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Friday, 7 June 2013

A Folklorist’s Aunt: Peggy MacLean of Raasay

By sending Calum Maclean back home in order to collect traditions in his native Raasay may have been one of the best decisions ever made by the Irish Folklore Commission based in Dublin. The Commission, established in 1935 by Professor James Hamilton Delargy (1899–1980), was charged with a broad remit of collecting Ireland’s intangible cultural heritage. Between Maclean began working as a part-time collector in 1942, mainly in the Irish-speaking part of Connemara, and eventually becoming a full-time member of staff in 1945, the remit had broadened to take in Gaelic-speaking Scotland as well. Although Delargy’s decision to send his only Scottish collector back home went somewhat against Maclean’s wishes, he knew full-well the importance of the role that had been bestowed upon him, for he wrote:
 
 
…that the time is ripe to begin the systematic collection of Scottish and Gaelic folklore under the aegis of the Irish Folklore Commission. I have no doubt that the help of so many people in Scotland will be forthcoming. Naturally a Scottish Folklore Institute would be the ideal aim, but, at the present juncture, Scottish Gaels would welcome the support of the Irish Folklore Commission.  
 
Maclean undertook this pilot project from his home base in Churchton, Raasay, from the end of December until the 18 of February 1946. Such was the success of this trial run that Maclean would thenceforth take up permanent residence in Scotland and while still an employee of the Commission would, over next five years, collect a great deal of traditions mainly in the predominantly Catholic and Gaelic-speaking Southern Hebrides.
 
Maclean’s own family were renowned tradition bearers, with talented singers, pipers and storytellers. Not to have begun at home would have been deemed rather churlish and thus he did not have to look far in order to garner materials.  And so, for the next two months, Maclean amassed a great deal of lore from his own relations such as his mother, Christina, father, Malcolm and brother, Sorley. The lion’s share of material, however, was recorded from his maternal uncle, Angus Nicolson, styled Aonghas Shomhairle Iain ’ic Shomhairle (1890–1965) and, his paternal aunt, Peggy MacLean, styled Peigi Chaluim Iain Ghairbh (1869–1950). Maclean’s Raasay collection was mainly songs along with associated stories about their provenance and background. In his memoir of Maclean, Hamish Henderson noted that: “His uncle Angus Nicolson was a fine singer with a wide repertoire, and both his father and aunt Peggy Maclean were singers too, so Calum’s interest in Gaelic traditional song was no doubt kindled in his earliest childhood.”
 
In 1946 Peggy Maclean was aged around seventy-seven and was born in Baile Chùirn, Raasay, in 1869, the eldest sister of Malcolm MacLean, styled Calum Iain Gairbh, a crofter-fisherman. After attending school in nearby Churchton, Peggy then found work on the farm there. Wishing to expand her horizons further, she then entered the catering trade at a fairly young age and travelled to many parts of the world. Such places included stints in Scotland, Ireland, England as well as America. No matter how far her work took her she would invariably return home to Raasay for her annual fortnight’s holiday. She served as an army cook from 1914 to 1921 and, as she told her nephew, that although she may not have carried a gun she thought she might have killed a few people. Her nephew would no doubt have enjoyed this kind of self-deprecating humour. Peggy remained unmarried and probably retired home to Raasay in the mid-1930s.
 
Maclean in an article published in the scholarly Irish periodical Béaloideas, dedicated to oral tradition, recollected his aunt in the following terms:
 
Most of my work during a month in Raasay was done with Peggy MacLean. Miss MacLean had been a cook, most of her life and had travelled a good deal. She is now close on eighty years of age, and her memory is rapidly failing. She had several stories, although it is unusual for a woman to have lore of this type. There had been storytellers on the island in her youth, but now story-telling had ceased to be a part of the life of the community. 
 
The sources of her singing repertoire stemmed from her aunt Isobel, who stayed in Baile Chùirn and who died in 1918, and from her mother, Mary, who died in 1923 at the age of 86. Peggy learned all her stories from latter named apart from one:
 
Her people had had songs in plenty and she remembered them. As a young woman she had gone to the luaidh (meetings of women-folk for the purpose of waulking or fulling cloth). At these she learned many songs composed mostly by women for men, men with flowing yellow hair, hunters of the hill and sailors of the green ocean waters. Last summer her voice was beginning to fail, and it was almost impossible to have the melodies recorded. She did give more than four score songs, and some had beautiful melodies.
 
Maclean noted that Peggy’s memory was perhaps not as good as it used to be and that her increasing frailty and work-related back problems did not help matters either. But despite such concerns, Maclean still managed to record around one hundred and twenty-three individual items from his aunt’s recitation, more than thirty stories including a few international tales, some ninety songs, including some thirty waulking-type songs and forty short pieces of puirt-à-beul or mouth-music.
 
Sorley MacLean recalled that Peggy used to delight in fishing and, as a young man, he would take his aunt out in the boat and while he rowed he was regaled by her singing. It also would have had the desired effect of lightening the physical task of propelling the boat through the sea. Calum later wrote to Sorley in a letter of 1946 of his folklore collecting in Raasay:
 
But I enjoy my work very much. The folklore business became more interesting according [to] how you master the proper system of approach. Raasay is a wonderful type of place to work. It is small and sea-contained. It has fishermen and crofters, land and sea, birds, fish and animals, old ruins, groves, buailes, ghosts, fairies oral tradition, local history and everything that comes within our scope. It would take a good collector three years to cover it all...
 
It is something of a pity that Maclean could only spare a short period of time to collect the traditions of his native Raasay. Having proved the point that there was more than enough to collect, Maclean’s next move was to take him to the isle of Barra where a new vista of collecting was to occupy him for the next five months or so.
 
If it were not for Maclean’s efforts to collect in Raasay as well as elsewhere then our understanding of oral tradition in the mid-twentieth century would be far poorer. After concluding his successful fieldwork trip to his native Raasay, Maclean wrote in his diary:
 
I have now finished my first collection of Scots-Gaelic lore. There are many other songs still to be recorded. All of those which I have written down have associated airs, save one, and all of the tunes are different from one another. It is a great ‘sin’ that I was not born thirty years earlier, as the best of the lore has gone into the grave with those who had it. There is a terrible gale blowing here today.

 
Reference:
MacGilleathain, Calum I., ‘Sgéalta as Albain’, Béaloideas: The Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society, vol. XV (1945), pp. 237–48
 
Image:
Photograph of family portrait, Malcolm and Peggy, along with a young Calum. c. 1920. Courtesy of Cailean Maclean

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