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Wednesday 22 May 2013

Clach na h-Aidhrinn / The Mass Stone

During the winter of 1951 Calum Maclean visited Bohuntine, Glenroy, to collect material from Donald MacDonald, then a retired soldier aged around seventy. In his diary of the 30th of March 1951, Maclean gives the following description of MacDonald in Scottish Gaelic but here given in translation:

From there I began to walk out to Glenroy. It was a beautifully dry, spring afternoon with a sprinkling of snow on the high mountains. The glen was beautiful with the trees blooming on each side of the river. I walked two miles before I reached the first house. Then I went past the bridge before I reached Bohuntine. There were about five or six homesteads cheek by jowl. I walked past them a little and then I went back. I climbed up towards the first house. A woman answered the door and she appeared to be kindly. I asked where Donald MacDonald’s house was. She told me and I climbed up to that house. These kindly folk made me welcome. They had expected me for a long while. The goodman of the house was sitting by the fire. He was unable to walk for he suffered from a bad type of rheumatism. He was a grey-haired, handsome fellow. Black-haired Donald they called him. His wife, two daughters and his son were at home with him. This man has stories without a shadow of doubt. He has a good style of telling stories. He was born in England at Carlisle and he came back to Bohuntine when he was eleven years of age. He learned to speak Gaelic. He told me a good few stories and I took a note of these. I’m going to return again with the Ediphone. These kindly folk gave me food and his son Duncan accompanied me all the way to Roybridge.

The following short anecdote would appear to been recorded sometime after Maclean’s first visit and then transcribed as follows on the 20th of April 1951:

Tha clach taobh an rathaid ris an abair iad Clach na h-Aidhrinn. Tha e shuas mu choinneamh àite ris an abair iad Creithneachan ann an Gleann Ruaidh. Bha uaireigin a siod agus bha fear a dol dhachaigh ris an abradh iad Aonghas Mór. ’N uair a bha e mu choinneamh Creithneachan a bha seo, thàinig na sìdhchean a chur stad air (F235.3.). Bha leth dhiubh a’ glaodhaich:
“Cha leig sinn seachad Aonghas Mór.”
Bha leth eile air an taobh thall ag ràdha:
“Leigidh sinn seachad Aonghas Mór.”
Ach chunnaic Aonghas Mór gun robh an t-aon chunntas air gach taobh. Agus mu dheireadh thuirst e:
Tha mise fear a chòrr agus leigidh sibh seachad mi.”
Agus fhuair e seachad. Chaidh sagarst (P426.) an ùine ghoirid an deaghaidh sin agus chaidh e suas a dhèanadh Aidhrinn.
Agus rinn e Aidhrinn air a’ chlach a tha seo. Agus gus an latha an-diugh ’s e Clach na h-Aidhrinn a their iad rithe.

And the translation goes something like this:

There is a stone besides the road called Clach na h-Aidhrinn (‘The Mass Stone). It’s up opposite a place called Cranachan in Glenroy. There was once a man going home called Big Angus. When he was opposite Cranachan, the fairies stopped him (F235.3). One half of them were shouting:
“We won’t let Big Angus go by.”
The other half on the other side were saying:
“We’ll let Big Angus go by.”
But Big Angus saw that there was the same number [of fairies] on each side. And at last he said:
“I am the extra man and you’ll let me go by.”
And he got past. A short time afterwards, a priest (P246.) went there to celebrate Mass.
He celebrated Mass at this stone and to this day they call it Clach na h-Aidhrinn (‘The Mass Stone’).

A version of the above tale which would appear to be a folk etymology at the time of the suppression of the Roman Catholic faith in Brae Lochaber and elsewhere. The following is another published version of the story:

Two of the oldest residents in the neighbourhood give two versions of the association of this stone with the celebration of mass. Eighty-year old Mr. Alexander Mackintosh of Bohuntin (who as a young man had helped to transfer the stone to a safer position on the other side of the road), states that he had heard it said that only one mass was celebrated at the Cranachan Road Mass Stone and that was done to lay a ghost that had been heard in the burn. The ghost story is a tradition of a type not uncommon in the West Highlands: it tells of a certain Aonghas Mór MacDonald (a well-known local personality, born in the early years of the nineteenth century), who happened on one occasion to pass this spot on his way home to Cranachan. Passing near the stone, he heard voices saying: We won’t let Aonghas Mór pass”; and there were other voices crying:  “We will let Aonghas Mór pass.” Aonghas Mór, coming to the shrewd conclusion that the parties were equally divided and that he presumably had the casting vote, shouted: “If there are as many with me as are against me, Aonghas Mór will go past.” Thereupon he made his way past the stone with great difficulty and reached home in a state of extreme exhaustion.

