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.
following item was transcribed by Calum Maclean on the 7th of July 1952 from
the recitation of John MacDonald, a retired carpenter, then aged 77, from
Newtonmore, Badenoch. It is not too often that a tradition bearer gives an
overview of what he or she thinks about a particular subject – Highland
superstitions in this instance. It may be assumed that MacDonald had read a fair
bit of material about the subject area, one which by all appearances seemed to
have fascinated him:
Highlanders are addicted to superstition.
Perhaps the rugged nature of the country, its dreary wastes and rapid torrents
which thunder and lightning and the rains of heaven exhaust their terrific
rage, wrought on their imaginative powers and so they ascribed everything to
the superior powers. Be that as it may, I think so long as ignorance abounded
superstition did much more abound. So the world has grown older: the people
have grown wiser and the grosser. While saying this, it must be admitted that
some of the milder forms still find acceptance such as freits and omens:
“Marry in May and you'll rue it for age,” is
an old freit. And a dog howling at night it still believed to betoken a death
(B733.2.). Then there is the practice of first footing at the New Year time and
the throwing of an old boot after the bride. There is an old rhyme which
embraces a number of omens:
West wind to the
When gang for its name;
Rain to the corpse
Carried to its long hame;
A bonnie blue sky
To welcome the bride,
As she gangs to the kirk
with the sun on her side.
The belief in ghosts, witches, fairies etc.
was quite common at the beginning of this century. In fact the ghost stories of
Scotland would fill a large volume. Witches were the object of dread. They were
accused of having intercourse with Satan. It is said that the Black Officer of
Baile Chròdhann made bargains with the Evil One (M211.). It was believed that
the witch could cure diseases and inflict diseases (G265.4.), could draw
away every drop of milk (D2083.3.) from, the cattle. Only a horse-shoe
(D1561.1.3.) nailed to the byre door or a sprig of rowan tree tied with a red
thread was a protection (D1385.2.5.). It is popularly believed that
fairies inhabited mounds or eminences (F211.). One such eminence I am reminded
of near my own home called the ‘Sìdhean’ – probably taken from the word ‘sìdhich’.
It is believed that in Hallowe’en (F126.96.36.199.) any person going round
one of these hillocks nine times (Z71.6.) contrary to the course of the
sun (D1791.2.), a door would open (F211.1.1.) by which he would be
admitted to the realms of fairyland (F211.1.). The burning of witches
(G200.) forms a black chapter in the history of Scotland based, no doubt, in
the command given in the 22nd chapter of Exodus:“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Some
time ago I worked at Fortrose near the very spot where the Brahan Seer was
burned in a barrel of tar (S112.1.).
Closely related to superstition is the second
sight (D1825.1.). People believe that Nature bestows on some individuals
this gift called in Gaelic ‘taisiche’, a spectre or a vision – an impression
made either by the eye on the mind or the mind upon the eye. Seers are said to
see events before they happen such as funerals (D1825.7.1.), marriages etc. (D1825.7.).
I can recall one or two individuals who were said to have this faculty. Dr.
Johnson believed in the genuineness of this faculty. Highlanders are singularly
attached to their birthplace and that fondness is not confined to the desire of
living. It is extended even to the grave. The idea of dying at a distance and
among strangers could not be endured. To be consigned to the grave among
strangers was a great calamity. A story will illustrate. A few years ago an
aged woman went to visit a friend – her daughter – in Perth. She was from Laggan.
While there she took a slight chill and fever set in. One evening when a
quantity of snow fell – it had fallen during the night and she expressed great
anxiety when told that a fall was expected. Next morning her bed was found
empty and no trace of her could be discovered till the second day, when she sent
word that she had slipped out of the house about midnight, set off on foot
through the snow and never stopped till she arrived home – a distance of more
than twenty miles, her daughter went to see her. She said: “What if I grew
worse and if I had died they could not get my remains through the deep snow.
And if I had told my daughter she could have locked every door of the house. And
God forbid that my bones should lie at a distance from my own home.” To be
interred decently is a big consideration in the mind of the Highlander. In fact
every article is secured to assure a respectable interment – to put it in
Gaìdhlig “crìoch onarach.”
The narrator gives an overall view of some of the typical beliefs that used to held (and perhaps may yet be still held) by some Highlanders. Such superstitions are, however, by no means limited to a Gaelic wold view and can be found in many parts of the world.
SSS NB 13, pp. 1118–22
of Captain John MacPherson, the ‘infamous’ Black Officer. Courtesy of the Clan
MacPherson Museum, Newtonmore, Badenoch.
his home-base of An Teach Mór, Indreabhán [Inverin],
Co. Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, Calum Maclean wrote, on the 16th of
November 1944, a fairly long and interesting diary entry about his time
collecting in Connemara. His account is evocative of the time when storytelling
was still to be heard amongst the native Irish speakers that lived to the west
of Galway city. Maclean had been in Ireland for around five years by the time
he wrote the following account. During that time he became fluent in Irish Gaelic
and this did not go unnoticed by his contacts back in Dublin. Five years
earlier he began a post-graduate course at University College Dublin which had been
curtailed due to the outbreak of the Second World War. Maclean then decided to
go to the west of Ireland shortly afterwards and began collecting for the Irish
Folklore Commission as a part-time collector in 1942.
