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Thursday 27 February 2014

Portrait of a Bard: John Campbell of South Uist

Reproduced in full from The Scots Magazine is an article by John Lorne Campbell. The bard in question was John Campbell, from South Lochboisdale, in South Uist. He was known locally as a poet and seanchaidh. Many of his songs were recorded and transcribed by John MacInnes (known as Iain Pheadair ‘ic Sheumais) and were edited and published by John Lorne Campbell in 1936. The collection was entitled Òrain Ghàidhlig le Seonaidh Caimbeul, the Gaelic Songs of Shony Campbell, the South Lochboisdale bard. Transcribed by John MacInnes MBE. Due to demand for the short-run of the first edition, a revised reprint was published in 1937. Fr Allan McDonald (of Eriskay) also transcribed a handful of songs from Campbell which remain unpublished. A selection of Campbell’s poetry is also available in Ronald Black’s monumental anthology An Tuil (1999).
Calum Maclean mentions John MacInnes in his diary entry when he and Angus MacMillan visited his home in Gerinish, South Uist, for a house ceilidh in 1948:

Dihaoine, 16 An Sultain 1949 [NFC 1301, 95–96]
Thòisich mi air sgrìobhadh sa mhadainn agus bha mi ag obair air adhbhar Aonghais MhicGilleFhaolain. Bha mi a’ sgrìobhadh an latha air fad gus an robh e mu chòig uairean feasgar. Rinn mi deagh-chuid obrach an-diugh. Mu sheachd uairean, thàinig an càr gam iarraidh agus chaidh mi fhìn agus Aonghas Barrach sìos a Ghèirinis a choimhead air Iain Pheadair. Thug mi an Eidifión leam a chionn bha mi a’ dol a thabhairt òrain sìos bhuaithe. Fhuair Aonghas Barrach agus mi fhìn gabhail againn gu math an taigh Iain Pheadair. Bha Iain a’ gabhail òran feadh na h-oidhche. Tha e a’ dol a dh’ ionnsaigh a’ mhòid air an t-seachdain-sa a’ tighinn agus bha e a’ cleachadh nan òran. Ach thug e dhomh roinn de sheann òrain bhrèagha. Agus de sheann fhuinn. Bha òran na dhà aige a chuala e aig Iain Caimbeul nach maireann, bràthair Sheonaidh Chaimbeil, agus athair Aonghais Iain a tha anns an taigh-òsta, ann an Loch Baghasdail. Thug e dhomh cuideachd òrain a rinn Seonaidh Caimbeul fhèin. Bha e mu uair sa mhadainn nuair a dh’fhàg sinn taigh Iain Pheadair. Bha oidhche againn a bha glè thaitneach. Chòrd an oidhche ri Aonghas Barrach cuideachd. “Cha tàinig rud cho math seo riamh an lùib dhaoine,” ors’ esan. Tha e a’ còrdadh ris a bhith a’ dol a-mach còmhla rium a chruinneachadh sgeulachdan is òran.

Friday, 16 September 1949 [NFC 1301, 95–96]
I began transcribing in the morning and worked on the Angus MacLellan’s material. I worked all day long until around five o’clock in the evening. I did a good day’s work today. Around seven o’clock, the car came to fetch me and Angus MacMillan and I went down to Gerinish to visit John MacInnes. I took the Ediphone with me for I was going to record songs from him. Angus MacMillan and I got a great welcome in John MacInnes’s house. John was singing songs all night long. He’s going to the Mod this coming week and he was practising the songs. But he gave me a number of beautiful old songs and the old tunes. He had a song or two that he heard for the late John Campbell, Johnnie Campbell’s brother, and from Angus John’s father who is in the hotel in Lochboisdale. He also gave me songs composed by Johnnie Campbell himself. It was around one in the morning when we left John MacInnes’s house. We had a very pleasant night. Angus MacMillan also enjoyed the night. “Nothing is as good as people’s company,” he said. He enjoys coming out with me when I’m collecting stories and songs.

