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Friday 16 August 2013

Calum I. Maclean: An Appreciation

Fifty-three years ago to this very day, Calum Maclean lost his long struggle with cancer and passed away on his adopted isle of South Uist. Here is an obituary notice reproduced in full from The Oban Times submitted by John Lorne Campbell of Canna, a close friend and colleague. The slightly older Campbell had known Maclean since the latter’s return from Ireland at the end of the Second World War and they assisted one another in the collecting of oral traditions particularly in the Southern Hebrides:
The passing of Calum Maclean at the early age of 45 has deprived the Highlands and Islands of a much loved personality. Calum Maclean had dedicated himself to the work of the preservation of the oral tradition of his country. In this field, he had achieved a unique position. It was a field of research that was, until recently, grossly neglected by official Scottish academic authorities, though its interest was better recognised abroad. Lovers of traditional Gaelic song and story and folklore saw with relief, when the Irish Folklore commission sent Calum Maclean to the Hebrides with an Ediphone in 1946, that at least one serious attempt would be made at the scientific preservation of this material before the last Gaelic storytellers and folksingers who had escaped the net of the 1872 Education Act has passed away.
Calum Maclean was the first person who undertook the systematic collection of old Gaelic songs and stories and tradition in the Highlands and Islands with modern recording apparatus. Therein lay the importance of his work. A good deal had been done previously in the way of collecting old stories in the Highlands by J. F. Campbell of Islay and his collectors, but lacking any means of making mechanical recordings, their task of writing down such tales from dictation was a very laborious one, and J. F. Campbell himself admitted that his collection in no way exhausted the stories current in the Highlands “whole districts as yet untried, and whole classes of stories, such as popular history and robber stories, have yet been untouched.
In the field of folksong things were worse. If it is difficult enough to take down a long Gaelic story in writing from dictation, it is ten times more difficult to write down traditional tunes in unfamiliar modes and varies with each repetition. J. F. Campbell’s “Popular Tales of the West Highlands” are authentic, but subject to the drawback that a storyteller who is dictating to someone writing down is always apt to shorten his sentences and reduce dialogue to indirect speech. “Songs of the Hebrides” are not authentic, and the establishment of the songs, both tunes and words, as actually sung, is a matter of great importance to students of folksong the world over.
More and more scholars are recognising that the Gaelic language, and geographically the Outer Hebrides, constitute the most interesting repository of oral tradition in Western Europe. It is not only what has been preserved of local origin that is of interest, but what has come from outside and then been forgotten elsewhere, in the way, for instance, that traditional songs that originated on the mainland are now only remembered in the Isles. Thanks to Calum Maclean, the amount of material now available for the study of folktale and of popular tradition in the Highlands and Islands has been enormously increased, the words of hundreds of old songs have been preserved in their authentic form, and their tunes have been made available for transcription from the recordings by first rate musicians skilled in the idiom of folk music.
In 1951, Calum Maclean transferred from the Irish Folklore Commission to the School of Scottish Studies, where he became a Senior Research Fellow. The scope and extent of his work in the field will not be properly appreciated until his notebooks have been catalogued and indexed, including the material he collected for the Irish Folklore Commission, of which a microfilm has been presented by the Commission to Edinburgh University. Many person acquainted with the Hebrides will be well aware of the singers and storytellers who were discovered by Calum Maclean, in many cases only just in time. All with regret most deeply that he did not live to catalogue his collections and print a substantial part of them.
Like Fr Allan Macdonald and Dr George Henderson, who collected Gaelic tales and folklore in South Uist between sixty and seventy years ago, Calum Maclean has passed away in his prime. In the years that are to come, the value and extent of his work are likely to be more and more realised. Calum Maclean was to have received, in September of this year, form the University of St. Francis Xavier at Antigonish, Nova Scotia – an institution with very strong Highland associations – the honorary degree of LL.D. for his work for the preservation of the Gaelic oral tradition. No much honour was ever more merited.
                                                                                      John Lorne Campbell
Some months passed and in December an elegy was also published in The Oban Times composed by Iain Ruadh MacLeòid (John MacLeod):
Fhuair sinn naidheachd an dè
chuir saigheadean geur nar crìdh,
’s gun robh ’n dùthaich gu lèir
fo phràmh ann an dèidh na tìm,
o na chualas mu d’ bhàs,
a Chaluim, air clàr gun chlì,
’s cha bhi ’n dùthaich gu bràth
mar bhà i is tu ga dìth.
Siud a’ cholann bha stuam’,
bha aoibhneas is uails’ nad ghnùis,
bha do ghiùlan gun uaill,
bha thu iriosal, suairc, is ciùin,
’s aig cruinneachadh sluaigh
thug thu iomadach buaidh is cliù,
’s bochd dhuinne san uair
nach cluinne sinne fuaim do chiùil.
Gun robh foghlam nach gann
nad cheann agus t’ aois glè òg,
’s thug thu dearbhadh gach àm
le d’ chainnt an ionadan mòr,
fhuair thu tàlant bho Dhia
’s thug thu riarachadh seachad is còrr,
’s cha do dh’àicheidh thu riamh
do dhleasnas do d’ Dhia ’s co d’ chòir.
O ’s buidhe don àl
Fhuair blasad de d’ mhànran maoth,
’s a bhlais air na bàird
tron spàirn a thug thu le d’ ghaol;
gun chuir thu air clàr
iomadh eachdraidh is àilleachd chiùil,
’s bidh sinne nad dhèidh
gad mholadh ’s tu fhèin san ùir.
We got news yesterday
which pierced our hearts with sharp arrows,
and the whole land
was overcast from that time;
for we heard you lay dead,
Calum, strengthless on boards,
and never again will the land
be the same as before it lost you.
That was a body always well-controlled,
cheerful and noble was your face,
your bearing was without arrogance,
you were modest, courteous, and gentle;
and in gatherings of people
you made an impact won much fame—
how much poorer are we now
that we cannot hear the sound of your music!
A wealth of learning
filled your mind from your earliest years,
you proved it time upon time
in the great place in which your spoke:
you got a talent from God
and you gave good measure and more
and you never denied
your duties to your God and to your own standards.
How happy the young
who savoured the sweetness of your talk
and tasted the bards
through your devoted hard work!
You put down on record
many a story and beautiful tune,
and we, now you have left us,
will go on praising you in your grave.
John Lorne Campbell, ‘Calum I. Maclean: An Appreciation’, The Oban Times (6 September 1960)
John MacLeod, ‘Do Calum Ia[I]n MacGhilleathain’, The Oban Times (3 December 1960)
Calum I. Maclean from the late 1950s

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