Local historians Ann MacDonell and D. R. Roberts had the following to say about the Cranachan stone:

Just over three miles north of Roy Bridge Post Office, where the Cranachan Road meets the road through Glen Roy, there stands the second Mass Stone of the Lochaber district. This stone is not in its original position and it is only a fragment of a much larger boulder. The stone stood originally on the right hand side of the Cranachan Road on a steep bank, overhanging the burn. By the erosion of the burn, the stone was undermined, fell into the burn and was broken. The present large fragment of the stone was lifted out of the burn and replaced on the original site, whence it had fallen. Towards the end of last century, the burn again threatened to undermine the stone and some strong men of the neighbourhood (one of whom was Alexander Mackintosh who, at 81 years of age, still resides at Bohuntin) lifted the stone and placed it in a safer position on the other side of the Cranachan Road, where it now stands. About 1870, Donald Campbell Macpherson (1842–80), a native of nearby Bohenie, a librarian at the Advocates’ Library and a noted Gaelic scholar, carved a chalice and host on the front of this stone to perpetuate the local tradition of its use for the celebration of mass during the Penal Days. Old people in the glen can remember that the stone used to be protected by a wooden fence and, as children, they were not allowed to touch this “Clach na h-aifrinn” or play near it.

The authors end their interesting article by making the valid point that further research on the topic would increase our understanding of Roman Catholicism in the Highlands during the times in which it was undergoing a widespread and systemic attack from the establishment:

There is need for much further research into the conditions in which the practice of the Catholic Faith was maintained in the north and west of Scotland throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the history of the Catholic Church in Scotland the early seventeenth century is especially a twilight period and needs much more investigation. Some facts do stand out against the prevailing obscurity, like the great cross marked boulder, looming up against the mists on the summit of Maol Doire. The Maol Doire “Clach na h-aifrinn,” weathered by the sunshine and storms of the passing years, is surely the perfect memorial of the harsh laws and the steadfast people of those difficult centuries.
Ann MacDonell, & D. R. McRoberts, ‘The Mass Stones of Lochaber’, The Innes Review, vol. 17 (1968), pp. 71–81 
NLS MS.29795, 1r–162v
SSS MS 7, p. 654

Clach na h-Aidhrinn or Clach na h-Aifrinn, Cranachan, Glenroy

Sunday 19 May 2013

A Lament for Calum Maclean

Of the many tributes paid to the memory of Calum Maclean on his untimely death on his adopted island of South Uist in 1960, one was a moving lament composed by Donald John MacDonald (1918–1986), styled Dòmhnall Iain Dhonnchaidh. Donald John, who belonged to Peninerine in South Uist and was a son of the outstanding tradition bearer Duncan MacDonald, was an extremely gifted traditional poet and songwriter. MacDonald would go on to win the Bardic Crown at the National Mod in 1948. He was also the author of numerous books and articles such as Fo Sgàil a’ Swastika [Under the Swastika’s Shadow] (2000), detailing his life as a prisoner-of-war after being captured at St Valéry; and Uibhist a Deas [South Uist] (1982), a fascinating local history of the island of his birth and upbringing. Calum Maclean persuaded MacDonald to collect oral traditions from his father and uncle, Neil, and he managed to gather together a collection of over twenty manuscript volumes amounting to around 6,000 pages. An anthology of his poetry entitled Chì Mi was collected and edited by Bill Innes. We are extremely grateful to Bill Innes for kindly allowing his translation of MacDonald’s lament to be published here for the very first time.

Calum Iain MacGilleathain le Dòmhnall Iain MacDhòmhnaill

Dubh an là o bhith grianach,
Chinnich faileas air iarmailt ar n-àbachd.
Trom a’ bhuille ’s gur piantail
A liubhair uirigleadh sgeula do bhàis dhomh.
Ged bha dòchas air mùchadh
Gum biodh e deònaicht’ dhut ùrachadh slàinte,
Nuair thàinig naidheachd na crìche
Gun tig i gearradh nam chridh’ mar gu sàbht e.

