The Calum Maclean Project is based at the department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh and focuses upon the collected archive materials of the renowned folklorist and ethnologist Calum I. Maclean (1915-1960). For further details, please visit the project website.
of the oldest folk on the Isle of Eigg at the time that Calum Maclean was
collecting material there in 1946 was Donald MacGuire, then aged eighty, and
staying in Cleadale. The following short anecdote was collected on the 2nd of
Dia Dòmhnaich Càisge, bhiodh iad a’ falbh a’
dèanadh Càisge a-mach a’s gach àite. Cha robh duine a’ fanail a-staigh ach a'
falbh a-mach a’s gach àite, a-mach air na monaidhean is a dh’ionnsaigh a’ chladaich.
Bhiodh iad a’ toirst uibhean is a chuile seòrsa biadh a b’ urrainn daibh
fhaighinn a-mach leotha. Dhèanadh iad teine is bhruicheadh iad na h-uibhean. Ma
dh’fhaoite an corr uibhean a dh’fhàgadh iad, gur e dalladh air a chéile a
dhèanadh iad. Bhiodh iad anamoch a tighinn dachaidh. Bhiodh cuid dhe na balaich
a’ cur a falach nan dusan ubh colla-diag na fichead latha ro’n am. Mu mhiadhain
latha a thòrradh iad a-mach. Sin obair eile a bhiodh aca ma Chàisg a’ falbh a
choimhead na gréine ag éirigh. Bha iad ag ràdha gu bheil a’ ghrian a’ toirst
trì leumannan aiste leis an toileachas, ’s e sin a’ latha a dh’ éirich ar
Slànaighear ó na mairbh, agus tha a’ ghrian a’ toirst tri leumannan aiste leis
an toileachas an latha sin.
the translation goes something like this:
On Easter Sunday, they used to celebrate
Easter in each place. No one stayed in as they would all go out to the hills or
to the shore. They used to take eggs and all kinds of food they could find out with
them. They would make a fire and they would boil the eggs. Perhaps some of the
eggs would left to one side and they would throw them at one another. They
would get home late. Some of the lads would hide a dozen eggs a fortnight or
even twenty days before then. Around midday they would go and dig them up. Another
thing that they did at Easter was to go and see the sun rise. They say that the
sun leaps three times with joy as this was the day our Saviour rose from the
dead and so the sun leaps three times for joy on that day.
Reference: NFC 1027: 319–20; Courtesy of the National Folklore Collection / Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann, University College Dublin.
of Eigg. Licensed for use under Creative Commons.
and songs not to mention stories have been popular in Gaelic tradition for many
centuries. Such is the very strong and resonant connection of whisky with the
Highlands and Islands of Scotland that it is easy to forget that until the
seventeenth century the most popular drink, especially amongst the nobility,
was Spanish or French wine which was imported in huge quantities. Whisky is now
a global phenomenon and its ever-increasing market place share reflects its
popularity furth of Scotland.
following amusing anecdote was collected by Calum Maclean from the recitation
of John MacDonald of Highbridge on the 10th of January, 1951. The most
interesting and let’s face it amusing part of the story is how the protagonist
interprets the bird song which matches his own wishes exactly. Onomatopoeic
elements in Gaelic stories are not that common but this one is as good an
example as any:
Bha duine ann a seo agus bha e gu math trom
air mac na braiche. Ach thuirt e ris fhéi’ gu robh e a’ dol a sgur dheth agus
thug e bóidean do’n bhean gu sguireadh e dheth.
“Agus an t-aon dòigh a nì mi: théid mi do’n
taigh-òsta,” thuirt e, “agus gheibh mi botul uisge-bheatha. Agus bidh e a
staigh ’s an taigh agus cha téid boinne ás. Agus ’s e sin an dòigh a bheir mi
na bóidean nach gabh mi e.”
Agus ’s ann mar seo a bha. Bha e a’ tighinn
air adhart agus am botul uisge-bheatha aige. Agus chuala e smeòrach a’ cur
“Dileag bheag, a Dhòmhnaill Mhóir. Dileag
bheag, a Dhòmhnaill Mhóir.”
“Ma-tà, cha chreid mi nach gabh mi do
chomhairle,” thuirt e.
’S e seo a rinn e.
Thug e an corcas ás a’ bhotul agus ghabh e
steall dheth. Choisich e air adhart.
“Dileag eile, dileag eile, dileag eile,”
“An-dà, ghabhaidh mi do chomhairle, a
ghalad,” thuirt e.
An uair seo bha am botul a’ dol a sìos gu
math is chuir e ’na phòca e is dh’fhalbh e.
