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Thursday 28 February 2013

Stonemason and Storyteller: Duncan MacDonald

Invited to an international folklore conference held, in October 1953, in the Hebridean town of Stornoway, Duncan MacDonald held an audience captive throughout the duration of his telling of an heroic Gaelic tale called Fear na h-Eabaid (‘The Man of the Habit’). Those in attendance who were fortunate enough not only to have been present at such an event but also to have a copy of the transcribed tale to hand (published a short time previously), and those who had a reading knowledge of Scottish Gaelic, must have followed the storyteller with a mixture of awe and astonishment as he recited this long tale almost word for word. By anybody’s standard, this was not only an amazing performance but also a remarkable feat of memory.
The then thirty-one year old renowned folklorist Calum Maclean (1915–1960) first met Duncan MacDonald (1882–1954), styled Donnchadh mac Dhòmhnaill ’ic Dhonnchaidh, on an auspicious spring day in 1947. MacDonald was born in the crofting township of Snishival, South Uist, but moved at an early age to nearby Peninerine. Like his father, MacDonald became a highly skilled stonemason and a great many of the homesteads, which he built, can still be seen to this very day all over South Uist. But it was his storytelling that was to leave a more profound if intangible legacy for MacDonald excelled in this fine art.
It didn’t take long for Maclean to know that he had struck gold for he soon recognised that MacDonald’s ability as a teller of tales was exceptional. Maclean was later to acknowledge MacDonald’s talent thus:
Duncan as a storyteller was the equal of Patrick Òg MacCrimmon as a piper. Everything that he recited was polished, shapely and elegant. Duncan’s Gaelic was most eloquent and fluent: the best I have ever heard. Everything he recited was given both weight and due consideration.
Maclean was not only struck by MacDonald’s eloquence but also by the sheer depth and richness of his perfected art of storytelling:
Duncan’s interest lay more in a story’s shape and form, and also in the splendour and depth of rhetorical language as deep, hard Gaelic flowed from him like grace notes played upon a silver chanter.

Perhaps more importantly was the social aspect for Maclean reckoned that MacDonald’s storytelling was “an art that delighted not only learned audiences but also his humbler fellow-islanders at the firesides in South Uist.”
Maclean, however, was not the only one to have recorded material from MacDonald for others including John Lorne Campbell (1906–1996) and Kirkland Cameron Craig (d. 1963) came knocking at his door. In 1944, Craig transcribed and published half-a-dozen of MacDonald’s best stories, representing but only a fraction of his extensive repertoire. Without even nearly exhausting the material that MacDonald’s retentive mind had to offer, Maclean himself recorded and transcribed well over a hundred items from his recitation.
MacDonald’s family background – given in his life-story also taken down by Maclean – reveals an enviable and heady genealogical mix. A patronymic stretching back several generations throws up a poetic connection: Donnchadh mac Dhòmhnaill ’ic Dhonnchaidh ’ic Iain ’ic Dhòmhnaill ’ic Tharmaid Duncan the son of Donald the son of Duncan the son of Iain the son of Donald the son of Norman, a descendant to the MacRury family of hereditary bards at Duntulm in Trotternish to the MacDonalds of Sleat in the Isle of Skye.

His father, Donald MacDonald (1843–1919), from whom Duncan and his shyer but no less talented younger brother Neil (1884–1955) learnt most of their lore, was also a renowned storyteller in his own right, and his mother, Margaret MacIntyre (1880–1952), was a celebrated singer and had a remarkable repertoire of songs. Her younger brother, and thus MacDonald’s brother-in-law, was a noted Gaelic bard and piper, Donald MacIntyre (1889–1964), styled Dòmhnall Ruadh Phàislig. This network of tradition bearers does not stop there either for K. C. Craig also published a collection of waulking songs entitled Òrain Luaidh Màiri Nighean Alasdair in 1949, recorded from Mary MacDonald (1867–1954), Duncan’s first cousin.
Little wonder then that with talent such as this burgeoning in the family background that Duncan MacDonald would not only go on to carry the tradition into the twentieth century but would also come be known as a highly-regarded exponent of storytelling. After a hiatus of forty years, MacDonald returned to Glasgow in 1949 at the behest of Calum Maclean and David Thompson to record one of his stories to be broadcast on the BBC’s Third Programme. Indeed, MacDonald had the distinction of being the very first storyteller to have been broadcast on this particular programme. MacDonald later told Maclean of what he thought of this experience:
I spent a fortnight away on that trip and I enjoyed it terribly well. I was going to see the people I knew while I was there as well … When I returned home, a week after that, I heard myself on the wireless but could scarcely recognise that it was me at all … I didn’t recognise my own voice at all and since then I’ve been once or twice on the wireless and … I’ve got to know it very well since then of how these things actually work.

Calum MacGhill’Eathain, ‘Aonghus agus Donnchadh’, Gairm, air. 10 (An Geamhradh, 1950), tdd. 170–74
Duncan MacDonald. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives. This image was captured by Dr Werner Kissling in the early 1950s.

