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Monday 31 December 2012

Corporal MacKinnon at New Year

Bunacaimbe beach, Arisaig
The following story is yet another short historical anecdote recorded by Calum Maclean from John MacDonald of Highbridge and transcribed by him on 8 January 1951. Corporal Alasdair MacKinnon (1770–1814) was born at Bunacaimbe in Arisaig. Joining the army in 1794, he served in the 92nd Gordon Highlanders and also in the company raised by Captain Simon MacDonald of Morar. MacKinnon would later compose a lament for his military patron.

After being raised to the rank of corporal, MacKinnon saw action at the Battle of Egmont-op-Zee or Bergen in 1799. Two years later MacKinnon was serving in Egypt when he suffered severe wounds that were nearly fatal during the Battle of Alexandria in 1801. His seemingly lifeless corpse was found on the battlefield and if it were not for the intervention of his good friend, Sergeant MacLean, then being buried alive—however barely—would have been his fate.

MacKinnon was immediately conveyed to a hospital ship and recovered, though not fully, and on arrival back in Britain was discharged from the army with a pension. On eventually recovering from the effects of his wounds, MacKinnon joined the Royal Veteran Battalion some time afterwards at Fort William where he died in 1814 and was buried in “The Craigs” with full military honours.

Although MacKinnon only composed very few Gaelic songs they are nonetheless remarkable for their quality. He composed at least one other great Gaelic song, namely Blàr na h-Òlaind (The Battle of Holland). It seems that battles were the very thing that stirred his poetic imagination.

Judging from the following anecdote it would seem that MacKinnon’s poetic skill was very much to the fore from a very young age and it would also seem he had a taste for whisky:

Bha an Corpolair Mac Fhionghuin cha robh ann ach balach òg, glé òg. Agas rugadh e shìos am Bun na Caime an Àrasaig. Agas chaochail e anns na h-ochd ciad diag agas a ceithir diag. Agas ’n uair a bha e ’na bhalach òg dh’ falabh feadh na dùthcha aig oidhche Bliadhn’ Uire, thainig e chun taigh agas ’s e Taigh na Drochaid a theireadh iad ris. Bha drochaid goirid bhuaidh. Agas ’n uair a bhuail iad aig an dorus, thuirst a’ fear.
“Chan fhaigh aon duine agaibh a staigh gus an gabh sibh ran.”
B’ e sin an dòigh a bh’ ac(hc)a aig a’ Bhliadhn’ Ùr.
“Agas an duine is fhearr a bheir rann seachad, gheibh e làn cuach a Cuach a’ phrionnsa de dh’ uisge-beatha." Agas ’s ann mar seo a bha. Bha an Corpolair mac Fhionghuin air an fhear ma dheireadh a chaidh a staigh chun an doruist.
“Dé th’ agat-sa ri ghràitinn, ’ille?”
“Chan eil móran ach
Raine mi taigh na Drochaid
Is cha b’ e ’m bodach a rinn mi dhùsgadh,
Dh' fhiadhaich e a staigh sinn le fàilte
Gu faigheamaid slàinte a Cuach a’ Phrionnsa.
Is rinn mi ciamhneach' air na h-àrmainn,
Is a liuthad blàr 's an do loisg iad fùdar.”
“’S e sin an rann is fhearr dhiubh. Thig a staigh agas gheibh thu deoch a Cuach a’ Phrionnsa"

This story concerns Corporal MacKinnon who was then a very young lad. He was born down by Bunacaimbe in Arisaig and he died in 1814. And when he was a young lad going about the district on Hogmanay he came to a house which they called Taigh na Drochaid (‘Bridgehouse’). There was a bridge nearby. When they knocked on the door, the man said.
“No one will get in until you sing a verse.”
That was the way of things at Hogmanay.
“The one who gives the best verse will get a full cupful of whisky from the Prince’s Quoich.”
And that was how things turned out.
Corporal MacKinon was the last one to come through the doorway.
“What have you got to say for youself, laddie?”
Only this:
“To Taigh na Drochaid I came
But the old man kept me not awake,
With a welcome he invited us
To toast the Prince’s Quoich
That recalled the warriors
Of many battles who fired gunpowder.”
“That’s the best verse out of all of them. Come in and you’ll get a stoup from the Prince’s Quoich”

SSS NB 7, pp. 602–03

Bunacaimbe  beach, Arisaig / Àrasaig

Sunday 23 December 2012

Slàinte a’ Choigrich – The Stranger’s Toast

The following story was collected from John MacLeod from Glenfinnan by Calum Maclean around the 15 of January 1951. The moral–if indeed it can be described as such–of the story is that niggardliness was  always best avoided and that generosity to a stranger was customary in the Highlands.