Chuala e smeòrach air gheug a’ cur dhith:
“Gabh tuillidh. Gabh tuillidh. Gabh
Ghabh e e. Bha e ’ga chur ri cheann agus e
’ga ghabhail gu gasda ’n uair a chuala e:
“Sgob ás e. Sgob ás e. Sgob ás e.”
Thog e ás a chuile boinne a bh’ ann.
“Car son nach gabhainn do chomhairle.”
Agus thilg e am botul ri taobh an rathaid
mhóir agus choisich e dhachaidh. Agus bha e a cheart cho dona leis an deoch an
latha sin agus a bha e an oidhche roimhe sin.
the translation goes something like this:
There was a man here and he was quite a heavy
drinker. But he said to himself that he was going to stop and he promised his
wife that he would.
“And the way that’ll I do it: I’ll go the
pub,” he said, “and I’ll get a bottle of whisky and keep it in the house and
not a drop will be taken out. That’s the very way in which I’ll fulfil my
And that’s how it was. He was coming home
carrying a bottle of whisky and he heard a thrush warbling:
“A wee drappie, Big Donald. A wee drappie,
“Well, then, I think all take your advice,”
That’s the very thing he did.
He threw the cork from the bottle and he took
a glug. He then walked on.
“Another drappie, another drappie, another drappie,”
“Well, I’ll take your advice, my dear,” he
By the time the bottle was quite empty he put
it in his pocket and walked on.
He heard a thrush on a branch warbling:
“Have more. Have more. Have more.”
He took more. He put the bottle to its end
and he was drinking away when he heard:
“Scoop it all. Scoop it all. Scoop it all.”
He drank every drappie that was left.
“Indeed, why wouldn’t I take your advice.”
And he threw the empty bottle away besides
the highway and he walked home. He was just as bad a drinker from that day as
he had been the previous night.
Maclean first visited Canna House in 1946, at the behest of the then owner of
the island, John Lorne Campbell (1906–1996), known in traditional fashion as Fear Chanaigh. The first entry for Canna
that Maclean noted in his diary is dated as 1 January 1946 and a fortnight
later, on 14 January, he was to meet fellow folklorist Hamish Henderson
(1919–2002), also visiting Canna House for the very first time. Henderson in
his tribute that he paid to Maclean sets the scene:
I had the privilege
of meeting him [Maclean] at the very start of his period in Scotland … Another guest
was the late Séamus Ennis, the renowned Irish uillean piper … so Calum had
every excuse for reverting to unabashed Irishism. My first impression of him,
curled up in a window seat and surveying the new arrival with quizzical
interrogatory eyes, was of a friendly but very watchful brownie … Later that
evening he regaled us with some of the Irish songs (in English) …
foregathered together in Canna House where four influential folklorists:
Campbell, Maclean, Henderson and Ennis, all of whom were at the outset of their
respective careers and who would go on to make a lasting impact in various ways
through their research, collecting, and publishing.
would on occasion return to Canna whether on his way back home from the
Southern Hebrides to Raasay or when he was collecting folklore on the
neighbouring small isles of Eigg or Muck. Maclean, at this time, was employed
by the Dublin-based Irish Folklore Commission, established in 1935, which had a
remit that eventually included collecting in Gaelic-speaking areas outwith
Ireland itself, and was sent by James Hamilton Delargy to his native land to do exactly this.
time that Maclean visited Canna he usually took both the time and effort –
weather dependent – to stop off at the neighbouring island of Sanday and visit
the house of one of Canna’s last storytellers or seanchies. The man in question
was Angus MacDonald (1865–1949), styled Aonghas
Eachainn. His son Hector MacDonald (1901–1965), styled Eachainn Aonghais Eachainn or Eachann
Mòr carried on the family tradition and was also an able storyteller with a
few of his stories also collected by Maclean.
short and perhaps an unusual example, here given in translation from Gaelic,
should suffice in order to give a taste of the whole:
A brother of Alexander MacDonald [Alasdair
mac Mhaighstir Alasdair] used to always see him [as a ghost] after he had died,
and he used to go away. I knew a woman with whom he [the ghost] used to
converse. The spirit of a man alive is far stronger than the spirit of a dead
Alexander MacDonald mentioned in this short anecdote was, of course, a great
Jacobite Gaelic poet as well as being an innovative and extraordinary talent,
who, at one time, held the office of bailiff of Canna. Angus himself was full
of Gaelic lore and was probably familiar with some of Alexander MacDonald’s
songs and also stories about this black-haired poet from Moidart.
MacDonald’s local historical knowledge of the island of his birth was
particularly strong for he remembers his own father telling him of the clearances
that occurred in Canna between 1821 and 1831 when the new proprietors –
MacNeills from Kintyre – arrived:
The MacNeills put a terrible number of people
out of the island. I believe that sixty families left when my father was a
young man. The worst of it was that they wouldn’t remain in this country.
