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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)

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