Total Pageviews

Thursday 12 December 2013

A Great Gael: A Review of Calum Maclean’s The Highlands

Some sixteen years passed by before Calum Maclean’s book The Highlands, first printed in 1959, was republished by Club Leabhar in 1975. The following is a review by John MacLellan that appeared in The Scots Magazine. MacLellan in his favourable review remembers reading the book on its first appearance and is of the opinion (shared by many) that some memorable passages left a lasting impression:

It speaks volumes for a writer’s integrity, for the sincerity of his belief in what he is saying, when the very words and images he uses to express himself, remain indelibly engraved upon the reader’s mind. For me, the late Calum I. Maclean triumphantly passes this test. For, although it’s seventeen years since I first read The Highlands, his loving portrait of his native Gaeldom, there are scenes in it, and comments and judgements, which I have never forgotten, simply because they are so positive and so patently consistent with the man’s own identity and with his convictions. When the book first came out in 1959, the cultural heritage of the Gaelic was in even a more parlous state than it is now, for many of its last custodians were nearing the end of their days. I suppose that most of those grand story tellers, who passed their treasures on by word of mouth to Calum Maclean are now gone beyond recall, but, thanks to them and thanks to him, much that must have been lost for ever has been rescued, literally from the grave, and preserved for posterity.
Now the book has been reprinted by the Club Leabhar, the Highland Book Club, with financial support from the Royal Celtic Society, Edinburgh, as an elegant memorial to a gifted and gallant Highlander and an acknowledgement of the legacy he left to future generations of his race.
What of those impressions of Calum Maclean’s work which have stuck in my own mind since I first read them only a few months before his tragic and premature death? One example of his fearlessness in stating the truth, as he saw it, occurs in his description of the gentry at the Argyllshire Gathering: “A special covered enclosure is reserved for ‘members,’ namely county families and their friends, and the general public is not admitted. The stand is usually full of sophisticated, painted, and ungainly women with their husbands masquerading in their kilts and plaids and their young sons, home on vacation from school in England, replete with impeccable non-Scottish accents and kilts and shepherds’ crooks twice their own size.” And later Maclean chanced to be in the cocktail bar of a large Oban hotel when a party of county folk arrived on their way to one of the Highland Balls, “for the exclusive enjoyment of the ‘quality’.” “I had,” he wrote, “the rare the rare opportunity of scrutinising them at close range, and what struck me most was how utterly English they were both in mannerisms and speech. The sober truth is that there is no longer any Scottish or Highland aristocracy and there has not been for a very long time.”
I have never forgotten this passage because it goes to the very heard of Gaeldom’s tragedy. The process of alienation between clansmen and chief, after Culloden, inseparable from the Anglicization on the Highland gentry, led inevitably to the virtual persecution of much of the race, and the vitiation of its ancient language and culture. Calum Maclean carried the sorrow of this betrayal in his heart, and made the cause of rescuing what he still could of that martyred heritage, his mission during the last nine years of his short life.
The charm of the man shines through these pages as he pursues his odyssey through the historic territories of the clans—Lochaber, Morar, Arisaig, Moidart, Ardgour, Ardnamurchan, Morvern, Badenoch and the rest—names dear to Highland hearts, which no reforming bureaucrat can ever hope to extinguish. The book is the story of his travels in these places and stories they passed on to him. As he put it himself: “I have to find living people whose memories were not dead.” At the time Calum—who had been employed by the Irish Folklore Commission—was on loan to the School of Scottish Studies, and a colleague has estimated that during the period covered by the book, he used nearly 100 miles of tape, collecting his material, even then warning that this was “far from being enough.”
It is immensely sad that Calum Maclean was not spared to carry on his task, but Gaeldom owes him an everlasting debt for what he did accomplish in a life which must be an inspiration to all who believe, as he did, that Highland culture is a unique and priceless possession which civilization cannot afford to lose. The new edition is enriched by an affectionate memoir by Sean O’ Suilleabhain of the Irish Folklore Commission and by poems in Gaelic and English by John Macleod and by Calum’s two brothers, the late John Maclean and Dr Sorley Maclean.

Sorley Maclean, writing to the late Frank Thomson, who had assisted with the new edition, on the 19th of December 1975, thanked him for all his help and also for the two copies that he had sent to him:

Dear Frank,

The two books arrived yesterday, and they certainly look well. I am very pleased indeed with them, and so I daresay all our family will be. You have done a great job. What a pity you did not get the job when you first asked me. Still, it is good to get it done now, and I do hope it will be as much of a success financially as it is aesthetically.
I wonder if you have sent a copy to Sean O’ Suilleabhain; if not, tell me and I will do it myself. Meanwhile my great gratitude to you and all the very best.

Le deagh dhùrachd agus mìle taing, agus bliadhna mhath ùr.

Somhairle MacGill-Eain

Club Leabhar Ltd., Acc. 12149/9, National Library of Scotland
Calum Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhirnis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
John MacLellan, ‘A Great Gael’ [Review of The Highlands], The Scots Magazine, vol. 104, no. 6 (March, 1976), pp. 645–46

Front cover of the second edition of The Highlands (1975)

Thursday 5 December 2013

A Charming Start

Even in his teenage years Calum Maclean took an active interest in oral traditions such as stories, songs, historical legends and so on. This is hardly surprising given that his own family and relations were steeped in tradition and were particularly strong in respect of singing and piping. As a sixth year pupil in 1935, Maclean published in Portree Secondary School Magazine the following charm:

In these days when so many old customs are fast sinking into oblivion, it may be of interest to know that there are still a few who adhere to the ways of tradition. It may be a surprise to some, that even yet there are those who can dispense with the services of a doctor or veterinary surgeon. Some yet remain who have implicit faith in the modes of healing employed by their fore-fathers a century or more ago, and remember their charms and exorcisms, and are able to apply them when occasion arises. For practically all ailments the people of the glens had charms; there was a charm for jaundice, the charm for toothache, the charm for a bursting vein, the charm for a sprain, and various charms for counteracting the evil eye.

All the charms were simple, and in them the distressed people invoked the help of the Triune of grace, or the help of Columba or of Bride, the aid-woman of Christ, or even of the mother, Mary. The charms were of no avail unless there was implicit faith in them. The person who applied the charm had to believe that it would produce the desired result; it was the same in the case of the patient. The failure of a charm to prove effective was always attributed to lack of faith.

As recently as last year a Skye doctor was surprised to find round the wrist of a patient suffering from a sprain a string knotted in three places. On enquiring what it meant, the patient replied that a certain person had applied the charm for sprain, “Eòlas air sniamh.” Thus did a skilled technician, trained in one of the most efficient institutions in the country, find that the traditional modes of healing were still adhered to, and were competing in some places with modern surgery.

The charm for sprain, because of the ailment it treated, was one of the most common charms in practice, and in consequence was among the most familiar. Like all other runes and incantations of antiquity, it had different versions, each district having its own particular version. In “Carmina Gadelica” there appear three versions of “Eòlas air sniamh.” The first version, which is a short one, was collected in Benbecula; the second, which is also short, was collected in Lewis; and the third, which is perhaps the best of the three, comes from Arisaig. The Skye version, which we shall give later, bears close resemblance to the Arisaig version than to either of the other two.

The version which appears here was taken down from the dictation of one belonging to a type that is fast disappearing from our midst. He is a person endowed with a retentive memory and an excellent command of his native tongue; and, moreover, has a strong individuality which has enabled him to withstand those whom intolerant bigotry and scrupulous Calvinism deprived of all their interest in folk-lore. In his youth he was taught many charms, but many of these he has forgotten through lack of practice. The charm for sprain he had on several occasions practised, and in most cases with success. His trust in it has never wavered, and he can relate several instances of the charm proving efficacious. He it was indeed who had pitted his skill against that of the doctor—the incident to which we have already referred.

At first we could not induce him to tell the charm, for regarding it there was a law that it could only be told by a man to a woman, or by a woman to a man; any transgression of this rule meant that the charm was no longer efficacious as far as the transgressors were concerned. A woman who revealed the charm to another woman could not longer practise it, neither could a man who revealed it to another man. The version below was obtained only after the three versions in “Carmina Gadelica” were recited to assure the exorcist that the charm would lose its efficacy.
The “Eòlas air sniamh” was applied in cases of sprain, or even of fractured arms or legs. A piece of string or a thin strip of cloth was procured. This string or cloth was knotted in three places, the three knots being symbolic of the Trinity. Each knot on being tied was spat on three times. While this was going on, the following was repeated in an undertone, there being a pause whenever the knots were being spat on:—

Chaidh Criosd a mach
Air maduinn mhoch
Chaidh e sios do’ n loch
Fhuair e na h-eich ‘s a’ ghart
Is an cnamhan briste mu seach
Chuir e cnaimh ri cnaimh
Chuir e smuais ri smuais
Chuir e feidh ri feidh
Chuir e fuil ri fuil
Chuir e feoil ri feoil
Chuir e seiche ri seiche
Mar a leighis Criosda sin
Is comasach e air leigheas so.

Christ went out
On a morning early,
He went down to the loch,
He found the horses in the corn
With their bones broken apart,
He put bone to bone,
He put marrow to marrow,
He put sinew to sinew,
He put blood to blood,
He put flesh to flesh,
He put hide to hide,
As Christ healed that,
Able is He to heal this.

As the exorcist placed the symbolical string on the injured limb, he said: “Tha mi ag cur so an ainm Tri-aon nan gràs, an athair, am Mac is an Spiorad Naomh”─“I place this in the name of the Triune of grace, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

It is uncertain from whom Maclean collected this fairly common charm but it may have been from from Donald MacCallum in Portree. Maclean later noted that the first story that he ever recorded was in 1935 from this man and it would be reasonable to guess that he may have collected the above charm as well.

One does not have to search far or wide for this fairly common charm, as Maclean stated in his short article, for many other versions were collected not many years before by Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912), and can be found in his great if controversial compendium of Gaelic lore entitled Carmina Gadelica (1900). The charm collected by Carmichael is entitled ‘Eòlas an t-Sniamh’ / ‘Charm for Sprain’ and the similarities between them can be readily seen:

CHAIDH Criosd a mach
Maduinn moch,
Fhuair e cas nan each
’Nan spruilleach bog;
Chuir e smior ri smior,
Chuir e smuais ri smuais,
Chuir e cnaimh ri cnaimh,
Chuir e streabhon ri streabhon,
Chuir e feith ri feith,
Chuir e fuil ri fuil,
Chuir e creais ri creais,
Chuir e feoil ri feoil,
Chuir e saill ri saill,
Chuir e craicionn ri craicionn,
Chuir e flonn ri flonn,
Chuir e blath ri blath,
Chuir e fuar ri fuar;
Mar a leighis Righ nam buadh sin
Is dual gun leighis e seo,
Ma ’s e thoil fein a dheanamh.
      A uchd Ti nan dul,
      Agus Tiur na Trianaid.

CHRIST went out
In the morning early,
He found the legs of the horses
In fragments soft;
He put marrow to marrow,
He put pith to pith,
He put bone to bone,
He put membrane to membrane,
He put tendon to tendon,
He put blood to blood,
He put tallow to tallow,
He put flesh to flesh,
He put fat to fat,
He put skin to skin,
He put hair to hair,
He put warm to warm,
He put cool to cool,
As the King of power healed that
It is in His nature to heal this,
If it be His own will to do it.
      Through the bosom of the Being of life,
      And of the Three of the Trinity.

According to Carmichael, the above charm was collected from Mary MacDonald, a shepherd’s wife, from Caim, Arisaig.

Although Maclean would later collect more charms they were not as plentiful as they had been when Carmichael had been posted to Uist as an exciseman. Doubtless if Maclean’s initial remit had been broader than romantic stories then he may well have collected more charms than he actually did.

Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & A. Constable, 1900)
C. McL (VI.) [Calum Maclean], ‘A Practice of Old Gaeldom’, Portree Secondary School Magazine, no. 2 (June 1935), pp. 9–10

Image used by Carmichael to illustrate the charm ‘Eòlas an t-Sniamh’ / ‘Charm for Sprain’ in Carmina Gadelica, vol. 2, p. 20

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Alba ag Gul / Scotland’s Wailing

If Calum Maclean were alive today then he would have been very pleased to see the publication of the White Paper on Scotland’s independence. Maclean’s political views were pretty well formed by his early teens and throughout the years did not change one iota. The National Party of Scotland – one of the forerunners of the Scottish National Party – had been formed four years previously in 1928. The following is a poem entitled ‘Alba ag Gul’ that he published in Portree Secondary School Magazine in 1935 when he was in sixth form:

Alba ag Gul
Albainn ionmhuinn, tìr nam beann,
Tìr nan laoch bu deas le lann,
Tìr thug buaidh an iomadh blàr,
Ged leagt’ an diugh a ceann gu làr,
Albainn àrsaidh, tìr nan cliar,
Mo sgeul, mo chreach i bhi cho fior,
Gu bheil gach beann is gleann ’dol fàs
 ’S an sluagh a bh’ ann a’ dol gu bàs.

Fàs tha gach sliabh ’s an cinneadh pòr,
Fàs tha gach àit’ ’s an cluinnte ceòl,
Is sàmhach ealaidh-ghuth nam bard,
Balbh tha ceòlraidh bheanntan àrd.
Chan ’eil a’ fuireach anns na glinn
An sliochd aig an robh ’Ghàidhlig bhinn,
Lom fuar gach eilean siar a nis,
’S tha guth a’ chuain gun éisdeachd ris.

Bha uair a chualas pìob nan dos
’Ga spreigeadh measg nam beanntan cos;
Bha uair ’s am facas mile lann
’Gan rùsgadh am feadh shrath is ghleann.
Is lionmhor fiùran thuit gu bàs
Ri bhi ’gad dhion an ám do chàs;
Thu ’n diugh gun uaill, gun trèoir, gun chlì,
Mo chreadh! Gur dìomhain bha an strì.

Cuimhnich gum facas siol nan sonn
Ri bhi ’gam fògradh thar nan tonn,
Le foil gu ’n d’ thug iad o do chlann
Na criochan dhion iad riamh le lann.
Bhuidhinn Goill Shasuinn oirnn ’s gach ball,
Na balgairean ’s iad rinn ar call,
Ach nan robh sinn dian gach aon,
Chaisgeamaid iad a tha ’gar claon’.

Chan leinn an saoibhreas againn fhìn,
Cha leinn an stiùir ni cùrs’ ar tìr,
Fann tha ‘n fhuil bha craobhach dearg
Gann tha am pòr bha cròdha garg,
Dh’ fhalbh an sliochd gasda gaisgeil cruaidh,
’S an t-strì ’n còmhnuidh bheireadh buaidh;
Thréig sluagh na h Albann, glòir nam bean,
Mo nuar! cainnt Shasuinn bhi ‘n an ceann.

Albainn ionmhuinn, tìr nam beann,
Car son a thréig thu nis do chlann?
Thoirt daibh am misneachd is an cruas
Bha annt’ an ám bhi ‘g éirigh suas;
Biodh cuimhn’ air cliù nan saoi a dh’ fhalbh,
’S na biodh do cheòlraidh ’n còmhnuidh balbh;
Eireadh iad ’n na biodh iad mall
Gu’n caisg iad mi-rùn mór nan Gall.

And the (rather rough) translation goes something like this:

Scotland Wailing

O beloved Scotland, land of mountains,
Land of heroes who skilfully handled swords,
Land who won many a battle,
Although today her head has dropped to the floor,
O ancient Scotland, land of poets,
My tale, my ruination that it still remains true,
That each hill and glen is being emptied
And the folk there are going to die out.

Destitute each hill and all the folk,
Destitute each place where music was once heard,
And the bards’ elegant voices are now silenced,
The muse of the high hills is all but silent.
No one now stays in any of the glens
Where the folk spoke mellifluous Gaelic,
Each of the islands to the west is denuded and cold
With no one there to listen to the ocean’s roar.

At one time the skirl of pipes could be heard,
Resounding in the hollows of hills;
At one time a thousand swords could be seen
Being unsheathed amongst the straths and glens.
Many a hero has been slain in battle
Trying to protect you in the time of need,
That nowadays is bereft of pride, power or strength
Alas and alack! the struggle lacked purpose.

Remember the seed of the heroes was once seen
Who have been sent into exile over the waves,
By treachery they have taken from your children
The borders that always they defended with swords.
The English foreigners came upon us and each one
Of those rogues have ruined us,
But if each one of us had been defending
Then we would have put a stop to the rot.