Anyway they wanted them to go over [seas]. They were sent to Canada. I heard
that they embarked at Tobermory. They were promised that they would be well off
when they had arrived over there, but in fact they were worse off.
I heard that it was not the laird who was
altogether to be blamed for sending them away at all. The father of the last
MacNeill brought a farmer here; the place at that time was under crofters; that
annoyed him. The crofters were then all on the Canna side, on the hill face,
which was nearly all cultivated by them. The farmer who came had to shift the
people off it, so that he could get the land. The land was then all cultivated.
to his own testimony, when MacDonald was growing up on Sanday there were over a
hundred people there but by the late 1940s this had been practically reduced to
just the one household. Most, if not all, of MacDonald’s lore was gleaned from
his own father who had such traditions from his own father. MacDonald says this
of his grandfather:
My own grandfather hadn’t a word of schooling
in his head, and you never saw a better man than he for any job that ever
turned up any day of the year. He knew anecdotes and songs and stories.
inhabitants of Canna were nothing if not resilient as they eked out a living in
an environment that at times could be extremely harsh and unrelenting. They had
to rely upon their own resourcefulness and took of advantage of nature’s bounty
when the opportunity arose:
When I was young, they used to make use of
seal oil. They had a special day on which they went to kill them on Heisker.
That island was full of them. They used to skin them and take off the blubber.
Some of it took a long time to melt, too. Seal oil is terribly good for cattle.
I saw people boiling it and refining it as
well as they could, and drinking it too.
When MacNeill was here, he used to bury seals
at the foot of apple trees in the garden. They made excellent fertilizer. They
didn’t make any use of the flesh at all.
kinds of material were collected from Angus MacDonald including aspects of
They used to predict the weather by the way
in which a cat sat by the fire. When bad weather was expected then the cat
would turn around and place its back to the fire.
it may have been that Angus was something of a naturalist for Maclean took down
many anecdotes concerning the local flora and fauna, including traditions about
the gather of tormentil used by fishermen to mend nets and for tanning leather
for shoemaking as well as snippets of lore regarding otters and badgers even
though Angus MacDonald claims to have never set his eyes on the latter animal:
There are people who call the harvest moon
‘the yellow moon of the badgers’. They say that the badger itself harvest the
hay and brings it home and lines their setts with it where they hibernate for
the entire winter.
a tradition is also found in Alexander Carmichael’s great compendium of Gaelic
lore entitled Carmina Gadelica (1900):
The harvest moon
is variously called ‘gealach gheal an abuchaidh,’ the ripening white moon;
‘gealach fin na Feill Micheil,’ the fair moon of the Michael Feast; and
‘gealach bhuidhe nam broc,’ the yellow moon of the badgers. The badger is then
in best condition, before he retires to his winter retreat. When the badger
emerges in spring, he is thin and emaciated. He never comes out in winter,
unless upon a rare occasion when a dry sunny day may tempt him out to air his
hay bedding. The intelligence with which the badger brings out his bedding,
shakes it in the sun, airs it in the wind, and carries it back again to his
home, is interesting and instructive.
seems that Maclean’s last visit to Canna took place in 1949, the very same year
in which Angus MacDonald himself passed away, and so came to an end one of the
island’s last storytellers.
Lorne Campbell, Canna: The Story of a
Hebridean Island (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 4th ed., 2002)
of Angus MacDonald, Courtesy of the National Trust of Scotland (Canna House
one tradition bearer in 1965, as far is known, has ever received an MBE in
recognition of his services to folklore. That person was Angus MacLellan
(1869–1966), styled Aonghas
Beag mac Aonghais ’ic Eachainn ’ic Dhòmhnaill ’ic Chaluim ’ic Dhòmhnaill, from Poll Torain, Loch Eynort, South Uist, the youngest son
of a large family of four other boys and four daughters of Angus MacLellan,
grass-keeper, and his wife, Mary, née Wilson.
1961, the historian and folklorist John Lorne Campbell of Canna (1906–1996)
edited and published in translation Stories
from South Uist, representing but a selection of MacLellan’s repertoire. Moreover,
Campbell also went on to edit and publish MacLellan’s autobiography as The Furrow Behind Me: The Autobiography of a
Hebridean Crofter (1962); a fascinating read for it touches upon many
facets that have both an historical and a sociological significance. The
original Gaelic version of the text, one of the longest to have been published
in colloquial Scottish Gaelic, appeared under the title Saoghal an Treobhaiche [‘The Ploughman’s World’]in a Scandinavian journal as well as in
book format in 1972. Campbell wrote that: “His stories and his memories are
told with a wealth of dialogue and characterization which would do credit to a
in his introduction to MacLellan’s collection of tales provides a fine portrait
of the ninety-year old tradition bearer:
Aonghus Beag is a sturdy, cheerful man, with
a very alert mind. He looks far younger than his ninety years and still conveys
the impression of the bodily strength developed by his former livelihood, that
of a ploughman on mainland farms in Perthshire, Argyll, and Dumbartonshire…He
has the reputation of having been one of the most skilled sheep-shearers in
South Uist…and as a storyteller and conversationalist, he never wearies.
