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Tuesday 26 November 2013

Alba ag Gul / Scotland’s Wailing

If Calum Maclean were alive today then he would have been very pleased to see the publication of the White Paper on Scotland’s independence. Maclean’s political views were pretty well formed by his early teens and throughout the years did not change one iota. The National Party of Scotland – one of the forerunners of the Scottish National Party – had been formed four years previously in 1928. The following is a poem entitled ‘Alba ag Gul’ that he published in Portree Secondary School Magazine in 1935 when he was in sixth form:

Alba ag Gul
Albainn ionmhuinn, tìr nam beann,
Tìr nan laoch bu deas le lann,
Tìr thug buaidh an iomadh blàr,
Ged leagt’ an diugh a ceann gu làr,
Albainn àrsaidh, tìr nan cliar,
Mo sgeul, mo chreach i bhi cho fior,
Gu bheil gach beann is gleann ’dol fàs
 ’S an sluagh a bh’ ann a’ dol gu bàs.

Fàs tha gach sliabh ’s an cinneadh pòr,
Fàs tha gach àit’ ’s an cluinnte ceòl,
Is sàmhach ealaidh-ghuth nam bard,
Balbh tha ceòlraidh bheanntan àrd.
Chan ’eil a’ fuireach anns na glinn
An sliochd aig an robh ’Ghàidhlig bhinn,
Lom fuar gach eilean siar a nis,
’S tha guth a’ chuain gun éisdeachd ris.

Bha uair a chualas pìob nan dos
’Ga spreigeadh measg nam beanntan cos;
Bha uair ’s am facas mile lann
’Gan rùsgadh am feadh shrath is ghleann.
Is lionmhor fiùran thuit gu bàs
Ri bhi ’gad dhion an ám do chàs;
Thu ’n diugh gun uaill, gun trèoir, gun chlì,
Mo chreadh! Gur dìomhain bha an strì.

Cuimhnich gum facas siol nan sonn
Ri bhi ’gam fògradh thar nan tonn,
Le foil gu ’n d’ thug iad o do chlann
Na criochan dhion iad riamh le lann.
Bhuidhinn Goill Shasuinn oirnn ’s gach ball,
Na balgairean ’s iad rinn ar call,
Ach nan robh sinn dian gach aon,
Chaisgeamaid iad a tha ’gar claon’.

Chan leinn an saoibhreas againn fhìn,
Cha leinn an stiùir ni cùrs’ ar tìr,
Fann tha ‘n fhuil bha craobhach dearg
Gann tha am pòr bha cròdha garg,
Dh’ fhalbh an sliochd gasda gaisgeil cruaidh,
’S an t-strì ’n còmhnuidh bheireadh buaidh;
Thréig sluagh na h Albann, glòir nam bean,
Mo nuar! cainnt Shasuinn bhi ‘n an ceann.

Albainn ionmhuinn, tìr nam beann,
Car son a thréig thu nis do chlann?
Thoirt daibh am misneachd is an cruas
Bha annt’ an ám bhi ‘g éirigh suas;
Biodh cuimhn’ air cliù nan saoi a dh’ fhalbh,
’S na biodh do cheòlraidh ’n còmhnuidh balbh;
Eireadh iad ’n na biodh iad mall
Gu’n caisg iad mi-rùn mór nan Gall.

And the (rather rough) translation goes something like this:

Scotland Wailing

O beloved Scotland, land of mountains,
Land of heroes who skilfully handled swords,
Land who won many a battle,
Although today her head has dropped to the floor,
O ancient Scotland, land of poets,
My tale, my ruination that it still remains true,
That each hill and glen is being emptied
And the folk there are going to die out.

Destitute each hill and all the folk,
Destitute each place where music was once heard,
And the bards’ elegant voices are now silenced,
The muse of the high hills is all but silent.
No one now stays in any of the glens
Where the folk spoke mellifluous Gaelic,
Each of the islands to the west is denuded and cold
With no one there to listen to the ocean’s roar.

At one time the skirl of pipes could be heard,
Resounding in the hollows of hills;
At one time a thousand swords could be seen
Being unsheathed amongst the straths and glens.
Many a hero has been slain in battle
Trying to protect you in the time of need,
That nowadays is bereft of pride, power or strength
Alas and alack! the struggle lacked purpose.

