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Sunday 16 June 2013

A Hebridean Tour: Séamus Ennis and Calum Maclean

On his very first collecting trip to the Western Isles (specifically Barra) in September 1946, Maclean was later joined by one of the Irish Folklore Commission’s best (and youngest) collectors: Séamus Ennis (Mac Aonghusa), a very gifted piper and traditional singer. Ennis was four years younger than Maclean; born in Jameston in Finglas, North County Dublin in 1919 and died in 1982. For a period of five years between 1942 and 1947, Ennis worked at the Irish Folklore Commission. A better job offer appeared on the horizon when RTÉ offered him a post and so he then left the Commission to pursue a broadcasting career.
Writing in 1953, Maclean recollecting his first crossing to Barra states that despite not knowing any of the islanders he approached the trip with an air of excitement and perhaps with even some amount of trepidation:
One September evening seven years ago I crossed the Minch for the first time on my way out to Barra. It was a beautifully calm evening – the only calm evening on which I have ever gone that way, and I have crossed the Minch often enough since then. I had heard much about Barra, but had no idea what type of material to expect there. Everywhere I had heard the same story. Tales and legends, old songs and such had now gone. The old folk had gone. I knew not one living soul in Barra: nor in any of the Outer Hebrides for that matter. Nevertheless I approached Barra with eager anticipation…
In the very same year he first visited Barra, Maclean later recalled his initial first impressions of what he was going to collect though as circumstances turned out it seemed as if he had many of those from whom he recorded material had only recently passed on:
I stayed in Castlebay during my first week, and gathered as much information as possible regarding possible tradition bearers. Here again I discovered that I had come too late. My friend, Miss Annie Johnston, spoke of the late Ealasaid Eachainn [Elizabeth MacKinnon] with her fund of song and story, of which only a very small part has been recorded. That was another mine of information irremediably lost. A noted storyteller, Murchadh an Eilein, died a year or two before; and Ruairi Iain Bhàin, an unsurpassed singer of folk-songs had gone to his grave also.
Recollecting their trip to Barra, Maclean of an evocative evening when they went to Eoligarry in the north part of the island:
In springtime my colleague Seumas Ennis, the folkmusic collector of our Commission, and I toured the islands, making gramophone recordings of speech and singing. One week we gave to Barra. It was a glorious week of sunny days and moonlit nights. We recorded for posterity the voices of Miss Annie Johnston, Seumas MacKinnon, the “Coddy,” Donald MacPhee of Brevig, and Neil Gillies of Castlebay. These speech recordings were made for the purposes of phonetic and dialect study, and also to illustrate the tradition bearer’s style of narration. One beautiful night we motored to Eoligarry schoolhouse. We were accompanied by Flora MacNeil of Castlebay, one of the many charming and attractive young ladies I have seen in the Isles. She sings well, and was to do recordings for us that night. That night also we recorded the singing of Mrs Buchanan, a daughter of the noted folksinger, the late Ruairidh Iain Bhàin. I can still see her standing in dim lamplight before the microphone and hear her singing the fairy song, “Chì mi ’n tomain coarainn, cuilinn.” That melody haunts me still.
Maclean noted down a similar visit in his diary that took place on Thursday the 6th of March 1947. At this time he kept wrote his diary in Irish Gaelic (later changing it to Scottish Gaelic and then eventually English) but which is given here in translation:
…Flora MacNeil was in our company. She was going to meet folk in Eoligarry. We left the recording gear at the house of the schoolmaster, Neil Angus MacDonald. We went to Morag Maclean’s house and took her back to the schoolhouse. Seámus took down Katie Buchanan and Flora MacNeil. We set up the recording gear and Katie Buchanan sang three or four songs. Flora MacNeil also sang a song. Then Neil Angus played the pipes. Neil’s father was an excellent piper and he excelled in ceòl mòr and especially in cainntaireachd. That is the way in which they sang the tune when it was being learnt. The old pipers never wrote music at all and they used canntaireachd to transmit the music. On this night Neil Angus recorded canntaireached, filling two records. He played two pieces of ceòl mòr, Cumha Mhàiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (Mary MacLeod’s Lament) and Fàilte MhicGilleChaluim Ratharsair (MacLeod of Rasaay’s Welome). He also sang a bit of Crònan na Caillich sa Bheinn Bhric (The Lullaby of the Old Women of Ben Breck) and played this on the pipes. He also gave a sample of Dance Music canntaireachd also. Seámus was very pleased how the night went. It was late enough before we reached home. It was an excellent night all around. The moon shone as brightly as it did during the day.
