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Thursday, 13 June 2013

A Folklorist’s Uncle: Angus Nicolson of Raasay

Following the conclusion of the Second Word War, Professor James Hamilton Delargy (1899–1980), founding father and Director of the Irish Folklore Commission based in Dublin, sent Calum Maclean (1915–60) back to Scotland in order to collect the fast-dying Gaelic oral traditions of his native Raasay. Maclean had been in ‘exile’ for the past seven years in Ireland where he took the opportunity not only initially to further his studies but also latterly to join the Commission’s staff and to become one of their best collectors.

Maclean undertook a folklore 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.


On arriving back in his native isle, Maclean confided in a diary entry what might be described as his mission statement:

I, Calum I. Maclean, began two days ago to collect the oral tradition of the island of Raasay…I was born and reared on this island. When I was young there were many people here who had tales and songs which had never been written down, and which never will be, since the old people are now dead, and all that they knew is with them in the grave. There are still some people alive who remember some of the songs and traditions of their forefathers, and as it seemed to me that there are more songs than anything else available, I decided to write down those which I could find.

Considering that Maclean’s own family were renowned tradition bearers, singers and pipers, it would have been rather churlish not to begin at home. And so, for the next two months, Maclean amassed a great deal of lore from his mother Christina, father Malcolm and brother Sorley. The lion’s share of material, however, was recorded from his maternal uncle, Angus Nicolson (1890–1965), styled Aonghas Shomhairle Iain ’ic Shomhairle and, his paternal aunt, Peggy MacLean (1869–1950), styled Peigi Chaluim Iain Ghairbh. 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.”

Angus Nicolson was then aged fifty-five and had been a shepherd all his working days at first in Lismore, then in a place near Oban in Argyll, followed by Ardgour in Inverness-shire, and finally in Glenlyon, Perthshire. After his lengthy stay on the mainland Scottish Highlands, Nicolson returned to Raasay in 1940 to take on the farm in Clachan, the largest on the island. Nicolson was born in Brae Trotternish in the isle of Skye within clear sight of Raasay and was brought up in the Braes at a place called Achnahanaid.

As young lad in the Braes, Angus would act as a messenger for an old neighbouring spinster called Mary MacIntosh, styled Màiri Iain ’ic Chaluim. She was constantly in demand if there was a luadh (waulking session) or a wedding in the district and would always be at the forefront of the singers. She was full of old lore and was very devoted to music and dancing. She was so keen on pipe-music that if she heard a piper then she would immediately start to dance even if she was in the middle of a potato field. One day, so it is said, she followed a passing steamer for three miles along the Braes shore, for on board there was a piper playing. As a kind gesture by the old woman, Angus picked up all the old songs from her singing. Although Mary MacIntosh died at an advanced age in the winter of 1917, not all her lore went with her to the grave. Angus later recalled an episode that he told his nephew:

He tells that on one very wet day he saw her crouching before the door of a byre. It was a miserably cold day and the rain dripped from her clothing. She was soaking wet, cold and uncomfortable, but, unaware that anyone was listening, she was singing:   

Cùl ri m’ leannan ’s e chuir mi ’n-diugh,
                        Rùn nan cailean tha mi an dèidh ort:
                        Cùl ri m’ leannan ’s e chuir mi ’n-diugh.


Throughout his life that has remained as one of the most vivid memories of Màiri Iain ’ic Chaluim…Fragments here and there are all that he now remembers of some of the songs. 

Almost all of Angus’s songs came from this one source but it is conceivable that his repertoire may have been augmented by others that he would have heard from other singers either in Skye or Raasay and perhaps in the places in which he had previously worked. Elsewhere Maclean writes about this uncle in the following terms:

Angus Nicolson…had also a large number of songs and sang them well. His voice was quite untrained, but in his singing he could differentiate between melodies which seemed so alike that it was difficult to know which was which. He had one beautiful little song…:

                                    My Duncan has gone to the mountain,
                                    My Duncan has gone to the mountain,
                                    My Duncan has gone to the mountain,
                                    And has returned not homewards.

                                    The blood of your heart and breast,
                                    The blood of your heart and breast,
                                    The blood of your heart and breast,
                                    Is in the folds of your tartan.

Maclean recorded over seventy individual items from his uncle’s repertoire, mainly songs but also a few short anecdotes. Of his fieldwork in Raasay, Maclean wrote to his brother, Sorley MacLean (1911–1996), the foremost Gaelic poet of his generation as well as being a tradition bearer in his own right:

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. Nevertheless, the riches that he uncovered from his uncle’s singing were to form the core of one of his papers, later published in The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness. Having proved the point that there was more than enough to collect; Maclean’s next move was to take him to Barra where a new vista of collecting was to occupy him for the next five months or so.

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.

References:
Calum I. Maclean, ‘Traditional Songs from Raasay and their value as Folk-Literature’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. XXXIX/XL (1942–1950), pp. 176–92
Some examples, but by no means all, of Angus Nicolson’s singing may be heard on Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches website [http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk]

Image:
Angus Nicolson c. 1950, courtesy of Cailean Maclean

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