Total Pageviews

Thursday 12 December 2013

A Great Gael: A Review of Calum Maclean’s The Highlands

Some sixteen years passed by before Calum Maclean’s book The Highlands, first printed in 1959, was republished by Club Leabhar in 1975. The following is a review by John MacLellan that appeared in The Scots Magazine. MacLellan in his favourable review remembers reading the book on its first appearance and is of the opinion (shared by many) that some memorable passages left a lasting impression:

It speaks volumes for a writer’s integrity, for the sincerity of his belief in what he is saying, when the very words and images he uses to express himself, remain indelibly engraved upon the reader’s mind. For me, the late Calum I. Maclean triumphantly passes this test. For, although it’s seventeen years since I first read The Highlands, his loving portrait of his native Gaeldom, there are scenes in it, and comments and judgements, which I have never forgotten, simply because they are so positive and so patently consistent with the man’s own identity and with his convictions. When the book first came out in 1959, the cultural heritage of the Gaelic was in even a more parlous state than it is now, for many of its last custodians were nearing the end of their days. I suppose that most of those grand story tellers, who passed their treasures on by word of mouth to Calum Maclean are now gone beyond recall, but, thanks to them and thanks to him, much that must have been lost for ever has been rescued, literally from the grave, and preserved for posterity.
Now the book has been reprinted by the Club Leabhar, the Highland Book Club, with financial support from the Royal Celtic Society, Edinburgh, as an elegant memorial to a gifted and gallant Highlander and an acknowledgement of the legacy he left to future generations of his race.
What of those impressions of Calum Maclean’s work which have stuck in my own mind since I first read them only a few months before his tragic and premature death? One example of his fearlessness in stating the truth, as he saw it, occurs in his description of the gentry at the Argyllshire Gathering: “A special covered enclosure is reserved for ‘members,’ namely county families and their friends, and the general public is not admitted. The stand is usually full of sophisticated, painted, and ungainly women with their husbands masquerading in their kilts and plaids and their young sons, home on vacation from school in England, replete with impeccable non-Scottish accents and kilts and shepherds’ crooks twice their own size.” And later Maclean chanced to be in the cocktail bar of a large Oban hotel when a party of county folk arrived on their way to one of the Highland Balls, “for the exclusive enjoyment of the ‘quality’.” “I had,” he wrote, “the rare the rare opportunity of scrutinising them at close range, and what struck me most was how utterly English they were both in mannerisms and speech. The sober truth is that there is no longer any Scottish or Highland aristocracy and there has not been for a very long time.”
I have never forgotten this passage because it goes to the very heard of Gaeldom’s tragedy. The process of alienation between clansmen and chief, after Culloden, inseparable from the Anglicization on the Highland gentry, led inevitably to the virtual persecution of much of the race, and the vitiation of its ancient language and culture. Calum Maclean carried the sorrow of this betrayal in his heart, and made the cause of rescuing what he still could of that martyred heritage, his mission during the last nine years of his short life.
The charm of the man shines through these pages as he pursues his odyssey through the historic territories of the clans—Lochaber, Morar, Arisaig, Moidart, Ardgour, Ardnamurchan, Morvern, Badenoch and the rest—names dear to Highland hearts, which no reforming bureaucrat can ever hope to extinguish. The book is the story of his travels in these places and stories they passed on to him. As he put it himself: “I have to find living people whose memories were not dead.” At the time Calum—who had been employed by the Irish Folklore Commission—was on loan to the School of Scottish Studies, and a colleague has estimated that during the period covered by the book, he used nearly 100 miles of tape, collecting his material, even then warning that this was “far from being enough.”
It is immensely sad that Calum Maclean was not spared to carry on his task, but Gaeldom owes him an everlasting debt for what he did accomplish in a life which must be an inspiration to all who believe, as he did, that Highland culture is a unique and priceless possession which civilization cannot afford to lose. The new edition is enriched by an affectionate memoir by Sean O’ Suilleabhain of the Irish Folklore Commission and by poems in Gaelic and English by John Macleod and by Calum’s two brothers, the late John Maclean and Dr Sorley Maclean.