Monday 25 February 2013

When Hamish Henderson Met Calum Maclean

The first entry for Canna in Maclean’s diary is dated 1st of December 1945, and a few weeks later, on the 14th of January, he was to meet Hamish Henderson (1919–2002), also visiting Canna House at the behest of John Lorne Campbell, for the first time. Henderson in his tribute that he later paid to Maclean sets the scene: 
I had the privilege of meeting him at the very start of his period in Scotland under the aegis of the Irish Folklore Commission. This was in early 1946, on the Isle of Canna, to which I have been invited by Fear Chanaidh—John Lorne Campbell. Another guest was the late Séamus Ennis, the renowned Irish uillean piper—he was engaged on transcribing material on some of the cylinders recorded on Barra and South Uist by Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw—so Calum had every excuse for reverting to unabashed Irishism. My first impression of him, curled up in a window seat and surveying the new arrival with quizzical interrogatory eyes, was of a friendly but very watchful brownie—or better, maybe, leprechaun!—and I have to admit that the story about Mannhardt did momentarily flash across my mind.
Later that evening he regaled us with some of the Irish songs (in English) which he had picked up in Dublin. The ones I remember best are “The Bould Thady Quill”, “Mrs McGrath” and “Moriarty” (“The Pride of the D.M.P)—and I can hear as if it were yesterday the inimitable triumphal lift that he gave to the punch line
“Flap your wings, Moriarty!”
Later in his tribute, Henderson remembers Maclean’s singing prowess when he was heard at either a ceilidh or at a house-party:
I have referred to Calum’s zest and wonderful comic verve when giving renditions of Anglo-Irish songs like “Mrs McGrath”, but it was when he was singing Gaelic love songs—and especially songs of tragic love—that he was at his most moving as a singer. To quote John MacInnes again: “The pathos with which he sang elegies and the like was arresting…I remember him singing Is daor a cheannaich an t-iasgach in Norman MacCaig’s house one night. He brought out the rhythmical beauty of it with great sensitivity.” At Edinburgh University Highland Society ceilidhs in the late 40s and early 50s his favourite seemed to be Ho luaidh ’s truagh nach deachaidh sinn (which became a sort of ‘pop number’ in the Society), and there was no questioning the feeling and the deep poignant seriousness which he conveyed when singing that haunting song.
Hamish Henderson was in his own right a prolific and experienced collector and he would share his latest finds with his colleagues. In the late 1950s, for instance, Maclean travelled to the Muir of Ord with the express purpose of recording material from the travellers there. In his book The Highlands (1959), Maclean mentions Henderson in connection with MacPherson’s Rant:
Equally interesting, if not quite so venerable, is the broken fiddle of the noted James MacPherson, an honoured freebooter who robbed the rich to feed the poor and who was hanged on November 16th, 1700, in Banff. Before going to his death, he asked to be allowed to play one last tune. He played MacPherson’s Lament and, when the tune was finished, turned round and asked if there was anyone present willing to speak for him. No one would, so he broke his fiddle over his knee, sprang from the gallows and hanged himself. My friend, Mr Hamish Henderson, has recorded some very fine versions of the song, notably from Davie Stewart of Dundee and Jimmie MacBeath of Elgin, and the tune has long been a favourite with Highland pipers.

Fare weel ye dark and lonely hills
Away beneath the sky,

MacPherson’s Rant will nae be long
Below the gallows tree.  

Sae rantinly, sae wantonly, sae dauntinly gaed he.
He played a tune and danced it roon’
Below the gallows tree.
Fare weel my am dear Heiland hame,
Fare ye weel my wife and my bairns. 

There was nae repentance at my hert
While the fiddle was in my airms.
There’s some come here to see me hanged,
And some to buy my fiddle.
But before that I do part wi’ her
I’ll brek her thro’ the middle.
The broken fiddle is still to be seen among the clan relics at Newtonmore. It is very fitting that it should have been given a place of honour, for MacPherson’s Rant is much better known today than the black chanter or the green banner. Songs have always been and still are very potent things.

Calum Maclean, The Highlands (London: Batsford, 1959)
Hamish Henderson, ‘Calum Maclean 1915–1960’, Tocher, vol. 39 (1985), pp. 81–88

Hamish Henderson (1919–2002). Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archive.

Thursday 21 February 2013

John Cameron the Bone-setter

On 29th of January 1951, Calum Maclean recorded from the recitation of John MacDonald, Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, a narrative about a famous local bone-setter called John Cameron. 

