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Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Cu Chulainn and the Rocket Range

Reproduced in full from The Scotsman is the first of two articles written about Calum Maclean about his experiences of collecting in South Uist:
 
Missiles may become obsolete but the storytellers of Uist are heirs to the ages
 
 Calum I. Maclean, of the School of Scottish Studies of Edinburgh University, has been visiting Uist, the island of the rocket range, where he has been recording the wealth of traditional tales, many of them going back to the roots of our cultural heritage, which has been handed down by word of mouth through the island generations. This is the first of two articles in which he describes his storytellers, recounts some of their tales, and comments of the effect of the range on the traditional culture of the islands.
 
I have just returned from Uist where I heard the first Corporal missile being fired from the machair of Gerinish and actually saw the second going up on the following day, the Corporal is already obsolete, but in Uist there is something which is still not obsolete, even after a thousand years.
 
On the 11th of June I saw Angus MacLellan of Frobost uncover his head in honour of Cu Chullain and then proceed to tell the heroic saga of Cu Chullain’s first feat, his exploits to take forcible possession of the Donn Ghuailleann, and his death after he had slain Fear Diad Mac Deafain.
 
While Fear Diad and Cu Chullain were at school learning the feats of arms they made a solemn compact never to oppose one another. Fear Diad is bribed to take the Brown Bull of Cuailnge away. The first day they spend hunting. On the following day Cu Chullain says, “What will be our sport today?” Fear Diad answers, “Our backs towards one another and the butts of our lances against each other.” “Nothing could be better,” answers Cu Chullain.
 
The next day Cu Chullain again asks what the sport will be. “Our face towards one another,” says Fear Diad, “and the points of our lances against one another and the take of our blood in the parting.” “Is it thus now?” asks Cu Chullain. “I did not think that that was the compact made between us when were at school.” “Ah well, it was not,” said Fear Diad, “but I am under oath to get either the Brown Bull or death.”
 
They fight and cast their lances at one another across a river. Their attendants recover the lances. Towards evening Cu Chullain hurls his lance and kills Fear Diad, while he himself falls with a mortal wound. As he lies shedding blood, he turns to his attendant and asks: “Do you see anything about the river here?” “Oh, I see nothing,” says the boy, “except that I see a dog drinking the blood down yonder.” “Go,” says Cu Chullain, “and bring me the lance.”
 
The boy goes for the lance, brings it to Cu Chullain who asks where the hound is; he casts at it and kills it. Cu Chullain’s eyes are now closing in death. “Have I slain the hound?” he asks. The boy answers that he has cut it in two. “Oh, that is true!” says Cu Chullain. “That (the killing of a hound) was my first feat and it was the last feat I had to perform. And now, it is all over with me, and whosoever wishes may now have the Brown Bull of Cuailnge.”
 
Ancient tale
The late Dr Alexander Carmichael, the collector of the famed Carmina Gadelica, recorded a different version of the above tale from Hector MacIsaac of Ceannlangabhat, Iochdar, South Uist and read it to a meeting of the Gaelic Society of Inverness on the 14th of November 1872. The discovery of a fragment of this ancient tale known at Tain Bo Cuailgne, the central tale of Cu Chullain cycle—the earliest known recensions of which are in the twelfth-century Book of the Dun Cow, the Book of Leinster, and the later Yellow Book of Lecan—caused quite a sensation for scholars had thought that it had long gone out of oral tradition. It was quite as remarkable as if an unrecorded version of the Iliad has been recovered in the Aegean in the last century or a fragment of the Saga of Beowulf in the current oral tradition of Northumberland.
 
Angus MacLellan of Frobost is 90 years of age. He belongs to a family of noted tradition bearers. Two of his sisters are still living, and at the ages of 93 and 87 are still full of songs and stories and still chant Ossianic lays dating back to the Viking times.
 
A daughter of the elder sister is Mrs Archie MacDonald of Gearraidh na h-Eilghe who has recorded over 200 folksongs. When her store looks like running out, she refers to her 93-year-old mother, who goes on remembering something new every day. A week ago she sang the lay about the Hag from Lochlann who came over to subdue Iceland and meet her death at the hands of the King of the Féinne, the valiant Fionn mac Cumhaill.
 
From her son-in-law, the inimitable Archie MacDonald himself, I recorded on the very same day one of the Fables of Aesop; but his lion and his fox were so, so characteristically Uist in expression.
 
I still remember the evening of the first meeting held in the school of Iochdar to protest against the establishment of the Rocket Range. It was towards the middle of August 1955. An old man came up through the middle of the hall and made a moving and impassioned speech in Gaelic. All his life he had struggled to make a livelihood on his croft in Iochdar and to bring up his family, but now his whole world seemed to be crashing about his ears. Later that evening he demanded angrily from the back of the hall that the motions before the meeting be stated in Gaelic before being put to the vote.
 
Ossianic lays
It was much later that I got to know his name, John MacQueen, but it was someone in Oban who told me that he sang Ossianic lays. I went to see him in his house about a fortnight ago. He was not a home but I awaited his arrival. He has aged a little since I first saw him, and now he walks with the aid of a stick.
 
In his boyhood he had been the person deputed to chant the Ossianic lays as parties of children went from house to house on Hogmanay and were given gifts of bread, sweets and apples. The lays were chanted before closed doors, it appears, and in recording the Lay of the Smithy, which tells about the one-legged Smith from Lochlann who enticed the heroes of the Féinne to his smithy in order to kill them, he incorporated the words, “Open the door for the Hogmanay man,” into the text.
 
He knows many songs and stories and composes songs himself. No one had ever recorded anything from him. When I was leaving he accompanied me, limping as he was, to the very limit of his croft. This is still the customary practice when one visits the crofters of Uist, but, in view of his age and obvious disability, I as real reason to feel honoured by his courtesy.
 
I proceeded northwards along the newly-surfaced road that runs through the Iochdar townships. I had a couple of miles to got but a small van overtook me and I was given a lift. There was another storyteller whom I had never met but who I thought might have stories, for a brother of his who died a number of years ago was a noted storyteller; their father had been the most famed Hebridean dancer in all Uist. Malcolm MacPherson or Calum an t-Saoir, as he is called, has a remarkable fund of international folktales with elements in them that have long reached the shores of Uist from India through Byzantium and Spain and up along the Atlantic coast.
 
He told a wonderfully humorous and slightly Rabelaisian version of the well-known tale about the fool who won the princess by making her laugh three times. Angus MacLellan of Frobost told the same tale, but there were remarkable differences between the two versions. They have been in Uist tradition for a very long time.
 
There is now a very fine road from the main one out eastwards from Iochdar to Loch Carnan, where the new pier has been built. I was taken by car as far as Loch Carnan School. From near the school there is a very rough track that leads to the houses on the headlands that jut into the South Ford. The track was strewn with rough stones in places but here and there it gave way to nothing but bog. I have over two miles to go before I reached the house of Anthony Currie, a direct descendant of the MacMhuirich family of bards and historians to the MacDonalds of Clanranald.
 
Anthony Currie evidently knows the MacMhuirich family traditions very well. Not only were they bards and historians but they knew a good deal about sorcery also. Anthony Currie is no 88. I had never met him before nor had any other folklorist contacted him either. This man has a wonderful command of Gaelic and an artistic turn of expression. He speaks of past events that suggests that he has lived in this and several proceeding centuries.
 
One story he did tell very vividly, and no other Uist storyteller has recorded it before, so far as I am aware. Young Ronald of Clanranald returned to Uist after the battle of Sheriffmuir. Reapers were cutting his corn one day. Ronald went among the reapers and noticed that one of them was working with his coat on. He went angrily up to him and told him to take off his coat; he was going to be disgraced by having it said that one of his workers worked with his coat on.
 
No shirt
“I shall not take off my coat,” said the man, a man from Iochdar. They argued for a time, and the man finally took off his coat. When he did so, Young Ronald of Clanranald saw that he had no shirt. “Put your coat back on,” said Clanranald. “I shall not,” said the man. They argued more fiercely than ever, finally the man let fire. “I shall not put my coat back on,” said he. “You did not ask me to put my coat on that day of Sheriffmuir when your heart was very low and I came between you and your assailant and death.”
 
“That is true!” said the astounded Clanranald, for he now recognised the Iochdar man for the first time. He brought him to his house and gave him not one but many shirts.
 
The last of the official MacMhuirich bards died in 1722 and the Clanranalds parted with Uist over a century ago, but here still is a member of the MacMhuirich family continuing a very long tradition. I had only a very short time in Anthony’s company. Fortunately for me, and immediate bond of sympathy arose, I has lost and arm and he had lost an eye. Anthony Currie must have an enormous fund of tradition. 
 
Reference:
Calum I. Maclean, ‘Cu Chullain and the Rocket Range’, The Scotsman (11 August 1959), p. 6
 
Image:
Angus MacLellan, Frobost, South, Uist, photographed by Dr Kenneth Robertson in December 1959. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives

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