Remember the seed of the heroes was once seen
Who have been sent into exile over the waves,
By treachery they have taken from your children
The borders that always they defended with swords.
The English foreigners came upon us and each one
Of those rogues have ruined us,
But if each one of us had been defending
Then we would have put a stop to the rot.

We have no possession of our own wealth
We have no control of our destiny in our own country,
Weak is the blood that once flowed red
Few are the folk valiant and tough.
The tribe who were fine, heroic and hardy are gone
Who in the struggle would always secure victory;
The people of Scotland are vanquished, glory of the hills,
Woe is me! that they speak the English tongue.

O beloved Scotland, land of mountains
Why forsake your children now?
Give them courage and hardiness
They once had in order to rise again;
Let them remember the fame of past warriors
And do not let your muse be forever silenced;
Let them rise and do not let them tarry
To put an end to the great ill-will of the Lowlander.

It is a rather intriguing to speculate what type of poetry Calum Maclean would have composed if he had kept at it. Certainly this rather youthful piece shows great potential. As an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, Maclean was politically active and he took every opportunity, it seems, to vent his feelings about Scottish nationalism. He even had the temerity to publically reproach Sir Thomas Holland (1868–1947), elected Principal of the University in 1929, who, in Maclean’s opinion, personified all that was wrong with Scotland at that time. 

Later, as an exile in Ireland between 1939 and 1946, Maclean even came under the suspicion of the G2, the Irish Secret Police working as part of the Irish Army’s Intelligence Section, which had opened up a file on him. Some, if not all, of the letters received by Sorley from Calum Iain were marked ‘opened by the examiner’ and it is probably inconceivable that word did not reach back to him in Clonmel that his correspondence and, he himself by implication, was under surveillance:

Material was gathered on the potential threats posed by other Scots in Ireland at the time. Colm MacClean [sic] was working at Clonmel Industries when he became of interest to G2. He was known as a Scottish nationalist, although again not a member of the SNP, but of the ‘younger University Scot[tish] Gaelic group’. A native of ‘one of the islands and’ fluent in Gaelic, MacClean appeared in Ireland in 1939 ‘principally to avoid conscription’, according to G2’s informant. Although this informant ‘never heard him discuss any subjects of interest to us’ and he expressed no affiliation as far as Irish politics were concerned, MacClean appears to have been monitored owing simply to his connections and a presumption that he was ‘as “Nationalist” as this country would care [him] to be’.

Despite what is contained in Maclean’s file, it still remains rather inexplicable why G2 had become suspicious of him in the first instance unless, of course, it was due to the ‘suspicious’ connections that he maintained. One wonders who the informant might have been and why Maclean, despite his Scottish nationalist leanings, should have been suspected personally of any political subterfuge. But it must be remembered that G2’s ‘paranoia’ with regard to resident nationalists was not without some justification:

The manager at Clonmel Industries was Seamus Horan, himself suspected of IRA affiliations, somewhat assuaged by his reported conversion to Fianna Fáil. By 1944 MacClean was also known to be friendly with members of the local branch of Ailtirí na hAiséirí (Architects of the Resurrection), but his level of interest in that fascistic, pro-German organisation was unknown. To complete the array of potential threats, MacClean’s brother, a poet, was known to be ‘an avowed Communist.’

Apparently, G2 continued to keep tabs on Maclean when he was still resident in Clonmel but with the war drawing to a close and as the perceived threat lessened of any likelihood of any Scottish nationalists becoming embroiled or interfering in Irish politics, then circumstances would prevail whereby other more likely targets would merit their attention with regard to national security: 

‘Actively in touch with the Scottish Nationalist movement’, G2 further noted that MacClean, born into a Presbyterian family ‘of the extreme conservative type’, had converted to Catholicism since his arrival. This confessional choice would itself have marginalised him from mainstream Scottish nationalism. Even so, MacClean was moved to remark to G2’s informant in March 1943 that ‘things were going well in Scotland’; probably a reference to the reinvigoration of the SNP under Douglas Young.