Seo agaibh naidheachd a dh’ airich mise aig na seann-daoine. ’S ann ma dhéidhinn fear agas té a bha a’ fuireach ann am bothan àirigh. Agas bho’n is e am na Nollaig’ a bh’ ann, bha corra-dhram a’ dol. Agas bha bean an taighe a’ fàs car sgìth dhe na dramaichean. Thachair a’ latha a bha seo gun dàinig coigreach an rathad.
“O dram mosach!” thuirst a’ bhean. “Is mise a tha sgìth dheth agas gun sònrui’ aig an am seo dhe’n bhliadhna.”
“Och, och,” thuirst an coigreach, “an ann mar seo a tha?”
Agas seo agaibh mar a labhair e:

’S iomadh gloine a dh’ òl mi,
Agas stòp a lìon mi,
Agas tasdan a chur air bòrst,
Bu chòir an diugh a bhith a’ cur riadh dheth.
A nall a’ chuach is lìon gu bàrr.
Is tràighidh sinn i gu h-iochdar,
Air tìr nam beann 's nan gleann 's an fireach,
Far an do chleachd na fir is na mrathan a bhith bàidheil.

And the translation of the above anecdote goes something like this: 

Here’s an anecdote that I heard from the old folk. It’s about a man and a woman who stayed in a sheiling bothy. And because it was Christmas time there were a few drams going around. And the goodwife of the house was getting pretty fed-up with the drams. It so happened that on this particular day a stranger came by the way.
“O vile dram!” said the wife. “I’m getting fed-up with this and especially at this time of year.
“Och, och,” said the stranger, “is that how it is?”
And here’s is what he spoke:
Many a glass I’ve drunk
And many a stoup I’ve filled
With a coin on the table,
This day it shall be paid with interest
Over with the quaich and fill it to the brim
And we’ll drain it to the bottom,
In the land of the hills, the glens and moors,
Where men and women used to be kindly.

In his book The Highlands, Calum Maclean affectionately recalls the narrator of the above anecdote: 

I shall always associate Kinlocheil with someone whom I have never seen, someone I shall never see. During my months in Lochaber I paid many visits to the late John MacLeod, a Fort William newsagent. John was a fine storyteller as well as being one of the very finest of Highland gentlemen. He was passionately devoted to the Gaelic language and Gaelic traditions. We spent many pleasant hours together. John always told me that his brother, Joseph, who was station-master at Kinlocheil, had scores and scores of old songs and other lore as well. The MacLeod brothers were natives of Glenfinnan and knew the whole history of that lovely, fateful glen. Joseph had songs that no living person knows now, songs that had been sung in Glenfinnan long before it ever saw Charles Edward Stuart, the last rightful prince of the Gael. Joseph was a comparatively young man. I left Lochaber in June 1951 and did not succeed in visiting him. I was away for over a year. When I returned Joseph MacLeod was dead. The recording of folk-songs has become quite fashionable in Scotland during the last few years. Certain singers have had their songs recorded by as many as a dozen collectors. All Joseph MacLeod’s songs went with him to the grave. His brother, John, died shortly afterwards. Two authentic Highland voices are now silenced for ever.

Such a scenario was not that uncommon as many of the folk from whom Maclean recorded so much material during the late 1940s and 1950s had passed away by the time his book was published. Perhaps this becomes even more relevant when one remembers that Maclean knew that he was dying of cancer when he was writing his book and it is at moments like these that makes his writing all the more poignant.

