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Wednesday 30 September 2015

Isle of Barra: Capsule Biographies

During the autumn and winter of 1946/47 Calum Maclean went on his first fieldwork trip to the Isle of Barra. During his five months or so on the island, he collected a great deal of material from various storytellers and singers, including James MacKinnon, Seumas Iain Ghunnairigh, the first storyteller of the ‘old school’ that Maclean had ever met in Scotland. From him alone he recorded scores of stories, including many international tales. He also took the opportunity to record historical narratives from John MacPherson (The Coddie) and songs from Katie Buchanan. Towards the end of his stay in Barra, Maclean knew full well that he had only managed to scrape the surface of the amount of oral traditions then available. It is doubtful whether Maclean, if he had been given the opportunity to have extended his stay for a further four and half years, would have exhausted the seemingly inexhaustible fund of material to be had. The following are capsule biographies of some of the Barra folk from whom he recorded together with some links to longer biographies where available:

Catherine ‘Katie’ Buchanan née MacKinnon (1895–1974), Ceitidh Ruairidh Iain Bhàin as well as Bean Bhriain, was born and brought up in Bruernish in Barra. She was a daughter of Roderick MacKinnon, Ruairidh Iain Bhàin, known for his wide repertoire, especially his singing of Òrain Mhòra, or the Great Songs, and Christina MacLeod. Maclean recorded five songs from her recitation: O hill thu Chaluim, Gur h-e mo ghille dubh-dhonn, Tha caolas eadar mi is Iain, M’ eudal mhòr Mac ’ic Ailein and An Coire Riabhach (NFC 1029, 152–56; 409a–16). Her younger brother Donald Joseph MacKinnon, An Eòsag, whom she helped to bring up, was also a renowned traditional singer and was recorded extensively by Maclean amongst others.

Fr Joseph Campbell (1904–1967), Maighstir Eòsaph Ruairidh Bhàin, was born on the 17th of March 1904 in Barra to Catherine Campbell née MacKinnon, from Earsary, Barra, and Roderick Campbell, from Benbecula. He entered Blairs College to study for the priesthood in 1917. From Blairs, he attended St Peter’s College, New Kilpatrick, in 1923. He received the tonsure on the 1st of July 1927, minor orders on the 2nd of July and on the 11th of September 1927, the subdiacoante on the 29th September of 1928. Having finished his course of theology there he was ordained for the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, on the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, 1929, in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Glasgow, by the Archbishop Donald Mackintosh. After serving as a curate in Rothesay, Bathgate and Perth, his first appointment as a parish priest was to Eigg, in 1935 where he remained for the next six years. In 1941 he was transferred to Benbecula and served at St Mary’s, then Mingarry, Moidart, from 1951 and then finally to Glenfinnan in 1962 where, after being indifferent health for a couple of years previously, he died unexpectedly on the 9th of October 1967. It is stated in his obituary that: “By way of recreation, he took great interest in the folklore of the Gaelic West Highlands and made a small collection of unpublished material.” Maclean recorded nine songs, including Seathan, Ùisdean Mac ’illeasbuig Chèirich, Òran nam Bràithrean and Rann Eigeach (NFC 1153, 311–34).

Katie Gillies née MacKinnon (1891–1979), Ceit Mhìcheil Fhionnlaigh, from Glen but born in Kentangaval, and raised in Caolais, Vatersay. She had worked as a herring-girl. Maclean recorded and transcribed a prayer from her (NFC 1028, 198–200).

Neil Gillies (1887–1965), Niall Mhìcheil Nìll, a crofter-fisherman from Garrygall, near Castlebay, Barra. His sister was Mary Gillies (1891–1983), Màiri Mhìcheil Nìll, who was also a good singer. Maclean transcribed twelve dozen items from him, mainly short tales, with some historical anecdotes including one about the plague in Mingulay. One of his tales was published in translation in the anthology Scottish Traditional Tales, collated and edited by Alan Bruford and Donald Archie MacDonald. According to the storyteller’s own testimony, his parents belonged to Mingulay where they were married. They left the island around 1914 along with everyone else and settled in Barra. Neil heard all his stories and anecdotes from his father and Roderick Mòr MacNeil, Ruairidh Ruairidh Iain Mhòir, the father of Roderick MacNeil or The Crookle. According to Maclean, Neil would go to listen to the latter’s storytelling almost every winter’s night for a space of fifteen years and maintained that he hardly ever heard the same tale told twice. Gillies was recorded by a number of other fieldworkers including Donald Archie MacDonald, Elizabeth Sinclair and Dr John Lorne Campbell.