Daniel Leach, Fugitive Ireland: European Minority Nationalists and Irish Political Asylum, 1937–2008 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009)
Calum Maclean, ‘Alba ag Gul’, Portree Secondary School Magazine (1935), p. 10
Report Colm MacClean [sic], G2/4996, I[rish] M[ilitary] A[rchives], Dublin. Military Intelligence (G2)
Andrew Wiseman, ‘‘‘The people never seem to lose their charm’: Calum Iain Maclean in Clonmel’, Tipperary Historical Journal (2012), pp. 112–32

Calum I. Maclean graduating on 30 June 1939, University of Edinburgh. Courtesy of the MacLean family

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Stevenson’s “Red Fox”: Colin Campbell of Glenure and the Appin Murder

Robert Louis Stevenson, born on this day in Edinburgh’s New Town in 1850, was inspired by historical events in the Highlands such as the Appin Murder (1752) that gave him the impetus to pen his great novel  Kidnapped. He also begun to write his most famous children’s book Treasure Island in Braemar, one of the most land-locked places in the Highlands. The following short historical anecdote was taken down on the 29th of January, 1951, by Calum Maclean from the recitation of John MacDonald, Highbridge, Brae Lochaber:
Cailean Ghlinn Iubhair a theireadh iad ris an duine seo. Agus ’s e bh’ ann seamarlan, na mar a their iad sa Bheurla factor. Is bha e na fhìor-dhroch-dhuine do na daoine bochda. Is mar sin, bha duine na dhà air an lorg aige airson a thilgeil. Agus an latha a chaidh a thilgeil bha fear air an taobh a-bhos den loch aig Omhanaich is bha e a’ dol seachad air àite ris an abair iad A’ Chrao(bh) Chrom, nuair a chuala e an urachair air an taobh eile. Is thuirt e ris fhèin: “Rinn cuideigin eile coileach dubh dheth.”
Agus bha iad an dùil gur h-e Camaranach à Ceann Loch Mòr a mharbh e, ach chaidh a’ choire a chur air Stiùbhartach, gur h-e a mharbh e. Agus chaidh a ghlac(hc)adh, an Stiùbhartach truagh seo, agus chaidh a chur an àirde air a’ chroich agus a chrochadh. Agus thuirt e:
“Tha mise neo-chiontach. Agus leis an sin bidh iomadh bliadhna mun lion an sloc(hc) thar a bheil a’ chroich.”
Agus ’s ann mar sin a bha.
Tha an sloc(hc) ann gus an latha an-diugh. Agus tha carraig-chuimhne air a chur an àirde air a shon a tha furasd’ fhaicinn, nuair a tha neach a’ dol air adhart aig Baile a’ Chaolais. Agus an uair seo fhuair a chuideachda cothrom air a’ chroich a thoirt a nuas. Thilg iad sa mhuir i agus dh’fhalbh i air adhart. Agus thàinig i air tìr san Apainn. Agus their iad gus an latha an-diugh ris an àite san tàinig i air tìr Port na Crois.
And the translation goes something like this:
Colin [Campbell] of Glenure is what they called him. And he was a factor. He was a horrible man, especially to the poor folk. And because of that there were one or two who wanted to kill him. On the day that he was assassinated, there was a man on his side of the loch at Onich and he was going by a place called A’ Chraobh Chrom when he heard a report of fire on the other side of the loch. He said to himself: “Someone has turned him into a black cock [i.e. murdered him].”
And some reckon that it was a Cameron from Kinlochleven that assassinated him but it was blamed upon a Stewart; it was he that murdered him. And he was arrested, this poor Stewart [James of the Glen] and the gallows were built and he was hanged. And he said:
“I am innocent. And because of that it will take many years before the hollow of the gallows will be filled up.”
And that is how things turned out.
The hollow is there to this day. And a memorial cairn has been erected and it is easy to see when going by Ballachuilish. And when they got the opportunity to take the gallows down they threw them into the sea and they floated off. But they came ashore in Appin. They call the place to this day where they came ashore Port na Crois [Portnacroish, Port of the Cross].
The story is far more complicated than that but there is a general truth to the tale given its emphasis upon a complete injustice had been done through the execution of an innocent man even though he may had been complicit in a murder which he certainly did not commit.
SSS NB 9, pp. 789–90
Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday 10 November 2013

Lèirmheas: “The Highlands”

