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Monday, 9 November 2020

Cutters and Gaugers: A Sea-Song of Whisky Smuggling

Recorded by Calum Maclean along with James Ross on 22 March 1957 from the singing of Angus Campbell, a native of Kilmory, Ardnamurchan who, by the time of putting the item on tape, was then staying in Lanarkshire, is a remarkable smuggling song full of vim and vigour with a very catchy melody and given a powerful rendition by the singer:


Mo Thruaighe Lèir Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe

Mo thruaigh lèir thu, ’ille bhuidh’,
’S ann an-diugh tha ’n dèidh ort!
Mo thruaigh lèir thu, ’ille bhuidh’.

Chuir sinn croinn sa bhàta
Dà latha mun d’fhàg sinn Èirinn.

Mo thruaigh lèir thu, ’ille bhuidh’…

Chuir sinne na croinn ùr innte
’S fhuair sinn smùid na dèidh leinn.

Bha cutteran is gàidsearan
Gar sàrachadh le chèile.

Bha fùdar is luaidhe Shasannach
’Toirt faram air a dèile.

Bha sinn sa Chuan Iar leith’,
Mun d’rinn a’ ghrian ach èirigh.

Nuair a dh’àt an fhairge
’S i ’n Earbag a bha treubhach.

Bha ’n Earbag ’s i cho dìonach
Ri botal fìon is cèir air.

Dol seachad Maol na h-Òighe
Gun dh’òl sinn air a chèile.

Dh’òl sinne slàint’ an sgiobair
Nach robh idir anns an èisdeachd.

’S dh’òl sinn buaidh don bhàta
Thug sàbhailt’ sinn à Èirinn.

Seachad Caisteal Dhubhairt leith’
Gun robh ar turas rèidh leinn.

’S bha sinne an Loch Àlainn
Mun d’rinn ach pàirt dhiubh èirigh.

And the translation may be rendered as follows:

Alas For You, Yellow-haired Lad

Alas for you, yellow-haired lad,
’Tis today that they’ll be after you!
Alas for you, yellow-haired lad.

We put masts into the boat
Two days before we sailed from Ireland.

Alas for you, yellow-haired lad…

Cutters and gaugers
Were harassing us together.

English powder and lead
Making her planks rattle.

We were in the Western Sea with her
Ere the break of day.

When the sea swelled
The Earbag [Young Roe] held strong.

The Earbag was as watertight
As a wine bottle sealed with wax

Going past the Mull of Oa
We toasted each other’s health.

We drank to the health of the skipper
Who wasn’t there to hear us.

And we drank to the health of the boat
Which carried us safely from Ireland.

Going past Castle Duart
Our course held steady.

And we arrived in Lochaline
Before most of the crew were up.

The performer, Angus Campbell (1898–1965) was born and brought up in Kilmory, Ardnamurchan, to John Campbell and Ann Cameron. His parents were married in 1891 in Kilmory. Campbell became a shipwright and later married Catherine MacLean Kennedy in St Columba’s Church, Glasgow, with issue. He predeceased his wife and he himself passed away in Glasgow in 1965.

The song refers to the lucrative trade in illicit whisky maintained between Ireland and the Scottish Highlands which was to the fore particularly during the mid-nineteenth century. The boat, so it would appear, had gone to Ireland for the express purpose of procuring some whisky and the skipper, for some reason or another, had gone ashore in search of water. During his absence the crew, observing that the gaugers were in hot pursuit in their cutter, set sail leaving the captain behind. That is the gist of the song.

Writing in The Oban Times, North Argyll, or Alastair “Sandy” Cameron (1896–1973), attributes the song’s composition to Donald Cameron, a son of Samuel Cameron known Somhairle Sgoilear, from Keil, Morvern. Samuel Cameron, who died in 1843, was a parochial schoolmaster of the parish of Morvern and features in the Gaelic dialogues of the Rev. Norman MacLeod (Caraid nan Gàidheal, 1783–1862). On entering the mercantile service as a young man, Donald eventually attained the rank of master. On retiring from his post, Donald became a storekeeper and postmaster of Strontian, and also the owner of the sailing brig Roe, mentioned in the song. The captain of the boat is referred to as Archibald Cameron (Gilleasbuig Mòr a’ Tenant), a native of Glenborrodale. North Argyll also adds that Donald Cameron later emigrated to America where he is thought to have died. Other correspondents, Alexander MacDiarmid and Donald Currie, maintain that the song was composed by another son of Samuel Cameron, namely Alexander Cameron (Alasdair a’ Mhaighstir Sgoile), who died in London in 1881, and was buried in the Churchyard of Keil, Morvern. According to local tradition, Alexander Cameron was known to have composed other songs but none of them seem to have survived.
 
 
Another version of the song was also recorded by Alan Bruford from the recitation of Colin Fletcher (1907–1996) from Torloisk, Mull, on 6 July 1967. He had learnt the song from Roderick MacNeill of Ulva who had the following additional or alternative verses:

’S thog sinn a cuid acraichean
Am Belfast an Èirinn.

Seachad Maol Chinn-tìre
Bha siaban oirr’ ag èiridh.

Cruaidh lèir gun tachradh e
Nan càillear sinn le chèile.

We hoisted our anchors
In Belfast in Ireland.

Going past the Mull of Kintyre
The sea-spray was splashing her.

A hard fate it would have been
If we had all been lost.

As mentioned in the above song summary, a number of letters appeared in The Oban Times from 1918, offering more information about the composer and the evolution of the song. Such newspaper sources are instrumental in gaining a social context for such songs as well as providing, in some instances, an authoritative account of some of those talented songmakers:

Mo Thruaigh Leir Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe

A SEA SONG

The following quaint melody I noted down from the singing of a very old Mull man. The song refers to the days of smuggling. The boat in question seems to have gone to Ireland to procure whisky, and when they arrived the captain went ashore in search of water. During his absence the crew, observing the Excise boat or cutter coming in pursuit, had to set sail and leave the captain behind. Perhaps some readers of the “Oban Times” could give particulars regarding authorship.
A. C. W.

Mo Thruaigh Leir Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe

Mo thruaigh lèir thu, ’ille bhuidhe,
’Sann an diugh tha’n deigh ort
Mo thruaigh lèir thu, ’ille bhuidhe!

Chuir sinn croinn ’sa bhàta
Dà là mu’n d’fhàg sinn Eirinn.

Chuir sinn na croinn ùr innte
’S gun d’fhuair sinn smùid na déigh leinn.

“Cutteran” a’s gàidsearan
Ga’r sàrachadh le chéile.

Fùdar ’s luaidhe Shasunnach
’Toirt farum air a déile.
Bha sinn ’s a’ Chuan-iar leatha,
Mu’n d’rinn a’ ghrian ach éirigh.

’N uair a dh’at an fhairge
’S i ’n “Earbag” a bha treubhach.

.    .    .    .    .

Seachad Maol na h-Oa
Gu’n d’ol sinn air a chéile.

Dh’òl sinn slàint’ an sgiabair
Nach robh idir anns an éisdeachd.

.    .    .    .    .

Seachad Caisteal Duairt leath’
Gu’n robh air turas réidh leinn.

Bha sinn an Loch-Alainn
Mu’n d’ rinn ach pàirt dhiubh éirigh.

A. C. W., ‘Clarsach nan Gaidheal: Mo Thruaigh Leis Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe’, The Oban Times, no. 3314 (1 Jun., 1918), p. 5
 

Mo Thruaidhe N’ Ille Bhuidhe

[to the editor of the “Oban Times.”]
                    June 6, 1918

Sir,—In reply to the question as to the authorship of this song, it was composed by Donald Cameron, a son of “Somhairle Sgolair,” Keil, Morven, an individual whose name is familiar to all readers of Dr. Norman Macleod’s writings.
    In early life Donald entered the mercantile service, where he attained the rank of master. After leaving the mercantile marine service, he became storekeeper and postmaster of Strontian, and also owner of the sailing brig Roe, mentioned in his song.
    It seems that he carried on an extensive trade with smugglers. The Government cutters were always on the lookout for the Roe’s appearance, but her trusty crew generally managed to elude their pursuers.
    The captain of the vessel on the occasion referred to by Miss Whyte was Archibald Cameron, “Gilleasbuig Mor a tenant,” a native of Glenborrodale. After leaving Strontian, the author emigrated to America, where he must have died.—I am, etc.,
                                NORTH ARGYLL.

Mo Thruaidhe N’ Ille Bhuidhe

[to the editor of the “Oban Times.”]
                    U.F. Manse
Morven, 11th June, 1918.

Sir,—Your esteemed correspondent, “A. C. W.” desires to know particulars of the author of the song, “Mo Thruaigh Leir thu, ’ille Bhuidhe,” the music of which was given by “A. C. W.” in a recent issue of the “Oban Times.” The author of the song was Alexander Cameron, youngest son of Samuel Cameron, for many years parochial schoolmaster of the parish of Morven. Samuel Cameron figures largely in “Caraid nan Gaidheal’s” well-known Gaelic dialogues. He died in 1843.
    Alexander Cameron was the author of one or two other songs, but these, I fear, are now lost. He died in London in 1881, and his remains are buried in the Churchyard of Keil, Morven. The song is about a boat that went to Ireland for whisky. While the captain was ashore for water, a Government cutter was seen approaching, and the men on board had to make off, leaving the captain behind. The song is of average merit, and we are glad to have the music of it by your correspondent.—I am, etc.,
                        ALEXANDER M’DIARMID

[to the editor of the “Oban Times.”]
                    Glenetive, 11th June, 1918.

Sir,—In response to my request for information regarding the authorship of the above song which appeared in “Clarsach nan Gaidheal” a few weeks ago, I have received the following interesting note from my friend, Mr Donald Currie, Glasgow:—

I learned his song when a mere boy in Lochaline, and for your information I rejoice to be able to tell you that it is the composition of Alexander Cameron, known to Morvenites as “Alasdair a’ Mhagaister [sic] Sgoil,” son of Samuel Cameron (“Somhairle Sgoileor”), Parish Schoolmaster, Session Clerk, Precentor and Sub-Postmaster. He lived at Kiel, Morven, at the same time of the first Macleods. He is referred to in “Caraid nan Gaidheal’s” works and also in the “Reminiscences of a Highland Parish” by Dr. Norman Macleod, of the Barony, father of Mr J. M. Macleod, M.P. The old schoolmaster is buried in Kiel Churchyard, and a suitably inscribed tombstone marks the spot. His son, the author of the verses in question, was inclined to be of a seafaring disposition, and the name of his vessel was the Roe. The old people, and especially my father, told me many interesting stories regarding his romantic career. I understand he composed many other verses of local connections. I tried a few years ago to collection some of them, but none of the old people alive knew them, so could not make any progress.—I am, etc.
                                    A. C. W.
 

The earliest version of the song to appear in print stems from Archibald Sinclair’s An t-Òranaiche (1879), pp. 97–98:

ORAN MU BHATA ‘CHAIDH DO DH-EIRINN A DH’ IARRAIDH UISGE-BHEATHA; AGUS AIR DO ‘N SGIOBAIR DOL AIR TIR AIR SON UISGE, CHUNNCAS AN Cutter a’ TIGHINN AGUS B’ EIGINN TEICHEADH ’S AN SGIOBAIR ’FHAGAIL.

Mo thruaigh léir thu, ille bhuidhe,
’S ann an diugh tha ’n déigh ort,
Mo thruaigh léir thu, ille bhuidhe!

Chuir sinn croinn ’s a bhàta
Dà là mu ’n d’ fhàg sinn Eirinn.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Chuir sinn na croinn ùr innte,
’S gu ’n d’ fhuair sinn smùid na déigh leinn.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Cutteran a’s gàidsearan,
Ga ’r sàrachadh le chéile.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Fùdar ’s luaidhe Shasunnach
’Toirt farum air a déile.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Bha sinn ’s a’ Chuan-iar leatha,
Mu ’n d’ rinn a’ ghrian ach éirigh.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

’N uair a dh’ at an fhairge,
’S i ’n “Earbag” a bha treubhach.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

An “Earbag” ’s i cho dionach
Ri botal fion a’s céir air.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Seachad Maol na h-Oa,
Gun d’ òl sinn air a chéile.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Dh’ òl sinn slàint’ an sgiobair
Nach robh idir anns an éisdeachd.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Dh’ òl sinn buaidh do’n bhàta
Thug sàbhailt’ sinn á Eirinn.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Bha uisge ’s clacha-meallainn ann,
A’s canvas g’a reubadh.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Seachad Caisteal Duairt leath’,
Gu ’n robh ar turas réidh leinn.
Mo thruaigh, etc.

Bha sinn an Loch-Alainn
Mu ’n d’ rinn ach pàirt dhiubh éirigh,
Mo thruaigh, etc.

The Rev. Alexander Stewart, or Nether Lochaber as he was better known to readers of the Inverness Courier, made the following observation about the song in a his review of Sinclair’s An t-Òranaiche:

The author...of the song on page 97, was Donald Cameron, son of the late Mr Samuel Cameron, parish schoolmaster of Morven. He was owner and skipper of a sloop called the “Roe”―the “Earbag” of the song―when smuggling had not yet entirely ceased, and when revenue cruisers or cutters, as they were termed, still found occasional employment in chasing and capturing, if they could, the light-heeled craft that, in the face of every obstacle, pursued an illicit traffic too profitable and exciting to be either voluntarily abandoned or easily suppressed by force. Cameron was the author of several other little song or “luinneags” that in our boyhood were very popular in Morven and the neighbouring districts.

References:
Alasdair Cameron [North Argyll], ‘Mo Thruaighe ’n ille Bhuidhe’, The Oban Times, no. 3317 (15 June 1918), p. 3
Angus Campbell, ‘Mo Thruaighe Lèir Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe’, SA1957/6/B3 which is available to listen to on Tobar an Dualchais [http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/fullrecord/45710/1]
Colin Fletcher (Torloisk, Mull), ‘Mo Thruaigh Léir Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe’, Tocher, no. 2 (Summer 1971), pp. 67–68
Alexander M’Diarmaid, ‘Mo Thruaidhe ’n ille Bhuidhe’, The Oban Times, no. 3316 (15 June 1918), p. 5
Doiminic Mac Giolla Bhríde & Griogair Labhruidh, Guaillibh a’ Chéile (Dunach Records: DUN1001, 2010)
Gilleasbuig Mac-na-Ceàrdadh, An t-Oranaiche: Comhchruinneachadh de Orain Ghaidhealach, a’ Chuid Mhor Dhiubh a Nis air an Clo air son na Ciad Uaire (Glasgow: Archibald Sinclair, 1879), pp. 97–98
(Rev.) Alexander Stewart [Nether Lochaber], ‘Nether Lochaber Column’, The Inverness Courier, no. 3073 (5 October 1876), p. 2
A. C. Whyte, ‘Clarsach nan Gaidheal: Mo Thruaigh Leis Thu, ’ille Bhuidhe’, The Oban Times, no. 3314 (1 June 1918), p. 5

Illustrations:
Various illustrations of cutters

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