SSS NB 8, pp. 763–64
Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhirnis: Club Leabhar, 1975), 30–31

Glass of whisky /  Gloinne uisge-bheatha

Thursday 20 December 2012

The Eagle and Child

Golden Eagle (Iolaire Bhuidhe)
You may have recently seen the YouTube Eagle snacthes kid! AMAZING! hit that is currently doing the rounds about an eagle clutching an infant then dropping it to the ground. Apparently some believe the video footage filmed in a Montreal Park to be a fake. It may well be but there is a story that Calum Maclean recorded from John MacDonald (1876–1964), Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, known locally as John the Bard, on 19 January 1951 which adds credence to the belief that eagles snatched unattended infants and carried them away. The story entitled Iolaire a Thug Leithe Gille / An Eagle Who Took a Lad is situated in Raasay and Skye and the protagonist of the tale was thereafter called Neil of the Eagle. It’s a nice short anecdote and Maclean recorded more than five hundred of these in a matter of months from John MacDonald’s recitation:

Bha iolaire agas thug i leithe gille, pàisde beag (B522.4.), a Eilean Rathasair agas thug i a nunn don Eilean Sgitheanach e. Bha fear ’s an àite agas bha e a’ dol a mharadh na h-Iolaire. Bha e gu h-àrd aig a’ nead aic(hc)e, ’n uair a thigeadh i. Bha i ri móran call air uain agas air rud eile 's an àite. Ach bha e a’ beachdachadh oirre a’ tighinn agas chunnaic e i a’ giulan rud geal.
Ghabh e iongantas glé mhór. Thuirst e ris fhéin:
“Chan e uan a th’ ann.”
Is ’n uair a thàinig i car faisg air, dh’ aithnich i gur h-e uarrag a bh’ ann.
Ach thuirst e:
“’S fhearra dhomh fiachainn oirre. Is fhearr liom i fhéin agas an giullan mharadh na gum bith e air iche aic(hc)e-sa ’n uair a thig i chun a’ nead.”
Agas ’s ann mar seo a rinn e.
Thog e an gunna agas thilig e i agas thàinig i a nuas. Agas cha do bhean spiligean do’n ghiullan. Agas theireadh iad ris an deadhaidh sin Niall na h-Iolaire. Sin an t-ainim a bh’ ac(hc)a air anns an Eilean Sgitheanach. Is dh’ fhàs e ’na duine mór foghainteach. Agas dhèanadh e fhéin gàire ’n uair a rachadh a’ naidheachd innseadh dhà. Agas theireadh e fhéin:
“Is mise Niall na h-Iolaire.” 

And the translation goes something like this: 

There was an eagle and she caught a lad, a little infant (B522.4.), from the Isle of Raasay and she took him over to the Isle of Skye. There was a man in this place and he was going to kill the eagle. He was up at her nest when she would come. She had killed a great deal of lambs as well as creatures in this place. And he watched her as she came and he saw that she was carrying something white.
“That’s not a lamb.”
And when she came quite close to him, he recognised that it was an infant.
And he said:
“I’ll try and shot it. I’d much prefer to kill her and the infant rather than let her eat him when she comes to the nest.
And so this is what he did.
He raised his gun and shot her and she fell down but the child remained completely unharmed. After that they’d call him Neil of the Eagle; that was his name in the Isle of Skye. He grew to be a large, powerful man. He would laugh to himself when the story was told to him and he’d say himself:
“I’m Neil of the Eagle.”

SSS NB 9, pp. 872–73
Eagle snacthes kid! AMAZING!

Golden Eagle (Iolaire Bhuidhe)

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Tom nam Fead: The Knoll of the Whistles