B’ ann bho pheann Fhionnghlaidh I. MhicDhòmhnaill a tha an lèirmheas seo a’ tighinn. Dh’fhoilliseachadh an lèirmheas seo anns an iris air an robh Gairm. Bha Fionnlagh MacDhòmhnaill (no Finlay J. mar as fheàrr as aithne do chuid) na fhear-deasachaidh air an iris còmhla ri Ruaraidh MacThòmais nach maireann. Chuireadh an dithist aca an iris air chois ann an 1951 agus bha Fionnlagh an sàs ann gu ruige 1964. Bha Fionnlagh na ùghdar cuideachd agus sgrìobh e trì leabhraichean aig a bheil cliù fhathast: Crowdie and Cream (1982); Crotal and White (1983); agus The Corncrake and the Lysander (1985). Mar a bhiodh dùil, bha fèill mhòr air “The Highlands” dar a thàinig e a-mach an toiseach ann an 1959: 

Chan eil ràithe nach sinn a’ faotainn ultach leabhraichean mu Ghaidhealtachd na h-Albann, a’ mhórchuid dhiubh air an sgrìobhadh le coigrich a thug sgrìob a tuath le camara agus a dh’fhiach ri luaidh a dheanamh air glinn ’s air na beanntan, agus air sluagh neònach aislingeach air an do thachair iad. Bithidh feadhainn de na leabhraichean sin a’ toirt gàire oirnn; bithidh feadhainn dhiubh a’ toirt na buidhich oirnn. Ach is tlachd mór a th’ ann leabhar fhaotainn air a sgrìobhadh le Gaidheal leithid Chlauim ’Ic’Illeathain. No Calum Beag Ratharsach mar as fheàrr as aithne do chuid againn e.

Ged a tha leabhar mu’n Ghaidhealtachd air a sgrìobhadh le Gaidheal chan eil sin r’a ràdha gu bheil an leabhar math oir uaireannan is am fear bho’n taobh amuigh as coimeasaiche air beachd a’ ghliocais a thorit air dùthaich no air sluagh. Ach tha Calum air a dheadh uidheamhachadh. Tha e ionnsaichte agus sgileil mar fhear cruinneachaidh òran agus sgialachdan. Chan eil e dheth fhéin leòmach no faoin Ghaidhealach.
Tha an leabhar a’ tòiseachadh le roimh-ràdh anns am bheil e a’ tearraideachadh gnè agus brìgh na dùthcha ris an can sin a’ Ghaidhealtachd agus as a sin tha e a’ comharrachadh mar a cholm eachdraidh agus gluasad nan sluagh na Gaidheil mar as aithne dhuinn an diugh iad. Tha e a’ sealltainn mar a dh’ fhàs na fineachan agus na teaghlaichean móra ann an ceàrnaidhean sònraichte de ’n dùthaich. Ann an deich duilleagan fichead no mar sin tha e a’ toirt ruith thairis air na suidhichidhean as an do shnìomhadh ’s an do shnaigheadh dualchasan nan daoine mu am bheil e a’ dol a bhruidhinn.
Tha e a’ tòiseachadh a shiubhail ann an Loch Abar oir mar a tha e fhéin ag ràdha ‘cha bhiodh Gaidhealtachd ann as aonais Loch Abair’. Tha e a’ toirt cùnntais air an blàran ’s air na laoich a chunnaic Loch Abar troimh na lìnntean agus tha e a’ toirt beò móran de eachdraidh an àite troimh na seanachasan a bha aige ri feadhainn de na seabhaltaich air an do thachair e leithid Iain ’IcDhòmhnaill am bard. Sin alt cho tlachdmhor ’s a tha aig an ùghdar so. Tha e a’ toirt an leughadair aghaidh ri aghaidh ri Gaidheal (mar Iain ’ic Dhòmhnaill) air am bheil e fhéin measail agus á bial a’ Ghaidheil sin tha an leughadair a’ faotainn tuigse air an duine fhéin agus air an dùthaich a dh’ àraich e.
Agus chan ann leam leat a tha beachdan Chaluim fhéin.
Agus chan ann ’gam mìlseachadh a tha e ’gan cur an clò.
Tha e a’ deanamh tadhail air Mórair, Arasaig agus Mùideart ann an aon chaibidil. Air Aird Ghobhair, Aird nam Murchan agus a’ Mhorbhairne ann an caibidil eile. An uairsin Bàideanach, Gleann Urchardan agus Gleann Moireastan. An sin Strath Glas, taobh sear Siorrachd Rois, agus Inbhir Nis. Dùthaich MhicAoidh agus taobh siar Siorrachd Rois, Lathurna agus taobh siar Pheairt.
Is e an call gu bheil an leabhar cho goirid, oir dh’ fhaodadh an t-ùghdar so leabhar a sgrìobhadh mu gach sgìreachd air am bheil e a’ toirt iomraidh.