’S a Chaluim Iain ’ic Ghilleathain,
Tha ’n-diugh a’ crìonadh fo leathad an t-Hàlin,
Tha carragh-cuimhne nach tuislich
An cridh’, an cuinnseas ’s an cuislean do chàirdean
Air sàr churaidh na tuathadh,
Gràinne-mullaich na h-uaisl’ ann an nàdur;
’S creach do dh’Alba ’s dhan linn seo
Do bhothaig thalmhaidh cho iosal bhith ’n càradh.

’S creach do dh’Alba gu sìorraidh
Thu bhith air falbh as a fianais cho tràth oirnn.
Far na shaothraich thu dian-mhath
Na h-adhbhair gaoil eadar iarmad is cànain.
’S mòr an ulaidh ga dìth thu,
Chriothnaich bunaitean dìlinn na Gàidhlig;
Thuit clach-iuchrach a h-iùil-sa
’S gun fear eil’ ann a dhùineas a’ bheàrna.

Tràth an cùrsa do rèise
Gun chuir thu d’ ùidh ann an euchdan do nàsain.
B’ e do bheachd-sa bu lèirsinnich’
Ann an cleachdaidh, am beasun ’s an gnàthsan.
Le saothair thug thu buaidh dhuinn,
’S gun thog thu bratach ar sluaigh bhàrr an làir dhuinn,
’S bidh linn ri teachd ann ad fhiachaibh
Airson na dìleib ro-fhiachail a dh’fhàg thu.

Do thìr nam beann thug thu biùthas,
Gun dh’innis do pheann a cuid ùisealachd àraid.
Bha spiorad aiteis do dhùthcha
Nad bhallaibh pailt a’ so-dhrùghadh do chnàmhan.
Air feadh Alba ’s an Èirinn
A chaoidh bidh t’ ainm air a leughadh le blàths ann
Mar aoigh, mar oilean, ’s mar uasal,
Mar shamhla duinealais ’s uachdar nan sàr-fhear.

Com na h-onair ’s na h-uaisle;
Gliocas, modh agus stuamachd am pàirt riuth’;
Tuigs’ is foghlam thar chunntais,
Gun robh gach aon diubh nad ghiùlan mar sgàthan;
Samhl’ a’ cheartais nad sheanchas
Nuair bhiodh eachdraidh fo argamaid làidir.
’S na bhuilich Dia ort de bhuaidhean
Cha d’ rinn thu riamh an cur tuathal air àithne.

Leam is urram ro-luachmhor
Gun tug thu buileachadh buan domh dhe d’ chàirdeas.
’S gibht’ an tasgaidh mo smuaintean
Meomhair air aiteas gach uair an co-phàirt riut.
’S a’ ghiorra-shaogail a mhùch thu
Cha d’ fhuair sin aont’ air bhith ’n dùil ri nas àill leinn
Ged dh’eadar sgar i le ùir sinn
Tha spiorad maireann air giùlan cho-bhràithrean.

Ach crìoch gach comann bhith sgaoileadh
Mar a lomar a’ chraobh de cuid bhlàthan.
’S crion clach-ursainn ar n-aonta
Rè ar tursan air saoghal nan sgàil seo;
’S ged tha do cholann fo fhòdaibh
Mo ghuidhe t’ anam bhith ’n glòir anns na h-àrdaibh,
’S à siol a’ mhathais a phlannt thu
Ge meal thu toradh neo-ghann deth do ghràsan.

Calum Iain Maclean by Donald John MacDonald

The sunny day has darkened,
Shading the heavens of our happiness,
Heavy the blow and painful,
Bringing tidings of your death to me;
Although hope had faded
That you would be granted recovery,
When news came of the end
It was a jagged wound to my heart.

O, Calum Iain Maclean,
Today decaying under Hallin’s slope,
An unfailing memorial abides
In hearts, minds and veins of your friends
Of the fine champion of the people
Top-most grain of noblest nature;
Great loss to Scotland and this generation
That you are laid low in earthly rest.

Grievous loss evermore to Scotland –
That you left her scene so early,
Where you worked so diligently
In cause of love for her history and language.
What great treasure she has lost in you
Who stirred up the deep roots of Gaelic,
The keystone fell from her course,
With no one else to fill the gap.

