morar and couldn’t get back to Benbecula in time. In an article that appeared in the Gaelic periodical Gairm, written shortly after MacMillan’s death, Maclean recollected one memorable evening:
In 1948 we spent one winter’s night recording a long story until completed around four 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.”
Calum Maclean, 1979. ‘Calum Maclean on Aonghas Barrach’, Tocher, vol. 31 (1979), p. 64
Calum I. MacGilleathain, ‘Aonghus agus Donnchadh’, Gairm, air. 10 (An Geamhradh, 1954), pp. 170–74
NFC 1155: 243–306; 309–408; 411–486 (transcription of Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird)
NFC 1300: 39–42; 50–51; 58–60; 63–64; 128–44 (Extracts from Calum Maclean’s fieldwork diary)

Angus MacMillan, Griminish, Benbecula, recording on the Ediphone for Calum Maclean in 1947. Courtesy of the National Folklore Collection / Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann, University College Dublin.

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