We have no possession of our own wealth
We have no control of our destiny in our own country,
Weak is the blood that once flowed red
Few are the folk valiant and tough.
The tribe who were fine, heroic and hardy are gone
Who in the struggle would always secure victory;
The people of Scotland are vanquished, glory of the hills,
Woe is me! that they speak the English tongue.

O beloved Scotland, land of mountains
Why forsake your children now?
Give them courage and hardiness
They once had in order to rise again;
Let them remember the fame of past warriors
And do not let your muse be forever silenced;
Let them rise and do not let them tarry
To put an end to the great ill-will of the Lowlander.

It is a rather intriguing to speculate what type of poetry Calum Maclean would have composed if he had kept at it. Certainly this rather youthful piece shows great potential. As an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, Maclean was politically active and he took every opportunity, it seems, to vent his feelings about Scottish nationalism. He even had the temerity to publically reproach Sir Thomas Holland (1868–1947), elected Principal of the University in 1929, who, in Maclean’s opinion, personified all that was wrong with Scotland at that time. 

Later, as an exile in Ireland between 1939 and 1946, Maclean even came under the suspicion of the G2, the Irish Secret Police working as part of the Irish Army’s Intelligence Section, which had opened up a file on him. Some, if not all, of the letters received by Sorley from Calum Iain were marked ‘opened by the examiner’ and it is probably inconceivable that word did not reach back to him in Clonmel that his correspondence and, he himself by implication, was under surveillance:

Material was gathered on the potential threats posed by other Scots in Ireland at the time. Colm MacClean [sic] was working at Clonmel Industries when he became of interest to G2. He was known as a Scottish nationalist, although again not a member of the SNP, but of the ‘younger University Scot[tish] Gaelic group’. A native of ‘one of the islands and’ fluent in Gaelic, MacClean appeared in Ireland in 1939 ‘principally to avoid conscription’, according to G2’s informant. Although this informant ‘never heard him discuss any subjects of interest to us’ and he expressed no affiliation as far as Irish politics were concerned, MacClean appears to have been monitored owing simply to his connections and a presumption that he was ‘as “Nationalist” as this country would care [him] to be’.

Despite what is contained in Maclean’s file, it still remains rather inexplicable why G2 had become suspicious of him in the first instance unless, of course, it was due to the ‘suspicious’ connections that he maintained. One wonders who the informant might have been and why Maclean, despite his Scottish nationalist leanings, should have been suspected personally of any political subterfuge. But it must be remembered that G2’s ‘paranoia’ with regard to resident nationalists was not without some justification:

The manager at Clonmel Industries was Seamus Horan, himself suspected of IRA affiliations, somewhat assuaged by his reported conversion to Fianna Fáil. By 1944 MacClean was also known to be friendly with members of the local branch of Ailtirí na hAiséirí (Architects of the Resurrection), but his level of interest in that fascistic, pro-German organisation was unknown. To complete the array of potential threats, MacClean’s brother, a poet, was known to be ‘an avowed Communist.’

Apparently, G2 continued to keep tabs on Maclean when he was still resident in Clonmel but with the war drawing to a close and as the perceived threat lessened of any likelihood of any Scottish nationalists becoming embroiled or interfering in Irish politics, then circumstances would prevail whereby other more likely targets would merit their attention with regard to national security: 

‘Actively in touch with the Scottish Nationalist movement’, G2 further noted that MacClean, born into a Presbyterian family ‘of the extreme conservative type’, had converted to Catholicism since his arrival. This confessional choice would itself have marginalised him from mainstream Scottish nationalism. Even so, MacClean was moved to remark to G2’s informant in March 1943 that ‘things were going well in Scotland’; probably a reference to the reinvigoration of the SNP under Douglas Young.

Daniel Leach, Fugitive Ireland: European Minority Nationalists and Irish Political Asylum, 1937–2008 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009)
Calum Maclean, ‘Alba ag Gul’, Portree Secondary School Magazine (1935), p. 10
Report Colm MacClean [sic], G2/4996, I[rish] M[ilitary] A[rchives], Dublin. Military Intelligence (G2)
Andrew Wiseman, ‘‘‘The people never seem to lose their charm’: Calum Iain Maclean in Clonmel’, Tipperary Historical Journal (2012), pp. 112–32

Calum I. Maclean graduating on 30 June 1939, University of Edinburgh. Courtesy of the MacLean family