An Teach Mór
Co. na Gaillimhe
Mise Colm Iain MacGhille Eathain as oileán
Ratharsair i n-iarthar na h-Alban. Bhíos ag bailiú béaloideas do Choimisiún
Béaloideas na h-Éireann ’sa gceanntar seo dhá bhlian ó shoin. Tháinig mé ar ais
chuig an áit se air an 14mh lá de mhí na Samhna le cuairt ghearr a thabhairt ar
an áit. D’ fhága mé an áit seo blian agas chúig ráithe ó shóin, ach tá na
sean-daoine a thug adhbahr béaloideas dhom cheana beó slán fós, buideachas le
Dia. Níor cailleadh aon duine aca ó shoin cé go raibh cuid aca aosda go maith –
cuir i gcás Pádraig Ó Cúláin, Baile a’ Logáin, Cor na Rón atá 87, agas Maitiú Ó
Tuathail na Criogáin atá 90. Tá Maitiú mar a chéile, gcumhnaidhe, shilfeá nár
tháinig aon aois air ó chunnaic mé é roimhe seo. Chuadhas siar aréir a’
bhreathnú air agas tá sé chomh acrach agas bhí aríamh. Tá neart seanchais agas
sgéalta aige fós nár thug mé liom chor ar bith fós. Mar sin táim ag dul siar go
dtí é aríst mar bhí go leór le rádh aige réir nár chuala mé ag an duine ach é
féin. Níl ’sa teach anois ach Maitiú agas a bhean, sean-bhean laghach atá
tuairim 86 d’ aois. Ní raibh an t-sláinte go maith aice dhá bhliain é ó shoin,
nuair a d’ fhága mé iad, ach aréir chuir sé iongantas or mi bheith i n-a suidhe
agas a bheith i n-án obair an tighe a dhéanamh chomh maith agas bhith sí i n-án
aige aon lá aríamh. Tá Maitiú agas a bhean i n-a gcomhnaidhe i dteach
ceann-tuighe giota beag ó thuaidh den’ mbothar mór a théigheanns siar third na
Criogáin go Conamara thiar. Tá an teach ar thaobh na láimhe deise is tú ag dul
siar go Ros a’ Mhíl. Beidh mion-chunntas ar an teach seo ’sa leabhar seo i
n-áiteiánt eile. Tá inghean le Maitiú ag obair thall i Sasana faoi láthair agas
ta mac leis pósda ar a’ mbaile céadna. Nuair a bhuaileas isteach chuig Maitiú
aréir 15.IX.’44, chuir sé féin agas a’ bhean an-fháilte romham, mar ní raibh
fhios aca chor ar bith go raibh mé teagaithe chuig an taobh tíre seo. Ba gearr
a bhíos istigh aca nó gur tráchtadh ar sgéalta agas seanchas. Thug mé foir
n-deara go bhfuil an chuimhne ag Maitiú chomh maith céadna agas bhí aríamh. Tá
an glór breagh céadna aige i gcomhnaidhe agas tá se éasgaidhe rudaí a bhreacadh
síos uaidh. Theasbáin mé dhó paidreachaí a bhailigh mé an samhradh seo thuas i
dTeidhleann i dTír Chonaill, agas chuir siad-san paidreachaí eile i gcuimhne
dhó-san. Sgríobh mé síos uaidh dhá phaidir e bhí aige, agas d’ innis mé dhó
annsin go rabhas a’ tóraidheacht seanchais agas sgéalta faoi Fhianna Éireann.
Thug sé dhá ghiotá beag eile domh, ach is gearr a bhíomar a’ sgríobhadh nuair a
tháinig beirt bhuachaill óg isteach aige, beairt de’n dream céadna a theagadh
isteach chuige nuair a bhíos annseo cheana dhá bhliain ó shoin. Buachaillí óga
as a’ mbaile sin iad a theaganns ar cuairt chuig Maitiú agas a bhean chuile
oichdhe a thosaigh siad a’ teach ar cuairt chuca blianta ó shoin. Teagann siad
i gcomhnaidhe tuairim a h-ocht a’ chlog ’san oidhche. Tugann siad móin isteach
agas cuireann siad caoi air an teine an chéad uair. Annsin suidheann chuile
dhuine aca mór-thimcheall na teineadh, as tosaigheann Maitiú a’ cur síos ar
chúrsaí an t-saoghail mhóir, an cogadh agas an obair a’ bhionns ar siubhal
amuigh, an nuacht a thuganns daoine leó as Gaillimhe agas as Conamara thiar. Fear
e Maitiú atá i n-dán cuimhniú ar chuile fhocal a chloiseann sé ó dhaoine is cuma
más fada gearr ó shoin a cualthas iad. Aréir bhí sé a’ trácht ar chómhrádh a
bhí aige le fear as Tír an Fhiadha thiar. Sílim nár dubhairt an fear am aon
fhocal nár chuimhnaigh Maitiú air, a’ cur síos ar an gcogadh a bhí siad. Nuair
a bhí Maitiú reidh le cúrsaí fánacha an t-saoghail, thosaigh sé a’ cainnt ar na
daoine láidire a bhí i gConamara fadó. Chainntigh sé faoi Phádraig Labhrais,
faoi Thomás Ruadh Mhac Dhonnchadha, agus faoi Mhaitias Ó Dúbháin. Faoi seo níor
fhéad mé cur isteach ar Mhaitiú, agas iarraidh air na sgéalta imseacht go mall
’sa gcaoi go bhféadfainn iad a bhreacadh síos; mar bhí an sgéalaidheacht anois
faoi lán-t-seól aige agas ba mhór an feall cosg a chur air. Nuair a bhí cuid
mhaith innsighte aige faoi na gaisgidhigh a bhí i gConamara tuairim céad
bhliain ó shoin, tharraing sé anuas Fianna Éireann aríst. Thrácht sé annsin ar
an gclaidheamh a bhí ag Goll Mac Mhórna...Thosaigh sé annsin ar sgéal faoin
Dara Donn a bhí a’ troid le Fianna Éireann. Annsin aríst bhí sgéal eile aige
faoi Chaol an Iarainn. Tá an méid sin seanchais le sgríobhadh fós agam, ach
aréir níor fhéad mé ach cnámh gach sgéil a bhreacadh síos ’sa gcaoi go
gcuirfinn i gcuimhne dhó iad aríst. Faoi’n am seo bhí sé fiche roimh a deich
’san oidhche, agas ó bhí aísteir dhá mhíle le shiubhal agam, d’ fhága mé slán aca,
ach gur gheall mé go dtiocfainn ar ais aríst luath ’sa lá air an Aoine i n-a dheaidh
sin. “Bí anoir cho luath ’s is féidir leat,” adeir Maitiú, “agas ma bhéas an lá
go breagh, sé ’n áit a ghabhas muid síos ar na carraighreachaí go bhfeicfigh
muid a mbeidh aon bhreac le fail.” Tá dúil mhór ag Maitiú ’san iasgach
ghliomach ar chladaigh Chonomara. Is meinic a chuaidh sé treasna go Conndae a’
Chláir i n-a churrachín agas isteach go h-Árainn. Tá aithne aige ar thuaisceart
an Chláir chomh maith Cois Fhairrge. Bhí sé thar cionn a’ iomradh le n-a mhaidí
rámha, agas d’ aithneóchthá sin air mar tá sé go h-an-láidir fós. Thóig sé
deichneabhar cualodair agas gan aon chéird aige ach gliomadóireacht agas gan
aige ach leath-ghabhaltas tálúna mar shlighe-bheathadh, nuair a chliosfeadh an
ghliomadóireacht air. Is iongantach chomh beódha láidir is atá Maitiú fós.
Dubhairt sé féin liom aréir go bhfuil sé ocht mbliana agas cheithre fichead
(88), ach deir daoine eile go bhfuil a cheithre fichead is a deich slánuighte
aige. Dubhairt sé go raibh sé a’ sgaradh agas a’ baint mhóna an samhradh seo,
agas chreidfinn sin go maith. Fear árd caol é Máitiú, tá sé an-díreach, silim
nach bhfuil sé blas níos lugha ná se troighthe ar aoirde. Tá a chuid gruaige
liath, ach níor chaill sé morán dá chuid guraige aríamh. Bíonn sé bearrtha i
gcomhnaidhe, cé is mórté de’n chroimbéal. Sean-fhear slachtmhar é, mar tá súilí
glasa loinnreacha aige, súilí a’ bhíonns a’ gáiridh de ghnáth. Tá glór
an-bhreagh aige, agas tá an Ghaedhilge go fíor-líomhtha aige. Tá sé i n-dán
amhráin a rádh fós, agas d’ aithneóchtha go raibh an-ghuth aige nuair amháin.
Is fearr mar sheanchaidhe is mar sgéalaidhe é ná amhránaidhe. Nuair a bhíonns
sé ag innseacht sgéalta, ní bhíonn aon gheaitsí ar siubhal aige. Mar is meinicí
suidheann sé síos gan chorraighe le linn dó a bheith a’ sgéalaidheacht. Ar
uairibh bionn sos gearr aige agas caitheann sé a phíopa. Corr-uair a chaitheann
sé tobac, nuair a bhionns an sgéalaidheacht ar bun aige. Is furasda fheiceál go
bhfuil an-dúil aige ’sa gceird mar imthigheann an sgéal leis uaireantaí. Beidh
trácht ar an dream a thug na sgéalta agas an seanchas dó an chéad uair i n-áit
éicint eile ’sa leabhar seo.
the translation goes something like this:
I’m Calum Iain Maclean from the isle of Raasay on the west coast of Scotland. I’ve been collecting oral traditions for the Irish Folklore Commission in this part [of the country] for two years. I came back to this place on the 14th of November for a short visit. I left this place a year and five seasons ago but the old folk from whom I collected are all hale and hearty, thanks be to God. None of them have passed away since despite being quite old – for example Pádraig Ó Cúláin, Baile a’ Logáin, Cor na Rón [Cornarona] who is 87 and Maitiú Ó Tuathail, na Criogáin who is 90. Maitiú is the same as always and appears not to have aged since I saw him last. I went over to see him last night and he’s just as obliging as he has ever been. He possesses lots of lore and stories that I’ve never yet taken down. Therefore I’m going to go and see him again as he has lots to say that no one else but him knows. Only Maitiú and his wife, a lovely old woman who is aged around 86, stay in their house. She hasn’t been too well over the past two years since I was last here but last night she surprised me as she sat down and continued her housework as well as ever and she has been his friend every day since. Maitiú and his wife stay in a thatched-house not far north off the highway that wends its way westwards through the Criogáin to west Connemara. The house is on the right as you make your way westwards to Ros a’ Mhíl [Rossaveal]. There is a detailed account of this house in another part of this book. Maitiú has a daughter who is now working over in England and he has also a married son here [in the township]. When I visited Maitiú last night 15.IX.’44 he and his wife gave me a very warm welcome as they had no idea that I was coming to this part of the country. I wasn’t long in when mention was made of stories and lore. I noted that Maitiú’s memory is just as good as it has ever been. He has likewise a beautiful voice and he’s keen to have things taken down. I showed him prayers that I collected this summer up in Teidhleann in Tír Chonaill [Tyrconnel], and they reminded him of other prayers he knew. I wrote down from him two prayers he knew, and then he told me some lore and stories about the Fianna of Ireland. I’ve already written this lore down but last night I could only take down the outline of each story so that I could remember them again. He then gave another two short pieces, and I had scarcely written them down when a couple of young lads came in, the same couple who would come in here two years ago. Young lads from the township who come to visit Maitiú and his wife every night since they started visiting years ago. They would always visit around eight o’clock at night. They would take in peat and the first thing they would do would be to place it on the fire. Then everyone would sit around the fire and Maitiú would tell of what was happening in the wide world such as the war and what work had to be done outdoors, the news that people had from Galway and west Connemara. Maitiú is a man who remembers every single word he hears from folk whether he has heard it short time before or even a long time before. Last night he mentioned a conversation he had with a man from west Tír an Fhiadha. I think that this man didn’t say a word that Maitiú couldn’t recall; they were talking about the war. When Maitiú had finished talking about worldly things, he began speaking about strongmen who had been in Connemara long ago. He spoke about Pádraig Labhrais, Tomás Ruadh Mac Dhonnchadha and Maitias Ó Dúbháin. Because of this I couldn’t interrupt Maitiú and ask him to tell stories slowly so that I could note them down; for his storytelling was now under full sail and it would have been a great shame [to interrupt him]. By the time he had spent a good part of time talking about those Connemara heroes from around a hundred years ago, he then mentioned the Fianna of Ireland again. He then mentioned Goll Mac Mórna’s sword...He then began on a story about Dara Donn squabbling with the Fianna of Ireland. Then he had another story about Caol an Iarainn. I’ve already written this lore down but last night I could only take down the outline of each story so that I could be remember them again. As it was twenty minutes to ten at night and as I had to walk two miles, I bade them farewell promising that I would return as soon as I good the Friday after. “Be here as early as you can make it,” said Maitiú, “and if it’s a nice day, we can go down to the fish weir to see if there’s any trout to be caught.” Maitiú greatly enjoys lobster-fishing on the Connemara shoreline. Many a time has he gone over to Country Clare in a currach and over to the Aran Isles. He knows northern Clare just as well as Cois Fharraige. He gave a brilliant description of using oars and it was apparent that he’s still exceptionally strong. He brought up a family of ten relying only on lobster-fishing and with only half-holding of land to grow produce when the lobster-fishing failed. It’s amazing how lively and strong Maitiú still is. He himself told me last night that he’s eighty-eight years of age but other folk said that he is ninety years of age. He said that he had been cutting and collecting peat this summer and I can well believe him. Máitiú is a tall, thin man and he’s very upright; I shouldn’t think that he’s anything less than six feet in height. His has grey hair but it has hardly ever thinned. He always wore it short, but he has a long moustache. He was a tidy old man with sparkling grey eyes that were always full of laughter. He has a lovely voice, and his Gaelic is very polished. He still sings songs and it’s apparent that he had a good singing voice. He’s a better raconteur and storyteller than singer. When he tells a story, he makes no gestures. More often than not he sits down to mend nets whilst telling a story. At other times he would have a short break whilst he smoked his pipe. Very occasionally, he would smoke at the beginning of a story. It’s easy to see that he very much enjoys telling stories. There will be a mention of the folk who gave him the stories and lore in the first place in another part of this book.
969: 3–8 [Courtesy of Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann, Coláiste Ollscoile Baile
Átha Cliath / National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin]
On his very first collecting
trip to the Western Isles (specifically Barra) in September 1946, Maclean was
later joined by one of the Irish Folklore Commission’s best (and youngest) collectors:
Séamus Ennis (Mac Aonghusa), a very gifted piper and traditional singer. Ennis
was four years younger than Maclean; born in Jameston in Finglas, North County
Dublin in 1919 and died in 1982. For a period of five years between 1942 and
1947, Ennis worked at the Irish Folklore Commission. A better job offer
appeared on the horizon when RTÉ offered him a post and so he then left the
Commission to pursue a broadcasting career.
in 1953, Maclean recollecting his first crossing to Barra states that despite
not knowing any of the islanders he approached the trip with an air of
excitement and perhaps with even some amount of trepidation:
One September evening seven years ago I
crossed the Minch for the first time on my way out to Barra. It was a
beautifully calm evening – the only calm evening on which I have ever gone that
way, and I have crossed the Minch often enough since then. I had heard much
about Barra, but had no idea what type of material to expect there. Everywhere
I had heard the same story. Tales and legends, old songs and such had now gone.
The old folk had gone. I knew not one living soul in Barra: nor in any of the
Outer Hebrides for that matter. Nevertheless I approached Barra with eager
In the very same year he
first visited Barra, Maclean later recalled his initial first impressions of
what he was going to collect though as circumstances turned out it seemed as if
he had many of those from whom he recorded material had only recently passed
I stayed in Castlebay during my first week,
and gathered as much information as possible regarding possible tradition
bearers. Here again I discovered that I had come too late. My friend, Miss
Annie Johnston, spoke of the late Ealasaid Eachainn [Elizabeth MacKinnon] with
her fund of song and story, of which only a very small part has been recorded.
That was another mine of information irremediably lost. A noted storyteller,
Murchadh an Eilein, died a year or two before; and Ruairi Iain Bhàin, an
unsurpassed singer of folk-songs had gone to his grave also.
Recollecting their trip to
Barra, Maclean of an evocative evening when went to Eoligarry in the north part
of the island:
In springtime my colleague Seumas Ennis, the
folkmusic collector of our Commission, and I toured the islands, making
gramophone recordings of speech and singing. One week we gave to Barra. It was
a glorious week of sunny days and moonlit nights. We recorded for posterity the
voices of Miss Annie Johnston, Seumas MacKinnon, the “Coddy,” Donald MacPhee of
Brevig, and Neil Gillies of Castlebay. These speech recordings were made for
the purposes of phonetic and dialect study, and also to illustrate the
tradition bearer’s style of narration. One beautiful night we motored to
Eoligarry schoolhouse. We were accompanied by Flora MacNeil of Castlebay, one
of the many charming and attractive young ladies I have seen in the Isles. She
sings well, and was to do recordings for us that night. That night also we
recorded the singing of Mrs Buchanan, a daughter of the noted folksinger, the
late Ruairidh Iain Bhàin. I can still see her standing in dim lamplight before
the microphone and hear her singing the fairy song, “Chì mi ’n tomain coarainn, cuilinn.” That melody haunts me still.
Maclean noted down a similar
visit in his diary that took place on Thursday the 6th of March 1947. At this
time he kept wrote his diary in Irish Gaelic (later changing it to Scottish Gaelic
and then eventually English) but which is given here in translation:
…Flora MacNeil was in our company. She was
going to meet folk in Eoligarry. We left the recording gear at the house of the
schoolmaster, Neil Angus MacDonald. We went to Morag Maclean’s house and took
her back to the schoolhouse. Seámus took down Katie Buchanan and Flora
MacNeil. We set up the recording gear and Katie Buchanan sang three or four
songs. Flora MacNeil also sang a song. Then Neil Angus played the pipes. Neil’s
father was an excellent piper and he excelled in ceòl mòr and especially in
cainntaireachd. That is the way in which they sang the tune when it was being learnt.
The old pipers never wrote music at all and they used canntaireachd to transmit
the music. On this night Neil Angus recorded canntaireached, filling two
records. He played two pieces of ceòl mòr, Cumha
Mhàiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh (Mary MacLeod’s Lament) and Fàilte MhicGilleChaluim Ratharsair
(MacLeod of Rasaay’s Welome). He also sang a bit of Crònan na Caillich sa Bheinn Bhric (The Lullaby of the Old Women of
Ben Breck) and played this on the pipes. He also gave a sample of Dance Music
canntaireachd also. Seámus was very pleased how the night went. It was late
enough before we reached home. It was an excellent night all around. The moon
shone as brightly as it did during the day.
Perhaps the key element to Ennis’s
fascination with collecting was music and he must have been rather astounded at
what was to be found not only in Barra but also in South Uist, an island which
had been a stronghold for piping over very many generations:
Seumas Ennis has come across from Dublin and
had never before heard canntaireachd,
the humming of pibroch and pipe music. That night, however, Neil Angus
MacDonald, schoolmaster of Eoligarry, a piper also and the son of a piper,
kindly made two complete records of cainntaireachd.
I had lived long years in Ireland, but I had never seen an Irishman entranced
until that night.
Unlike Maclean it would
appear that Ennis never kept a diary of his Scottish trip. There are, however,
a few extant letters that he wrote back to James Hamilton Delargy, Director of
the Irish Folklore Commission, and to Sean O’ Sullivan, the Archivist there.
was fully conscious that collecting very much a race against time but although
he may have felt daunted at times by the sheer amount of fieldwork that lay
before him his enthusiasm seldom wavered. Writing in 1947, he offered the
following observation with regard to collecting and also the opportunities which fieldwork afforded:
He always knows that he rescues something
from oblivion. The discovery and recording of a beautiful song, or story, which
might otherwise have perished is always a joy. But most valuable of all is the
wealth of friendships that come his way. Between the collector and narrator a
common interest serves to forge a link of comradeship. The collector finds it
necessary to spend hours and hours in the company of some old person and, if he
is sufficiently tactful and deferential, friendship is assured.
The collectors during their
stint in the Hebrides took in Eigg, Barra, Raasay, Canna and South Uist. Ennis
managed to pick up enough Scots Gaelic to enable him to transcribe much of the
songs collected by John Lorne Campbell. Many of these beautifully transcribed
pieces have been preserved and are in the keeping of the National Folklore
Collection at University College Dublin. Some of them were reproduced in
Campbell’s Songs Remembered in Exile (1990), his last and one of his most important books. Both Maclean and Campbell owed a
great debt to Ennis and one which was repaid with the hospitality shown to the
Irishman who never seemed to get fed up when asked either to play the pipes or
to sing. Ennis probably relished the attention and also to give people some
Maclean, ‘In Search of Folklore in the Western Isles’, Scotland’s S.M.T. Magazine, vol. 40, no. 6 (1947), pp. 40–44
uí Ógáin (ed.), Going to the Well for
Water: the Séamus Ennis Field Diary 1942–1946 (Cork: Cork University Press,
2009) [first published as Mise an Fear
Ceoil: Séamus Ennis–Dialann Taistil 1942–1946 (Gaillimh: Cló
Following the conclusion of the Second Word War, Professor James Hamilton Delargy (1899–1980), founding father and Director of the Irish Folklore Commission based in Dublin, sent Calum Maclean (1915–60) back to Scotland in order to collect the fast-dying Gaelic oral traditions of his native Raasay. Maclean had been in ‘exile’ for the past seven years in Ireland where he took the opportunity not only initially to further his studies but also latterly to join the Commission’s staff and to become one of their best collectors.
Maclean undertook a folklore pilot project from his home base in Churchton, Raasay, from the end of December until the 18 of February 1946. Such was the success of this trial run that Maclean would thenceforth take up permanent residence in Scotland and while still an employee of the Commission would, over next five years, collect a great deal of traditions mainly in the predominantly Catholic and Gaelic-speaking Southern Hebrides.
On arriving back in his native isle, Maclean confided in a diary entry what might be described as his mission statement:
I, Calum I. Maclean, began two days ago to collect the oral tradition of the island of Raasay…I was born and reared on this island. When I was young there were many people here who had tales and songs which had never been written down, and which never will be, since the old people are now dead, and all that they knew is with them in the grave. There are still some people alive who remember some of the songs and traditions of their forefathers, and as it seemed to me that there are more songs than anything else available, I decided to write down those which I could find.
Considering that Maclean’s own family were renowned tradition bearers, singers and pipers, it would have been rather churlish not to begin at home. And so, for the next two months, Maclean amassed a great deal of lore from his mother Christina, father Malcolm and brother Sorley. The lion’s share of material, however, was recorded from his maternal uncle, Angus Nicolson (1890–1965), styled Aonghas Shomhairle Iain ’ic Shomhairle and, his paternal aunt, Peggy MacLean (1869–1950), styled Peigi Chaluim Iain Ghairbh. Maclean’s Raasay collection was mainly songs along with associated stories about their provenance and background. In his memoir of Maclean, Hamish Henderson noted that: “His uncle Angus Nicolson was a fine singer with a wide repertoire, and both his father and aunt Peggy Maclean were singers too, so Calum’s interest in Gaelic traditional song was no doubt kindled in his earliest childhood.”
Angus Nicolson was then aged fifty-five and had been a shepherd all his working days at first in Lismore, then in a place near Oban in Argyll, followed by Ardgour in Inverness-shire, and finally in Glenlyon, Perthshire. After his lengthy stay on the mainland Scottish Highlands, Nicolson returned to Raasay in 1940 to take on the farm in Clachan, the largest on the island. Nicolson was born in Brae Trotternish in the isle of Skye within clear sight of Raasay and was brought up in the Braes at a place called Achnahanaid.
As young lad in the Braes, Angus would act as a messenger for an old neighbouring spinster called Mary MacIntosh, styled Màiri Iain ’ic Chaluim. She was constantly in demand if there was a luadh (waulking session) or a wedding in the district and would always be at the forefront of the singers. She was full of old lore and was very devoted to music and dancing. She was so keen on pipe-music that if she heard a piper then she would immediately start to dance even if she was in the middle of a potato field. One day, so it is said, she followed a passing steamer for three miles along the Braes shore, for on board there was a piper playing. As a kind gesture by the old woman, Angus picked up all the old songs from her singing. Although Mary MacIntosh died at an advanced age in the winter of 1917, not all her lore went with her to the grave. Angus later recalled an episode that he told his nephew:
He tells that on one very wet day he saw her crouching before the door of a byre. It was a miserably cold day and the rain dripped from her clothing. She was soaking wet, cold and uncomfortable, but, unaware that anyone was listening, she was singing:
Cùl ri m’ leannan ’s e chuir mi ’n-diugh,
Rùn nan cailean tha mi an dèidh ort:
Cùl ri m’ leannan ’s e chuir mi ’n-diugh.
Throughout his life that has remained as one of the most vivid memories of Màiri Iain ’ic Chaluim…Fragments here and there are all that he now remembers of some of the songs.
Almost all of Angus’s songs came from this one source but it is conceivable that his repertoire may have been augmented by others that he would have heard from other singers either in Skye or Raasay and perhaps in the places in which he had previously worked. Elsewhere Maclean writes about this uncle in the following terms:
Angus Nicolson…had also a large number of songs and sang them well. His voice was quite untrained, but in his singing he could differentiate between melodies which seemed so alike that it was difficult to know which was which. He had one beautiful little song…:
My Duncan has gone to the mountain,
My Duncan has gone to the mountain,
My Duncan has gone to the mountain,
And has returned not homewards.
The blood of your heart and breast,
The blood of your heart and breast,
The blood of your heart and breast,
Is in the folds of your tartan.
Maclean recorded over seventy individual items from his uncle’s repertoire, mainly songs but also a few short anecdotes. Of his fieldwork in Raasay, Maclean wrote to his brother, Sorley MacLean (1911–1996), the foremost Gaelic poet of his generation as well as being a tradition bearer in his own right:
But I enjoy my work very much. The folklore business became more interesting according [to] how you master the proper system of approach. Raasay is a wonderful type of place to work. It is small and sea-contained. It has fishermen and crofters, land and sea, birds, fish and animals, old ruins, groves, buailes, ghosts, fairies oral tradition, local history and everything that comes within our scope. It would take a good collector three years to cover it all...
It is something of a pity that Maclean could only spare a short period of time to collect the traditions of his native Raasay. Nevertheless, the riches that he uncovered from his uncle’s singing were to form the core of one of his papers, later published in The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness. Having proved the point that there was more than enough to collect; Maclean’s next move was to take him to Barra where a new vista of collecting was to occupy him for the next five months or so.
After concluding his successful fieldwork trip to his native Raasay, Maclean wrote in his diary:
I have now finished my first collection of Scots-Gaelic lore. There are many other songs still to be recorded. All of those which I have written down have associated airs, save one, and all of the tunes are different from one another. It is a great ‘sin’ that I was not born thirty years earlier, as the best of the lore has gone into the grave with those who had it. There is a terrible gale blowing here today.
Calum I. Maclean, ‘Traditional Songs from Raasay and their value as Folk-Literature’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. XXXIX/XL (1942–1950), pp. 176–92
On the appearance of Calum
Maclean’s only book printed in the spring of 1959, The Irish Times may have been one of the very first papers to have
reviewed it. The book had been delayed for quite a while because of Maclean’s
illness and it would have delighted him when he read that reviews of his book
were so positive and that they all highly recommended this book which had been
more than six years in the making:
His heart’s in the Highlands
Calum I. Maclean, a Gaelic speaker
from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, made many friends during the years
he spent in this country, studying and collecting folklore.
They will be foremost among those who welcome his book
*“The Highlands,” in which he has done for his own beloved land what, in some
ways, Robin Flower and Synge did for parts of the West and South-West of this
This is the book of a scholar and scientist trained in
comparative folk-culture. It is also the book of a poet for whom the song, the
legend, the tale of old times have their own colour and value and full-blooded
life, not just their reference numbers and their exact places in filing cabinet
It is the book of a Highlander, with not sentiment or
cant about him, who genuinely loves his own land and is never far removed from
the melancholy fact that old ways have suffered, that the great glens are too
empty and the people too few.
Since the book is splendidly illustrated, the study of
the text with an eye on the pictures, means that you have ─ almost been to the
The slightly sardonic “almost” is never far absent from
Calum Maclean’s approach to the subject for he is very sensitive towards
anything that might possibly be described as a stage-Scot or stage-Hielander.
A couple of miles west from Callander he enters through
the Pass of Leny, goes along the shore of lovely Loch Lubnaig and reflects on
the beauty of bonnie Strathyre, and reflects also: “Most Scots, even if they
have never seen the strath, have heard about its beauty because of the popular
song ‘Bonny Strathyre.’”
There is, perhaps, a gentle reproach implied just as
there may be too a gentle reproach when he comes to the churchyard of
Balquidder where Rob Roby MacGregor lies buried.
“Gaelic,” he writes, “is still spoken in the Braes of
Balquidder and this must be about the most southerly outpost of the language
now. There is a profusion of beautiful placenames around Loch Vaoil and even in
their Angicized form they sound well: Lochlarig, Ardcarnaig, Monachylemore,
Craigruie, Murlagan, Strenvar, Achleskine, and Stronslaney. I am sure that only
very few people in Balquidder now know what all these names mean. No doubt Rob
Roy knew the meaning of them all.”
learning, love and great beauty, this book reveals the Highlands. Naturally, it
is meant, first before all, for Scotsmen. Secondly, it is meant for Irishmen,
because of our links with Gaelic Scotland and because of many common problems.
that it’s for everybody─who wants to know about one of the most impressive
areas in these islands.
a treasure of a book: to read, and re-read to look at with delight.
Highlands: by Calum I. Maclean, (Batsford: 25/-)
References: TJ, ‘His heart’s in the Highlands’, The Irish Times (25 April 1959), p. 5.
Image: Cover of the first edition of The Highlands (London: Batsford, 1959), showing Glencoe, Argyllshire. The photograph was taken by Noel Habgood.
poet, miracle-worker, diplomat, politician but most of all Irish-born Columba
(who died on the 9th of June 597) is remembered as the saint who founded the
Abbey of Iona and who along with his twelve companions spread the message of
Christianity throughout the Highlands and Islands. To celebrate the anniversary
one of the most renowned Celtic saints, here is a short anecdote recorded on the
8th of January 1951 by Calum Maclean from the recitation of John MacDonald of
Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, about St Columba and his brother Doran:
Bha bràthair aig Calum
Cille ris an abradh iad Dòran. ’S e Dòran a bh’ aca air. Agus ma bha Calum Cille na dhuine math,
bha Dòran an rathad eile. Bhiodh e a’ fiachann ri feadhainn a mhealladh agus
innseadh dhaibh agus ga chur an aghaidh Calum. Ach cha robh sin gu diubhar. ’S
ann a’ leanachd Calum Cille a bha a h-uile duine. Agus bha an chùis glè mhath
gus an robh iad ga thìodhlacadh, a’ tìodhlacadh Dòran. Agus ’s ann an sin a dh’aithnich iad dè ’n duine a bh’
ann. Bha iad ga chur a sìos fon talamh agus thàinig glaodhadh a-mach às an
uaigh agus thuirt e:
“Na bi sibh-se a’
creidsinn na chluinneas sibh. Chan eil Irinn na àite idir cho dona. ’S e th’
ann àite math.”
“Ma-tà,” thuirt Calum
Cille is e na sheasamh air taobh na h-uaigh, “cuiribh ùir air sùil Dòran mun
labhair e tuillidh còmhradh.”
the translation goes something like this:
Columba had a brother called Doran; that’s
the name they had for him. And if Columba was a good man then Doran was the
complete opposite. He would try to deceive others by telling lies and
turning them against St Columba. But that didn’t really matter as everyone
followed St Columba. Everything was well until they buried Dòran and it was
then that they knew what kind of a man he was. They were lowering him into the
ground when a cry came out of the grave and he said:
“Don’t believe what
you hear as hell is not a bad place at all. In fact it’s a good place.”
said St Columba who was standing by the grave, “then put soil over Dòran’s eyes
before he speaks anymore.”
different and a fuller version of this tale was collected by Fr Allan McDonald
(1859–1905), styled Maighstir Ailein,
a fellow Lochaber man, when he was a resident priest in Eriskay. In this
particular version Doran’s motivation is completely different for he volunteered
to be buried alive so the Iona could be saved. It was the ultimate sacrifice
that he was willing to make for the sake of his brother, Columba:
Bha Dobhran bochd a
bhrathair ann an iomall an t-sluaigh. Thain’ e nall agus sheas e air culaibh
Chaluim-chille a bhrathair agus thuirt e gun robh esan uile dheonach a bhi air
a thiodhlacadh uile bheo fo’n talamh air chumhnanta gu’n gabhadh an I togail do
Chaluim-chille a bhrathair naomh, agus e toirt creideas do Chaluim-chille gu’m
biodh anam sabhailte le ordadh Dhia.
Arsa Calum-cille, ’ged
nach ’eil brathair agam ach Dobhran bochd tha mi toilichte gur e a dheonaich a dhol
dha’n t-sloc.’ Agus nach motha na sin a chite a bhiast a tighinn thun a
chladaich gu brath.
Rinneadh an sloc
seachd airdead duine. Nuair a chunnaic Dobhran an t-sloc thionndaidh e ri
Calum-cille, ’s dh’iarr e mar fhabhar ceann a chuir air an t-sloc agus esan
fhagail na sheasamh cho fada ’s a thogradh Dia fhagail beo.
Fhuair e iarrtas, a
chuir sios beo dha’n t-sloc. Dh’fhagadh an so e.
is thoisich e air an I ’s bha e fichead la ag obair ’s bha an I a dol air
aghaidh uamhasach. Bha e toilichte an ghnothach a bhi dol leis.
Ann an ceann an
fhichead latha ’nuair a bha h-uile ni air thuairim a bhi dol air aghart gu
math, thuirt e gu’m bu choir sealltain de chrioch a chaidh air Dobhran bochd,
agus an sloc fhosgladh.
Bha Dobhran a
coiseachd air urlar an t-sluic. ’Nuair a chunnaic Dobhran gu’n do dh’fhosgladh
an t-sloc ’s a mhuthaich e ’n saoghal gu leir mu choinneamh thug e cruinn leum
as gu bial an t-sluic ’s chuir e dha bhois air bial an t-sluic gu h-ard. Chroch
e e-fhein ris an t-sloc. Bha lianadh mhor reidh suas ’o ’n I agus moran
luachrach oirre. Na chunnaic Dobhran dhe’n luachar dh’fhas e ruadh agus tha am
barr beag ruadh sin air an luachar riamh.
’s e thall–‘Uir, uir, air suil Dhobhran mu’n faic e’n corr dhe’n t-saoghal ’s
dhe ’n pheacadh.’ Chuir iad an uir air agus thill iad a dh’ionnsaidh an cuid
obrach. ’S cha deachaidh car an aghaidh Calum-cille tuilleadh gus an d’fhuair e
crioch air I.
the translation goes something like this:
Doran his poor brother
was at the outskirts of the assembly. He came over and stood at the back of
Columba, his brother, and he stated that he was more than willing to be buried
alive so that Iona could be built for his holy brother Columba, and he gave
belief to Columba that his soul was safe by God’s will.
Columba said, ‘I although
I have only one brother in poor Doran I am pleased that he is willing to go
into the pit.’ And even better than that the beast will never be seen again
The pit was dug down
seven times the height of a man. When Doran saw the pit he turned towards
Columba and asked him a favour: for the pit to be covered over and to be left standing
as long as God was willing to keep him alive.
He received his
wish – to be put alive into the pit. He was left like that.
Columba went over
and he began work on Iona. He spent a score of days working and Iona was making
good progress. He was pleased that things were working out so well.
At the end of the
twentieth day was everything was more or less going well, he said that he
should go over and see what had happened to poor Doran and so opened up the pit.
Doran was pacing up
and down on the pit bottom. When Doran saw that the pit has opened he noticed
the whole wide world was in view and he leaped up to the pit mouth and he put
both his hands on the pit opening. He hung there in the pit. There was a large,
smooth green up from Iona which contained plenty of rushes. That which Doran
saw of these rushes turned red and from then on they still have small patches
of red on their tops.
over by – ‘Soil, soil, on Doran’s eyes before he sees the rest of the world and
it sins.’ They placed soil over him and they then returned to their work.
Nothing ever went against Columba until Iona was completed.
Fr. Allan McDonald (of Eriskay), ‘Calum-Cille agus
Dobhran a Bhrathair’, The Celtic Review,
vol. V (1908–09), pp.
SSS, NB 7, pp. 616–17
Image: St Columba / Calum Cille / Colmcille potrayed as an Apostle to the Picts at King Bridei’s Fort
By sending Calum
Maclean back home in order to collect traditions in his native Raasay may have
been one of the best decisions ever made by the Irish Folklore Commission based
in Dublin. The Commission, established in 1935 by Professor James Hamilton
Delargy (1899–1980), was charged with a broad remit of collecting Ireland’s
intangible cultural heritage. Between Maclean began working as a part-time collector
in 1942, mainly in the Irish-speaking part of Connemara, and eventually
becoming a full-time member of staff in 1945, the remit had broadened to take
in Gaelic-speaking Scotland as well. Although Delargy’s decision to send his
only Scottish collector back home went somewhat against Maclean’s wishes, he
knew full-well the importance of the role that had been bestowed upon him, for
…that the time
is ripe to begin the systematic collection of Scottish and Gaelic folklore
under the aegis of the Irish Folklore Commission. I have no doubt that the help
of so many people in Scotland
will be forthcoming. Naturally a Scottish Folklore Institute would be the ideal
aim, but, at the present juncture, Scottish Gaels would welcome the support of
the Irish Folklore Commission.
this pilot project from his home base in Churchton, Raasay, from the end of
December until the 18 of February 1946. Such was the success of this trial run
that Maclean would thenceforth take up permanent residence in Scotland and
while still an employee of the Commission would, over next five years, collect
a great deal of traditions mainly in the predominantly Catholic and
Gaelic-speaking Southern Hebrides.
Maclean’s own family were renowned tradition bearers,
with talented singers, pipers and storytellers. Not to have begun at home would
have been deemed rather churlish and thus he did not have to look far in order
to garner materials. And so, for the
next two months, Maclean amassed a
great deal of lore from his own relations such as his mother, Christina, father,
Malcolm and brother, Sorley. The lion’s share of material, however, was recorded
from his maternal uncle, Angus Nicolson, styled Aonghas Shomhairle Iain ’ic Shomhairle (1890–1965) and, his
paternal aunt, Peggy MacLean, styled Peigi
Chaluim Iain Ghairbh (1869–1950). Maclean’s Raasay collection was mainly
songs along with associated stories about their provenance and background. In
his memoir of Maclean, Hamish Henderson noted that: “His uncle Angus
Nicolson was a fine singer with a wide repertoire, and both his father and aunt
Peggy Maclean were singers too, so Calum’s interest in Gaelic traditional song
was no doubt kindled in his earliest childhood.”
In 1946 Peggy Maclean
was aged around seventy-seven and was born in Baile Chùirn, Raasay, in 1869,
the eldest sister of Malcolm MacLean, styled Calum Iain Gairbh, a crofter-fisherman. After attending school in
nearby Churchton, Peggy then found work on the farm there. Wishing to expand
her horizons further, she then entered the catering trade at a fairly young age
and travelled to many parts of the world. Such places included stints in Scotland, Ireland, England as well as America.
No matter how far her work took her she would invariably return home to Raasay
for her annual fortnight’s holiday. She served as an army cook from 1914 to
1921 and, as she told her nephew, that although she may not have carried a gun
she thought she might have killed a few people. Her nephew would no doubt have
enjoyed this kind of self-deprecating humour. Peggy remained unmarried and
probably retired home to Raasay in the mid-1930s.
Maclean in an article
published in the scholarly Irish periodical Béaloideas,
dedicated to oral tradition, recollected his aunt in the following terms:
Most of my work during a month in Raasay was done with
Peggy MacLean. Miss MacLean had been a cook, most of her life and had travelled
a good deal. She is now close on eighty years of age, and her memory is rapidly
failing. She had several stories, although it is unusual for a woman to have
lore of this type. There had been storytellers on the island in her youth, but
now story-telling had ceased to be a part of the life of the community.
The sources of her
singing repertoire stemmed from her aunt Isobel, who stayed in Baile Chùirn and
who died in 1918, and from her mother, Mary, who died in 1923 at the age of 86.
Peggy learned all her stories from latter named apart from one:
Her people had had songs in plenty and she remembered
them. As a young woman she had gone to the luaidh
(meetings of women-folk for the purpose of waulking or fulling cloth). At these
she learned many songs composed mostly by women for men, men with flowing
yellow hair, hunters of the hill and sailors of the green ocean waters. Last
summer her voice was beginning to fail, and it was almost impossible to have
the melodies recorded. She did give more than four score songs, and some had
Maclean noted that
Peggy’s memory was perhaps not as good as it used to be and that her increasing
frailty and work-related back problems did not help matters either. But despite
such concerns, Maclean still managed to record around one hundred and twenty-three
individual items from his aunt’s recitation, more than thirty stories including
a few international tales, some ninety songs, including some thirty
waulking-type songs and forty short pieces of puirt-à-beul or mouth-music.
recalled that Peggy used to delight in fishing and, as a young man, he would
take his aunt out in the boat and while he rowed he was regaled by her singing.
It also would have had the desired effect of lightening the physical task of
propelling the boat through the sea. Calum later wrote to Sorley in a letter of
1946 of his folklore collecting in Raasay:
But I enjoy my work very much.
The folklore business became more interesting according [to] how you master the
proper system of approach. Raasay is a wonderful type of place to work. It is
small and sea-contained. It has fishermen and crofters, land and sea, birds,
fish and animals, old ruins, groves, buailes, ghosts, fairies oral tradition,
local history and everything that comes within our scope. It would take a good
collector three years to cover it all...
It is something of a
pity that Maclean could only spare a short period of time to collect the
traditions of his native Raasay. Having proved the point that there was more
than enough to collect, Maclean’s next move was to take him to the isle of
Barra where a new vista of collecting was to occupy him for the next five
months or so.
If it were not for
Maclean’s efforts to collect in Raasay as well as elsewhere then our
understanding of oral tradition in the mid-twentieth century would be far
poorer. After concluding his successful fieldwork trip to his native Raasay,
Maclean wrote in his diary:
I have now finished my first collection of Scots-Gaelic
lore. There are many other songs still to be recorded. All of those which I
have written down have associated airs, save one, and all of the tunes are
different from one another. It is a great ‘sin’ that I was not born thirty
years earlier, as the best of the lore has gone into the grave with those who
had it. There is a terrible gale blowing here today.
I., ‘Sgéalta as Albain’, Béaloideas: The
Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society, vol. XV (1945), pp. 237–48
Photograph of family
portrait, Malcolm and Peggy,
along with a young Calum. c. 1920. Courtesy of Cailean Maclean