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Wednesday 5 June 2013

A Report from Raasay

After having spent seven years in ‘exile’ in Ireland, Calum Maclean returned to his native isle of Raasay to undertake a pilot project of collecting oral materials mainly from his own relations. Maclean was fully conscious of the task that lay before him and applied himself to his work with gusto. An entry from a diary, which he wrote in Scottish Gaelic, gives an insight into his work as an ethnographer at this time: 

Thòisich mise, Calum I. Mac Gille Eathain, a’ cruinneachadh beul-airthris agus litreachas beóil ann an eilean Ratharsair am paraiste Phort-righeadh anns an Eilean Sgitheanach air an 19mh lá de ’n Dùdhlachd (Nodhlaig) 1945. Rugadh mi agus chaidh mo thogail anns an eilean seo. An uair a bha mise òg bha tòrr dhaoine anns an eilean seo aig a robh sgeulachdan agus seann-òrain nach deachaidh a sgrìobhadh sios riamh is nach téid a sgrìobhadh sios gu bràth. Tha an t-seann-fheadhainn an nis marbh agus thug iad gach rud a bha aca leotha do’n uaigh. Có dhiubh tha cuid de dhaoine ann fhathast a chuimhneachas bloighean de na h-òrain a bhiodh aca agus bloighean de’n t-seanchas eile cuideachd. Shaoil mi gun robh barrachd òran air am fàgail anns an eilean seo na bha de aon rud eile. Uime sin chuir mi romham na h-òrain a sgrìobhadh sios uile mar a chuala mi aig na daoine iad. Ach sgrìobh mi sios cuideachd gach rud a thachair rium. Tha fhios agam gum bheil sinn tri fichead bliadhna ro anamoch gu tòiseachadh air an obair seo, ach dh’fhaoite gu sàbhail sinn rud air chor eigin fhathast, mun téid e uile a dhìth...

I, Calum I. Maclean, began two days ago to collect the oral tradition of the island of Raasay. I was born and reared on this island. When I was young there were many people here who had tales and songs which had never been written down, and which never will be, since the old people are now dead, and all that they knew is with them in the grave. There are still some people alive who remember some of the songs and traditions of their forefathers, and as it seemed to me that there are more songs than anything else available, I decided to write down those which I could find. I realize that we are sixty years late in beginning this work of collection, but we may be able to save at least some of the traditional lore before it dies out…
Maclean later wrote to his brother, Sorley, reflected upon his experience of collecting in Raasay:

But I enjoy my work very much. The folklore business became more interesting according [to] how you master the proper system of approach. Raasay is a wonderful type of place to work. It is small and sea-contained. It has fishermen and crofters, land and sea, birds, fish and animals, old ruins, groves, buailes, ghosts, fairies oral tradition, local history and everything that comes within our scope. It would take a good collector three years to cover it all.

After Maclean’s successful sortie in collecting traditions in his native Raasay, the Director of the Irish Folklore Commission, James Hamilton Delargy, took the decision, in 1946, to send Maclean back to his native homeland so that he could continue to collect the fast-dying Gaelic traditions of the Hebrides and the mainland Highlands on a full-time basis. Thenceforth Maclean would take up permanent residence in Scotland. By February 1946, Maclean had amassed a great deal of lore from his own relations, mainly from his maternal uncle, Angus Nicolson (1890–1965), styled Aonghas Shomhairle Iain ’ic Shomhairle  and, his paternal aunt, Peggy MacLean (1869–1950), styled Peigi Chaluim Iain Ghairbh. Maclean’s Raasay collection was mainly songs along with associated stories about their provenance and background (NFC MS 1026–1027). Based up this collecting trip, Maclean would later make a contribution to the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness. It is noteworthy that Maclean collected these rather than long romantic tales that were more or less no longer available. Maclean notedperhaps due to the zeal of the convertthat the reason for this was that a strong Calvinistic streak pervaded the island at the time. Indeed, Maclean only encountered ‘living’ storytellers of the old school in the Southern Hebrides whose repertoires were representative of those collected by John Francis Campbell and his various collectors around a century before. Maclean noted in his diary, January 24, 1945, writing in Irish Gaelic, after his first fieldwork foray in his native island:

Táim anois a’ cur deire leis an gcéad leabhar a bhailigheas de bhéaloideas na h-Alban. Tá ana-chuid amhrán ins an leabhar seo ata críochnaí anois agam … Tá a thuille amhrán aca fós. Tá ceól ag dul le gach aon dán amháin. Nì h-é an ceól céadna atá le aon dá amhrán dá bhfhuil agam ins an leabhar seo. Is mór go deó an peacadh nár rugadh mé deith mbliadhna fichead níos túisce, ach deabhal neart air anois. Tá na daoine a raibh an t-adhbhar a b’ fhearr aca básuighthe uile anois … Tá gala uabhthasach annseo indiu. 
I have now finished my first collection of Scottish Gaelic lore. There are many songs in this book which I have now transcribed but there are many others songs still to be recorded. All of those which I have written down have associated airs, save one, and all of the tunes are different from one another … It is a great ‘sin’ that I was not born thirty years earlier, as the best of the lore has gone into the grave with those that had it … There is a terrible gale blowing here today.
At the conclusion of this fieldwork trip, Maclean wrote a three-page report for Delargy, his boss back at 82 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin where the headquarters of the Irish Folklore Commission had been established until the archive was moved to its present locality at University College Dublin in 1971:
Dec. 7th 1945 – Feb. 17th 1946
I proceeded to Scotland on 7th Dec. 1945 with the express intention of enquiry into the possibilities of initiating the systematic collection of oral tradition in Scotland and, in particular, in the Gaelic-speaking western seaboard and islands. In Glasgow I met Mr. Alex Nicolson, M.A., Lecturer in Celtic at the University of Glasgow. I stated that the Irish Folklore Commission was prepared to initiate and to finance the collection of oral tradition in the Highlands and Western Isles and, in doing so, desired the co-operation of Scots pending the emergence in Scotland of a body competent to collect, record and catalogue oral tradition. Mr. Nicolson gave his assurance that this project would have his immediate support. We however maintained that it was almost too late to save much of value now, as the raconteurs and custodians of oral tradition had, to a large extent, gone.
I then proceeded to Inverness, where I interviewed Dr. D. J. Macleod, D.Litt., O.B.E. Dr. Macleod expressed complete approval for the Commission’s project and promised all moral and material support.
I also interviewed Mr. Hugh MacPhee, Director of Gaelic Programmes of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Mr. MacPhee considered that the offer of the Irish Folklore Commission was very generous indeed and would meet with all sympathy in Scotland. Mr. MacPhee made the suggestion that the Director of the Irish Folklore Commission should visit Scotland and address a meeting representative of people interested in folklore there. Mr. MacPhee maintained that finance was the main obstacle that confronted the collection of oral tradition in Scotland at present.
I subsequently met Rev. T. M. Murchison, M.A., a member of the Executive Council of An Cumunn Gàidhealach. He considered co-operation with the Irish Folklore Commission highly desirable. The Commission could advise and direct the collection of oral tradition in Scotland. He favoured the suggestion that the Director of the Commission should, in the near future, address a representative meeting of Scots interested in folklore.
I also interviewed Rev. M. Maclean, M.A., a noted writer and figure in the Gaelic movement. He considered that the Irish Folklore Commission should make it its business to collect the oral traditions of Gaelic Scotland. For the study of folklore Ireland and Gaelic Scotland would have to be treated as one. The Irish Folklore Commission was the only body competent to deal with Scottish oral traditions. He advised the Commission to proceed with the collection of folklore in Scotland as soon as possible and stated that the Commission would have his whole-hearted support, both moral and material. He advised the Commission to enlist the help of private individuals in Scotland rather than that of Gaelic societies.
I also interviewed Dr. John Cameron, Ph.D., of Glasgow. He was interested in the Commission’s project and wished it all success.
I spoke to various people in different walks of life in Scotland and have found among them genuine interest in the recording of the traditions of the people.
Many people in Scotland expressed admiration of the work done by the Irish Folklore Commission and commended the Irish Government for financing and encouraging that work.
I consider that the time is now ripe to begin the systematic collection of Scottish and Gaelic folklore under the aegis of the Irish Folklore Commission. I have no doubt that the help of many people in Scotland will be forthcoming. Naturally a Scottish Folklore Institute would be the ideal aim, but at the present juncture, Scottish Gaels would welcome the support of the Irish Folklore Commission.
As to existing oral traditions in Scotland, I spent seven weeks in the island of Raasay. It is a typical Gaelic-speaking island. The people there are mainly small-holders and fishermen. Their religious persuasion is Calvinistic. There I found that much oral tradition remains among the people. From one person alone I wrote the words of forty folk-songs, most of which have never appeared in print. All these songs had their distinct melodies and have still. From that person I noted down several fairy stories and stories of historical and local interest and many items of popular belief and practice. People here have remembered their songs better than anything else. From another person I wrote down several tales of the international folktale type and all the versions were good. From that same person I wrote down thirty folk-songs and was assured that I could get a hundred more, and may more stories as well. Other people gave me much valuable material and all seemed willing to give it readily. Little or no collection had ever been done in that district.
In Scotland there is an immense field to be covered and much more than I, at least, ever expected to be collected and committed to writing or recorded by the latest scientific devices.
                                       Colm Mac Gille Eathain
On the basis of Maclean’s report, Delargy would later write on the 30th of May 1946 to the Secretary of the Department of Education in the following terms:
A most favourable opportunity exists for the extension of the work of collection to Scotland. Colm MacGilleathain, who has been trained in our cataloguing methods during the last fifteen months, is ready to go to Scotland and begin the work of collection in the Western Islands. During his holidays at Christmas he discussed the collection of Scottish-Gaelic folklore by our Commission with several influential Scots who welcomed the project as there is no hope that such work will be undertaken by a Scottish institution. He is confident that he will be able to enlist the help of several young Scots from various parts of the Highlands and Islands on a part-time basis. I need hardly say that the undertaking of collection in Scotland, besides being a necessary complement to collection in Ireland and a most valuable addition to international scholarship, will redound to the credit of the Irish Government.

NAI, ED/25/15
NFC MS 1026: 1a; 95–96
NLS MS.29536: 25

James Hamilton Delargy [Séamus Ó Duilearga], c. 1965, at the entrance to the Irish Folklore Commission’s headquarters at St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Courtesy of Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann, Coláiste Ollscoile Baile Átha Cliath / National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin

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