Alasdair Maclean, a resident and GP in South Uist for over thirty years, and a brother
of Calum Maclean recalled that:
Angus MacLellan…was clearly jealous if
interest was paid to the potential of his richly endowed sister, Mrs Marion
Campbell [known as Bean Nìll]. As they both lived in the same house, that
required tactful handling. I can well remember Calum’s delight in getting from
Angus a splendid version of the Táin Bó
Cúailnge, as well as many other priceless tales, but I often wonder if the
old lady took to her grave many gems which he might otherwise have unlocked.
Her daughter Mrs Kate MacDonald (Bean
Eairdsidh) produced for him a phenomenal number of songs…
Cattle-Raid of Colley is far too convoluted to give in full but the gist of the
story may given that has Cuchulainn, a famous Celtic hero, as one of the main
protagonists. Having killed a guard-dog he had to take its place instead for a
period of seven years. Meanwhile his father died, and when his seven years were
up, he took over the farm which had a fairy bull named Donn Ghuaillean which
everyone fought over. Cuchullain did not wish for the bull to be stolen but
others were only too willing to try and so a contemporary of Cuchullain, Fear
Diag Daimhein, swore an oath to Cuchullain’s rivals that he would get the fairy
bull. The ensuing fight ended with Diag Mac Daimhein dead and Cuchulainn dying
but who still managed to kill a dog which was drinking blood – his last feat
had to be same as first – and then he died, leaving Donn Ghuailleann to whoever
It is altogether remarkable that a story
should have survived at all into the twentieth century and one which is fairly
faithful to the manuscript versions from whence it probably entered into the
oral tradition of Uist via the MacVuirichs, the hereditary bards to the
Clanranalds. The learned tradition of Gaelic culture as represented by these
outstanding poets and historians had not a little influence upon folklore that
was later recovered by various collectors during the nineteenth and twentieth
Last summer  a variant of the Táin Bó Cúailnge was recorded from Angus
MacLellan of Frobost, South Uist, the tale of Cu Chulainn that took shape in
the 7th century or probably earlier and that was the subject of study by every
great name in the Celtic scholarship of Europe from Windisch and Thurneysen
who later published the transcribed text in 1959 along with a translation and
notes gives the following brief description of the tradition bearer telling the
On the 11th of June  I saw Angus
MacLellan of Frobostuncover his head in
honour of Cu Chullain and then proceed to tell the heroic saga of Cu Chullain’s
first feat, his exploits to take forcible possession of the Donn Ghuailleann,
and his death after he had slain Fear Diad Mac Deafain.
his notes that accompany this ancient tale, Maclean records the background
details of how it entered MacLellan’s repertoire:
Angus heard the story about 70 years ago from
the late Donald MacDonald of Peninerine, Dòmhnall mac Dhonnchaidh, a stonemason
who, it appears, built the MacLellan family house in Loch Eynort…Donald was the
father of the late Duncan MacDonald, a storyteller…Donald MacDonald died, if I
remember rightly, in the early twenties. He belonged to a line of noted
storytellers and poets to the MacDonalds of Skye, who had lands in North Uists…
that another South Uist storyteller called Duncan MacDonald was reckoned by
Maclean to have been the most skilful storyteller that he had ever met in
either Scotland or Ireland, it is remarkable that this tale, one of the most
prestigious stories to be in any storyteller’s repertoires, was not known to
him, despite the very fact that MacLellan heard it from Duncan’s father
Strangely enough, the Donn Ghuaillean story did not go further in the family than Donald
himself, for his son, Duncan, did not have it, although he inherited a great
deal of his father’s store. If the story came down directly in the
family—although that cannot be ascertained now—it came, we can assume, from
repertoire, however, came from a variety of sources, numbering a good dozen or
more, such as another outstanding South Uist storyteller:
Alasdair MacIntyre [Alasdair Mòr mac Iain Dheirg] was a shepherd and lived in a remote
place to the east side of Ben More. It was from him that old Angus MacLellan of
Frobost learned most of his tales, and old Alasdair used to walk from the back
of Ben More to Ormiclate to record tales for the late Dr Alasdair Carmichael
over 70 years ago…
was the storytelling prowess of both Alasdair MacIntyre and MacLellan’s father,
also called Angus, that they could hold an audience captive for many a long
Old Alasdair and Angus MacLellan’s father,
Aonghas mac Eachainn, were close friends. One day Alasdair Mòr called at the MacLellan home on his way to
Lochboisdale. “No one went to bed in their house that night. They all remained
by the fire as the two old men went on storytelling,” said Donald [MacIntyre
from Loch Eynort]
many years Campbell recorded, initially at the behest of Calum Maclean, many of
MacLellan’s stories and reminiscences and, afterwards, was prompted to say
something of his own lifestory. Of over one hundred and thirty items recorded
from MacLellan’s recitation, forty-two were prepared for publication as well as
his autobiography, recently reprinted. The range of material in MacLellan’s
repertoire is representative of earlier collections such as those made by the
collectors employed by John Francis Campbell during the nineteenth century.