Annie Johnston (1886–1963), Annag Aonghais Chaluim, was born in Glen, near Castlebay, Barra, in 1886. She came of a family (Clann Aonghais Chaluim) of consisting of four other sisters and three brothers, one of whom, Calum Johnston, was also a renowned piper and singer. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Annie remained in Barra and became a schoolteacher at her local primary school in Castlebay. She followed this profession throughout her working life and was, by all accounts, an extremely well-respected and loved individual. Annie excelled in songs and she knew a great deal about òrain luaidh, or waulking songs, used in order to lighten the burden of work when fulling cloth. She also had reams of anecdotal stories and knew many òrain bheaga, or little songs, which was especially useful when it came to entertaining children. A great deal of her repertoire was recorded for the School of Scottish Studies Archives as well as many other visitors who came knocking at her door. In addition to these many recordings, Annie contributed to Gaelic folklore research and was an active member of the Barra Folklore Committee set up through the initiative of John Lorne Campbell and others. With her excellent local knowledge and contacts she willingly facilitated all manner of folklorists and scholars who came to collect songs and much else from the best women folksinger then available in Barra, who, if it were not for Annie’s efforts to cajole them and make them comfortable, would have been far too reticent to have a microphone placed anywhere near them. John Lorne Campbell paid a fitting tribute to Annie and her brother Calum Johnston with these words: 

Those who had the privilege of knowing Annie and Calum will treasure the recollection of highland hospitality, warmth of personality, generosity of spirit, and love for and knowledge of the oral Gaelic tradition, all at their very best and all expressed with completely natural spontaneity.

Calum Johnston (1891–1972), Calum Aonghais Chaluim, was born in 1891, in Glen, near Castlebay, Barra. He came of a family (Clann Aonghais Chaluim) of three brothers and five sisters, one of whom, Annie Johnston, was also a renowned tradition bearer.

On the 4th of December 1972, the eighty-two year Calum Johnston was waiting at the airport at Tràigh Mhòr in Barra in order to pipe the remains of Sir Compton Mackenzie to his last resting place. Even the driving cold rain and howling wind did not put him off as he played a lament as the coffin was carried from the plane. A large group of mourners wended their way to the cemetery at Eoligarry. After a brief funeral service, the piper began to swoon, and then he suddenly dropped dead on the wet turf.

Having left Barra at around the age of fourteen, Calum Johnston found himself in Manchester where he trained to become a draughtsman. Although he later became a secretary of the Manchester Pipers’ Association, the city was unable to offer a satisfactory outlet for his love of piping. Later, moving to Edinburgh, Johnston followed his career in engineering and held a position with Bruce Peebles Industries Ltd., and where he also had the opportunity to keep up his piping and became secretary and treasurer of the Highland Pipers’ Society. Johnston was ‘discovered’ as a singer by the folklorist Hamish Henderson who asked him to appear at the Workers’ Festival ceilidh in 1951 where he sang a song, Òran Eile don Phrionnsa (‘Another Song to the Prince’), composed by one of the predominant Jacobite bards Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (‘Alexander MacDonald’). The next year he was again invited and where he performed songs and played the pipes.

John Lorne Campbell clearly held Calum and Annie Johnston in great esteem when he wrote that “They represented what today is a very rare type — the cultured and educated Gaelic-speaking Highlander who could move in any society, but who had never forgotten or despised the Gaelic oral tradition which had been the ambience of their childhood. From this point of view, Anna and Calum were a remarkable brother and sister pair.”

Much of the material which Calum and Annie came by way of their MacNeil mother, Catrìona Aonghais ’ic Dhòmhnaill Mhòir (‘Catherine daughter of Angus son of Big Donald’), and two neighbouring MacKinnon sisters, Ealasaid and Peigi Eachainn ’Illeasbuig. Although Calum Johnston excelled in piping, especially in ceòl mòr, the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe and also singing òrain mhòra, or the great songs, his repertoire was quite varied and he made many contributions to the three-volume Waulking Songs of the Hebrides, co-edited by John Lorne Campbell and Francis Collinson. On his retirement around 1956, Calum Johnston and his wife, Peggy (also from Barra), returned to live in Eoligarry. John Lorne Campbell paid a fitting tribute to Annie and Calum with these words: “Those who had the privilege of knowing Annie and Calum will treasure the recollection of highland hospitality, warmth of personality, generosity of spirit, and love for and knowledge of the oral Gaelic tradition, all at their very best and all expressed with completely natural spontaneity.”