Bha duine a’ fuireach ’s an dùthaich seo. ’S e Iain Camaran a bh’ air. Agas bha e sònruite math a’ suidheachadh nan craimhean. Cha robh e gu diubhar dé an craimh a bha cearr oiribh a’s a’ ghualainn, a’s a’ chruachan, às a’ ghlùn na aobrainn na na corragan, shuidhicheadh e iad agas chuireadh e cearst iad. Tha mi a’ smaoineach’ gun robh sin ac(hc)a bho thùs an òige aig an t-seòrsa. Bha athair cho math ris fhéin. Bha iad a’ fuireach ann an t-Sròin. Tha sin glé theann air an àite ’s an d’ rugadh is na thogadh Ailean an Earrachd, a’ fear a thog na Camaranaich.
A nise bha e a’ dol air turas a sìos an Oban. Agas bha Sasannach air a’ bhàta. Fhuair e a mach dé a’ fear a bha seo an Camaranach. Chaidh e thar an robh e agas thuirst e ris gum b’ fhearr leis gun cuireadh e ’s a’ ghualainn e.
“Nì mi sin,” thuirst e. “Cuir dhiot do sheacaid.”
Chuir e dheth an t-seachaid aige agas laimhsich an duine e is thuig e glé mhath nach robh e as a’ ghualainn, gun robh a’ ghualainn aige mar bu chòir dhi a bhith. Agas thug e tionndannadh beag air an lamh aige agas chuir e as a’ ghualainn e.
“Nì thu an grothach a nise. Cuir umat do sheacaid, ’ille.”
Cha b’ urrainn dà an t-seacaid a chur uime. Bha e as a’ ghualainn an uair sin cearst gu leòr. Bha e a’ falabh feadh a sin is e a’ gearan agas e a’ glaodhaich le pian. Chaidh e a nunn thar an robh e agas thuirst e ris nam bitheadh e cho math agas a chur ’s a’ ghualainn e.
“Nì mi sin,” thuirst e, “ach na bi a’ fiachainn ri amadan a dhèanadh dhiom-sa uair ’s am bith na de dhuine ’s am bith ’s a’ Ghaidhealtachd.
Chuir e ’s a’ ghualainn e cho eallamh agas a chuir e aiste e.
Agas shin e dhà fichead not.
“Gabhaidh mi sin," thuirst e. “Is tha mi a’ cur an airigid a tha mi a’ faotainn bhuat, tha mi ’ga chur a dh’ ionnsaigh dìlleachdanan agas luchd-éirce. Agas taing dhut air son an airigid a thug thu dhomh. Agas bidh iad ro-thoilite ’n uair a ruigeas e an dachaidh thar am bheil na creutairean truagha, a tha a' faotainn an airigid seo."
…A nuas a Raineach a thàinig iad, ach ’s ann a mhuinntir Loch Abar a bha na Camaranaich seo. Bha athair cho math ris fhéin. Bha a phiuthar is a bhràithrean. Cha b’ aithne dhomh-sa a phiuthar ach b’ aithne dhomh a bhràthair glé mhath. ’S e Iain Camaran a bh’ air an duine agas ’s e Eoghain a bh’ air a bhràthair. Agas bha mi cho eòlach orra bho’n a bha mi òg. Agas chaochail e anns a naoi ciad diag agas a sia. Agas bu mhór an call e anns an dùthaich gun do thachair sin. Chan ’eil iad ach a’ dol a dh’ ionnsaigh lighichean an diugh agas chan ’eil iad idir cho math air na craimhean a chur cearst agas a bha a seann-duine ud.

And the translation goes something like this:

There was a man who stayed in this district and his name was John Cameron. He was especially skilful at bone-setting. It made no difference which bone was out of place whether in the shoulder, the hips, the knee or ankle that he couldn’t put right. I believe that such folk have this skill from their youth. His father was just as good as him. They stayed in Strone, a place very close to where Allan Cameron of Earracht, who raised the Cameron Highlanders, was born and raised. Now he was going on a journey down to Oban and there was an Englishman on board. He found out who this Cameron was and he went over and said to him that he would wish his shoulder to be dislocated:
“I’ll do that,” he said. “Remove your jacket.”
He removed his jacket and he checked the man and he knew full well that his shoulder wasn’t dislocated, that there was nothing wrong with his shoulder. So he gave the man’s hand a little twist and he dislocated his shoulder.
“You’ll manage now. Put on your jacket, laddie.”
He couldn’t put his jacket on as his shoulder was dislocated. He was moving around complaining and crying with pain. He went over to him [Cameron] and asked him if he would be so good as to mend his shoulder.
“I’ll do that,” he said, “But make sure that you never try to make a fool of me again or any other Highlanders.
He put his shoulder back as quickly as he had dislocated it.
He then handed forty pounds to him.
“I’ll take that,” he said. “And I’ll give the money that I’m taking from you to the orphans and the poor. And many thanks to you for the money. And they’ll be very pleased to get the money when those poor creatures reach home.”
…They came down from Rannoch but these Camerons were [originally] Lochaber folk. His father was just as good as him. He had a sister and brothers. I didn’t know his sister but I knew his brother well. He was called John Cameron and his brother was Ewen. And I’ve known them since I was a youth. He died in 1906 and it was a great loss to this district. These days they just go to the doctors but they’re not so good at setting bones as that old man was. 
To put the above historical narrative and translation into some kind of context, the Rev. Donald Masson, writing at the end of the nineteenth-century, offers a few insights into how bone-setting was situated into the domestic medicine of the Highlands only a few generations before John Cameron’s time. Given the scarcity of qualified doctors in remote areas and that they could be rather expensive, then it is all the more conceivable that local people with a knowledge of medicinal remedies or cures would have been sought after for their ability to offer relief at a reasonable cost: 

Bone-setting, of course, was practised in the Highlands as elsewhere. The art was not altogether mere rule of thumb; for the bone-setters had their secrets, jealously guarded, and with much care handed down from sire to son. Nor were they so entirely ignorant of the human skeleton as some modem critics would have us believe. Looking back on my own experience, as the patient, long ago, of more bone-setters than one, I can see that they had a firm hold of two sound principles of treatment. (1). In manipulating an ailing limb, they keenly watched the  patient's features and movements for every indication of pain; rightly, as I think, taking such indications as pointing to the real  seat or cause of his hurt or trouble. In the case of old adhesions, whether of long dislocated joints or of misfitted fractures, the key to treatment might thus be hopefully looked for. (2). Their second great principle was simplicity itself, but yet it was a most powerful adjuvant of their restorative manipulation. It was this:  by locking the knee or the elbow they greatly increased the length and the power of the lever with which they worked. I well remember how thus an old dislocation of the shoulder, which had baffled more than one regular practitioner, was speedily righted by the bone-setter. Very gently at first he took the ailing arm in his brawny grasp; with keen eye intently fixed on the patient’s features, and with the dislocated limbs extended as to lock the elbow, he gently and tentatively moved it slowly to right and left, upwards and downwards: a twinge and a cry from the patient: a pause, and some deep thinking on the part of the operator: manipulation resumed, and the same twinge or cry again: then, with knit brows, and putting forth all his great power of brawny muscle, while his left hand steadied the patient’s elbow, the bone-setter made one sudden wrench, and the thing was done. With a “click,” the head of shoulder bone was back in its socket.

Rev. Donald Masson, ‘Popular Domestic Medicine in the Highlands Fifty Years Ago’, The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. XIV (1887–88), pp. 298–313
SSS NB 9, pp. 833–35

Dislocated Shoulder

Saturday 16 February 2013

The Rout of Moy (1746)

To commemorate the skirmish known as the Rout of Moy, here is a story recollecting the event recorded by Calum Maclean from James Dunbar, a farmer then aged fifty, on the 7th of August 1952. The contributor belonged to Tomatin and thus was not far away from the events of that happened at Moy on the 16th of February 1746:

You heard most of the story in history, of course. And, of course, the MacIntosh he was a Royalist. Well, he was on the side of the Royalists. He was fighting on the Royalist side. He was with the Royalist side and, of course, Lady MacIntosh, one of the Farquharsons of Invercauld she was on the side of the Prince and the clan was on the Prince's side. And as history tells us Lord Louden with about a thousand men, he was going to take Prince Charlie. That was on the Rout of Moy  [that] took place on the sixteenth of February 1746, two months before the Battle of Culloden. Now my father's story was that a little boy was sent up. A hotel-keeper's wife in Inverness heard the soldiers talking about going up to Moy that night to take Prince Charlie and sent this little boy bare-footed to Moy Hall wi’ a letter to Lady MacIntosh. And when he arrived all the clansmen were away. I don’t know where they were. They would have been out on reconnaissance. And the blacksmith was at home, Donald Fraser. And they went to Donald Fraser and he took five men and they went down to Creag an Eòin, I believe, where the peat mass is today, and waited until Lord Louden's men came up. However there were peat stacks there, peat dashes, I believe, and it was a misty night and when Lord Louden’s army came up the orders went out to all the clans, the MacIntoshs, the Camerons and the Macphersons and the Macdonalds, of course. And they fired their muskets and I was told they played their pipes. However Lord Louden’s army turned back and away down to Inverness and they told awful stories about the awful regiments of Highlanders they saw there. Well, the only one that was hit of the Royalist army was MacCrimmon, Donald Bane MacCrimmon. Before he left Skye he had a feeling that he would never return. He composed the tune “Cha till Mac Cruimein” – “MacCrimmon will never return.” Well he was mortally wounded and died in Inverness and was buried in the Chapel yard. But however when they heard it was Donald Fraser and five men that did it Donald Fraser had to return to Lochaber. He was hiding there for years and even when he went to the Island of Lewis. He was hiding there for years after Culloden. Well I remember – she died in 1902 – his grandsons widow, Jean Fraser, Dalnahone, and her daughter. She didn’t live long afterwards. And what I remember best the day of the sale: there was a stool bought for me. I was a little piddie. And I used to sit in that stool, a white-pointed stool. But my father remembered the grandson, Donald Fraser, but he had no enthusiasm for what his grandfather did. He didn’t think much of it at all, for he had no side for Prince Charlie. And neither have I, although I do admire what our forebearers did at Culloden, and their bravery and the like of that. Well, Donald Fraser's sword is, I believe, in Moy Hall yet and his anvil, you could see his anvil. It used to be at the door, the front door and his sword. I believe it is there yet. It used to be in Tomatin House and it was in Moy Hall afterwards.

Much against her husband’s wishes, Lady Anne MacIntosh (1723–1787), raised the clan MacIntosh and Clan Chattan to fight for the Jacobite cause under the command of MacGillivray of Dunmaglass. For this she earned the affectionate title “Colonel Anne” and Prince Charles Edward Stuart referred to her as “La Belle Rebelle”, the beautiful rebel.
Soon after the Jacobite victory at Falkirk, the Prince was staying at Moy hall, the seat of the MacIntosh, when Lady Anne received word from her mother-in-law that the Hanoverian forces were about to attack. Lady Anne took it upon herself to send out around five of her staff to run about shooting and shouting in order to trick the enemy into thinking that they faced the whole Jacobite army. The ploy worked and they fled leaving with one fatally injured piper, Donald Bàn MacCrimmon, as mentioned above, who lated died in Inverness of his wounds sustained in the skirmish. Since then the event has become known as The Rout of Moy.
After the defeat of the Jacobites – the Clan MacIntosh were the first to charge the Hanoverian ranks – at battle of Culloden some two months later, Lady Anne was arrested and turned over to the care of her mother-in-law for a time. She later met the Duke of Cumberland at a social event in London with her husband. He asked her to dance to a Hanoverian tune and she returned the favour by asking him to dance to a Jacobite tune. She was a rebel to the end.

Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
SSS NB 16, pp. 1443–45­­­

Lady Anne Farquharson MacIntosh

Friday 15 February 2013

A Christendom of Stories

Standing at well over six feet tall in his socks and still with a powerful physique even at the age of seventy-two, Angus Barrach MacMillan (1874–1954) of Griminish in Benbecula, made not only an impressive sight but was also a skilful storyteller. Born at Cnoc Fraoich, Benbecula, Angus was the youngest of a family of seven of Calum Barrach (1826–1916)—revealing a Barra connection—and Christy MacDonald. Apart from a sixteen-year long stint in the militia, taking him as far afield as Ireland and England, MacMillan was a crofter all his working days and remained more or less at home in Griminish for the best part of his life. 

Calum Maclean (1915–1960) first met MacMillan on an auspicious spring day in 1947. Despite MacMillan complaining that not only was he suffering from a cold but that he had also sustained a broken rib from a fall a few weeks earlier, he told Maclean—something that would have been music to his ears—that “I have a Christendom of stories.” It all looked very promising indeed: 
He started off that day by chanting a heroic lay dating back to the Viking times, the lay of the one-footed smith from Lochlann who enticed the Fingalians to his smithy in order to stab them. I had not heard the traditional chanting of heroic lays before.
Maclean soon found this out the hard way for recording Angus’s stories alone—but not neglecting other storytellers—for a period of three years MacMillan’s repertoire was yet to be fully exhausted! A story recited by MacMillan has the distinction of being the longest ever to have been recorded in Western Europe. Called Alasdair mac a’ Chèaird (Alasdair son of the Caird), it took nine hours to tell and over a week to transcribe. MacMillan had over 40 of these types of stories in his repertoire which took around three hours to tell. The transcriptions of stories from MacMillan’s recitation that Maclean so laboriously worked on would go on to fill up thousands of manuscript pages. Like so many other storytellers, MacMillan’s family had been steeped in such oral traditions for generations: 
Calum MacMillan usually spent the nights twisting heather ropes, siomain fraoich. The twisted rope he coiled on the floor around his legs…While thus engaged Calum MacMillan told tales. When the hour of ten approached a three-legged pot of potatoes was hung over the fire for the family’s supper. When the potatoes began to boil, and the water streamed down the legs of the pot, the visitors knew it was time to go. The tale was then stopped to be continued the following night. 
When collecting in Scotland during the early 1950s, the American ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax (1915–2002), was assisted by his contemporary counterpart, who told him in his own inimical style, typical of Maclean, of his friendship with MacMillan:
Old Angus MacMillan was a storyteller with whom I worked in Uist for three years. I thought I would kill him before I’d finish with him, but he went nearer to killing me before he finished with me. I sometimes recorded stories from him: I’d start at four in the afternoon: by midnight I’d be exhausted but Angus MacMillan would show no signs of exhaustion. The longest story he told took nine hours to record. We started on Monday night and did two hours. We had to break off for the night. We continued the story on Tuesday night and did two further hours. On Wednesday night we did another two hours and on Thursday we did another two hours again and we finished the story on Friday night. It took us an hour to finish the story. It took me fifteen days to write that story: it was the longest story I have ever written and I think it was really the longest story that has ever been recorded in the history of folklore recording. If I had sufficient stamina Angus MacMillan would have continued the story uninterrupted for nine hours. 
As Maclean later recollected, such was MacMillan’s renown for being an entertaining storyteller that it could even lead to members of the audience becoming spellbound and to forget completely about either work or to even bother to return home:
I remember someone telling me that an old woman disappeared one night to the well to get a pail of water. It was seven o’clock on a winter’s evening. By midnight she hadn’t reappeared so a search party was sent out. They finally discovered her in a house where Angus MacMillan was telling a story.
It is no understatement that MacMillan was one of the very best storytellers that Maclean—who had encountered not a few in his day—had had the privilege to meet. Something of MacMillan’s spirit was captured by Maclean when he recalled leaving the storyteller’s house in 1948 on a winter’s night around 4 o’clock in the morning: “That night was dark, cold and showery due to stormy weather coming in from the southwest. As I was leaving, Angus saw me to the big door. I can still recollect that large, burly frame of his that blocked the light from inside. On parting, he said: ‘Come early tomorrow night, my dear laddie. I have remembered another long, long one.’” 
Reflecting upon the style in which MacMillan told his tales, Maclean made the following interesting observation: 
The story’s subject matter was always the uppermost aspect that caught Angus’s attention. Nevertheless, every single word had to be said and to be set in its own place. Long dialogues used to pepper his stories where kings and princes would speak and talk to one another in such a way as if to suppose that Angus himself imitated them through his own character as the conversation went on. People would swear that Angus actually saw everything he actually recited. When Ossian was hunting, you could see the deer and hounds. Every mental picture he conjured up was as clear as that.
Maclean had the presence of mind to take down MacMillan’s life-story which to this day remains in manuscript and the resulting narrative makes for a fascinating read where there are more than a few anecdotes that leave a lasting impression. One day a wild bull turned on Angus so that he had to hit it on its horn with his walking stick. The bull fell down unconscious. “You’ve killed it,” a neighbour said to him. “If I had not killed it,” Angus said, “then I would have been dead.” Three quarters of an hour passed before the bull regained consciousness. Another day Angus was ploughing with a pair of horses. A report of gunfire was heard which frightened the wits out of the horses so much so that they ran off with the plough still attached. Angus, still gripping the plough for dear life, was pulled through bog and mud until the poor beasts were eventually tired out. Not one to suffer the scorn of others, MacMillan even had the temerity of ending his schooldays by giving the schoolmaster a good thrashing.
Writing his obituary, Maclean noted that: “He was the perfect example of the untaught and unlettered but highly cultured and refined mind…Eminent scholars in several European countries are today proud to have numbered Angus MacMillan among their friends. To folklorists Angus was much more than a mere source of information. He was a phenomenon. His feats of storytelling are unequalled in the history of folklore recording.”
Even in MacMillan’s own day storytellers such as himself were not that common and certainly there were not many whose repertoires were as varied or as extensive. Self-effacingly, MacMillan admitted that he only had around a third of the stories that his father, Calum MacMillan, could recite. Whether this is a case of modesty or not, MacMillan was a storyteller that was held in high esteem not only in scholarly circles and by academic folklorists but more importantly by his fellow-islanders.

Calum MacGhill'Eathain, ‘Aonghus agus Donnchadh’, Gairm, air. 10 (An Geamhradh, 1954), tdd. 170–74
Photograph of Angus MacMillan c. 1952. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives

Thursday 14 February 2013

The Massacre of Glencoe

One of the most infamous episodes in Highland history was the Massacre of Glencoe (1692) but its main events and intricacies don’t bear repetition here. The effect of the hapless MacDonalds of Glencoe being murdered in cold blood by their Campbell guests has reverberated down the centuries and is still remembered to this day. Here, for example, is a rendition of the event as reflected in popular tradition which was taken down by Calum Maclean from John MacDonald of Highbridge around the 10th of June, 1951:

An deadhaidh Murt Ghleanna Comhnann thachair rud glé iongantach. Agas am a’ mhurst bha boireannach truagh ann, agas chaidh i fo dhrochaid leis an leanabh a bha mu thrì miosan a dh’ aois. Agas dh’ airich na saighdearan sgriach an leanabh is iad a’ dol seachad agas i a’ fiachainn ri chumail sàmhach. Agas thuirst an commandair a bh’ orra:
“Theirige sìos fo’n drochaid agas ma’s e gille a th’ ann, marabh e. Ach ma’s e nighean a th’ ann, leig leis.”
’S e gille a bh’ ann. Agas ghuidh i air:
“Aig ghaoil Dia,” thuirst i, “fàg an gille agam,” thuirst i.
Ach bha cat ann. Agas mharabh e an cat agas chuir e fuil a’ chait air a’ chlaidheamh. ’N uair a thill e air ais son dearaadh a thoirst do’n chommandair gun do mharabh e e, sheall e an claidheamh dha làn fuil (K512.1.). Dh’ fhàg seo làn-riaraichte an commandair.
Ach bliadhanachan an deadhaidh sin, dh’ fhàs an gille seo suas. Bha taigh-òsta aige aig an Apuinn. Thàinig duine allabanach, truagh a staigh a bha a’ falabh air an rathad mhór. Agas an deadhaidh dhà drama na dhà fhaotainn, thòisich e air innseadh m’a dhéidhinn Murst Ghleanna Comhann. Tha an Apuinn pios bho Ghleanna Comhann, ach cha robh e a’ tuigsinn idir gun robh an duine a bha a staigh a' cumail cluais ris na biathran a bha e ag ràdha. Is ’n uair a chuala e e a' bruidhinn air Murst Ghleanna Comhann, thuirst e:
“Cha téid thusa as seo a nochd (H11.).”
Ach ’n uair a dh’ innis e gur e shàbhail a bheatha agas ’s ann a ghabh e bàidh glé mhór ris. Agas chum e riamh tuillidh m’an taigh-òsta e a’ dèanadh mar a thoilicheadh e fhéin gus na chaochail e (Q40.). 

And the translation goes something like this: 

After the Massacre of Glencoe something amazing happened. At the time of the massacre a poor woman was present and she hid under a bridge with she infant that was around three months of age. The soldiers heard the infant’s cry as they went by and she was trying to keep quiet:
Their commander said:
“Go under the bridge and if it’s a boy, kill him but if it’s a girl, then let it be.”
It was a boy and she implored:
“For the love of God,” she said, “leave my boy alone.”
But there was a cat and he killed it and he smeared the blood of the cat on his sword. When he returned to prove to his commander that he had killed the infant boy, he showed his sword smeared with blood (K512.1.). This fully satisfied the commander.
Many years after that, after the lad had grown up, he owned an inn in Appin. A poor dishevelled wanderer came in who had been walking the highways. After he had taken a dram or two, he began talking about the Massacre of Glencoe. Appin is only a short distance from Glencoe but he didn’t understand at all that the man who owned the inn had been paying attention to what he was saying. When he heard him talking about the Massacre of Glencoe, he said:
“You’ll not leave here tonight (H11.).”
When he told him that it was he who had saved his life became greatly beholden to him and so he was given lodgings in the inn and could do what he liked until he passed away (Q40.). 

Despite some folkloristic motifs present in the tale, perhaps there remains an element of truth to this historical narrative. Even in such a dire situation as the woman had been, the soldier contrary to his direct orders shows mercy and allows the infant to survive. Such generosity of spirit is then unexpectedly repaid many years later. If there is a ‘moral’ to the story then it might well be that something good come out of an event that caused revulsion to many when it actually happened. Writing in The Highlands, Calum Maclean made the following observations about the Massacre: 

Glencoe is the most famous glen in the Highlands and it is so not only because of its scenery, which is wild and magnificent, but because of its grim history and the memory of a night of dark treachery and bloodshed in February 1692. The Massacre of Glencoe goes down to history as a blot on the name of Campbell and not so much blame is attached to the monarch who signed the order to extirpate the luckless MacDonalds. William of Orange was no doubt fully aware of what he was doing when he signed and counter-signed the order to murder old MacDonald and his clan in cold blood, even though the fact that MacDonald had taken the oath of allegiance was concealed from him. The massacre was rather the result of deliberate, planned official policy rather than the outcome of a blood-feud between the Campbells and MacDonalds of Glencoe. The real and unfortunate truth was that the Campbells were no more than tools used by unscrupulous authorities to overawe the Jacobite Highlands. The name of Campbell has been eternally disgraced by the events of that dark February night, not so much because the victims were dispatched without warning but because the time-honoured code of hospitality was outraged. Despite all that, it will surprise many to know that even to this very day in such districts as Keppoch and Moidart, both in the heart of the MacDonald country, popular tradition exonerates the Campbells. In Moidart the story was told that on the night preceding the massacre a Campbell soldier went to visit one of the MacDonald houses. He had been to that same home on several evenings previously, and, as they sat round the fire on the fated night, a greyhound lay sleeping in front of the fire. For a few moments all conversation stopped and the Campbell soldier spoke to the sleeping dog: “O grey hound, if you knew what I know, your bed would be on the heather this night!” No sooner had the visitor gone than the family made for the hills and escaped. Another story had it that a Campbell soldier told the terrible secret to a grey stone. Many of the MacDonalds did escape on the night of the massacre.

Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
SSS NB 11, pp. 1028–29

Henderson’s Stone / Clach MhicEanruig, the grey stone mentioned above

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Fairy Lore: Work, Work Farquhar!

Another piece of fairy lore recorded by Calum Maclean came by way of John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber. The following was recorded a few days before being transcribed on 18th of February, 1951: 

