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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

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