Here, then, is the following article as mentioned previously:

Since the foundation of the Folklore Institute of Scotland in 1947, and the work of the Irish Folklore Commission in the Hebrides, interest in the traditional storytellers and bards of the Outer Hebrides has been revived. It has been my own privilege to know several of these striking personalities quite well. The one whom I knew best was my fellow-clansmen, John Campbell, called in Gaelic, Seonaidh Caimbeul, Seonaidh mac Dhòmhnaill ’ic Iain Bhàin (Johnny son of Donald, son of Fair-haired John).
I met him in the following way. In the spring of 1934 I went from Barra to South Uist for the purpose of organising new branches of the Sea League, which was then engaged in carrying on propaganda for the closure of the Minch to trawlers, for the creation of a local Fishery District Committee and for the establishment in Lochboisdale before my visit. The secretary of this branch, Mr John MacInnes, a native of South Lochboisdale, is well known today as a Gaelic singer and is at present the clerk to the local District Council.
During the course of my visit Mr MacInnes, who knew I was interested in Gaelic, told me that there was a bard living in his district and that it was a pity that his songs were not written down and published. I agreed. I suggested that as he was a neighbour of the bard, the best thing he could do would be to take down as many of the songs as he could himself, and I would type his manuscript and see it through the press, and that the expense of publication might be raised by collecting subscriptions locally. This would save us a good deal of the cost of distribution and the usual commissions exacted by publishers and booksellers.
This plan was agree upon. Mr MacInnes set to work that same winter. He had thought there would be about twenty or thirty songs to write down—by the time he had finished the total was a hundred. Out of these forty-five were chosen for publication, notes and a short biography added, and the book was printed privately in Dunfermline on behalf of the subscribers.
Not long after that first conversation I had the pleasure of meeting the bard himself. He was dignified, good-looking old man, then aged seventy-five, with a twinkle in his eye and the great fund of songs and stories that one often found amongst the men of his generation in Uist and Barra. He possessed the remarkable memory of men of his type as he had no formal education. He could write little more than his name, and his English was limited to a few expressions like “How do you do.” His mind was uncluttered with the lumber of a formal English education and filled with the poetry of the Gaelic bards of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and with the local traditions and anecdotes of his own island. He possessed an unbounding good nature and great patience and gave us all the assistance he could.
Seonaidh and his wife—they had no children—lived in a little three-roomed house on a small croft of what would be called extreme marginal land on the south shore of Lochboisdale. He cultivated this croft himself with the cas chrom.
Once the songs had been written down and typed it was my duty to revise them carefully with the bard himself, to make sure that no errors or misunderstandings had crept in. I used to got every evening from a neighbouring house along half a mile of wild and boggy road to Seonaidh’s house with the manuscript. Here Seonaidh would recline on the bench with his hands beneath his head, and taking up the first line from my reading would sign through the whole song. Practically every poem he ever made was made to some tune or other, for music permeates the literature of the Gael, and a bard would hardly every think of making a rhyme without having a tune in mind to which it would be sung.
I noticed when doing this work that Seonaidh was practically word-perfect. It was very seldom that he would omit a stanza or sing one in the wrong place, or even change a word from what had been written down several months before. But I have a much more striking proof of the accuracy of memory. It was known at the time that Mr MacInnes wrote these songs down that some of the m had been taken down over forty years earlier by the late Rev. Father Allan McDonald of Eriskay and by the late Rev. Dr George Henderson, formerly lecturer in Celtic at Glasgow University, who was interested in traditional Gaelic literature, and who used to pay visits to the islands for the purpose of collecting it. Fifteen years after the publication of the book of Seonaidh song’s I found these earlier manuscripts in the Henderson papers in Glasgow University Library. Collation with Mr John MacInnes’ transcriptions showed that practically no alteration had crept in during that time. The date of the earliest one I found in these papers is 1886, composed to a girl from Eriskay who died in a measles epidemic that year.
Seonaidh’s brother, John, known as Iain Clachair or John the Mason—their father, Donald Campbell was also a mason—had also been a bard. Seonaidh’s nephews, Angus and John Campbell, and the late Roderick Campbell were also gifted in the same way. This talent often runs in families in the Hebrides.
Seonaidh’s songs, which I am not quite sure are completely disentangled from his brother Iain’s—it is possible they helped each other in composition—cover all aspects of local life. It is in that that their importance to the folklorist and the social historian lies. I remember one reviewer remarking that although the songs were of some local interest, they had not great literary merit. It is not literary merit alone for which we are looking at them. The interesting thing about them is that they describe a way of life and point of view which, after having existed for hundreds of years, is now passing away like the morning dew in the sunshine.
Seonaidh had been a fisherman in the old days of sailing boats, when men from the islands had travelled to the East Coast of Scotland and engaged as members of crews fishing out of Peterhead and Fraserburgh. He had fished all over the Minch and the Moray Firth, he had met Gaelic speakers from all over the Highlands and Islands and learned to understand their dialects. If we want to find out what the life of these was like, we must turn to his songs and the songs of men like him. There is no other first-hand record of their feelings and their experiences. Seonaidh’s songs celebrate, for instance, the introduction of the mechanical capstan in the fishing boats, and the coming of the marine paraffin engine—inventions that revolutionised his profession.
There was no incident in a local life of any interest on which he was not equal in making a song. One long poem describes life spent in a sheiling with a companion during the winter, collecting sea tangles for kelp, watching and hoping that every winter storm would bring a fresh supply ashore. At the end of the winter the wages for six months of unpleasant hard work amounted to a guinea. It is not surprising to find that Seonaidh, like other bards of his kind, celebrated the introduction of the old age pension in a long and heartfelt poem which brings home how very hard life in the Hebrides must have been for old people, especially old people without young relations to support them, before the introduction of that measure by the late Lloyd George. The poem shows how the pension altered the whole aspect of life for people in Seonaidh’s position, and won them a new independence and respect.
There is a humorous side to many of these songs as might be expected. They describe comical incidents such as the local postman getting lost on the moor, or a dead steer which, being washed ashore on the Atlantic side of Uist, was buried and dug up again by some bright lands who thought they could sell the hide.
There is a song about a rouge of a travelling dentist who persuaded Seonaidh to let him remove his teeth, under promise of supplying a fine new set. The money was paid in advance but the new set never came, until the local policeman was appealed to for assistance. His intervention produced a set of teeth, but instead of being what was promised they were practically useless!
If many of Seonaidh’s songs do not possess great literary merit, at least they have the virtue of being true to life and absolutely sincere. He composed touching elegies on some of his relations and friends who predeceased him, and two or three religious poems on the birth and Passion of Our Lord which prove how strong a grasp the mind of an unlettered person of his type could have upon the essential realities of his religion.
Seonaidh’s book was a success as Gaelic books go. The first edition of four hundred copies at half a crown a piece was quickly sold out. A second edition followed in 1937 in which certain errors in the text of the first edition were corrected. This also sold out and another eighty copies, printed from the standing type before the war, have all gone also. The book is presumably out of print today. I am glad to say that after all the expenses had been met it was possible to hand over to the bard the sum of about ten pounds, representing the profit from the venture—a satisfactory outcome, as few Gaelic books make their authors a profit.
Seonaidh died at the end of the war. He continued making songs now and again, the last I believe on the rationing of tea, until near the end of his life. More than half his songs still remain unpublished. The language in which they are expressed is not always particularly easy, being the Gaelic of South Uist, employing a rich vocabulary including many localisms and also many allusions which are very difficult for an outsider not in the know to understand. It will be easier for students to read them when the dictionary of the dialect of South Uist, made by the late Father Allan McDonald in the [p. 5] nineties and recently rediscovered, has been edited and printed. Meanwhile, they serve to remind us of the wealth of the traditional literature of the Hebrides and the fact that a knowledge of Gaelic is essential to a proper understanding of that tradition.
All Seonaidh’s acquaintances regretted his death deeply. He was on of the most good-natured of man and the most entertaining of companions. His poetic talent, though sometimes used for the purpose of good-natured digs at his neighbours, was never employed for satire or lampoonery. I am afraid that there are not many people like him left today, and that in another generation even his songs themselves would be disappearing from local memory under the impact of English education, if they had not been written down. His type deserves all the encouragement it can get, in particular the encouragement of an attempt to transcribe and preserve the oral literature of the islands before it is too late.

John Lorne Campbell, ‘Portrait of a Bard’, The Scots Magazine, vol. LVIII, no. 1 (October, 1952), pp. 1–5
NFC 1301 [Calum Maclean’s diaries from 1949 to 1950]

The photograph of John Campbell using a cas-chrom (or foot-plough) was taken by Margaret Fay Shaw and may be dated to the 1930s

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