Perhaps the key element to Ennis’s fascination with collecting was music and he must have been rather astounded at what was to be found not only in Barra but also in South Uist, an island which had been a stronghold for piping over very many generations:
Seumas Ennis has come across from Dublin and had never before heard canntaireachd, the humming of pibroch and pipe music. That night, however, Neil Angus MacDonald, schoolmaster of Eoligarry, a piper also and the son of a piper, kindly made two complete records of cainntaireachd. I had lived long years in Ireland, but I had never seen an Irishman entranced until that night.
Unlike Maclean it would appear that Ennis never kept a diary of his Scottish trip. There are, however, a few extant letters that he wrote back to James Hamilton Delargy, Director of the Irish Folklore Commission, and to Sean O’ Sullivan, the Archivist there.
Maclean was fully conscious that collecting very much a race against time but although he may have felt daunted at times by the sheer amount of fieldwork that lay before him his enthusiasm seldom wavered. Writing in 1947, he offered the following observation with regard to collecting and also the opportunities which fieldwork afforded:
He always knows that he rescues something from oblivion. The discovery and recording of a beautiful song, or story, which might otherwise have perished is always a joy. But most valuable of all is the wealth of friendships that come his way. Between the collector and narrator a common interest serves to forge a link of comradeship. The collector finds it necessary to spend hours and hours in the company of some old person and, if he is sufficiently tactful and deferential, friendship is assured.
The collectors during their stint in the Hebrides took in Eigg, Barra, Raasay, Canna and South Uist. Ennis managed to pick up enough Scots Gaelic to enable him to transcribe much of the songs collected by John Lorne Campbell. Many of these beautifully transcribed pieces have been preserved and are in the keeping of the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin. Some of them were reproduced in Campbell’s Songs Remembered in Exile (1990), his last and one of his most important books. Both Maclean and Campbell owed a great debt to Ennis and one which was repaid with the hospitality shown to the Irishman who never seemed to get fed up when asked either to play the pipes or to sing. Ennis probably relished the attention and also to give people some entertainment.
NFC 1111: 267–68
NLS MS.29780
Calum Maclean, ‘In Search of Folklore in the Western Isles’, Scotland’s S.M.T. Magazine, vol. 40, no. 6 (1947), pp. 40–44
Ríonach uí Ógáin (ed.), Going to the Well for Water: the Séamus Ennis Field Diary 1942–1946 (Cork: Cork University Press, 2009) [first published as Mise an Fear Ceoil: Séamus Ennis–Dialann Taistil 1942–1946 (Gaillimh: Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2007)]
Séamus Ennis in the 1950s


  1. Hello,
    I have just found this article. It's very interesting! I know this is a very long shot, but I was wondering if anyone knew if the recording survived? My Grandfather was Neil Angus MacDonald, and it would be so wonderful if we could find some recordings of him singing and playing the pipes. Thank you in advance for any help or information you have!
    Ewan Ramsay

    1. Thanks for your message, Ewan. In fact recordings of your grandfather still exist of him playing the pipes and also canntaireachd. You should make an inquiry to University College Dublin ( as they hold these recordings. I've heard excerpts and I can tell you that he was a very talented man but you know that already. Best of luck.

    2. HI Andrew,
      That's rally interesting. Thank you for getting back to me and for the info! I have contacted the university, so hopefully we'll be able to arrange something.
      Thank you again :)