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.
the winter of 1951 Calum Maclean visited Bohuntine, Glenroy, to collect material
from Donald MacDonald, then a retired soldier aged around seventy. In his diary
of the 30th of March 1951, Maclean gives the following description of MacDonald
in Scottish Gaelic but here given in translation:
From there I began to walk out to Glenroy. It
was a beautifully dry, spring afternoon with a sprinkling of snow on the high
mountains. The glen was beautiful with the trees blooming on each side of the
river. I walked two miles before I reached the first house. Then I went past
the bridge before I reached Bohuntine. There were about five or six homesteads
cheek by jowl. I walked past them a little and then I went back. I climbed up
towards the first house. A woman answered the door and she appeared to be
kindly. I asked where Donald MacDonald’s house was. She told me and I climbed
up to that house. These kindly folk made me welcome. They had expected me for a
long while. The goodman of the house was sitting by the fire. He was unable to
walk for he suffered from a bad type of rheumatism. He was a grey-haired,
handsome fellow. Black-haired Donald they called him. His wife, two daughters
and his son were at home with him. This man has stories without a shadow of
doubt. He has a good style of telling stories. He was born in England at
Carlisle and he came back to Bohuntine when he was eleven years of age. He
learned to speak Gaelic. He told me a good few stories and I took a note of
these. I’m going to return again with the Ediphone. These kindly folk gave me
food and his son Duncan accompanied me all the way to Roybridge.
following short anecdote would appear to been recorded sometime after Maclean’s
first visit and then transcribed as follows on the 20th of April 1951:
Tha clach taobh an
rathaid ris an abair iad Clach na h-Aidhrinn. Tha e shuas mu choinneamh àite
ris an abair iad Creithneachan ann an Gleann Ruaidh. Bha uaireigin a siod agus
bha fear a dol dhachaigh ris an abradh iad Aonghas Mór. ’N uair a bha e mu
choinneamh Creithneachan a bha seo, thàinig na sìdhchean a chur stad air
(F235.3.). Bhalethdhiubh a’ glaodhaich:
“Cha leig sinn
seachad Aonghas Mór.”
Bhaleth eile air an
taobh thall ag ràdha:
“Leigidh sinn seachad
Ach chunnaic Aonghas
Mór gun robh an t-aon chunntas air gach taobh. Agus mu dheireadh thuirst
“Thamise fear a
Agus fhuair e
seachad. Chaidhsagarst (P426.) an ùine ghoirid an deaghaidh sin agus
chaidh e suas a dhèanadh Aidhrinn.
Agusrinn e Aidhrinn
air a’ chlach a tha seo. Agus gus an latha an-diugh ’s e Clach na h-Aidhrinn a
their iad rithe.
the translation goes something like this:
There is a stone besides the road called
Clach na h-Aidhrinn (‘The Mass Stone). It’s up opposite a place called Cranachan
in Glenroy. There was once a man going home called Big Angus. When he was opposite
Cranachan, the fairies stopped him (F235.3). One half of them were shouting:
“We won’t let Big Angus go by.”
The other half on the other side were saying:
“We’ll let Big Angus go by.”
But Big Angus saw that there was the same
number [of fairies] on each side. And at last he said:
“I am the extra man and you’ll let me go by.”
And he got past. A short time afterwards, a
priest (P246.) went there to celebrate Mass.
He celebrated Mass at this stone and to this
day they call it Clach na h-Aidhrinn (‘The Mass Stone’).
version of the above tale which would appear to be a folk etymology at the time
of the suppression of the Roman Catholic faith in Brae Lochaber and elsewhere.
The following is another published version of the story:
Two of the oldest residents in the neighbourhood
give two versions of the association of this stone with the celebration of mass.
Eighty-year old Mr. Alexander Mackintosh of Bohuntin (who as a young man had helped
to transfer the stone to a safer position on the other side of the road), states
that he had heard it said that only one mass was celebrated at the Cranachan Road
Mass Stone and that was done to lay a ghost that had been heard in the burn.
The ghost story is a tradition of a type not uncommon in the West Highlands: it
tells of a certain Aonghas Mór MacDonald (a well-known local personality, born
in the early years of the nineteenth century), who happened on one occasion to pass
this spot on his way home to Cranachan. Passing near the stone, he heard voices
saying: We won’t let Aonghas Mór pass”; and there were other voices crying: “We will let Aonghas Mór pass.” Aonghas Mór, coming
to the shrewd conclusion that the parties were equally divided and that he presumably
had the casting vote, shouted: “If there are as many with me as are against me,
Aonghas Mór will go past.” Thereupon he made his way past the stone with great difficulty
and reached home in a state of extreme exhaustion.
historians Ann MacDonell and D. R. Roberts had the following to say about the
Just over three miles north of Roy Bridge Post
Office, where the Cranachan Road meets the road through Glen Roy, there stands the
second Mass Stone of the Lochaber district. This stone is not in its original
position and it is only a fragment of a much larger boulder. The stone stood originally
on the right hand side of the Cranachan Road on a steep bank, overhanging the burn.
By the erosion of the burn, the stone was undermined, fell into the burn and was
broken. The present large fragment of the stone was lifted out of the burn and replaced
on the original site, whence it had fallen. Towards the end of last century, the
burn again threatened to undermine the stone and some strong men of the neighbourhood
(one of whom was Alexander Mackintosh who, at 81 years of age, still resides at
Bohuntin) lifted the stone and placed it in a safer position on the other side of
the Cranachan Road, where it now stands. About 1870, Donald Campbell Macpherson
(1842–80), a native of nearby Bohenie, a librarian at the Advocates’ Library and
a noted Gaelic scholar, carved a chalice and host on the front of this stone to
perpetuate the local tradition of its use for the celebration of mass during the
Penal Days. Old people in the glen can remember that the stone used to be protected
by a wooden fence and, as children, they were not allowed to touch this “Clach na
h-aifrinn” or play near it.
authors end their interesting article by making the valid point that further
research on the topic would increase our understanding of Roman Catholicism in
the Highlands during the times in which it was undergoing a widespread and
systemic attack from the establishment:
There is need for much further research into the
conditions in which the practice of the Catholic Faith was maintained in the
north and west of Scotland throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In the history of the Catholic Church in Scotland the early seventeenth century
is especially a twilight period and needs much more investigation. Some facts do
stand out against the prevailing obscurity, like the great cross marked boulder,
looming up against the mists on the summit of Maol Doire. The Maol Doire “Clach
na h-aifrinn,” weathered by the sunshine and storms of the passing years, is surely
the perfect memorial of the harsh laws and the steadfast people of those difficult
Ann MacDonell, & D. R. McRoberts, ‘The
Mass Stones of Lochaber’, The Innes
Review, vol. 17 (1968), pp. 71–81 NLS MS.29795, 1r–162v
MS 7, p. 654
Image: Clach na h-Aidhrinn or Clach na h-Aifrinn, Cranachan, Glenroy
the many tributes paid to the memory of Calum Maclean on his untimely death on
his adopted island of South Uist in 1960, one was a moving lament composed by
Donald John MacDonald (1918–1986), styled Dòmhnall
Iain Dhonnchaidh. Donald John, who belonged to Peninerine in South Uist and was a son of the outstanding tradition bearer Duncan MacDonald, was an
extremely gifted traditional poet and songwriter. MacDonald would go on to win
the Bardic Crown at the National Mod in 1948. He was also the author of
numerous books and articles such as Fo
Sgàil a’ Swastika [Under the Swastika’s Shadow](2000), detailing his life as a prisoner-of-war after being
captured at St Valéry; and Uibhist a Deas
[South Uist] (1982), a fascinating local history of the island of his birth and
upbringing. Calum Maclean persuaded MacDonald to collect oral traditions from
his father and uncle, Neil, and he managed to gather together a collection
of over twenty manuscript volumes amounting to around 6,000 pages. An anthology
of his poetry entitled Chì Mi was collected
and edited by Bill Innes. We are extremely grateful to Bill Innes for kindly
allowing his translation of MacDonald’s lament to be published here for the
very first time.
MacGilleathain le Dòmhnall Iain MacDhòmhnaill
an là o bhith grianach, Chinnich
faileas air iarmailt ar n-àbachd. Trom
a’ bhuille ’s gur piantail A
liubhair uirigleadh sgeula do bhàis dhomh. Ged
bha dòchas air mùchadh Gum
biodh e deònaicht’ dhut ùrachadh slàinte, Nuair
thàinig naidheachd na crìche Gun
tig i gearradh nam chridh’ mar gu sàbht e.
a Chaluim Iain ’ic Ghilleathain, Tha
’n-diugh a’ crìonadh fo leathad an t-Hàlin, Tha
carragh-cuimhne nach tuislich An
cridh’, an cuinnseas ’s an cuislean do chàirdean Air
sàr churaidh na tuathadh, Gràinne-mullaich
na h-uaisl’ ann an nàdur; ’S
creach do dh’Alba ’s dhan linn seo Do
bhothaig thalmhaidh cho iosal bhith ’n càradh.
creach do dh’Alba gu sìorraidh Thu
bhith air falbh as a fianais cho tràth oirnn. Far
na shaothraich thu dian-mhath Na
h-adhbhair gaoil eadar iarmad is cànain. ’S
mòr an ulaidh ga dìth thu, Chriothnaich
bunaitean dìlinn na Gàidhlig; Thuit
clach-iuchrach a h-iùil-sa ’S
gun fear eil’ ann a dhùineas a’ bheàrna.
an cùrsa do rèise Gun
chuir thu d’ ùidh ann an euchdan do nàsain. B’
e do bheachd-sa bu lèirsinnich’ Ann
an cleachdaidh, am beasun ’s an gnàthsan. Le
saothair thug thu buaidh dhuinn, ’S
gun thog thu bratach ar sluaigh bhàrr an làir dhuinn, ’S
bidh linn ri teachd ann ad fhiachaibh Airson
na dìleib ro-fhiachail a dh’fhàg thu.
thìr nam beann thug thu biùthas, Gun
dh’innis do pheann a cuid ùisealachd àraid. Bha
spiorad aiteis do dhùthcha Nad
bhallaibh pailt a’ so-dhrùghadh do chnàmhan. Air
feadh Alba ’s an Èirinn A chaoidh bidh t’ ainm air a leughadh le blàths ann Mar
aoigh, mar oilean, ’s mar uasal, Mar
shamhla duinealais ’s uachdar nan sàr-fhear.
na h-onair ’s na h-uaisle; Gliocas,
modh agus stuamachd am pàirt riuth’; Tuigs’
is foghlam thar chunntais, Gun
robh gach aon diubh nad ghiùlan mar sgàthan; Samhl’
a’ cheartais nad sheanchas Nuair
bhiodh eachdraidh fo argamaid làidir. ’S
na bhuilich Dia ort de bhuaidhean Cha
d’ rinn thu riamh an cur tuathal air àithne.
is urram ro-luachmhor Gun
tug thu buileachadh buan domh dhe d’ chàirdeas. ’S
gibht’ an tasgaidh mo smuaintean Meomhair
air aiteas gach uair an co-phàirt riut. ’S
a’ ghiorra-shaogail a mhùch thu Cha d’ fhuair sin aont’ air bhith ’n dùil ri nas àill
dh’eadar sgar i le ùir sinn Tha
spiorad maireann air giùlan cho-bhràithrean.
crìoch gach comann bhith sgaoileadh Mar
a lomar a’ chraobh de cuid bhlàthan. ’S
crion clach-ursainn ar n-aonta Rè
ar tursan air saoghal nan sgàil seo; ’S
ged tha do cholann fo fhòdaibh Mo
ghuidhe t’ anam bhith ’n glòir anns na h-àrdaibh, ’S
à siol a’ mhathais a phlannt thu Ge
meal thu toradh neo-ghann deth do ghràsan.
Calum Iain Maclean by Donald John MacDonald
The sunny day
has darkened, Shading the
heavens of our happiness,
Heavy the blow and painful,
Bringing tidings of your death to me;
Although hope had faded
That you would be granted recovery,
When news came of the end
It was a jagged wound to my heart.
O, Calum Iain
Today decaying under Hallin’s slope,
An unfailing memorial abides
In hearts, minds and veins of your friends
Of the fine champion of the people
Top-most grain of noblest nature;
Great loss to Scotland and this generation
That you are laid low in earthly rest.
evermore to Scotland –
That you left her scene so early,
Where you worked
In cause of love for her history and language.
What great treasure she has lost in you
Who stirred up the deep roots of Gaelic,
The keystone fell from her course,
With no one else to fill the gap.
You took early in the course your life,
Interest in the proud deeds of your nation,
Your insight was the keenest
Into lifestyle, qualities and customs.
Your efforts gave us triumph,
Raising our people’s banner on high
Generations will be in your debt
For the priceless legacy you left.
To the land of
bens you brought renown –
Your pen wrote of her special distinction – The joyful
spirit of your country
Richly permeated your body and bones.
Ever throughout Scotland and Ireland
Your name will be read with affection
As guest, scholar and noble,
Model of manliness and finest of gentlemen.
Breast of honour and nobility,
Wisdom, good manners with modesty;
Insight and erudition without limit, Each
reflected in your bearing;
You spoke with authority
When history was hotly disputed;
Your God-given virtues
No command could make you betray. It was a precious honour for me
That you offered me lasting friendship,
Gifted to the treasury of my thoughts Memories of
happy times shared with you And the short
life that took you, Did not grant
the prospects we hoped for, But, though the
grave separated us, The spirit lives
on in the bearing of brothers.
But each gathering
ends in parting, As blossom is
stripped from the tree, The pillars
crumble of our union In our journeys
through this vale of shadows; Though your body
lies in the grave I pray your soul
be in glory above And that seeds
of goodness you planted Will earn you a
rich return of grace.
Trans. by Bill
Bill Innes (ed.), Chì Mi / Dòmhall iain MacDhòmhnaill: The Gaelic Poetry of Donald John
MacDonald (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2nd ed., 2001)
Iain MacDhòmhnaill, ‘Calum Iain MacGilleathain’, An Gàidheal, leabh. LVI, earr. 5 (1961), pp. 53–54 Image: Peninerine, South Uist / Peighinn nan Aoirean, Uibhist a Deas
the 29th of January 1949, Calum Maclean began to record the longest story ever
told in Western Europe from the recitation of Angus Barrach MacMillan. Maclean
noted in his diary in Scottish Gaelic but here given in translation:
Around eight o’clock, I went over to Angus
MacMillan’s house and I decided to record a story from Angus MacMillan tonight.
I haven’t recorded anything yet since coming back. We began on Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son
of the Caird), a story about a lad that a drover purchased from the cairds.
I’ve never heard this story at all before. And it’s quite long. We recorded
seven cylinders worth of it in any case…
on the 2nd of February, a further instalment was recorded:
We began on the story, Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird) and we
recorded another ten cylinders. The story isn’t even half-way through yet.
Angus was in a good mood tonight. He’s keeping well these days but I know that
he isn’t working as usual. It was nearly midnight by the time I got home.
days later, on the 5th of February yet more of the story was recorded:
Angus and I began on the story Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son
of the Caird). We recorded another eight cylinders and it now consists of
twenty-five. The story isn’t finished yet.
next day, after attending Mass, Maclean made his way as usual to Griminish and
a further instalment of the story was then recorded:
Angus and I were in the living room and we
had a big night of stories. He began Alasdair
Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son of the Caird) again and he recorded another
dozen cylinders tonight. It now consists of thirty-seven cylinders.
on the 8th of February the final instalment of the story was then recorded:
Tonight Angus finished the story Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son
of the Caird). This is the longest story he has so far told. We spent five
nights on it, a while each night. I don’t believe he has another story as long
as that. The story itself is good.
in Raasay, it took Calum over a week to transcribe the story which is around
68,000 words in length. Hitherto, the longest story to have been recorded was Leigheas Cas Ó Céin (The Healing of
Kane’s Leg) standing at 30,000 words. This portmanteau story was collected by
John Francis Campbell and Hector MacLean in 1871 from the recitation of an Islayman,
Lachlan MacNeill, a shoemaker and fiddler then staying in Paisley.
Maclean began the laborious task of transcribing on the 22nd of March:
I began on the Angus MacMillan’s long story, Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird (Alasdair, son
of the Caird). This is the longest story that Angus MacMillan has yet told. It
consists of forty-four cylinders.
the next fortnight Maclean continued to transcribe the story until he finally
completed it on the 6th of April (NFC 1155: 243–306; 309–408; 411–486):
I began transcribing this morning around ten
o’clock and worked on Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird
(Alexander, son of the Caird). I continued working on that until around
four o’clock in the afternoon when I finished the story. This story consists of
two-hundred and forty pages, the longest story that I’ve written down yet from
Angus MacMillan, the longest story I’ve ever transcribed.
knew better than most that transcription was sheer drudgery and understandably
at times he grew very tired of such a mundane task. He knew, nonetheless, that
the fieldwork he was undertaking would be beneficial for it allowed a permanent
record of fast-dying traditions to be kept for future generations. The
recording was contained on forty-four wax cylinders and so roughly speaking
there were 1,500 words recorded on each one. MacMillan recited the story at
around 126 words per minute. Interestingly enough, publishers recommend talking
books to be voiced between 150 and 160 words per minute. It took Maclean around
103½ hours (or 6183 minutes) to completely transcribe the story and so his
transcription rate was around 660 words per hour and therefore he was
transcribing this particular story at around 11 words per minute.
to Alan Lomax about Angus MacMillan and one of the longest tales that he had
ever recorded, Calum Maclean had the following to say:
Old Angus MacMillan was a storyteller with
whom I worked in Uist for three years. I thought I would kill him before I’d
finish with him, but he went nearer to killing me before he finished with me. I
sometimes recorded stories from him: I’d start at four in the afternoon: by
midnight I’d be exhausted but Angus
MacMillan would show no signs of exhaustion. The longest story he told took
nine hours to record. We started on Monday night and did two hours. We had to
break off for the night. We continued the story on Tuesday night and did two
further hours. On Wednesday night we did another two hours and on Thursday we
did another two hours again and we finished the story on Friday night. It took
us an hour to finish the story. It took me fifteen days to write that story: it
was the longest story I have ever written and I think it was really the longest
story that has ever been recorded in the history of folklore recording. If I
had sufficient stamina Angus MacMillan would have continued the story
uninterrupted for nine hours. I remember someone telling me that an old woman
disappeared one night to the well to get a pail of water. It was seven o’ clock
on a winter’s evening. By midnight she hadn’t reappeared so a search party was
sent out. They finally discovered her in a house where Angus MacMillan was
telling a story.
then gave Lomax some rather tongue-in-the-cheek advise not to visit MacMillan
in the small hours:
Sometimes he’d start….he’d say that…he’d
threaten to start that he was going to tell a story about midnight and
everybody would…implore him not to tell a story because they’d never get home
that night. So it was very difficult to prevent him from telling the story.
However he has told his stories and will continue to tell his stories and if
you go there Alan, go there early in the morning, not late at night.
Angus MacMillan passed away in 1954 Maclean was unable to attend his funeral as
he was then in Morar and couldn’t get back to Benbecula in time. In an article that
appeared in the Gaelic periodical Gairm,
written shortly after MacMillan’s death, Maclean recollected one memorable
In 1948 we spent one winter’s night recording
a long story until completed around four o’ clock in the morning. That night
was dark, cold and showery due to stormy weather coming in from the southwest.
As I was leaving, Angus saw me to the big door. I can still recollect that
large, burly frame of his that blocked the light from inside.
On parting, he said: “Come early tomorrow
night, my dear laddie. I have remembered another long, long one.”
Calum Maclean, 1979. ‘Calum Maclean on Aonghas Barrach’,
Tocher, vol. 31 (1979), p. 64
I. MacGilleathain, ‘Aonghus agus Donnchadh’, Gairm, air. 10 (An Geamhradh, 1954), pp. 170–74
1155: 243–306; 309–408; 411–486 (transcription of Alasdair Mac a’ Cheàird)
the 12th of July 1951, and typed on an official BBC letterhead, Calum Maclean
received a letter from Alan Lomax. The renowned American ethnomusicologist
arrived in Scotland to collect material earlier that year. Having met with
Hamish Henderson to discuss how best to go about collecting, Lomax was put into
contact with the MacLean brothers, Calum and Sorley. Calum, who had just
arrived back from Ireland, became the first collector for the School of
Scottish Studies in January 1951. For the past six years Maclean had recorded
extensively in the Southern Hebrides as well as on the mainland Highlands and
everywhere he went he seems to have acquired a nose to track down the folk from
whom he could collect the best materials. Lomax benefited greatly from Maclean’s
extensive knowledge, experience and assistance as he duly acknowledges in the
Your introductions and contacts in the Hebrides
provided me with the most enjoyable and fruitful recording trip in years. I
have never met a set of people I liked as well anywhere and the astonishing
number of beautiful tunes that came pouring into the microphone completely
astonished me. If all the rest of the tunes of the world were to be suddenly
wiped out by an evil magician, the Hebrides could fill up the gap without half
Everywhere people spoke highly of you, asked
to be remembered to you and your name was an Open Sesame. I made about ten
hours of recordings, only a small number of which I shall be able to use for
[the] BBC and in my album. If you have any interest in the material, a list of which
his enclosed, I shall be glad to have your suggestions about its disposition.
Please give my regards to Dr. Erixson and Dr.
Campbell and consider me eternally in your debt.
Calum MacLean, Esq.
c/o Dr. MacIntosh
selection of Lomax’s recorded materials was made into an album which appeared
as a Scottish version of the World Albums of Folk and Primitive Music and was issued
by Columbia Records. Maclean’s generosity in assisting a fellow collector was
not shared in this instance by John Lorne Campbell who turned on his friend which
led to a bitter if short-lived feud between the two. The two main issues of
contention between Campbell and Lomax came down to folklore research ethics and
the (subsequently misunderstood) commercial exploitation over copyright issues
with regard to fieldwork recordings. Maclean through no fault of his own was
caught between the two.
Letter from Alan Lomax to Calum Maclean,
dated 12 July 1951. Courtesy of Cailean Maclean.
Another historical anecdote about Rob Roy MacGregor was
transcribed by Calum Maclean on the 25th of January 1951 from the recitation of
John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber:
Bha Rob Ruadh MacGriogair air an ruaig agus e
a’ fuireach falach agus e air cùl an taighe a’ bristeadh fiodh. Agus thàinig
ceathrar a dheadhaidh agus fhuair iad air cùl an taighe e. Agus dh’ aithnich e
gun robh e air a ghlac(hc)adh. Bha e gun aramachd, gun rud eile.
“Tha thu trang, a Rob,” thuirst iad.
“Tha sinne ’gad iarraidh agus feuma’ tu
“Nì mi sin ann an tiotadh, ’n uair a
sgoilteas mi a’ maide a tha seo. Agus ma chuireas si-se, ma tha sibh ’nar
daoine foghainteach: cuiribh ’n-ur làmhan a-staigh ’s an sgoilteadh a tha sin agus
slaodaibh bho chéile a ’maide agus ’s ann is aichiorra a gheibh mise libh.”
“Nì sinn sin.”
Chuir iad an làmhan a-staigh anns an
sgàineadh a bh’ ann ’s a’ mhaide. Agus ’n uair a fhuair Rob na làmhan a(hc)a a-staigh
anns an sgaineadh, thilig e na geinein a-mach às a’ mhaide is bha
iad air an glac(hc)adh ann a siod air mheòir (K1111.). Agus dh’ fhalabh
e an uair sin a-staigh. Agus thill e. Agus chuir e an ceann dhiubh. Agus cha
robh comas ac(hc)a an làmhan a thoirst às an fhiodh (K500.). Bha
e furasda gu leòr do Rob an grõthach a dhèanadh orra.
And the translation goes something
Rob Roy MacGregor was on the run and was
keeping himself hidden when he was cutting wood behind the house. And four men
came after him and found him at the back of the house. He knew that he had been
caught. He was unarmed without any weapon at all. “You’re busy, Rob,” they
“We want you and you’ll have to come with
“I’ll do that presently when I’ve split this
stick. And if you place, if you think that you’re brave enough men: put your
hands in the gap there and if you pull it away from the stick then you’ll get
me all the quicker.”
“We’ll do that.”
They placed their hands in the split in the
stick and when Rob had their hands in the split he threw the wedges out of the
stick and they were caught by their fingers. He then went inside [to get a
sword] and returned and he then decapitated them all. They had no way of
getting their hands free from the wood. It was easy enough for Rob to have done
an anecdote is certainly fitting of Rob Roy’s character as he had to rely upon
his wits in order that he could get out of any scrapes or messy business that he
seems to have encountered rather more frequently than would have been to his
liking. The above anecdote, however, would seem to have been grafted onto the
Rob Roy legend for it has an old connection with the supposed Highland ancestor
of Robert Burns. Here, for instance, is a version of the story as noted down by
Alexander Carmichael which involves the well-known band of merry pranksters
known as Cliar Sheanchain or Senchan’s Company:
Walter Campbell felled a tree in
a place known since then as ‘Glac-a-Chlamhain,’ the dell of the harrier, and
‘Glac nan cliar,’ the dell of the satirists. The dell scoops across a high
ridge of glacial drift. It is narrow and confined on the south at the upper
end, broadening on the north and expanding downwards to a wide plain. Walter
Campbell asked the satirists to come out and help him to rend the tree, and
they came. He placed half the satirists on one side of the tree, and the other
half on the other side. He drove a wedge into the bole of the tree, and rent
the bole along the line of the stem. Then he asked the men to place their hands
in the rent, and to pull against one another, while he drove in the wedge. The
men placed their hands as directed. Walter Campbell struck the wedge not in,
but out, however, and the two sides of the rent tree sprang together like the
sides of a steel trap, holding the hands of the satirists as securely as if in
a strong vice. Walter Campbell, the son of the ‘deor,’ lost control of his
pent-up anger, and he fell upon the satirists with great fury, and scourged
them and maimed them, killing some and wounding others fatally.
The upshot being that Walter Campbell had to flee for his life as
he had broken the unspoken law of hospitality and he eventually ended up in the
Mearns of Kincardine. Carmichael continues with his (rather unfeasible) supposition that, ‘Walter
Campbell found people of the names of Burness, singularly like his own familiar
cognomen of Burn-house at home in Muckairn; and as a slight disguise, he called
himself by this designation of Burnhouse, dropping his clan name of Campbell.
It was an easy transition from Walter Burnhouse to Walter Burness, Brunus,
Carmichael, ‘The Land of Lorne and the Satirists of Taynuilt’, Evergreen, vol. I (Spring, 1895), pp.
‘Traditions of the Land of Lorne and the Highland Ancestry of Robert Burns’, The Celtic Review, vol. VIII (1912), pp.
John Shaw, ‘What
Alexander Carmichael Did Not Print: The Cliar Sheanchain, ‘Clanranald's Fool’
and Related Traditions’, Béaloideas,
vol. 70 (2002), pp. 99–126
Following on from a recent blog, here is more material about the
redoubtable Lochaber athlete. Both of these anecdotes were recorded from John
MacDonald of Highbridge and transcribed by Calum Maclean on the 4th and the
25th of January 1951 respectively. The first anecdote is as follows:
Tha fhios gun cuala sibh uile ma dhéidhinn a’
fear ris an abradh iad A. A. Cameron, Magh Comair. Bu mhath a b’ aithne dhomh
an duine. Bha e trip a siod aig cleasan. Agus bha duine ann a sin agus bearst
aige. Agus bha thu a’ cur do chasan air a’ bhearst. Agus ’ga slaodadh
fiach dé an cuideam a thogadh tu. Bha làmh a’ dol m’an cuairst. Cha
robh e toileach seo fhiachainn ach thug feadhainn eile air fhiachainn. Agus ’n
uair a dh’ fhiach e seo, ’s ann a shlaod e às an amhaich uile gu léir e. Agus
bha e briste. Ach shìn e m’an cuairst an ad agus thrus e móran airigead
do’n bhodach a bha a’ deànadh fhorstan air daoine làidir, fiach dé neart a
Bha e turas eile ann a Siorrachd Pheairst.
Bha clach mhór ann a sin aig taobh gàrradh agus theireadh iad gur h-e duine
foghainteach a thogadh idir i: a chuireadh gaoth eadar i is talamh. Ach dh’fhalabh
Alasdair agus rug e air a’ chlach (F624.2.) agus thilig e taobh eile
a’ ghàrraidh i agus bha i a siod gus an latha an-diugh. Na bu có an duine a
bheireadh às i, chan ’eil fora(fh)ais fhathast.
And the translation goes something
I know that you have all heard about the man
they call A. A. Cameron, Mucomir. I knew the man well. He was once at the
Highland games. And there was man was there who had a loom. You put your feet
on the loom and you pulled it to see how much weight you could lift. There was
a handle that went round. He wasn’t willing to try it but a few others made him
give it a go. When he tried this, he put it completely out of joint and it was
broken. But he put a hat around and he collected a lot of money for the old man
who made a fortune from strongmen who tried their strength out in trying to lift
He was another time in Perthshire. There was
a big boulder besides a dyke and they said that only a powerfully built man
would be able to lift it. Alexander went and lifted the boulder and threw it
over the dyke where it lies to this very day. I’ve no idea who would be able to
move it now.
second anecdote concerns A. A’s grandfather, a well-known strongman in his own
Bha bodach gu math làidir (F610.) anns an
dùthaich seo. B’ e sin seanair do’n duine fhoghainteach air an robh mi a’ bruidheann,
A. A. Cameron, cho foghainteach is a bha ’s an dùthaich (F610.). Agus ’n
uair a bhitheadh e a falabh ’am cheàrdaich le crann, chuireadh e air
a’ ghualainn e…Ach co dhiubh chuireadh e air a ghualainn e agus aige ri tighinn
mìle do’n cheàrdaich (H1562.2.). Agus nam bitheadh e a’ dol ’an Ghearasdan ’s a
each is cairst a a’ tighinn leis. Thiligeadh e aig doras
na ceàrdaich e agus dh’ fhalaadh e ’n Ghearasdan. Ach bha e a’ latha
a bha seo a’ toirst dachaidh mòine agus chaidh a chairst
ann an àite bog agus i fodha cho fad is a rachadh i. Cha b’ urrainn do’n each a
slaodadh às aig cho seòlta is a bha iad ag obair air. Ach ’s ann a smaointich e
gun dugadh e an t-each, gu fuaisgealadh e as a’ chairst e, agus leis
an t-seòltachd agus an draghadh a bh’ aige fhéin oirre, thug e às i (H1562.2.).
Agus thuirst e:
“Och, chan ’eil mi’ gabhail iongantas ’s a’
bith ged nach b’ urrainn do’n each a chairst a thoirst às
an toll,” thuirst e. “Thug e gu leòr dhomh fhìn a dhèanadh!”
And the translation goes something
There was quite a strong old man in this
district. He was the grandfather of the strongman, A. A. Cameron, who I’ve been
talking about, a man who was as powerfully built as there has even been here.
He’d go to the smithy with a plough, he’d carry it on his shoulder…and anyway
he’d carry it on his shoulder and had to walk eight miles to the smithy. And if
he had to go to Fort William he would take his horse and cart. He would throw
it down at the smithy door and then leave for Fort William. But on this day he
was taking home some peat and his cart went into a bog and sank down as far as
it would go. The horse couldn’t pull it free no matter how skilfully they worked.
Then he thought to himself that if he was to take the horse out of the harness that
he would tie himself to the cart, and with his dexterity and tugging he managed
to free it. And he said:
“Och, I’m not surprised at all that the horse
couldn’t pull the cart free from the hole,” he said. “It took enough out of me
to manage it myself!”
Rev. Somerled MacMillan in his book Bygone
Lochaber references A. A. Cameron on two occasions. It is likely that he
got the following anecdotes from John MacDonald of Highbridge as the Bard – as
he was sometimes referred to – is acknowledged in his preface:
Mucomir farm was once the home of Alexander
Anthony Cameron, the world-famous athlete and heavy-weight champion. His father
was quite a strong man but was better known locally for his skill as a fiddler.
It is said that once an athlete named MacGregor complained to old Mucomir about
his song lifting all the main prizes at the different Highlands Games. The old
man treated the matter light-heartedly and remarked quite casually that he had
a daughter who could beat either of them if he cared to meet her. Kate, the
daughter was a match for any man of strength. It was the writer’s privilege to
meet her when she was an old woman. She declared that she and her famous brother
inherited their strength from their mother’s father─big Sandy MacMillan, one
time tenant of Moy farm. After their father’s death, A. A. Cameron and his
brother tenanted Mucomir from for a time.
Big Sandy mentioned above is the subject of the second anecdote:
Big Sandy MacMillan, one time tenant of Moy
farm, was one of the strongest men in Lochaber. His daughter was the mother of
A. A. Cameron, the world-famous athlete, and it is believed that the latter
inherited his strength from his maternal grandfather.
One day Sandy’s horse and cart got stuck in a
bog at Gairlochy. Not in the least perturbed, he unyoked the beast and pulled
it clear, then, taking the trams, he pulled the cart out of the quagmire. After
this amazing feat of strength he made this casual remark: “I make no wonder the
poor beast couldn’t do it when it took my all my time to do it myself!”
On another occasion his plough needed minor
repairs and so he lifted it up with one hand, placed it on his shoulder, and
carried it from Moy to the blacksmith’s shop at Spean Bridge, a distance of
Several years ago there used to be Annual
Games held at Achnacarry, when local stalwarts took part. Sandy had never
competed before but his friends persuaded him to enter for putting the stone.
Taking it up in his hand, he looked at it and asked, “Are you allowed to throw
it as far as you like?” When told that this was so he hurled it farther than
the rest of the competitors, including the renowned MacDonald brothers of
Cranachan. The fact this inexperienced competitor had beaten the favourites
caused surprise among the judges, who, in order to save the would-be champions
from embarrassment, disqualified MacMillan on the flimsy pretext that he had
not thrown the stone in a straight line.
Somerled MacMillan, Bygone Lochaber: History and Traditional (Glasgow:
Privately Published, 1971), pp. 26–27; 93–94