                                                   F[ionnlagh] M[a]cD[hòmhnaill]
Fionnlagh MacDhòmhnaill, ‘The Highlands’ [Lèirmheas], Gairm, air 28 (An Samhradh, 1959), td. 378
Còmdachd den chiad chlò-bhualadh

Friday 8 November 2013

Traditions of John MacCodrum – IV

Anecdotes about John MacCodrum, styled Iain mac Fhearchair ’ic Codruim, especially those that contain pithy witticisms, spread far and wide throughout the Highlands and Islands. Here, for example, is quite a well known one taken down on the 17th of August 1946  by Calum Maclean from the recitation of Angus MacDonald, then aged eighty-three, who has been described by John Lorne Campbell (known as Fear Chanaigh as the last storyteller or seanchaidh of Canna:
Bha MacCodrum (Iain MacCodrum) a’ dol le sgothaich às Uibhist a dh’Ghlasacho, agus thadhaill iad aig Tobar Mhuire. Ann an sin thàinig fear a-nuas agus dh’fhaighneachd e cò an comaundair a bh’ air a’ luing.  
“Tha a’ stiùir,” orsa MacCodrum. 
“A! chan e sin a tha mi a’ ciallachdh idir, ach cò a’ sgiobair a th’ oirre?”  
“Tha an crann,” ors’ esan. 
“Cò às a thug sibh an t-iomradh?”  
“Às ar gàirdeannan,” orsa MacCodrum. 
Thubhairst a’ fear eile ann an sin: 
“An ann fo thuath a thàinig sibh?” 
“Pàirst fo thuath is pàirst fo thighearnan,” thubhairst MacCodrum.
And the translation goes something like the following:
John MacCodrum was going by boat from Uist to Glasgow and they stopped over in Tobermory. There a man came down agus asked who was the commander of the boat. 
“The rudder,” replied MacCodrum. 
“Ah! that wasn’t what I meant at all but rather who is her skipper?” 
“The mast,” he said. 
“From where did you row?” 
“From our shoulders,” replied MacCodrum. 
The other man then asked: 
“Was is from the north you came?” 
“Some of us are commoners and some of us are nobles,” answered MacCodrum.
NFC MS 1028: 184–85
William Matheson (ed.), The Songs of John MacCodrum: Bard to Sir James MacDonald of Sleat (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1938)
Angus MacDonald (1865–1949), styled Aonghas Eachainn, by courtesy of Canna House Archives (National Trust for Scotland)