Sorley Maclean, writing to the late Frank Thomson, who had assisted with the new edition, on the 19th of December 1975, thanked him for all his help and also for the two copies that he had sent to him:

Dear Frank,

The two books arrived yesterday, and they certainly look well. I am very pleased indeed with them, and so I daresay all our family will be. You have done a great job. What a pity you did not get the job when you first asked me. Still, it is good to get it done now, and I do hope it will be as much of a success financially as it is aesthetically.
I wonder if you have sent a copy to Sean O’ Suilleabhain; if not, tell me and I will do it myself. Meanwhile my great gratitude to you and all the very best.

Le deagh dhùrachd agus mìle taing, agus bliadhna mhath ùr.

Somhairle MacGill-Eain

Club Leabhar Ltd., Acc. 12149/9, National Library of Scotland
Calum Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhirnis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
John MacLellan, ‘A Great Gael’ [Review of The Highlands], The Scots Magazine, vol. 104, no. 6 (March, 1976), pp. 645–46

Front cover of the second edition of The Highlands (1975)

Thursday 5 December 2013

A Charming Start

Even in his teenage years Calum Maclean took an active interest in oral traditions such as stories, songs, historical legends and so on. This is hardly surprising given that his own family and relations were steeped in tradition and were particularly strong in respect of singing and piping. As a sixth year pupil in 1935, Maclean published in Portree Secondary School Magazine the following charm:

In these days when so many old customs are fast sinking into oblivion, it may be of interest to know that there are still a few who adhere to the ways of tradition. It may be a surprise to some, that even yet there are those who can dispense with the services of a doctor or veterinary surgeon. Some yet remain who have implicit faith in the modes of healing employed by their fore-fathers a century or more ago, and remember their charms and exorcisms, and are able to apply them when occasion arises. For practically all ailments the people of the glens had charms; there was a charm for jaundice, the charm for toothache, the charm for a bursting vein, the charm for a sprain, and various charms for counteracting the evil eye.

All the charms were simple, and in them the distressed people invoked the help of the Triune of grace, or the help of Columba or of Bride, the aid-woman of Christ, or even of the mother, Mary. The charms were of no avail unless there was implicit faith in them. The person who applied the charm had to believe that it would produce the desired result; it was the same in the case of the patient. The failure of a charm to prove effective was always attributed to lack of faith.

As recently as last year a Skye doctor was surprised to find round the wrist of a patient suffering from a sprain a string knotted in three places. On enquiring what it meant, the patient replied that a certain person had applied the charm for sprain, “Eòlas air sniamh.” Thus did a skilled technician, trained in one of the most efficient institutions in the country, find that the traditional modes of healing were still adhered to, and were competing in some places with modern surgery.

The charm for sprain, because of the ailment it treated, was one of the most common charms in practice, and in consequence was among the most familiar. Like all other runes and incantations of antiquity, it had different versions, each district having its own particular version. In “Carmina Gadelica” there appear three versions of “Eòlas air sniamh.” The first version, which is a short one, was collected in Benbecula; the second, which is also short, was collected in Lewis; and the third, which is perhaps the best of the three, comes from Arisaig. The Skye version, which we shall give later, bears close resemblance to the Arisaig version than to either of the other two.

The version which appears here was taken down from the dictation of one belonging to a type that is fast disappearing from our midst. He is a person endowed with a retentive memory and an excellent command of his native tongue; and, moreover, has a strong individuality which has enabled him to withstand those whom intolerant bigotry and scrupulous Calvinism deprived of all their interest in folk-lore. In his youth he was taught many charms, but many of these he has forgotten through lack of practice. The charm for sprain he had on several occasions practised, and in most cases with success. His trust in it has never wavered, and he can relate several instances of the charm proving efficacious. He it was indeed who had pitted his skill against that of the doctor—the incident to which we have already referred.

At first we could not induce him to tell the charm, for regarding it there was a law that it could only be told by a man to a woman, or by a woman to a man; any transgression of this rule meant that the charm was no longer efficacious as far as the transgressors were concerned. A woman who revealed the charm to another woman could not longer practise it, neither could a man who revealed it to another man. The version below was obtained only after the three versions in “Carmina Gadelica” were recited to assure the exorcist that the charm would lose its efficacy.
The “Eòlas air sniamh” was applied in cases of sprain, or even of fractured arms or legs. A piece of string or a thin strip of cloth was procured. This string or cloth was knotted in three places, the three knots being symbolic of the Trinity. Each knot on being tied was spat on three times. While this was going on, the following was repeated in an undertone, there being a pause whenever the knots were being spat on:—

Chaidh Criosd a mach
Air maduinn mhoch
Chaidh e sios do’ n loch
Fhuair e na h-eich ‘s a’ ghart
Is an cnamhan briste mu seach
Chuir e cnaimh ri cnaimh
Chuir e smuais ri smuais
Chuir e feidh ri feidh
Chuir e fuil ri fuil
Chuir e feoil ri feoil
Chuir e seiche ri seiche
Mar a leighis Criosda sin
Is comasach e air leigheas so.

Christ went out
On a morning early,
He went down to the loch,
He found the horses in the corn
With their bones broken apart,
He put bone to bone,
He put marrow to marrow,
He put sinew to sinew,
He put blood to blood,
He put flesh to flesh,
He put hide to hide,
As Christ healed that,
Able is He to heal this.

As the exorcist placed the symbolical string on the injured limb, he said: “Tha mi ag cur so an ainm Tri-aon nan gràs, an athair, am Mac is an Spiorad Naomh”─“I place this in the name of the Triune of grace, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

It is uncertain from whom Maclean collected this fairly common charm but it may have been from from Donald MacCallum in Portree. Maclean later noted that the first story that he ever recorded was in 1935 from this man and it would be reasonable to guess that he may have collected the above charm as well.

One does not have to search far or wide for this fairly common charm, as Maclean stated in his short article, for many other versions were collected not many years before by Alexander Carmichael (1832–1912), and can be found in his great if controversial compendium of Gaelic lore entitled Carmina Gadelica (1900). The charm collected by Carmichael is entitled ‘Eòlas an t-Sniamh’ / ‘Charm for Sprain’ and the similarities between them can be readily seen:

CHAIDH Criosd a mach
Maduinn moch,
Fhuair e cas nan each
’Nan spruilleach bog;
Chuir e smior ri smior,
Chuir e smuais ri smuais,
Chuir e cnaimh ri cnaimh,
Chuir e streabhon ri streabhon,
Chuir e feith ri feith,
Chuir e fuil ri fuil,
Chuir e creais ri creais,
Chuir e feoil ri feoil,
Chuir e saill ri saill,
Chuir e craicionn ri craicionn,
Chuir e flonn ri flonn,
Chuir e blath ri blath,
Chuir e fuar ri fuar;
Mar a leighis Righ nam buadh sin
Is dual gun leighis e seo,
Ma ’s e thoil fein a dheanamh.
      A uchd Ti nan dul,
      Agus Tiur na Trianaid.

CHRIST went out
In the morning early,
He found the legs of the horses
In fragments soft;
He put marrow to marrow,
He put pith to pith,
He put bone to bone,
He put membrane to membrane,
He put tendon to tendon,
He put blood to blood,
He put tallow to tallow,
He put flesh to flesh,
He put fat to fat,
He put skin to skin,
He put hair to hair,
He put warm to warm,
He put cool to cool,
As the King of power healed that
It is in His nature to heal this,
If it be His own will to do it.
      Through the bosom of the Being of life,
      And of the Three of the Trinity.

According to Carmichael, the above charm was collected from Mary MacDonald, a shepherd’s wife, from Caim, Arisaig.

Although Maclean would later collect more charms they were not as plentiful as they had been when Carmichael had been posted to Uist as an exciseman. Doubtless if Maclean’s initial remit had been broader than romantic stories then he may well have collected more charms than he actually did.

Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T. & A. Constable, 1900)
C. McL (VI.) [Calum Maclean], ‘A Practice of Old Gaeldom’, Portree Secondary School Magazine, no. 2 (June 1935), pp. 9–10

Image used by Carmichael to illustrate the charm ‘Eòlas an t-Sniamh’ / ‘Charm for Sprain’ in Carmina Gadelica, vol. 2, p. 20