Bha fear ann ris an abradh iad Fearchar agus gu math tric bha bruaillean glè mh
òr air a chur air agus dragh le sìdhichean a bhiodh a’ tighinn thar na robh e agus iad ag iarraidh obair, obair, “Thoir dhuinn obair.”
“Falbh,” thuirt e riutha an latha a bha seo, “agus tiormaichibh an loch a tha gu h-àrd an sin.”
“Nì sinn sin.”
Dh’fhalbh iad. Agus an ath-latha, dar a chaidh e an àirde, bha an loch tioram. Thàinig iad a-rithist thar an robh e feasgar. Thug e dhaibh obair air choreigin eile agus rinn iad sin. Agus ghabh e iongantas cho allamh agus a chuir iad crìoch air an obair a bh’ ann. Cha chreid mise nach ann a’ spìonadh fraoich a bha iad bharr a’ mhonaidh. Agus tha am monadh gorm gus an latha an-diugh. Cha d’ fhàs fraoch riamh air. Agus an sin:
“Tha iad a’ cur dragh glè mhòr orm,” thuirt e ris a’ bhean. “Agus bidh iad a-màireach cho dona is a bha iad riamh, a’ cur dragh orm ag iarraidh obair.” “Had!” thuirt a’ bhean, “nach toir thu orra sìoman a dhèanadh den ghaineamhaich a tha a sìos air a’ chladach. Dh’fhairtlich e air an Donas fhèin sìoman a dhèanadh don ghaineamhaich, ach dh’iarr e moll agus gun dèanadh e e. Chan fhaigheadh e moll agus mar sin dh’fhairtlich air. Abair sin riutha.”
Thàinig iad an ath-fheasgar a dh’iarraidh obair.
“Falbh a sìos agus dèanaibh sìoman den ghaineamhaich a tha sìos air a’ chladach.”
Dh’fhalbh iad. Thug iad treis ag obair sin ach cha robh a’ chùis a’ dol leotha. Thill iad air ais. Thuirt iad gun a dh’fhairtlich sin orra a dhèanadh ach nam faigheadh iad innear eich, mar a their iad ann am facal ciùin, laghach, sgàinteach each. Agus mar sin cha d’fhuair.
“Cha fhaigh sibh sin. Agus dèanaibh sìoman dheth a rèir an ordugh a fhuair sibh. Agus mura dèan, na faiceam tuillidh an rathad seo sibh.”
Agus dh’fhairtlich sin orra agus fhuair am bodach caoidhte ’s an sìdhichean. Agus bha Fearchar glè thoilichte. Mar a thuirt mi ruibh, cha d’ fhàs fraoch riamh air a’ bheinn an deaghaidh na sìdhichean a tarrainn. Agus dh’fhairtlich sin orra agus fhuair am bodach cuidhte ’s an sìdhichean. Agus bha Fearchar glè thoilichte. Mar a thuirt mi ruibh, cha d’fhàs fraoch riamh air a’ bheinn an deaghaidh na sìdhichean a tarrainn. Agus ’s e tè dhiubh sin Beinn Dòbhrain. Tha i gorm gus an latha an-diugh. Agus ’s iomadh facal a thuirt Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir ma dèidhinn, ma dhèidhinn Beinn Dòbhrain:

“’S i bu bhòidhche leam—
Monadh fada rèidh,
Coille a faighte fèidh,
’S soileireach an treud
Bhios an còmhnaidh ann.” 

There was a man they called Farquhar and very often he was sorely troubled and vexed by fairies who came to him asking for work, work, “Give us work.” “Go,” he said to them this day, “and empty the loch (H1097.1) that is up yonder.”
“We’ll do that.”
Away they went and the following day, when he went up, the loch was dry. They came to him again in the evening. He gave them some other work and they did that. And he was amazed how quickly they performed that task (H1090). I rather think that they were put to pluck the heather from the moor. And the moor is green to this day. No heather grew on it ever since. And then—“They are troubling me very much,” he said to his wife. “And tomorrow they’ll be as bad as ever, troubling me by asking for work.”
Tut!” said the wife (J155.4), “why do you not ask them to make a rope out of sand (H1021.1) that is down on the shore? The Devil himself failed (K211) to make a rope out of sand, but he asked for chaff (H1021.2) in order to make it. He could not get chaff and so failed. Tell them that.”
The following evening they came to ask for work.
“Go down and make a rope of the sand that is down on the shore.”
Away they went. They were engaged in that work for some time but they did not succeed. They came back. They said they had failed but if only they could get horse-dung, as they say—to use a gentle, polite word—sgàinteach of horses. But they did not get that.
“You’ll not get that. And make a rope of it according to the directions you have been given. And if you do not, do not let me see you around here anymore.”
And they failed to perform that task and the old man got rid of the fairies (F381.11). And Farquhar was very pleased. As I’ve told you, no heather ever grew on the mountain when the fairies had cut it. And one of the mountains is Ben Dorain. It is green to this day. And many words had Duncan Bàn MacIntyre said about it, about Ben Dorain:

“To me it is most beautiful:
The wide, smooth hill,
A forest wherein deer are found.
Bright is the throng
That is wont to be there.” 

In essence, the premise of the tale is about getting rid of the fairies and given the once widespread popularity of this fairy narrative throughout the Highlands and Islands strongly suggests that a migratory legend is at play here. In fact, the story is an international one and is classified as ATU 1174; typically in such stories an impossible task is demanded of the fairies to perform – a good example is the one given: a request to make a rope of sand – and so the protagonist by using such a ploy manages to see the back of them.

Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
────, ‘Fairy Stories from Lochaber’, Scottish Studies, vol. 4 (1960), pp. 84–95
SSS NB 4, pp. 311–13
A Rope of Sand