Thursday 7 November 2013

Uist Keeps Its Own Sense of Values

Reproduced in full is the second article written by Calum Maclean that appeared in The Scotsman:
Recording of folklore material is a matter of immediate urgency
In his second article on Uist, Calum I. Maclean concludes that although the Rocket Range is not going to spell disaster to the Gaelic language and traditions the recording of the wealth of folklore material among the islanders is a matter of immediate urgency.
After leaving Anthony Currie I had to trudge back over the rough track to the lovely new road to Loch Carnan pier. Actually, most of the material for the range was being landed from barges which came halfway down the South Ford. At the crossroads of Gerinish, I noticed, the new tar-macadam surface does not go one inch further than is necessary to serve the purposes of the range. New bridges, however, have been built on the road all the way to Lochboisdale.
General opinion in Uist seems to be that the Rocket Range is not going to affect things all that much, but the era of prosperity that some hoped would result is not going to come, and the crofters will have to fall back on their land and the seaweed and tweed industries. South Uist is prosperous, but it was prosperous before the Rocket Range came and in any case its strong sense of non-money values remains unchanged.
English advancing
English, however, has made quite alarming inroads during the last ten years. In the summer of 1950 a very intelligent and respected Benbecula man, Donald MacPhee of Nunton, maintained that Gaelic had not receded an inch during the period from 1920 to 1950. English has now become the language of the playground in at least one of the Uist schools.
Local opinion also has it that the range is not going to affect the Bornish and Daliburgh parishes so very much, but there is a certain amount of uneasiness about Army buildings springing up on the machair of Cille Pheadair south of Daliburgh.
One can be too pessimistic and imagine that the Rocket Range is going to spell disaster to the Gaelic language and traditions. Something will survive in spite of everything. The person who is reputed to have learned Angus MacLellan’s tales and stories best of all is a young lady who is now married out in Kenya. In one of the houses I visited there were two or three young children who listened with intense interest and appeared to absorb everything that the old grandfather had to tell.
One of the young Catholic curates organises Ceilidhean every month. To these the old people come to tell stories, sing songs and dance Hebridean dances, while adults and children of both the Protestant and Catholic communities, attend them regularly. There everything is in Gaelic. There is still the well-known Uist passion for piping and the tremendous respect for pipers.
Piping schools
Pipe Major John MacDonald, late of the Glasgow Police Pipe Band, is now back home in retirement and had already started to teach pupils, while another noted piper who emigrated to Canada many years ago is due to return home soon. There is widespread regret that so many promising young pipers have to leave Uist and find work in Glasgow and the south.
It will be a tragedy, however, if the Rocket Range and the outside influence that come in its train do change the character of the people of South Uist. As the charming young wife of the local surgeon, herself a stranger from Cumberland: “The great beauty of life in South Uist is that people always go about with laughing, smiling faces.”
As has been stated already, the sense of non-utilitarian values is very strong. That has not changed much for generations, as Donald MacIntyre of Loch Eynort, a great storyteller and the son of an even greater one, the late Alasdair Mòr MacIntyre illustrates.
Alasdair MacIntyre was a shepherd and lived in a remote place to the east side of Ben More. It was from him that old Angus MacLellan of Frobost learned most of his tales, and old Alasdair used to walk from the back of Ben More to Ormiclate to record tales for the late Dr Alasdair Carmichael over 70 years ago. Carmichael was immensely proud of one tale he recorded and Donald himself recorded the selfsame tale a fortnight ago.
It is the international tale about the Clever Peasant Girl. No. 94 in the Grimm Collection. It took about an hour to relate, but Donald MacIntyre maintained that in the telling he had nothing like his father’s mastery of ornate, artistic language.
Old Alasdair and Angus MacLellan’s father, Aonghas mac Eachainn, were close friends. One day Alasdair Mòr called at the MacLellan home on his way to Lochboisdale. “No one went to bed in their house that night. They all remained by the fire as the two old men went on storytelling,” said Donald.
“Next day old Angus and two or three of the boys went down to Loch Eynort to gather seaweed. They brought Alasdair Mòr with them, as it would shorten his way, and they put in at a place where there was a track that would bring him home. Aonghas mac Eachainn got out of the boat also and accompanied Alasdair to see him safely on the track. The two old men sat down on a hillock and began storytelling, while the boys kept the boat afloat on the ebbing tide. The boys continued keeping the boat afloat for a very long time and soon twilight was upon them.
“Go up,” said one of the boys to another, “and separate those two devils or the boat will soon be high and dry.” One of the boys went up and the two old men parted. When Aonghas mac Eachainn came down to the shore, the boys remonstrated with him for having wasted the day and for not having cut any seaweed. Old Aonghas mac Eachainn looked up at the sky: “It will be a fine day tomorrow. We will get plenty seaweed tomorrow.”
Urgent need
While the academic, scholastic types who regard the tradition bearers of South Uist as “mere guinea pigs” are much more of a menace to those courteous and generous people than any Army personnel that the Rocket Range may bring amongst them, there is no doubt that the recording of folklore material is a matter of immediate urgency, for the really outstanding sources will not be with us much longer and whatever they leave with a younger generation will be inferior both in quantity and quality to what they themselves have now.
The refusal of a former Secretary of State for Scotland to accede to the request of the Edinburgh University authorities for funds to record the folklore and material of South Uist has been deplored by publicists and scholars both in this country and abroad. It is quite possible that, if the request had been made to the governments of Norway, Sweden or Denmark, the response would have been much more satisfactory.
Calum I. Maclean, ‘Uist Keeps Its Own Sense of Values’, The Scotsman (12 August 1959), p. 6
Angus MacLellan, Frobost, South Uist, photographed by Calum Maclean on the 24th of June 1959. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Cu Chulainn and the Rocket Range