You took early in the course your life,
Interest in the proud deeds of your nation,
Your insight was the keenest
Into lifestyle, qualities and customs.
Your efforts gave us triumph,
Raising our people’s banner on high
Generations will be in your debt
For the priceless legacy you left.

To the land of bens you brought renown –
Your pen wrote of her special distinction –

The joyful spirit of your country
Richly permeated your body and bones.
Ever throughout Scotland and Ireland
Your name will be read with affection
As guest, scholar and noble,
Model of manliness and finest of gentlemen.

Breast of honour and nobility,
Wisdom, good manners with modesty;
Insight and erudition without limit,

Each reflected in your bearing;
You spoke with authority
When history was hotly disputed;
Your God-given virtues
No command could make you betray.

It was a precious honour for me
That you offered me lasting friendship,
Gifted to the treasury of my thoughts

Memories of happy times shared with you
And the short life that took you,
Did not grant the prospects we hoped for,
But, though the grave separated us,
The spirit lives on in the bearing of brothers.

But each gathering ends in parting,
As blossom is stripped from the tree,
The pillars crumble of our union
In our journeys through this vale of shadows;
Though your body lies in the grave
I pray your soul be in glory above
And that seeds of goodness you planted
Will earn you a rich return of grace.

Trans. by Bill Innes

Bill Innes (ed.), Chì Mi / Dòmhall iain MacDhòmhnaill: The Gaelic Poetry of Donald John MacDonald (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2nd ed., 2001)
Dòmhnall Iain MacDhòmhnaill, ‘Calum Iain MacGilleathain’, An Gàidheal, leabh. LVI, earr. 5 (1961), pp. 53–54

Image: Peninerine, South Uist / Peighinn nan Aoirean, Uibhist a Deas 

Wednesday 15 May 2013

The Longest Story Ever Told in Western Europe

On the 29th of January 1949, Calum Maclean began to record the longest story ever told in Western Europe from the recitation of Angus Barrach MacMillan. Maclean noted in his diary in Scottish Gaelic but here given in translation:                               

Around eight o’clock, I went over to Angus MacMillan’s house and I decided to record a story from Angus MacMillan tonight. I haven’t recorded anything yet since coming back. We began on Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird), a story about a lad that a drover purchased from the cairds. I’ve never heard this story at all before. And it’s quite long. We recorded seven cylinders worth of it in any case…
Then on the 2nd of February, a further instalment was recorded:
We began on the story, Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird) and we recorded another ten cylinders. The story isn’t even half-way through yet. Angus was in a good mood tonight. He’s keeping well these days but I know that he isn’t working as usual. It was nearly midnight by the time I got home.
Three days later, on the 5th of February yet more of the story was recorded:
Angus and I began on the story Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird). We recorded another eight cylinders and it now consists of twenty-five. The story isn’t finished yet.
The next day, after attending Mass, Maclean made his way as usual to Griminish and a further instalment of the story was then recorded:
Angus and I were in the living room and we had a big night of stories. He began Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird) again and he recorded another dozen cylinders tonight. It now consists of thirty-seven cylinders.
And on the 8th of February the final instalment of the story was then recorded:
Tonight Angus finished the story Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird). This is the longest story he has so far told. We spent five nights on it, a while each night. I don’t believe he has another story as long as that. The story itself is good.
Back in Raasay, it took Calum over a week to transcribe the story which is around 68,000 words in length. Hitherto, the longest story to have been recorded was Leigheas Cas Ó Céin (The Healing of Kane’s Leg) standing at 30,000 words. This portmanteau story was collected by John Francis Campbell and Hector MacLean in 1871 from the recitation of an Islayman, Lachlan MacNeill, a shoemaker and fiddler then staying in Paisley.