The following story was collected on 22 January 1951 by Calum Maclean from the recitation of Allan MacDonell or MacDonald, then aged around eighty years of age, originally from Bunroy, Brae Lochaber, but latterly staying in Inverlochy, near Fort William. The hill mentioned in this short anecdote may be located near the modern-day British Aluminium factory which is referred to on the modern Ordnance Survey map as An Sìdhean. The story itself is a migratory one and was once fairly common throughout the Highlands and Islands and doubtless elsewhere. This anecdote is based upon a folk etymology for the place-name as it aptly describes that the fairy folk were once believed to have haunted this particular hillock. A more pragmatic explanation for the hillock could be explained by runnels, or underground streams, that when the conditions were right could make whistling or hissing noises just as a babbling brook would do. The alphanumeric code added to the original transcription as well as the translation refers to the Motif Index of Folklore developed initially by an American folklorist, Stith Thompson and a Finnish folklorist, Antti Aarne and improved even further by a German scholar Hans-Jörg Uther. This particular anecdote was transcribed by Calum Maclean as follows:
Tom nan Sìdhchean – an t-ainim cearst a tha air Tom nam Fead. Bha an dithist seo a’ falabh dhachaidh as a' Ghearasdan. Bha pige uisge-bheatha
aig gach fear dhiubh anns a’ bhreac(hc)an air son na Nollaig. Is dar a bha iad a’ dol air adharst air a’ mhonadh:

“Stad,” thuirst e, “dé ’n ceòl a tha siod (F262.)?”
Chunnaic iad gun robh an sìdhean fosgailte (F721.2). Bha ceòl is aighear is dannsa. An darna fear dhiubh chaidh e a staigh. A staigh a chaidh e (F302.3.1.) is chaill a’ fear eile e. Chum e air dhachaidh.
Choimhead e thall is a bhos air son an fhir eile is cha robh e ri fhaic(hc)inn. Chaidh e dhachaidh. Dh’ innis e mar a thachair. Bha iad na aghaidh aig an taigh gun d’ rinn e rud air choir eigin air an duine eile (K2116.). Thàinig a’ chailleach bhuidseachd, bana-choimhearsnach dhà far an robh e. Thuirst i ris (FD1814.1.):
“Théid thu air tòir an uisge-bheatha am bliadhna a rithist.” Théid thu sìos do’n Allt Bhuidhe. Bheir thu gobhlan as a’ chraobh chaorainn (D1385.2.5.). Gheibh thu beagan gaoisid as earaball a’ stallain (F384.3.) a tha sin thall. Fighidh tu a’ ghaoisid air a’ ghobhlan. Dar a bhios sibh a' tilleachd leis an uisge-bheatha bidh an croc(hc) fosgailte, bidh an dorust fosgailte (F211.1.).
Cuiridh tu an gobhlan am bruach^bràigh an doruist agas théid thu a staigh. Abair ris:
"Trobhad, trobhad, a Dhomhnaill." Bi a mach a sin.
Gheibh thu leat dhachaidh e.
’S ann mar seo a bha.
Rinn e na chaidh iarraidh air (F322.5.). Thuirst Domhnall a bha a staigh ri Alasdair, ’n uair a fhuair e a mach:
“Cha robh mi móran mhineidean a staigh.”
“Bha thu bliadhna a staigh (Z72.1.),” thuirst Alasdair.
“Cha d’ airich mi ach mar mhineid na dha e (F377),” thuirst Domhnall.
Tha iad ag ràdha agas bha seann-daoine ag innseadh dhomh-sa gun robh e gu math cinnteach sin.
The correct name for Tom nan Sìdhchean (‘The Knoll of the Fairies’) is Tom nam Fead (‘The Knoll of the Whistles’). Two men were going home from Fort William and both were carrying kegs of whisky for a Christmas celebration in their plaids. And when they had gone some distance over the hill:
“Stop,” he said, “what’s that music (F262.)?”
They saw a fairy knoll open (F721.2.). There was music, heartiness and dancing. The second man entered. In he went and the other man lost sight of him (F302.3.1.). He went on his way home.
He searched high and low for the other man but there was no sign of him. He went home and told what had happened. Those at home suspected that he had done something or another to the other man (K2116.). An old wise woman, a neighbour of his came to him. She said to him (D1814.1.):
“You’ll go in search of the whisky this year again. You’ll go down to Allt Buidhe and you’ll take a forked twig from the mountain ash (D1385.2.5.). Then you’ll get a little hair from the stallion’s tail over there (F384.3.). You’ll then tie the hair to the forked twig. When you return with the whisky, the knoll will be open and the door ajar (F211.1). You’ll put the forked twig in the lintel of the door and you’ll enter. Say to him:
“Come on, come on Donald.” Get out of there and you’ll take him home with you.
And so it turned out.
He did as he was advised to do (F322.5). Donald, who had been in the fairy knoll, said to Alasdair when he got out:
“I was only a few minutes inside.”
“You were in a whole year (Z72.1),” said Alasdair.
“I only felt it as if a minute or two had passed (F337),” said Donald.
They say, and old people used to tell me, that it was actually true. The fairies used to whistle (F262.7) and that’s why it was called Tom nam Fead (‘The Knoll of the Whistles’).