the grand old age of ninety-seven MacLellan died unmarried at Frobost, South
Uist, on 19 March 1966, and was buried at Hanlainn on that island.
MacLellan, The Furrow Behind Me and Stories from South Uist, both ed. by
John Lorne Campbell (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1997)
MacLellan, c. early 1960s by Margaret
Fay Shaw. Courtesy of Canna House Archive
it was not for one of the most catchy 2/4 marches ever to have been composed
for the pipes then it is rather doubtful that Father John MacMillan of Barra,
styled Maighstir Iain Dhonnchaidh,
would be so well remembered. Duncan Johnstone, a famous piper and nephew of
Father John, himself told the tune’s background to Neil Angus MacDonald, a
fellow piper and schoolmaster from Eoligarry in Barra. Johnstone’s mother stayed
in Glasgow and her next door neighbour was Norman MacDonald from Broadford in
Skye, the piper who composed this well-known march. It so happened that
MacMillan was down in Glasgow visiting Duncan Johnstone’s mother and MacDonald,
who was a regular visitor, called in. MacDonald had just composed the tune and
played it for Father John who was so taken by it that MacDonald decided to name
the tune in his honour.
at Craigston, in the northern part of Barra, in 1880, MacMillan was admitted to
Blairs College, near Aberdeen, in 1894 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.
During the period of his missionary work in
that island the people regarded him with deep affection. He had a special
interest in every member of his flock. Always travelling on foot he visited
every family, and in later years the memory of his tall stately figure was
often recalled. It was there he had spent the most fruitful years of his life.
the First World War, a great many families from the Southern 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. “There,” according
to Compton Mackenzie, “he had a great fight with the Canadian authorities, who
he felt had not kept their side of the bargain and were inflicting unnecessary
hardship upon the immigrants. In the end … they managed to get rid of a
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 his native
Craigston, from which charge he retired through ill-health in 1943. MacMillan
was remembered for his congenial personality and his almost childlike
His house was open to all visitors, and there
were many who came from near and far. Year after year the young and old, of
various creeds and callings, sought him in his island home. From him they
learned much. None ever left his presence without feeling in some measure the
benefit of converse with him. He had a keen sense of humour; his laughter was
infectious. Rarely or never was there a biting word.
the Mod in Inverness, MacMillan befriended the famous writer Sir Compton
Mackenzie (1883–1972), perhaps best remembered today for his novel Whisky Galore, subsequently made into a
critically acclaimed Ealing comedy. In 1933 Mackenzie moved to Barra and
eventually set up home at Suidheachan in Eoligarry just beside the airport on
Tràigh Mhòr. Over the years both men would enjoy each other’s company.
Mackenzie based the character of Fr James Macalister who appears in Keep the Home Guard Turning (1943) and Whisky Galore (1947) on MacMillan. The
Barra priest was very proud to have a fictionalised version of himself to
appear in print.
Of the many people who visited him one person
in particular was the folklorist Calum Maclean who took a lively interest in
the priest who was known for his store of oral traditions. In January 1947 Maclean
visited MacMillan then living in retirement in Allasdale and recorded a great
deal of songs from his recitation. On another occasion in the company of Séamus
Ennis (1919–1982), a renowned musicologist and expert uillean piper, Maclean
visited MacMillan who was greatly pleased by the virtuosity of the Irishman’s
performance. Maclean later recalled his visit to MacMillan in the following
I did return again to Barra, for one rarely
fails to do that. I came at the request of Father John MacMillan … He is now
almost seventy, but he still sings well and is also a veritable mine of
traditional lore. It was a short visit, but in one day alone I recorded over
thirty songs from Father MacMillan. One was a very beautiful song addressed to
Prince Charlie, a song which tradition ascribes to Flora MacDonald. Many of
Father MacMillan’s songs are now known to him alone. He heard them in Barra,
Uist, Benbecula, and in Eigg over forty years ago from people who have longs
since returned slowly to dust. Barra has many people of whom it can feel justly
proud. Father John MacMillan is certainly one of them.