Maclean began the laborious task of transcribing on the 22nd of March:
I began on the Angus MacMillan’s long story, Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird). This is the longest story that Angus MacMillan has yet told. It consists of forty-four cylinders.
For the next fortnight Maclean continued to transcribe the story until he finally completed it on the 6th of April (NFC 1155: 243–306; 309–408; 411–486):
I began transcribing this morning around ten o’clock and worked on Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alexander, son of the Caird). I continued working on that until around four o’clock in the afternoon when I finished the story. This story consists of two-hundred and forty pages, the longest story that I’ve written down yet from Angus MacMillan, the longest story I’ve ever transcribed.
Maclean knew better than most that transcription was sheer drudgery and understandably at times he grew very tired of such a mundane task. He knew, nonetheless, that the fieldwork he was undertaking would be beneficial for it allowed a permanent record of fast-dying traditions to be kept for future generations. The recording was contained on forty-four wax cylinders and so roughly speaking there were 1,500 words recorded on each one. MacMillan recited the story at around 126 words per minute. Interestingly enough, publishers recommend talking books to be voiced between 150 and 160 words per minute. It took Maclean around 103½ hours (or 6183 minutes) to completely transcribe the story and so his transcription rate was around 660 words per hour and therefore he was transcribing this particular story at around 11 words per minute.
Reminiscing to Alan Lomax about Angus MacMillan and one of the longest tales that he had ever recorded, Calum Maclean had the following to say:
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. 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.
Maclean then gave Lomax some rather tongue-in-the-cheek advise not to visit MacMillan in the small hours:
Sometimes he’d start….he’d say that…he’d threaten to start that he was going to tell a story about midnight and everybody would…implore him not to tell a story because they’d never get home that night. So it was very difficult to prevent him from telling the story. However he has told his stories and will continue to tell his stories and if you go there Alan, go there early in the morning, not late at night.
When Angus MacMillan passed away in 1954 Maclean was unable to attend his funeral as he was then in Morar and couldn’t get back to Benbecula in time. In an article that appeared in the Gaelic periodical Gairm, written shortly after MacMillan’s death, Maclean recollected one memorable evening:
In 1948 we spent one winter’s night recording a long story until completed around four 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.”
Calum Maclean, 1979. ‘Calum Maclean on Aonghas Barrach’, Tocher, vol. 31 (1979), p. 64
Calum I. MacGilleathain, ‘Aonghus agus Donnchadh’, Gairm, air. 10 (An Geamhradh, 1954), pp. 170–74
NFC 1155: 243–306; 309–408; 411–486 (transcription of Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird)
NFC 1300: 39–42; 50–51; 58–60; 63–64; 128–44 (Extracts from Calum Maclean’s fieldwork diary)

Angus MacMillan, Griminish, Benbecula, recording on the Ediphone for Calum Maclean in 1947. Courtesy of the National Folklore Collection / Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann, University College Dublin.

Monday 13 May 2013

A Letter from Lomax

Dated the 12th of July 1951, and typed on an official BBC letterhead, Calum Maclean received a letter from Alan Lomax. The renowned American ethnomusicologist arrived in Scotland to collect material earlier that year. Having met with Hamish Henderson to discuss how best to go about collecting, Lomax was put into contact with the MacLean brothers, Calum and Sorley. Calum, who had just arrived back from Ireland, became the first collector for the School of Scottish Studies in January 1951. For the past six years Maclean had recorded extensively in the Southern Hebrides as well as on the mainland Highlands and everywhere he went he seems to have acquired a nose to track down the folk from whom he could collect the best materials. Lomax benefited greatly from Maclean’s extensive knowledge, experience and assistance as he duly acknowledges in the following letter:
Dear Calum
Your introductions and contacts in the Hebrides provided me with the most enjoyable and fruitful recording trip in years. I have never met a set of people I liked as well anywhere and the astonishing number of beautiful tunes that came pouring into the microphone completely astonished me. If all the rest of the tunes of the world were to be suddenly wiped out by an evil magician, the Hebrides could fill up the gap without half trying.
Everywhere people spoke highly of you, asked to be remembered to you and your name was an Open Sesame. I made about ten hours of recordings, only a small number of which I shall be able to use for [the] BBC and in my album. If you have any interest in the material, a list of which his enclosed, I shall be glad to have your suggestions about its disposition.
Please give my regards to Dr. Erixson and Dr. Campbell and consider me eternally in your debt.
Yours sincerely,
Alan Lomax
Calum MacLean, Esq.
c/o Dr. MacIntosh
A selection of Lomax’s recorded materials was made into an album which appeared as a Scottish version of the World Albums of Folk and Primitive Music and was issued by Columbia Records. Maclean’s generosity in assisting a fellow collector was not shared in this instance by John Lorne Campbell who turned on his friend which led to a bitter if short-lived feud between the two. The two main issues of contention between Campbell and Lomax came down to folklore research ethics and the (subsequently misunderstood) commercial exploitation over copyright issues with regard to fieldwork recordings. Maclean through no fault of his own was caught between the two. 
Letter from Alan Lomax to Calum Maclean, dated 12 July 1951. Courtesy of Cailean Maclean. 
Alan Lomax