Reproduced in full from The Scotsman is the first of two articles written by Calum Maclean about his experiences of collecting in South Uist:
Missiles may become obsolete but the storytellers of Uist are heirs to the ages
 Calum I. Maclean, of the School of Scottish Studies of Edinburgh University, has been visiting Uist, the island of the rocket range, where he has been recording the wealth of traditional tales, many of them going back to the roots of our cultural heritage, which has been handed down by word of mouth through the island generations. This is the first of two articles in which he describes his storytellers, recounts some of their tales, and comments of the effect of the range on the traditional culture of the islands.
I have just returned from Uist where I heard the first Corporal missile being fired from the machair of Gerinish and actually saw the second going up on the following day, the Corporal is already obsolete, but in Uist there is something which is still not obsolete, even after a thousand years.
On the 11th of June I saw Angus MacLellan of Frobost uncover his head in honour of Cu Chullain and then proceed to tell the heroic saga of Cu Chullain’s first feat, his exploits to take forcible possession of the Donn Ghuailleann, and his death after he had slain Fear Diad Mac Deafain.
While Fear Diad and Cu Chullain were at school learning the feats of arms they made a solemn compact never to oppose one another. Fear Diad is bribed to take the Brown Bull of Cuailnge away. The first day they spend hunting. On the following day Cu Chullain says, “What will be our sport today?” Fear Diad answers, “Our backs towards one another and the butts of our lances against each other.” “Nothing could be better,” answers Cu Chullain.
The next day Cu Chullain again asks what the sport will be. “Our face towards one another,” says Fear Diad, “and the points of our lances against one another and the take of our blood in the parting.” “Is it thus now?” asks Cu Chullain. “I did not think that that was the compact made between us when were at school.” “Ah well, it was not,” said Fear Diad, “but I am under oath to get either the Brown Bull or death.”
They fight and cast their lances at one another across a river. Their attendants recover the lances. Towards evening Cu Chullain hurls his lance and kills Fear Diad, while he himself falls with a mortal wound. As he lies shedding blood, he turns to his attendant and asks: “Do you see anything about the river here?” “Oh, I see nothing,” says the boy, “except that I see a dog drinking the blood down yonder.” “Go,” says Cu Chullain, “and bring me the lance.”
The boy goes for the lance, brings it to Cu Chullain who asks where the hound is; he casts at it and kills it. Cu Chullain’s eyes are now closing in death. “Have I slain the hound?” he asks. The boy answers that he has cut it in two. “Oh, that is true!” says Cu Chullain. “That (the killing of a hound) was my first feat and it was the last feat I had to perform. And now, it is all over with me, and whosoever wishes may now have the Brown Bull of Cuailnge.”
Ancient tale
The late Dr Alexander Carmichael, the collector of the famed Carmina Gadelica, recorded a different version of the above tale from Hector MacIsaac of Ceannlangabhat, Iochdar, South Uist and read it to a meeting of the Gaelic Society of Inverness on the 14th of November 1872. The discovery of a fragment of this ancient tale known at Tain Bo Cuailgne, the central tale of Cu Chullain cycle—the earliest known recensions of which are in the twelfth-century Book of the Dun Cow, the Book of Leinster, and the later Yellow Book of Lecan—caused quite a sensation for scholars had thought that it had long gone out of oral tradition. It was quite as remarkable as if an unrecorded version of the Iliad has been recovered in the Aegean in the last century or a fragment of the Saga of Beowulf in the current oral tradition of Northumberland.
Angus MacLellan of Frobost is 90 years of age. He belongs to a family of noted tradition bearers. Two of his sisters are still living, and at the ages of 93 and 87 are still full of songs and stories and still chant Ossianic lays dating back to the Viking times.
A daughter of the elder sister is Mrs Archie MacDonald of Gearraidh na h-Eilghe who has recorded over 200 folksongs. When her store looks like running out, she refers to her 93-year-old mother, who goes on remembering something new every day. A week ago she sang the lay about the Hag from Lochlann who came over to subdue Iceland and meet her death at the hands of the King of the Féinne, the valiant Fionn mac Cumhaill.
From her son-in-law, the inimitable Archie MacDonald himself, I recorded on the very same day one of the Fables of Aesop; but his lion and his fox were so, so characteristically Uist in expression.
I still remember the evening of the first meeting held in the school of Iochdar to protest against the establishment of the Rocket Range. It was towards the middle of August 1955. An old man came up through the middle of the hall and made a moving and impassioned speech in Gaelic. All his life he had struggled to make a livelihood on his croft in Iochdar and to bring up his family, but now his whole world seemed to be crashing about his ears. Later that evening he demanded angrily from the back of the hall that the motions before the meeting be stated in Gaelic before being put to the vote.