Neil (“Neillie”) Angus MacDonald (1910–1994), Niall Aonghais Ruairidh Nìll Sheumais, was the son of Roderick MacDonald and Flora MacPherson (previously MacMillan) who belonged to Benbecula. He was teacher and a well-known piper from Castlebay. He was educated at St Mungo’s Academy in Glasgow, the University of Glasgow and later went to Jordanhill College of Education for teacher training. Initially, he taught in Barra where he eventually became headmaster in Eoligarry.

After serving during the war with the R.A.F. in India he became headmaster at Castlebay and then in 1957 was promoted to St Joseph’s School in Inverness. He became a member of the Gaelic Society of Inverness from 1957, and was a tutor to the Inverness Gaelic Choir. Descended from a long line of pipers, he was taught by his father initially, and then continued under the tutelage of John MacDonald of Inverness, after having received a two-week crash course in ceòl mòr from John MacColl. He competed successfully at competitions and won many prizes. MacDonald’s claim to fame as a piper was playing a set of tunes starting with the strathspey The Braes of Tullymet and a couple of reels, The High Road to Linton Mrs MacLeod of Raasay, during the rèiteach, or betrothal, scene in the film Whisky Galore. As a composer, teacher and judge of piping he was greatly respected and considered an authority. He was an active member of the Inverness Piping Society and eventually became its President; he was also a member of the Piobaireachd Society. He also produced a fine collection of pipe music, simply entitled New Bagpipe Collection of Old and Traditional Settings (1978), containing his own compositions as well as many traditional tunes that had not been previously published. Interestingly, he inherited Calum Johnston’s pipes and also had a reel as well as a pibroch composed in his honour by Pipe-Major Donald MacLeod. He was awarded the Benemertenti Medal by the Vatican. In 1961, he became Honorary Piper to the Gaelic Society of Inverness and, in 1979, was succeeded by his son, Roddy. At the time of his death, he was survived by his widow, Nan (Annie Fraser), their two sons and two daughters as well as eight grandchildren.

Donald Joseph MacKinnon (1907–1962), Dòmhnall Eòsaph mac Ruairidh Iain Bhàin, and commonly known as An Eòsag from Bruernish, Barra. He was a son of Roderick MacKinnon, Ruairidh Iain Bhàin (whose sister was Mòr, bean Shomhairle Bhig) and Ciorstaidh Alasdair Chaluim and they had a dozen of a family. Maclean made a few recordings and transcribed one story and two songs in 1958 (SSS 23, 1766–75). MacKinnon’s mother tragically died when he was only two years of age and so thenceforth was brought up by his two sisters, Ceit and Sìne, both of whom were fine traditional singers. For bravery shown at Dunkirk whilst aboard the RMS King George V, MacKinnon was commended and awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. His later career in the Merchant Navy stood him in good stead and saw him rise to the rank of Captain on MacBrayne’s steamer, the Lochmor. He and his wife Neilina ‘Nellie’ MacPherson (1907–1992), from Griminish, Benbecula, settled at Kenneth Drive, Lochboisdale, South Uist, with their family of a son and three daughters: Chrissie, Margaret, Donalda and Roddy. He and his wife were buried in Hallin cemetery, South Uist. An elegy, entitled Marbhrann do Dhòmhnall Eosaibh MacFhionghuin, Sgiobair na Lochmoir, was composed by Donald MacDonald from Ard-Chuig, Benbecula. His older sister Kate Buchanan was also a renowned traditional singer and was also recorded by Maclean amongst others.

James MacKinnon (1866–1957), Seumas Iain Ghunnairigh, a crofter-fisherman from Northbay, was the son of John MacKinnon and Flora MacNeil. In 1900, he married Annie Campbell, daughter of James Campbell and Margaret Nicolson, and had issue. He was one of only four storytellers that Maclean reckoned to be exceptionally talented. One story from his wide repertoire was recorded and published by John Lorne Campbell.

Although never attending school nor being able to read or write and having only a smattering of English did not stop MacKinnon from having a prodigious memory. Some sixty years previously MacKinnon had learned many tales from an old-bedridden man named Roderick MacDonald, who lived in a black house in Earsary, and prompted by Maclean a great deal of them came flooding back.