Friday 3 May 2013

Rob Roy on the Run

Another historical anecdote about Rob Roy MacGregor was transcribed by Calum Maclean on the 25th of January 1951 from the recitation of John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber:
Bha Rob Ruadh MacGriogair air an ruaig agus e a’ fuireach falach agus e air cùl an taighe a’ bristeadh fiodh. Agus thàinig ceathrar a dheadhaidh agus fhuair iad air cùl an taighe e. Agus dh’ aithnich e gun robh e air a ghlac(hc)adh. Bha e gun aramachd, gun rud eile.
“Tha thu trang, a Rob,” thuirst iad.
“Tha sinne ’gad iarraidh agus feuma’ tu tighinn linn.”  
“Nì mi sin ann an tiotadh, ’n uair a sgoilteas mi a’ maide a tha seo. Agus ma chuireas si-se, ma tha sibh ’nar daoine foghainteach: cuiribh ’n-ur làmhan a-staigh ’s an sgoilteadh a tha sin agus slaodaibh bho chéile a ’maide agus ’s ann is aichiorra a gheibh mise libh.”
“Nì sinn sin.”
Chuir iad an làmhan a-staigh anns an sgàineadh a bh’ ann ’s a’ mhaide. Agus ’n uair a fhuair Rob na làmhan a(hc)a a-staigh anns an sgaineadh, thilig e na geinein a-mach às a’ mhaide is bha iad air an glac(hc)adh ann a siod air mheòir (K1111.). Agus dh’ fhalabh e an uair sin a-staigh. Agus thill e. Agus chuir e an ceann dhiubh. Agus cha robh comas ac(hc)a an làmhan a thoirst às an fhiodh  (K500.). Bha e furasda gu leòr do Rob an grõthach a dhèanadh orra. 
And the translation goes something like this:
Rob Roy MacGregor was on the run and was keeping himself hidden when he was cutting wood behind the house. And four men came after him and found him at the back of the house. He knew that he had been caught. He was unarmed without any weapon at all.
“You’re busy, Rob,” they said.
“We want you and you’ll have to come with us.”
“I’ll do that presently when I’ve split this stick. And if you place, if you think that you’re brave enough men: put your hands in the gap there and if you pull it away from the stick then you’ll get me all the quicker.”
“We’ll do that.”
They placed their hands in the split in the stick and when Rob had their hands in the split he threw the wedges out of the stick and they were caught by their fingers. He then went inside [to get a sword] and returned and he then decapitated them all. They had no way of getting their hands free from the wood. It was easy enough for Rob to have done this. 
Such an anecdote is certainly fitting of Rob Roy’s character as he had to rely upon his wits in order that he could get out of any scrapes or messy business that he seems to have encountered rather more frequently than would have been to his liking. The above anecdote, however, would seem to have been grafted onto the Rob Roy legend for it has an old connection with the supposed Highland ancestor of Robert Burns. Here, for instance, is a version of the story as noted down by Alexander Carmichael which involves the well-known band of merry pranksters known as Cliar Sheanchain or Senchan’s Company:
Walter Campbell felled a tree in a place known since then as ‘Glac-a-Chlamhain,’ the dell of the harrier, and ‘Glac nan cliar,’ the dell of the satirists. The dell scoops across a high ridge of glacial drift. It is narrow and confined on the south at the upper end, broadening on the north and expanding downwards to a wide plain. Walter Campbell asked the satirists to come out and help him to rend the tree, and they came. He placed half the satirists on one side of the tree, and the other half on the other side. He drove a wedge into the bole of the tree, and rent the bole along the line of the stem. Then he asked the men to place their hands in the rent, and to pull against one another, while he drove in the wedge. The men placed their hands as directed. Walter Campbell struck the wedge not in, but out, however, and the two sides of the rent tree sprang together like the sides of a steel trap, holding the hands of the satirists as securely as if in a strong vice. Walter Campbell, the son of the ‘deor,’ lost control of his pent-up anger, and he fell upon the satirists with great fury, and scourged them and maimed them, killing some and wounding others fatally.
The upshot being that Walter Campbell had to flee for his life as he had broken the unspoken law of hospitality and he eventually ended up in the Mearns of Kincardine. Carmichael continues with his (rather unfeasible) supposition that, ‘Walter Campbell found people of the names of Burness, singularly like his own familiar cognomen of Burn-house at home in Muckairn; and as a slight disguise, he called himself by this designation of Burnhouse, dropping his clan name of Campbell. It was an easy transition from Walter Burnhouse to Walter Burness, Brunus, Burnes, Burns.’
Alexander Carmichael, ‘The Land of Lorne and the Satirists of Taynuilt’, Evergreen, vol. I (Spring, 1895), pp. 110–15
────, ‘Traditions of the Land of Lorne and the Highland Ancestry of Robert Burns’, The Celtic Review, vol. VIII (1912), pp. 314–33
John Shaw, ‘What Alexander Carmichael Did Not Print: The Cliar Sheanchain, ‘Clanranald's Fool’ and Related Traditions’, Béaloideas, vol. 70 (2002), pp. 99126
SSS NB 6, pp. 580–81
Engraving of Rob Roy MacGregor, c. 1820s