SSS NB 5, pp. 385-87
For more on motifs, see wiki entry:

Fairy piper

F22, Man Goes into Fairy Dwelling and Spends Year or more there Dancing with Cask or Basket on Back

F262. Fairies make music.
F721.2. Habitable hill.
F211.1. Entrance to fairyland through door in knoll.
F302.3.1. Fairy entices man into Fairyland.
D1385.2.2. Ash (quicken, rowan) proof against spells and enchantments.
D1814.1. Advice from magician (fortune-teller, etc.).
D1385.2.5. Ash (quicken, rowan) protects against spells and enchantment.
K2116. Innocent person accused of murder.
F322.5. Rescue from fairyland.
F377. Supernatural lapse of time in fairyland. Years seem days.
F384.3. Iron powerful against fairies.
F262.7. Fairies whistle.
Z72.1. A year and a day.

Friday 14 December 2012

Roadman and Songmaker: John MacDonald of Highbridge

John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, c. 1950s.
Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives.
A twin brother, Roderick, first saw the light of day only a few minutes earlier when John MacGillvantic MacDonald, Highbridge, Lochaber was born at Aonachan on the 15th of October 1876. He died, almost blind, there at the age of eighty-eight in 1964. He was one of a large family of ten, and was survived by his sister Ellen who was also recorded by Dr John MacInnes in 1969. MacDonald was sometime crofter, sometime roadman as well as a songmaker. From the age of thirteen he had worked as a railwayman until his semi-retirement at the age of sixty-five. Thereafter he was employed as a road-mender by Inverness-shire County Council.

In 1951 Maclean’s first fieldwork trip for the newly-established School took him to the heart of the West Highlands to “Lochaber, the wildest and most beautiful part of Scotland. I arrived there in the dead of winter and Lochaber lay white and deep in snow.”

There amid ‘the wild Lochaber snows’ I met little John MacDonald, the Bard…This remarkable man is now seventy-eight years of age…has composed scores of songs. His memory is simply astounding. He seems to know everything that ever took place in Lochaber.

John MacDonald, styled the Bard as well as Iain Beag, belonged to Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, famous for the first skirmish of the ’Forty-five. In a bit more detail in his book The Highlands (1959), Maclean later recalled his first meeting with the Bard:

It was on a cold Sunday morning in January 1951 that I first met little John Macdonald of Highbridge or John the Bard, as he is called. He had just come from Mass in the church at Roy Bridge. That morning he had cycled over eight miles to church through showers of sleet and hail. That was not bad for a man of seventy-five years of age. He wore no overcoat. John Macdonald is a sturdy man somewhat under medium height, but very alert and active. His little grey eyes seemed to pierce right through me as I approached him. I greeted him in Gaelic. On hearing his own language, he immediately shed his reserve and smiled. He was John the bard. He could not remember how many songs he had composed, perhaps a hundred or two…We crouched down behind a wall and he sang the song. It was full of vigour and fire…Of course, he would tell me stories. His father knew everything that ever happened in Lochaber. He would meet me every afternoon…I knew I had met a real character.

Over the next few months, Maclean would record over five hundred separate items of oral material from MacDonald’s recitation alone and with each session the unwritten history of Lochaber would pour out of him. “Everything that ever took place there seems to have left some imprint on his memory.”

Clearly Maclean was greatly impressed with his first ever meeting with John MacDonald. He goes on to describe a typical recording session:

That afternoon John MacDonald did come to see me. It was the first of many afternoons and evenings together. We continued to meet once weekly for a whole five months. Day after day he came and poured out the unwritten history of Lochaber. Everything that ever took place there seems to have left some imprint on his memory. Figures like St. Columba, Robert Bruce, the Red Comyn, Donald Ballach son of the Lord of the Isles, the Earl of Mar vanquished at the first battle of Inverlochy, Montrose and Alasdair, the son of Colla Ciotach, Charles Edward Stuart¾no pretender but the rightful heir to the throne¾and the patriot Dr. Archibald Cameron, brother of Locheil, flitted across the stage with which John the Bard was so familiar.

Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
────, Hebridean Traditions’, Gwerin: Journal of Folk Life, vol. 1, no. 1 (1956), pp. 21–33

John MacDonald of Highbridge, c. 1950s. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives

Wednesday 12 December 2012

The Highlands: Written by a Highlander from the Inside

Front cover of the first edition of The Highlands
by Calum I. Maclean
Due to his untimely death at the age of only forty-four in South Uist, Calum Maclean had but only a few years to write the only book (and for which he is perhaps most famous for) that he would live to see in print and which remains to this very day a classic example of this type of genre.
The first edition of The Highlands appeared in 1959 and was published by Batsford. After the first print run, the publisher, despite the book’s popularity, refused to commission any more copies. The reason behind such a decision was probably due to the fact that the book was seen by them to have been too ‘politic’ and perhaps even too ‘controversial’.
After a hiatus of sixteen years, The Highlands was reprinted by Inverness-based Club Leabhar in 1975 with additional material including a ‘Memoir’ by Seán Ó Súilleabháin, Maclean’s close friend and colleague, together with three poems by John Maclean, Sorley MacLean and John MacLeod. Much of the editorial work for the second edition was carried out by Frank Thompson. The Irish University Press was interested in bringing out the second edition prior to 1975 but, for whatever reason, such a plan never came to fruition.
A third edition of The Highlands appeared in 1990 and was published by Edinburgh-based Mainstream. Cailean Maclean, Maclean’s nephew, supplied the stunning photographic images which makes this edition the most attractive one thus far. A later trade paperback (and fourth edition) was also published by Mainstream but which contained hardly any illustrative material.
The genesis of The Highlands would seem to have been fairly long in the making for Maclean notes in a diary entry for 26 May 1954: “I had some writing to do after lunch. I must try to get some specimen pages of that book for Batsford.” Presumably Maclean has been approached by the publisher to write a book about the Highlands and it would appear that they requested him for some samples of his writing. It is also discernible that Maclean’s style of diary writing was affected by this book commission for his later entries became more discursive and read more as if they were being prepared as a travelogue. Passages from his diaries from around this time onwards were later redrafted and appear sporadically throughout The Highlands.
On its first publication, The Highlands received favourable reviews. One which would have pleased Maclean would have been a review written by John Lorne Campbell, a close friend and colleague:

Mr Maclean has the advantage not only of being a native Gaelic-speaker but of having acquired…an international background and approach to his subject, an approach that is sadly lacking in most of the “experts” who have written about the Highlands and their problems during the past generation. This enables him to describe the oral traditions and the folklore of the Highlands in their true setting, as par to the Indo-European tradition. The great importance and interest of Gaelic Scotland from this point of view lie in the fact that it has preserved a vast corpus of ancient tales, traditions, and folk music that has largely perished in other European countries west of the Balkans, apart from Ireland. Mr. Maclean is able to convey to his readers vividly the wealth of oral literature and folksong that is still to be found in the Highlands in the crofter’s cottage and the tinker’s tent, a heritage which, to the everlasting disgrace of the so-called civilized parts of Scotland, was entirely ignored by official Scottish academic circles before the School of Scottish Studies was founded in 1951, and thereby allowed to drift to the brink of oblivion.
A fifth (and hopefully!) definitive edition of The Highlands is currently in preparation which will also include a representative sample of Maclean’s other popular and academic writings. This should have at least one benefit in that since the appearance of the second edition The Highlands will not have been out of print, a reflection of its enduring appeal and, of course, Maclean’s unique and valuable insight into his own native Gaelic culture which had been denigrated for many generations.