Due to his great interest in his
own native culture, MacMillan was not slow in lending his hand to support the
various organisations that were founded in order to stem the decline of the
Gaelic language and heritage:
He took a lively interest in all movements
organised for the preservation of Gaelic or of Gaelic lore. He was a bard of no
mean repute, and some of his compositions continue to be sung wherever Gaels
foregather the world over.
MacMillan composed a eulogy to Fr
William MacKenzie and perhaps his most famous song is Fàilte do Bharraigh (‘Welcome to Barra’). He also wrote Mo Shoraidh le Eige (My Farewell to Eigg)
and Seòlaidh Mise A-null gu Dùthaich
Chaomh Mo Rùin (‘I’ll Sail Over to the Country of My Love’), another song
in praise of Barra that was composed to mark his return from his sojourn in
Canada. The love for the island of his birth is perhaps best seen in a piece
that he composed during his autumnal years where MacMillan draws inspiration
from the scenery of Barra’s western coastline in sight of his last resting
When I draw my very last breath And
throw off this mortal coil, Gathered
among those who are no longer I
will gain the far shore of virtues.
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.
Mackenzie was much grieved by his passing and, though he could not attend the
funeral because of work commitments, he wrote a fitting inscription for his
Here rest all that is mortal of John
MacMillan who for many years was the parish priest of Craigston. He loved alike
the language of his forefathers and the conversation of his fellowmen. Out of
the abundance or his vitality he gave so much to life. Priest, poet, and
humanist, of all the sons of Barra none was better loved. He was born on May
11th 1880 and died on June 1st 1951. He lies at last where he wished to lie
beside the ocean, and may Almighty God grant him eternal peace.
I. Maclean, ‘In Search of Folklore in the Western Isles’, Scotland’s S.M.T. Magazine, vol. 40, no. 6 (1947), pp. 40–44
Benbecula, where Calum Maclean had spent so many years collecting folklore, a
ceilidh that he attended left an emotional and lasting impression upon the
No mention of the tradition-bearers of
Benbecula would be complete, if we did not include the grand old gentleman, the
blind piper Lachlan Bàn MacCormick. As well as several traditional pipe-tunes,
he recorded two tales, and has more to tell. My most moving experience as a
folklore collector was to have recorded from him. He is 92 years of age and his
eyes have been completely sightless for the past eight years.
his diary Maclean recorded the ceilidh in some detail for not only was such
work part of his duties as a professionally trained ethnologist but even more
so because it was such a great social occasion and one which he would later
recollect with pleasure.
Bàn MacCormick (1859–1951) was a native of Creagorry, Benbecula, and later
joined the 2nd (later 3rd) Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders in 1889 when he was
thirty years of age. He was called Lachie Bàn due to his very fair hair and
complexion. While in the Camerons, he reached the rank of Pipe-Sergeant and
would later serve in the Lovat Scouts. It is likely that after his
demobilisation he returned to Benbecula and settled down to life as a crofter.
In his day he was numbered as one of the best pipers in the Hebridean scene and
was a competition prize winner as well as being a highly regarded instructor. A
composer of merit, some of his tunes are still to this day part of the piping
repertoire such as the catchy strathspey The
South Uist Golf Club. MacCormick on more than one occasion would also take
to the bench and, when not competing himself, would judge his fellow pipers in
light as well as the classical music of the pipes at the games in South Uist
and probably elsewhere.
28 November 1949 Maclean wrote an account of his visit in his fieldwork diary.
It may added in passing MacCormick composed a reel for Calum Maclean to which
the recipient of this honour was deeply moved and delighted by such a generous
When we arrived we found a full
house as all the neighbours were in. Lachlan Bàn is an uncle of Catriona, Peter
MacAlasdair’s wife, who also visited the house tonight. Lachlan Bàn is 91 years
of age and was also famed as a piper. He used to pipe at weddings and funerals.
He was also a piper in the Militia and rose to the rank of Pipe-Major. He
learnt by ear and could compose his own tunes. Lachlan had always been
short-sighted and he was grey-haired from a young age. He has now been blind
for more than eight years. He sometimes recognises voices but mainly he had to
ask who was speaking to him. He still has good hearing. He was very familiar
with William MacLean, a famous piper who was in Creagorry and it pleased him
greatly to hear that I was related to him.