Wednesday 1 May 2013

More on the Lochaber Strongman: A. A. Cameron

Following on from a recent blog, here is more material about the redoubtable Lochaber athlete. Both of these anecdotes were recorded from John MacDonald of Highbridge and transcribed by Calum Maclean on the 4th and the 25th of January 1951 respectively. The first anecdote is as follows:
Tha fhios gun cuala sibh uile ma dhéidhinn a’ fear ris an abradh iad A. A. Cameron, Magh Comair. Bu mhath a b’ aithne dhomh an duine. Bha e trip a siod aig cleasan. Agus bha duine ann a sin agus bearst aige. Agus bha thu a’ cur do chasan air a’ bhearst. Agus ’ga slaodadh fiach dé an cuideam a thogadh tu. Bha làmh a’ dol m’an cuairst. Cha robh e toileach seo fhiachainn ach thug feadhainn eile air fhiachainn. Agus ’n uair a dh’ fhiach e seo, ’s ann a shlaod e às an amhaich uile gu léir e. Agus bha e briste. Ach shìn e m’an cuairst an ad agus thrus e móran airigead do’n bhodach a bha a’ deànadh fhorstan air daoine làidir, fiach dé neart a thogadh iad.
Bha e turas eile ann a Siorrachd Pheairst. Bha clach mhór ann a sin aig taobh gàrradh agus theireadh iad gur h-e duine foghainteach a thogadh idir i: a chuireadh gaoth eadar i is talamh. Ach dh’fhalabh Alasdair agus rug e air a’ chlach (F624.2.) agus thilig e taobh eile a’ ghàrraidh i agus bha i a siod gus an latha an-diugh. Na bu có an duine a bheireadh às i, chan ’eil fora(fh)ais fhathast.
And the translation goes something like this:
I know that you have all heard about the man they call A. A. Cameron, Mucomir. I knew the man well. He was once at the Highland games. And there was man was there who had a loom. You put your feet on the loom and you pulled it to see how much weight you could lift. There was a handle that went round. He wasn’t willing to try it but a few others made him give it a go. When he tried this, he put it completely out of joint and it was broken. But he put a hat around and he collected a lot of money for the old man who made a fortune from strongmen who tried their strength out in trying to lift it.
He was another time in Perthshire. There was a big boulder besides a dyke and they said that only a powerfully built man would be able to lift it. Alexander went and lifted the boulder and threw it over the dyke where it lies to this very day. I’ve no idea who would be able to move it now. 
The second anecdote concerns A. A’s grandfather, a well-known strongman in his own right:
Bha bodach gu math làidir (F610.) anns an dùthaich seo. B’ e sin seanair do’n duine fhoghainteach air an robh mi a’ bruidheann, A. A. Cameron, cho foghainteach is a bha ’s an dùthaich  (F610.). Agus ’n uair a bhitheadh e a falabh ’am cheàrdaich le crann, chuireadh e air a’ ghualainn e…Ach co dhiubh chuireadh e air a ghualainn e agus aige ri tighinn ochd mìle do’n cheàrdaich (H1562.2.). Agus nam bitheadh e a’ dol ’an Ghearasdan ’s a each is cairst a a’ tighinn leis. Thiligeadh e aig doras na ceàrdaich e agus dh’ fhalaadh e ’n Ghearasdan. Ach bha e a’ latha a bha seo a’ toirst dachaidh mòine agus chaidh a chairst ann an àite bog agus i fodha cho fad is a rachadh i. Cha b’ urrainn do’n each a slaodadh às aig cho seòlta is a bha iad ag obair air. Ach ’s ann a smaointich e gun dugadh e an t-each, gu fuaisgealadh e as a’ chairst e, agus leis an t-seòltachd agus an draghadh a bh’ aige fhéin oirre, thug e às i (H1562.2.). Agus thuirst e:
“Och, chan ’eil mi’ gabhail iongantas ’s a’ bith ged nach b’ urrainn do’n each a chairst a thoirst às an toll,” thuirst e. “Thug e gu leòr dhomh fhìn a dhèanadh!” 
And the translation goes something like this:
There was quite a strong old man in this district. He was the grandfather of the strongman, A. A. Cameron, who I’ve been talking about, a man who was as powerfully built as there has even been here. He’d go to the smithy with a plough, he’d carry it on his shoulder…and anyway he’d carry it on his shoulder and had to walk eight miles to the smithy. And if he had to go to Fort William he would take his horse and cart. He would throw it down at the smithy door and then leave for Fort William. But on this day he was taking home some peat and his cart went into a bog and sank down as far as it would go. The horse couldn’t pull it free no matter how skilfully they worked. Then he thought to himself that if he was to take the horse out of the harness that he would tie himself to the cart, and with his dexterity and tugging he managed to free it. And he said:
“Och, I’m not surprised at all that the horse couldn’t pull the cart free from the hole,” he said. “It took enough out of me to manage it myself!”
The Rev. Somerled MacMillan in his book Bygone Lochaber references A. A. Cameron on two occasions. It is likely that he got the following anecdotes from John MacDonald of Highbridge as the Bard – as he was sometimes referred to – is acknowledged in his preface:
Mucomir farm was once the home of Alexander Anthony Cameron, the world-famous athlete and heavy-weight champion. His father was quite a strong man but was better known locally for his skill as a fiddler. It is said that once an athlete named MacGregor complained to old Mucomir about his song lifting all the main prizes at the different Highlands Games. The old man treated the matter light-heartedly and remarked quite casually that he had a daughter who could beat either of them if he cared to meet her. Kate, the daughter was a match for any man of strength. It was the writer’s privilege to meet her when she was an old woman. She declared that she and her famous brother inherited their strength from their mother’s father─big Sandy MacMillan, one time tenant of Moy farm. After their father’s death, A. A. Cameron and his brother tenanted Mucomir from for a time.
The Big Sandy mentioned above is the subject of the second anecdote:
Big Sandy MacMillan, one time tenant of Moy farm, was one of the strongest men in Lochaber. His daughter was the mother of A. A. Cameron, the world-famous athlete, and it is believed that the latter inherited his strength from his maternal grandfather.
One day Sandy’s horse and cart got stuck in a bog at Gairlochy. Not in the least perturbed, he unyoked the beast and pulled it clear, then, taking the trams, he pulled the cart out of the quagmire. After this amazing feat of strength he made this casual remark: “I make no wonder the poor beast couldn’t do it when it took my all my time to do it myself!”
On another occasion his plough needed minor repairs and so he lifted it up with one hand, placed it on his shoulder, and carried it from Moy to the blacksmith’s shop at Spean Bridge, a distance of five miles.
Several years ago there used to be Annual Games held at Achnacarry, when local stalwarts took part. Sandy had never competed before but his friends persuaded him to enter for putting the stone. Taking it up in his hand, he looked at it and asked, “Are you allowed to throw it as far as you like?” When told that this was so he hurled it farther than the rest of the competitors, including the renowned MacDonald brothers of Cranachan. The fact this inexperienced competitor had beaten the favourites caused surprise among the judges, who, in order to save the would-be champions from embarrassment, disqualified MacMillan on the flimsy pretext that he had not thrown the stone in a straight line.
Somerled MacMillan, Bygone Lochaber: History and Traditional (Glasgow: Privately Published, 1971), pp. 26–27; 93–94
SSS NB 3, p. 204
SSS NB 6, pp. 503–04
A. A. Cameron, c. 1890s.