Reference: Campbell, John Lorne, ‘Gaelic Lore [Review of Calum I. Maclean’s The Highlands]’, The Times Literary Supplement, no. 2982 (24 Apr., 1959), 243
Front cover of the first edition of The Highlands

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Counting the Fairies

John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber.
Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives.
The following story was collected from John MacDonald (1876–1964), known locally as Iain am Bàrd or Iain Beag from Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, and was transcribed on 18 February 1951, shortly after being recorded. From his diary entry of that day, it may be assumed that after Maclean had earlier met John MacDonald, he probably went back to his lodgings and continued with transcribing until he travelled the short distance from Spean Bridge to Highbridge to fetch his informant:

Chaidh mi dha’n Aifreann tràth anns a’ mhaduinn an diugh. An déidh dhomh tighinn dachaidh thug mi greis a’ sgrìobhadh gus an robh am dinnearach ann. An uair sin chaidh mi a mach agas thachair Iain Mac Dhomhnaill, am Bàrd, rium. Chan fhaca mi e an diugh idir agas bha mi air son gun tigeadh e a nall e dh’ innseadh sgeulachdan domh. Thuirt e gun tigeadh e aig ceithir uairean feasgar. Chaidh mi a null g’a iarraidh agas thug mi liom a nall e a dh’ ionnsaigh an taighe. Bha latha mór againn an diugh cuideachd le naidheachdan agas thug e grunn mór dhiubh dhomh. Bha e comhla rium gus an robh e mu naoi uairean a’s t-oidhche.

I went to Mass early this morning. After I came home I spent a while writing until dinner time. I then went out and happened to meet John MacDonald, the Bard. I hadn’t seen him at all today and I wanted him to come over to tell me stories. He said that he would come at four o’clock this afternoon. I went over to fetch him then and I took him over to the house. We had another great day today with regard to [recording] anecdotes and he gave me a great many of them. He was in my company until around nine o’clock at night.

Indeed, the very first recordings that Maclean made in 1951 for the School of Scottish Studies included no less than five hundred and twenty-four Gaelic tales (mainly short, pithy items that were part of the local seanchas or historical lore) from this roadman, encountered as Maclean wrote, “in the dead of winter, and Lochaber lay white and deep in snow.” The title of this particular narrative item is Fear a chunntais na sìdhchean – ‘The man who counted the fairies’:

Bha an sluagh anns an dùthaich seo air an cuideachadh gu math tri(ch)c leis na sìdhchean (F346). Tha àite anns an dùthaich seo ris an abair iad an Ràth, thall am Bracleitir. Agas bha duine a’ fuireach ann ris an abradh iad Ailean Mór an Ràth agas iomadh duine air thoiseach air an ãm aig Ailean Mór an Ràth. Agas bha fear a’ dol seachad aig Geàrrlochaidh, dìreach mu choinneamh an Ràth: tha iad glé theann air a chéile, ach gu bheil an abhainn a’ ruith sìos eatorra, Abhainn Spèan. Bha oidhche bhriagha ghealach ann. Agas gu dé b’ iongnadh leis ach an t-àite làn sìdhchean a’ ruith air ais ’s air adharst ag obair air an ara(bh)ar. Agas ’s ann dar a rachadh càch mu thàmh air an oidhche, ’s ann a bha à-san a’ tighinn a mach a dh’ obair (F455.6.8.1). Agas thuirst e ris fhéi’:
“Chuala mi iomaradh riamh air nan cunntadh tu na sìdhchean nach fhai(ch)ceadh tu tuillidh iad (F381). Nach fhiach mi sin a dhèanadh,” thuirst ris fhéi’.
Shuidh e agas bha e ’gan cunntas. Agas b’e sin an obair. Bha iad cho colta’ ri chéile a chuile h-aon dhiubh a’ ruith air ais ’s air adharst. Is thuirst e:
“Is iomadh cunntas a rinn mi riamh air meanbh-chruidh ’s air crodh, air spréidh agas an iomadh àite, ach bheat seo na thachair riamh oram.”
Chum e air cunntas gus an dàinig e a dh’ ionnsaigh ciad gu leith.
“Ma ta, chan ’eil mi ro-chinnteach a bheil iad agam uile. Ach ’s e an t-aon rud a chuala mi: nam bitheadh iad air an cunntas cearst, nach bitheadh iad ri fhai(ch)cinn tuillidh.”
Agas chum e air a thuras. Dar a thàinig a’ sluagh a mach ’s a’ mhaduinn, b’ iongnadh leotha a chuile sguab de’n ara(bh)ar cho seasgair, tioram air a chur air dòigh agas air a thughadh. Agas thug iad taing seachad: na bu có a rinn e, gur h-iad an sgioba a bha tapaidh. Agas cha deach na sìdhchean fhai(ch)cinn tuillidh. Agas feumaidh a’ fear a chunnt iad, gun robh iad air an cunntas cearst. Mar a tha a’ fa(ch)cal ag ràdha: ‘Ma chunntas e a dh’ ionnsaigh a h-aon iad, chan fhai(ch)c thu a h-aon dhiubh tuillidh.’
Maclean also rendered a close translation of the above tale into English:

The folk in this country were often helped by the fairies. There is a place in this district which they call the Ràth, over in Brackletter. And there was a man living there whom they called Big Allan of the Ràth, and many other people lived there before the time of Big Allan of the Ràth. And a certain man was passing by Gearrlochy, over opposite the Ràth; the two places are very close to one another except that the river runs down between them, the Spean river. It was a fine, moonlit night, and to his amazement the place was full of fairies who ran hither and thither as they harvested the corn (F455.6.8.1). And it was when other people went to rest at night that they came out to work (F348.8). And he said to himself:

“I have always heard it said that, if you counted the fairies (F381), you would not see them again. Should I not try to do that,” said he to himself.

He sat down and counted them. And that was some job. They were all so alike running to and fro. And he said:

“I have made many reckonings of sheep and of cattle, of herds, and I did so in many places but this has surpassed anything that I have ever come across.”

He continued counting until he came to a hundred and fifty.

“Indeed, I am not sure that I have them all, but the one thing I did hear is that, if they are counted properly, they would not be seen again.”

And he continued on his journey. When the folk came out in the morning, they were amazed to find every sheaf safe and dry, stacked and thatched. And they expressed their thanks: whoever did it, it was done by an agile team. And the fairies were not seen again. And it must have been the person who counted them did count them properly. As the saying has it, “If he counts them to the exact figure, you will not see one of them again.”

This story would seem to be migratory and was probably quite a common tale to be heard throughout the Highlands and Islands and doubtless in other places where fairy lore was to be found. 

Calum I. Maclean, ‘Fairy Stories from Lochaber’, Scottish Studies, vol. 4 (1960), pp. 84–95
────, Hebridean Traditions’, Gwerin: Journal of Folk Life, vol. 1, no. 1 (1956), pp. 21–33

John MacDonald of Highbridge, 1950s. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives

Tuesday 4 December 2012

The Calum Maclean Project Follow-on Phase

Calum Maclean. Courtesy of the School
of Scottish Studies Archive.
Thanks to a recently awarded Follow-on grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the department of Celtic and Scottish Studies is delighted to announce that the Calum Maclean Project is able to commence for a further year. Over this period a number of exciting developments will take place:
·        A 2 CD set compilation of instrumental music and song collected by Maclean will be jointly produced with Greentrax, a leading publisher of Scottish folk music;

·        A website refurbishment with enhanced online resources including an archive gallery of tradition bearers and places; a detailed itinerary of Maclean’s fieldwork trips; and the BBC thirteen-part radio series Fear Beag a’ Chridhe Mhòir [The Little One of the Big Heart];

·        A one-day international conference with a concert;

·        A series of academic and popular publications;

·       A number of capsule biographies of Maclean’s most important informants and close associates;

·        A series of popular lectures;

·       An exhibition about Maclean’s life and legacy during the TradFest festival to take place in April and May 2013 at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh.
The primary aim of this phase of the Calum Maclean Project is to publicise the dataset concluded in 2009 and developed by the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with University College Dublin of transcribed oral materials collected by Maclean during a fourteen year period mainly, but not exclusively, in the Southern Hebrides. We will provide regular updates through social media so keep watching this space.