MacKinnon was the first practised storyteller Maclean had met in Scotland of the type that had been previously been collected by the likes of John Francis Campbell, Hector MacLean and Alexander Carmichael. Judging by the impressive quality and delivery of MacKinnon as a storyteller and by his knowledge of international tales, Maclean’s remark that he had not come anywhere near to exhausting his repertoire rings true. Nevertheless, on his fairly short fieldwork trip, Maclean recorded and transcribed thirty-four stories, around six of which were international tales such as Màiri Corent [‘Mary Corent’] (ATU 571), A’ Phears Eaglais agus na Tunnagan [‘The Clergyman and the Ducks’] (ATU 1741), Am Muillear agus an Gille Sasannach [‘The Miller and the English Servant’] (ATU 1544), Oidhche Rionnagach, Reulgach [‘A Starry, Bright Night’] (ATU 1505), An Duine Uasal, an Sagart agus an t-Amadan [‘The Nobleman, the Priest and the Fool’] (ATU 922), Am Fear a Leig air gun robh e Marbh [‘The Man Who Prentened to be Dead’] (ATU 1350) and Am Fear a Rug an Fheannag [‘The Man Who Caught the Crow’] (ATU 1739A) (NFC 1028, 254–361; 381–449; 480–504; NFC 1029, 169–278; NFC 1030, 103–96)

Hector MacKinnon, Eachann Phàdraig, a crofter from Bogach – and from whom transcribed fifteen items, mainly songs including Fàgail Bharraigh (NFC 1029 112a–33; 157–67; 312–15)

Fr John MacMillan (1880–1951), Maighstir Iain Dhonnchaidh, from Craigston. In 1894, MacMillan was admitted to Blairs College, near Aberdeen, and spent the next five years there training for the priesthood. From there he proceeded to Issy and St Sulpice and was ordained by Bishop George Smith in the pro-Cathedral at Oban in 1903. After a period as an assistant at Oban, he was appointed to the charge of Eigg and the Small Isles, and later, in 1908, was appointed to Benbecula.

Following World War I, a great many families from the Southern Outer Hebrides emigrated to Canada on the Marloch in 1923 and were settled at Red Deer in the province of Alberta. MacMillan volunteered to emigrate along with them and remained in Canada for two years ministering to their spiritual needs. On his return he was placed in charge of Ballachuilish, but after a few years he was then appointed to Northbay, Barra, and later on in 1926 to Craigston, from which charge he retired through ill-health in 1943. MacMillan was remembered fondly for his congenial personality and his almost childlike disposition. Maclean later gave a vivid description of one of his visits to MacMillan.

Finally succumbing to a series of heart attacks in 1951, MacMillan passed away in his seventy-second year, and nearly fifty years of his priesthood. Such was the affection and esteem that he held among the islanders that twelve hundred mourners attended his funeral. They came from the neighbouring islands of Eriskay, South Uist and Benbecula, and they took part in the procession led by Neil Angus MacDonald and five other pipers which wended its way through the townships of Craigston and Borve to St Brendan’s churchyard on the outer fringe of the western shore of his native island where he was laid to rest beside his ‘spiritual father’ the Rev. William MacKenzie.

Flora NacNeil (1928–2015), Flòraidh Sheumais Mhurchaidh and also Flòrag an Tàilleir, was born and raised on the Isle of Barra. She became renowned for her traditional singing from an early age. Flora left her native isle in 1948 in order find work in Edinburgh. With her wealth of Gaelic song, she soon began to find an audience in the burgeoning round of ceilidhs and concerts that marked the first stirrings of the Scottish folk revival. These brought her to the attention of Hamish Henderson, who recorded her singing as part of his landmark 1950s collecting project with Alan Lomax. He also invited her to perform at the inaugural Edinburgh People’s Ceilidh in 1951, an event whose seismic repercussions, in bringing live, authentic, traditional Scottish music to an international audience, are still being felt today. Since then, Flora has sung on many of Europe and America’s most illustrious stages, mesmerising audiences everywhere with the strength and sweetness of her voice, her profound interpretative empathy, and her magically subtle handling of ornamentation. She has also recorded two classic albums, Craobh nan Ubhal in 1976 (reissued in 1993) and Òrain Flòraidh in 2000. One of the last true carriers of a living oral tradition, she has not only inspired growing numbers of talented successors but helped to shape the very musical context in which their careers have flourished.

John MacNeil (b. c. 1879), Iagan Nìll Dhòmhnaill Mhìcheil, a crofter then living in Eoligarry but originally from Garrygall, a brother of Neil MacNeil. Maclean transcribed a total of eleven items, some of where short historical narratives and an interntional tale, An Gille Cam agus an Sassanach [‘The One-eyed Servant and the Englishman’] (AT 155) (NFC 1029, 112a–33; 279a–311).

John Maclean, Iagan Nìll Bhig, from Eoligarry from whom Maclean transcribed six items, all songs, including A’ Bhìrlinn Bharrach (NFC: 1030 247–52; 362–79). Maclean notes that Maclean learnt his tales from an old man in Castlebay, named Iagan Ruadh Caimbeul.

Mary MacNeil (1898–1965), Bean Dhòmhnaill Bhig Fhearchair or Màiri Ruarachain, from Glen and from whom Maclean transcribed two items, one of which was Bheir Soraidh Bhuam do Bharraigh (NFC 1028, 203–08).

Neil MacNeil, Niall Iain Choinnich from Garrygall, Castlebay, from whom Maclean transcribed four items, a tale and three lays: Duan na Muireataich, Duan na Ceartaich, Duan Cullaig (NFC 1031, 7–17; 38–45)

Roderick MacNeil (b. 1881), An Crugal or The Crookle, from Garrygall, near Castlebay, was the son of Roderick MacNeil, Ruairidh Ruairidh Iain Mhòir. His wife was Mary MacDonald from Ardveenish, the daughter of a well-known storyteller, Murdoch MacDonald (c. 1854–c. 1945), Murchadh an Eilein. They set up home in Ardveenish where they ran the local shop. Both Sir Compton Mackenzie and John Lorne Campbell knew MacNeil well. Mackenzie wrote in his autobiography that “The Crookle had been a merchant seaman and had been caught with his ship in Smyrna when the Turks went to war with us in 1914. So he had spent the whole war as an internee in Smyrna. He was a great reader and I recall the eagerness with which he used to read the proofs of Greek Memories when they arrived. Bean Crookle, his wife, was a Macdonald, and with them lived her father, a saintly old man in his eighties whose charity was boundless and faith unquestioning; one thing only slightly perturbed him and that was when the Crookle and I went off on Sunday evening to play auction bridge with Father John and Neil Sinclair, the schoolmaster of Northbay, always known as the Sgoileir Ruadh—the red scholar—to distinguish him from another great character John Johnston, the Sgoileir Bàn or fair scholar who was the schoolmaster at Greian.” Maclean transcribed fourteen items from MacNeil, mainly short anecdotes (NFC 1209, 135a–51)

Donald MacPhee (1869–1954), Dòmhnall Bàn Eileanach, was a crofter-fisherman from Brevig in Barra. MacPhee was born on the remote isle of Mingulay, some dozen miles from Barra, which was completely abandoned in 1914. The people of Mingulay subsequently resettled in Barra as well as neighbouring Vatersay. In his obituary notice it states that he was “a man of keen intellect and retentive memory, he was a senachie of outstanding powers, being well-versed in the lore of his native island. On his marriage he took up residence in Brevig, where his home became the village ceilidh house.” In a note written by John Lorne Campbell, the following information is provided: “Domhnall Bàn Eileanach [Eileanach = Mingulay man] recorded about 130 Mingulay place names for me in 1937. He also sent me the story Leum Iain Òig, published in ‘Outlook’ and other items written in Gaelic by himself. These are all that remain of his lore. His papers were destroyed by a member of the family after his death [JLC]. Maclean transcribed two items only from him, a self-composed song and a very interesting socio-historical recollection of the events leading up to and during the Vatersay Raid in 1909 and the local and national repercussions thereafter (NFC 1031, 18–37). At the time of his death, he was survived by his wife and his family of three sons, Calum, Donald and Michael, and three daughters, Catriona, Morag and Peggy.

John MacPherson (1876–1955), The Coddie (sometimes The Coddy), and described by Compton Mackenzie as “the outstanding character in Northbay.” Owing to the recurrent surnames in the islands nicknames came in handy so John MacPherson was given his at a young age which stuck to him all his life. His patronymic was far longer, Iain mac Nèill ’ic Iain ’ic Aonghais ’ic Chaluim ’ic Iain but, to many an outsider, he was simply known as the “Uncrowned King of Barra.” The Coddie was a son of Niall MacPherson and Ann MacLachlan.

The highlights of his public life were twofold as Barra’s Country Councillor; he saw success crowning his campaign to obtain funding for a new pier at Castlebay, and his involvement with Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore. With his passing in 1955, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Barra had lost a real character the like of which will never be seen again.

A particular debt of gratitude is owed to Màiri Ceit MacLean at the Barra Heritage Centre for her assistance with genealogical enquiries and also for useful biographical information.

Calum Maclean, Katie Buchanan and John MacPherson, Northbay, Isle of Barra, by George Scott-Moncrieff, May, 1943. Courtesy of Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann, Coláiste Ollscoile Baile Átha Cliath / National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

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