Pipe-Major Willie MacLean (1876–1957), nick-named Blowhard, mentioned here had also been
a fellow Cameron Highlander and had at one time owned the Creagorry Inn. A
noted piper and composer of the reel Creagorry
Blend, MacLean could trace his piping lineage back to the MacCrimmons,
hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan, through his instructor at
Catlodge, Malcolm MacPherson, styled Calum
Pìobaire. Maclean then goes on to give further details of the ceilidh and
how MacCormick played the pipes to the joy of the audience who were present in
He played on the pipes and I
could see how much this pleased Lachlan Bàn. Lachlan then played as he sat on
a bench with his back to the window and his fingering was a good as it ever
was. If it were not for his blindness he would still be an excellent piper. He
looks as if he were only 60 years of age although he was 91. He played the
tunes far quicker than pipers do today. He knew that I had the Ediphone
recording device and that he was being recorded playing the tunes. He played an
old tune that he had heard in the army, two tunes he composed himself, and
another composed by his son, Allan, who died around 1930. Lachlan Bàn heard
his recording replayed on the Ediphone and he very much enjoyed this.
two months were to pass when Maclean accompanied by Donald MacPhee revisited
MacCormick, on 19 January 1950, to find him in not such a good mood but as soon
as MacPhee engaged him in conversation about his old Militia days then Lachlan
soon perked up. Lachlan Bàn was then handed a chanter
and he managed to play two tunes, one composed for the south ford and another
called ‘Salute the King’. Although they were recorded they were difficult to
make out. Maclean noted that MacCormick might well be past his best in order to
take down his tunes and regretted not having got hold of him earlier.
only the five stories which Maclean managed to take down from MacCormick’s
recitation, two of them concerned fairy lore both of which were recorded on
this particular visit. A summary may be given of one of these tales which were
once common stock among storytellers. MacCormick’s mother had heard the it from
James MacDonald who told the tale in the presence of priest called Maighstir Dòmhnall (Father Donald):
He said that fairies still existed and they
used to wait until Michaelmas until the corn was ripe when they would then
harvest and make ready to take to the mill. They used to bake sruan, special
commemorative cakes. Two neighbours on their way over to the mill heard music
emanating from the fairy hillock. One of the men entered while the other stayed
behind. For a year there was no sign of the man who went into the hillock and
they thought he was dead by now. The year after at the very same time the other
man was passing the hillock and saw a doorway open. Before entering the man
placed a knife in the doorway and inside he saw his companion dancing with a
sack still on his back. The man did not wish to leave so that the other man had
to drag him out. The man thought that he had only been in the hill for a
minute. The other man told him he had been in for a year and his relations
thought that they would never see him again. Off home he went still carrying
the sack from the year before.
remarked that he thought MacCormick as a good a storyteller as he was a piper.
Many old tunes as well as his own compositions were faithfully taken down on
the Ediphone and perhaps remain to this day at the National Folklore Collection
in Dublin and which have probably not been heard since time they were first
having only been in the company of Lachlan Bàn on two occasions, such
impressions left a remarkable touchstone in Maclean’s memory for he had never
been so moved by any other tradition bearer. This by itself is even more
remarkable given that Maclean had already met many tradition bearers before his
introduction to Lachlan Bàn, including three others from Benbecula, South Uist
and Barra respectively who he reckoned to be outstanding exponents of oral
Calum I. Maclean, The
Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
Photographic Postcard of Lachlan Bàn MacCormick, Beinn na
Coraraidh, South Uist, c. 1920s.
1946, Calum I. Maclean (1915–1960) made his first ever trip to the Western
Isles, and more specifically to the isle of Barra near to the southern tip of
this archipelago. Maclean wrote that “I knew not one living soul in Barra: nor
in any of the Outer Hebrides for that matter.”
within a few weeks of getting to know the Barra people, Maclean finally met a
storyteller from whom he had heard about from his friend and mentor John Lorne
Campbell. Some eight years previously Campbell had included one of his stories
in his book Sia Sgialachdan [‘Six
Stories’]. Northbay, on the island’s north-eastern shore, marks the place in
which their first meeting took place. The man in question James MacKinnon
(1866–1957), styled Seumas Iain
Ghunnairigh, had been a fisherman all his working days and in his
semi-retirement turned to shoemaking to earn a living.
“For any folklore collector,” Maclean later
wrote, “the crucial time is when contact is first made with the tradition
bearer. To Seumas MacKinnon I was a complete stranger, and much depended on the
outcome of our first meeting. Every folklore collector must be prepared to
efface himself and approach even the most humble tradition bearer with the
deference due to the high and exalted.”
Maclean true to his own words did just that
and when he spoke to Seumas in Gaelic, the old man, then aged eighty received
him warmly. “I noticed that he was very tall,” wrote Maclean. “His face was
weather-beaten and his features were beautifully chiselled. He wore the
blue-peaked cap of fishermen and blue dungarees. The life of eighty years had
been spent as much on sea as on land. At eighty he was still a very handsome
old man. He was the first practised storyteller I had heard in Scotland. His
diction was crisp, concise and clear. Every sentence was short and perfectly
balanced. His style was that of the traditional Gaelic storyteller. His voice
was beautifully clear and pleasing. He stamped his own personality on every
story he told, and his lively sense of humour enhanced his storytelling
considerably. His aim was to delight and entertain, and he certainly did both.”
that Maclean was later to record other storytellers, it is rather amazing to
think that it had taken him so long to find one in Scotland. But he did have an
excuse as he had, after all, been in Ireland throughout the war period and
given that storytellers of such calibre were more or less confined to the Western
Isles, a place he had only recently visited, it is perhaps not as surprising as
it would first seem.
having never attended 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 learnt 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. As a
young man MacKinnon along with a crowd of boys would visit old Roderick every
winter evening for a ceilidh and as the old man lay in his mattress beside the
hearth in the middle of the floor he would recite these stories to an entranced
and appreciative audience. “Lift me up now, dear and beloved ones,” the old man
would say to the young men. When propped up in a comfortable position, the old
man told tales and continued until it was time for the visitors to depart.
Recollecting such evenings of storytelling, MacKinnon stated that: “There is
nothing like that today. Today there is only Death.” Maclean noted that what he
meant, of course, was that the old order was passing.
this reciter MacKinnon learnt his stock and trade of storytelling as Maclean
recollects: “When we had conversed for an hour or so, he began to narrate his
first tale. He had not continued long when I realised that he had mastered the
art to perfection. Every sentence, every phrase was balanced. He was never at a
loss for a word, and never lost the thread of his story. The first story of his
was an international folktale. It was the tale of the three noble acts. A lady,
who had promised her virginity to a farmer, was later wooed and won by a
nobleman. On her bridal night the lady wept when she remembered her promise to
the farmer. Her husband escorted her to the farmer’s house so that she could
fulfil her promise. The farmer nobly declined her offer and told her to return
to her husband. One her way home she fell in with a party of thieves. The
leader of the party, on hearing her story, sent her home in safety. The three
men acted nobly.
relating the story, Maclean and MacKinnon “had sat and spoke for some time.
Eventually I told him I had come to Barra to look for old stories. “Oh!” said
he, “it is a long time since I told a story. People have no use for
to Maclean, MacKinnon’s repertoire contained a great number of such tales:
Seumas MacKinnon could be most amusing and
entertaining at times. He had a large number of tales of a distinctly
Rabelaisian character. These he told sometimes to a mixed audience. But such
could be done in Barra. The late Thomas MacDonagh wrote that while the people
of Gaelic Ireland were sometimes coarse in speech, they were always impeccably
proper in conduct. The same is true of the people of Barra.
MacKinnon forty folktales, some taking almost an hour to tell, were recorded by
Maclean and later transcribed. MacKinnon knew their intrinsic value and could
appreciate the object of reciting the tales and having a written record made of
them. This did not only make Maclean’s task an easier one but a far more
It was always an easy matter to induce him to
tell his stories. Today, even in Barra, storytelling has ceased to be the popular
form of entertainment it used to be. Newspapers, radio, and films have
superseded the storyteller. In an earlier generation Seumas MacKinnon and his
kind were more appreciated than they are today. I feel very proud of the help
and friendship of Seumas MacKinnon.
also told Maclean about his fishing days when, at the beginning of the
twentieth century, the inlets of the west coast of Skye still contained plenty
of herring. Smacks from all over would foregather there and after nightfall
when the nets had been set the custom was for the fishermen to visit each
others’ boats. MacKinnon tells of the time when listening to another Barra
They were all below deck in the storyteller’s
smack. It was early of a winter’s evening that he commenced storytelling. All
night long he continued. The listeners were oblivious at everything except the
story that was being narrated. All of a sudden they heard a series of loud
bangs on the deck above them. They looked up and dawn was beginning to break.
Their smack had dragged its anchors and was drifting perilously near a rocky
shore. The crew of a drifter which had come alongside were throwing lumps of
coal on to the deck of the fishing smack to warn the men below that danger was
spent some five months recording but only a little of his repertoire for it was
nowhere near to being exhausted. The last time Maclean saw MacKinnon was when
he visited him in March 1956, “resting after a hard day’s work planting
potatoes.” With MacKinnon’s passing the following year, Barra had lost one of
its last remaining traditional storytellers.
Calum I. Maclean, The
Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)