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Monday 24 March 2014

Teller of Legends: Angus John MacLellan of Griminish, Benbecula

In the spring of 1947 Calum Maclean (1915–1960) returned to Benbecula to what would turn out to be one of his most prolific collecting forays. He had already met two outstanding storytellers in the shape of Duncan MacDonald and Angus MacMillan and it was not long before he found another as Maclean was later to recall:

I went back to Benbecula within three weeks. It is generally the policy of our collectors to find the two best tradition-bearers in a district and collect their material completely before turning to other sources. I had found one source in Benbecula and I did not take long to find the other. In the same township, Griminish, and about a quarter of a mile from Angus MacMillan’s house, I found Angus MacLellan. They were practically next-door neighbours.

So within a small radius Maclean managed to find two of the best storytellers then available in Benbecula. Angus John MacLellan (1879–1949), known as Aonghas mac Iain ’ic Chaluim ’ic Iain Bhàin ’ic Nìll or Aonghas mac Anna Bàine, was a very different one from that of Angus Barrach MacMillan for his bent was for historical tales. Local historical traditions and such like poured out of him and a number of these were recorded on Ediphone before being transcribed into notebooks in order to preserve a permanent record. Maclean remembers MacLellan as:

…a slightly-built but very active man nearing seventy years of age. He was very alert mentally and a tireless worker. He was well-read and retained practically everything he read. He could read both Gaelic and English. He could turn his hand almost to any craft. He was a stone-mason, joiner, cartwright, cobbler and shopkeeper as well as being a crofter.

In those days lodgings in Benbecula were at a premium and Maclean was fortunate that MacLellan was willing to take him on as a paying guest. Not only was Maclean host to a fine storyteller but he was only a stone’s throw away from Angus MacMillan’s house. Such an arrangement made Maclean’s life a lot easier for he did not need to travel very far with heavy equipment in order to record his willing informants. Despite living in close proximity to one another MacMillan’s and MacLellan’s repertoires could hardly have been more varied. Maclean noted:

In the type of material the two had, there was a surprising difference and only in very isolated cases did both tell the same stories. Angus MacLellan regarded Angus MacMillan’s stories as purely fictitious. He had no use of chimerical, romantic tales. He preferred stories which had some historical basis. Angus MacLellan was the bearer of the floating traditions of the community. His material was mostly historical or socio-historical. But in addition to that he had much to tell relating to popular belief and practice and to popular mythology. He did not regard stories dealing with aspects of popular mythology, such as the existence of supernatural creatures, are mere fiction.

There are perhaps a number of reasons why this should be so. Maclean wrote that MacLellan’s stories not only came from a different source but also that his proclivity for traditional material, based upon local and not so local historical events, was his specialty:

… Angus MacLellan’s sources differed. His material was at one time the common possession of a great number of old people in Benbecula, but much of the material Angus got from the late John Gordon MacIntyre, who came originally from the Howmore district in South Uist and lived latterly at Griminish where he died over 20 years ago. Angus MacLellan had a vigorous style of storytelling and … his stories found a highly appreciative audience anywhere in Benbecula.

When Maclean began to take down MacLellan’s life story a mere month before he passed away the storyteller revealed that an old man, John Gordon MacIntyre, reckoned the MacLellans had been bards to the Clanranalds before the renowned MacVuirichs. MacLellan maintained that his ancestors had been generations before bards and storytellers of note. In South Uist they were known as Clann Ghille Brìghde. MacLellan maintained that his MacLellans originally came from Kirkcudbright in Dumfries and Galloway. His paternal grandfather was called An Cùbair Bàn (The Fair-haired Cooper) and his mother was a MacCormick; her people were called Clann Chaluim Shagairt on account of the scarcity of priests, a MacCormick came from Ireland to Uist in order to administer the sacraments and he later settled in Benbecula.

A short summary of a story – itself a folk etymology – recited by MacLellan about how Creagorry got its name should suffice in order to give a taste of his repertoire. Apparently a cheese was stolen from nearby Baile nan Cailleach (Nunton) and this was in the days before policemen, so a group of men was sent out to hunt for the thief. They went into a house near the South Ford and asked a wee lad that they found if he had eaten that day. He replied that he had, and so they asked him if he had eaten cheese. Again he said that he had, and so they thought that they had found their thief and waited until the boy's father came home. When he came in, they said that the boy had admitted to eating cheese and accused him of having stolen it. The wild man seized up the little boy and took him out to a rock on the beach to split open his stomach but nothing was found other than shellfish. The rock is still named Creag Ghoiridh (Creagorry) after the little boy to this day. A more likely derivation of Creagorry, which means Godfrey’s Rock, probably stems from a prominent MacDonald who had the name Goiridh. There is a famous branch of the MacDonalds in North Uist called Sìol Ghoiridh (Godfrey’s Progeny) and, perhaps, there might be some connection between them and one of the main settlements in Benbecula. 

On the 30 July 1949, Maclean received news of MacLellan’s passing the previous night from another friend, Katie MacMillan. He was clearly shocked for he had seen MacLellan working busily all week long harvesting and seemed to be in very good health. Immediately Maclean went over the house to find a very sad scene with MacLellan’s wife Seonag also in shock and Angus MacMillan himself who tearfully said that he wouldn’t get any more stories from him. On his return home, Maclean wrote an obituary for him. It was only a month beforehand that Maclean had begun to record MacLellan’s life story but it was tragically never to be completed. As was customary then, that very same night Maclean remained in the MacLellan household on an all-night vigil.

Maclean later recollected his time in MacLellan’s company with particular regard to his ability in telling engaging narratives about the historical characters and places of the Southern Outer Hebrides as well as elsewhere:

He himself was immensely proud to be able to tell of the generations of valiant men, whose names have become enshrined in oral tradition. He was a thoroughly practiced raconteur and a most active tradition-bearer. His sudden death on July 29th last year was a grave loss. Exactly a week before he died he recorded his 180th piece of narrative prose! Every story, I knew he had, was recorded but he had many, many more, which will never be recorded now. Angus MacLellan was certainly one of nature’s noblemen.

Indeed Maclean later ended his diary for 1949 with the following poignant note: 

Disathairne, 31 An Dùbhlachd 1949
An-diugh an latha mu dheireadh dhen bhliadhna seo. Tha mi an dòchas gum bidh barrachd dhaoine a’ cuinneachadh adhbhar beul-aithris sa bhliadhna a tha a’ tighinn na bha air a’ bhliadhna seo. ’S e bàs Aonghais MhicGilleFhaolain am Beinne na Faoghla an call is motha a thàinig oirnn am bliadhna.

Saturday, 31 December 1949
Today was the last day of the year. I hope that there’ll be more people collecting oral traditions in the coming year than there was this year. Our greatest loss suffered this year was Angus MacLellan’s death.                       

NFC MS 1031: 90–91 ‘Mar a fhuair Craig Ghoiridh an t-ainm’ / ‘How Creagorry got its name’
NFC MS 1301: 255
NLS MS.29790

Griminish, Benbecula

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