Ossianic lays
It was much later that I got to know his name, John MacQueen, but it was someone in Oban who told me that he sang Ossianic lays. I went to see him in his house about a fortnight ago. He was not a home but I awaited his arrival. He has aged a little since I first saw him, and now he walks with the aid of a stick.
In his boyhood he had been the person deputed to chant the Ossianic lays as parties of children went from house to house on Hogmanay and were given gifts of bread, sweets and apples. The lays were chanted before closed doors, it appears, and in recording the Lay of the Smithy, which tells about the one-legged Smith from Lochlann who enticed the heroes of the Féinne to his smithy in order to kill them, he incorporated the words, “Open the door for the Hogmanay man,” into the text.
He knows many songs and stories and composes songs himself. No one had ever recorded anything from him. When I was leaving he accompanied me, limping as he was, to the very limit of his croft. This is still the customary practice when one visits the crofters of Uist, but, in view of his age and obvious disability, I as real reason to feel honoured by his courtesy.
I proceeded northwards along the newly-surfaced road that runs through the Iochdar townships. I had a couple of miles to got but a small van overtook me and I was given a lift. There was another storyteller whom I had never met but who I thought might have stories, for a brother of his who died a number of years ago was a noted storyteller; their father had been the most famed Hebridean dancer in all Uist. Malcolm MacPherson or Calum an t-Saoir, as he is called, has a remarkable fund of international folktales with elements in them that have long reached the shores of Uist from India through Byzantium and Spain and up along the Atlantic coast.
He told a wonderfully humorous and slightly Rabelaisian version of the well-known tale about the fool who won the princess by making her laugh three times. Angus MacLellan of Frobost told the same tale, but there were remarkable differences between the two versions. They have been in Uist tradition for a very long time.
There is now a very fine road from the main one out eastwards from Iochdar to Loch Carnan, where the new pier has been built. I was taken by car as far as Loch Carnan School. From near the school there is a very rough track that leads to the houses on the headlands that jut into the South Ford. The track was strewn with rough stones in places but here and there it gave way to nothing but bog. I have over two miles to go before I reached the house of Anthony Currie, a direct descendant of the MacMhuirich family of bards and historians to the MacDonalds of Clanranald.
Anthony Currie evidently knows the MacMhuirich family traditions very well. Not only were they bards and historians but they knew a good deal about sorcery also. Anthony Currie is no 88. I had never met him before nor had any other folklorist contacted him either. This man has a wonderful command of Gaelic and an artistic turn of expression. He speaks of past events that suggests that he has lived in this and several proceeding centuries.
One story he did tell very vividly, and no other Uist storyteller has recorded it before, so far as I am aware. Young Ronald of Clanranald returned to Uist after the battle of Sheriffmuir. Reapers were cutting his corn one day. Ronald went among the reapers and noticed that one of them was working with his coat on. He went angrily up to him and told him to take off his coat; he was going to be disgraced by having it said that one of his workers worked with his coat on.
No shirt
“I shall not take off my coat,” said the man, a man from Iochdar. They argued for a time, and the man finally took off his coat. When he did so, Young Ronald of Clanranald saw that he had no shirt. “Put your coat back on,” said Clanranald. “I shall not,” said the man. They argued more fiercely than ever, finally the man let fire. “I shall not put my coat back on,” said he. “You did not ask me to put my coat on that day of Sheriffmuir when your heart was very low and I came between you and your assailant and death.”
“That is true!” said the astounded Clanranald, for he now recognised the Iochdar man for the first time. He brought him to his house and gave him not one but many shirts.
The last of the official MacMhuirich bards died in 1722 and the Clanranalds parted with Uist over a century ago, but here still is a member of the MacMhuirich family continuing a very long tradition. I had only a very short time in Anthony’s company. Fortunately for me, and immediate bond of sympathy arose, I had lost an arm and he had lost an eye. Anthony Currie must have an enormous fund of tradition. 
Calum I. Maclean, ‘Cu Chullain and the Rocket Range’, The Scotsman (11 August 1959), p. 6
Angus MacLellan, Frobost, South, Uist, photographed by Dr Kenneth Robertson in December 1959. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives