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Monday, 22 July 2013

Annie Johnston: A Barra Tradition Bearer

Born in Glen, near Castlebay, Barra, in 1886, Annie Johnston, styled Annag Aonghais Chaluim, came of a family (Clann Aonghais Chaluim) of four other sisters and three brothers, one of whom, Calum Johnston, was also a renowned tradition bearer.

 
Unlike some of her contemporaries, Annie remained in Barra and became a schoolteacher at her local primary school in Castlebay. She followed this profession throughout her working life and was, by all accounts, an extremely well-respected and loved individual. Sir Compton Mackenzie wrote of her:
 
Annie Johnston … whom no better teacher of small children every lived. She was renowned throughout the Gaelic world on both sides of the Atlantic, for her ability to teach children was just as much for teaching the grown-ups who attended each year the Gaelic Summer School. She was a perennial spring of Gaelic folk-lore; her tales were inexhaustible. A truly lovable woman, she was utterly unspoilt by the esteem in which she was held.
 
Annie excelled in songs and she knew a great deal about òrain luaidh, or waulking songs, used in order to lighten the burden of work when fulling cloth. She also had reams of anecdotal stories and knew many òrain bheaga, or little songs, which was especially useful when it came to entertaining children. A great deal of her repertoire was recorded for the School of Scottish Studies Archives as well as many other visitors who came knocking at her door. In addition to these many recordings, Annie greatly contributed to Gaelic folklore research and was an active member of the Barra Folklore Committee set up through the initiative of John Lorne Campbell and others. With her excellent local knowledge and contacts she willingly facilitated all manner of folklorists and scholars who came to collect songs and much else from the best women folksinger then available in Barra, who, if it were not for Annie’s efforts to cajole them and make them comfortable, would have been far too reticent to have a microphone placed anywhere near them.
 
Calum Maclean in his very first trip to the Western Isles recollected in a typical diary entry a meeting he had with Annie Johnston on the 3rd of September 1946. Maclean at this period kept his diary in Irish Gaelic and here the translation is given:
 
I got up at ten o’clock as I was feeling a bit tired from the night before. I went out in the morning to take the place in. I had to collect my luggage from the pier. I waited until eleven o’clock for the chauffeur to turn up but he didn’t make an appearance. He turned up at three o’clock. I then began writing letters. Afterwards, I began transcribing material recorded on cylinder. I met Annie Johnston at seven o’clock. I went up to talk to her for a while after that. There were a crowd of women present in the house. Annie Johnston’s a lovely woman. She talked about Ealasaid Eachainn [Elizabeth MacKinnon] who died a short time ago. Her traditions went with her to the grave.
 
Some decades previously, one of the very first collectors to whom Annie gave a helping hand was none other than Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser (1857–1930), styled Marsaili Mhòr nan Òran, who, in conjunction with the Rev. Kenneth MacLeod (1871–1955) subsequently published Songs of the Hebrides (1909–21) in three volumes. Annie and her brother Calum’s contribution to this work was recognised by Kennedy-Fraser herself when she referred to Annie as her ‘indefatigable collaborator’ and where she paid a tribute to the Johstons for ‘the many fine tunes.’ Kennedy-Fraser would later recollect that:
 
Annie would invite a group of older women to a cèilidh at her parents’ home and encouraged them to sing while Kennedy-Fraser recorded them. Annie wrote down the words of more than 20 songs sung that evening.
 
Calum Maclean’s brother, Dr Alasdair Maclean, who was a resident GP in South Uist for more than thirty years, wrote of Annie Johnston in the following terms:
 
An interesting survival in Barra was a Gaelic version of another international folk tale known in English as Cinderella. The Barra version is a more attractive and perhaps more credible one and curiously although differing in detail it has much more in common with the one published by the Grimm brothers entitled "Ashputel" than with the Cinderella story. It was recorded from the late and much talented Annie Johnston.

John Lorne Campbell paid a fitting tribute to Annie and Calum Johnston with these words: 

Those who had the privilege of knowing Annie and Calum will treasure the recollection of highland hospitality, warmth of personality, generosity of spirit, and love for and knowledge of the oral Gaelic tradition, all at their very best and all expressed with completely natural spontaneity.
 
Her obituary notice is hereby reproduced in full and is an eloquent testimony by John Lorne Campbell to a well-loved and highly-respected personality:

Loss to Highland
folklore
 
THE LATE MISS ANNIE
JOHNSTON, BARRA
 
The Highlands and Islands, and Barra in particular, have suffered a grievous loss through the passing last week of Annie Johnston, the witty, charming and talented lady whose name is well-known among folklorists far beyond the bounds of Scotland.
 
Annie Johnston possessed the rare combination of a modern educational training–she was a highly successful school teacher–with the completely natural recollection and grasp of the rich oral tradition of Gaelic folksong and folktale that has made Barra so famous.
 
In this respect she resembled her Nova Scotian cousin, Rt Rev. Mgr. P. J. Nicholson, president-emeritus of St Francis Xavier University at Antigonish, who in his spare time had made substantial contributions to the preservation of Gaelic folktales in Cape Breton.
 
In her profession of school teacher Annie Johnston was invaluable in a Gaelic-speaking island where many of the children came to school with little or no English, and many of her former pupils must remain very vivid memories of her, and her help was invaluable, indeed indispensable, to the many folklorists and students of Gaelic who used to visit the island of Barra or, whom she taught at An Comunn Gaidhealach Gaelic summer school.
 
Mrs Kennedy Fraser, who first met her in 1908, refers to her as a “valued friend and invaluable collaborator. Others, including the writer and many of his friends, will echo these words with heart-felt agreement. Not only did Annie Johnston gladly impart here own store of tradition, including many unusual and beautiful songs she had learnt herself from her mother and from neighbours who came originally from the isolated island of Mingulay, she was also indefatigable in brining forwards others to be recorded, coaxing them over their shyness and getting them in the right humour, interpreting and explaining when this had to be done. She was the kind of collaborator whose goodwill and help are absolutely indispensable to a visiting folklorist. In addition she was herself most hospitable and entertaining hostess and inimitable raconteur, and her house was an immediate objective for any visitor who came to Barra with the slightest pretension to an interest in the culture and tradition of the island.

Annie Johnston and her brother, Calum, were of great assistance to Mrs Kennedy Fraser and contributed substantially to “Songs of the Hebrides”.
 
When the broadcasting of Gaelic became organised Annie Johnston came into her own, and a wide and appreciative audience was able to hear her singing the natural traditional versions of the folksongs of her native island. At various times between 1937 and 1962 she recorded over 40 such songs for the writer.
 
When the School of Scottish Studies was founded at Edinburgh University in 1951 she and her talented brother, Calum, were among the first to record such material for its archives. Acknowledgement of her help can also be found in the foreword of several books by collectors of Hebridean folklore. She visited Nova Scotia and Boston a few years ago at the invitation of transatlantic friends and got a tremendous welcome from the Highland people there.
 
Her many friends hoped she would be spared for many years to continue her work in retirement and perhaps to write, in Gaelic or English, the memories of her early years. It was not to be. There must by many in Barra and outside it who feel her passing as a deep personal loss; their heartfelt sympathy will go out to her brother and sister-in-law and her sisters, nephews and nieces in their bereavement.
 
                                                      “A cuid de pharas di”
 
                                                                                       J.L.C.
 
References:
John Lorne Campbell, ‘Loss to Highland Folklore THE LATE MISS ANNIE JOHNSTON, BARRA’, The Oban Times (14 March 1963)
Scottish Tradition Series, vol. 13, Songs, Stories and Piping from Barra, Calum and Annie Johnston (Greentrax Recordings, CDTRAX9013, 2010)
Tocher, vol. 13 (1974) (a volume dedicated to Calum and Annie Johnston)
 
Image:
Annie Johnston photographed in May 1947 by George Scott-Moncrieff in her classroom, Castlebay, Barra. Courtesy of Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann, Coláiste Ollscoile Baile Átha Cliath / National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin. Courtesy of Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann, Coláiste Ollscoile Baile Átha Cliath / National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin
 

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