Friday, 24 January 2014
Calum Maclean on the 22nd of July 1948 began to record Angus MacMillan’s life story. Essentially it is a chronological autobiography (with some flashbacks) that begins with a sketch of Angus MacMillan’s antecedents, continues with his schooling, his adolescence and his adventures and working life and stops at the then present day (23rd of August 1948), some six years before the narrator’s death in 1954 at the age of eighty.
The process of taking down MacMillan’s life story took several weeks as the narrator would dictate his biographical material into an Ediphone – a wax cylinder recorder – which would then be erased as an economic measure after Maclean had transcribed the material. The original manuscripts are now housed in the National Folklore Collection (formerly the Irish Folklore Commission) at University College Dublin (NFC 1180: 301–548). The biographical narrative may be divided into eleven distinct parts of varying lengths: Family History; Calum MacMillan; School Days; After School; Isle of Rum; Mallaig; Militia; Stories of Poaching and Other Things; A Trip to Lochmaddy; Marriage; and Stories.
Maclean recorded two other biographies, one of which was from Duncan MacDonald (1882–1954), styled Donnchadh mac Dhòmhnaill ’ic Dhonnchaidh and the other from Angus MacLellan. The latter was unfortunately never completed due to his untimely death in 1950.
The following summary can only do but scant justice to Angus MacMillan’s narrative which is speckled with lively dialogue in good vernacular Gaelic. It is hoped, nevertheless, that it gives a flavour of the life of an “ordinary” crofter who was also an “extraordinary” storyteller with an amazing repertoire of tales and anecdotes. What, perhaps, makes MacMillan’s autobiography so interesting is that his life spanned the years when the communities of South Uist and Benbecula underwent great social changes, beginning at the time when crofters gained security of tenure because of the Crofters’ Act in 1886, through two world wars, and finally with the emergence of the Cold War that resulted in the controversial militarisation of the Southern Outer Hebrides.
Angus MacMillan explains that his paternal grandfather came from Barra and his maternal grandfather came from Heisker in North Uist. His father [Calum MacMillan, Calum Barrach] came of a family of four boys and four girls. As a young lad he came to Uist and worked as a herds boy, employed by a MacLellan of Ormaclete. His mother, a milkmaid, who also worked for MacLellan, met his father and they married.
Eventually his father, aged around forty-one, got land in Benbecula at Cnoc Fhraochaig. They had seven children all of whom died apart from the youngest, Angus MacMillan, and the third youngest, Mary Anna. They lost an infant boy when he was only two years old who was also called Angus; Peggy was the oldest daughter, and passed away in America, and there was Mary, Donald and Lachlann; and then there was Mary Anna, Jean and Angus MacMillan. Peggy, Donald, Lachlann and Mary all emigrated to America. Angus MacMillan was born at Cnoc Fhraochaig on 3 July 1874. His maternal grandfather, Lachlann Donald MacDonald, belonged to Benbecula.
Angus MacMillan described his father as being five feet ten inches tall. He was a crofter. At the time of his death he was eighty-eight years of age and without any impairment to his memory or hearing. He had a good, strong voice and a prodigious memory for he only needed to hear a story twice before he had it committed to memory. He received no formal education and had never spent a day at school. He had three brothers, two of whom were in Kintyre and the other was over in Canada. None of them are living now . He left Barra when he was twelve years of age and he was the only one who came north. There was one in Bruarnish in Barra called Mòr an Tàilleir and she was his father’s sister.
Angus MacMillan then explains that his father got a great deal of his repertoire from an itinerant dance master who belonged to Morar named Ewen MacLachlan, styled An Dannsair Ciotach [due to a shrivelled hand], who stayed with his father when he over-wintered at his house. Angus tells that his father used to have a full house in which he would tell stories. One such story was a translation from Jules Verne’s Six Weeks in a Baloon. The story was told in English by James MacDonald, a tailor from Gearradh Bheag.
Angus MacMillan first went to school before he was five years of age. His first teacher was a Miss Laing. MacMillan admits that he did not enjoy school and it was made even worse when an Aberdonian arrived by the name of Fyfe. One winter’s day MacMillan and his friend, a policeman’s son, kept all the rest of the children playing outside sliding on the ice. The schoolmaster demanded to know why they had not returned when the bell had rang. It was a rhetorical question for he later blamed MacMillan and his friend. He was going to give them the strap when MacMillan and the other boy decided that they would give him a beating. MacMillan never returned to school after that though the policeman’s son did.
On leaving school, Angus MacMillan worked for his father on the croft. A while afterwards he decided to join the Militia. He was seventeen years of age at the time. He spent ten weeks in Inverness before returning home. He was going to enlist again but could not as there was no one else around to help out with the croft work. He spent all day cutting peat for six shillings. Afterwards he got a job in Nunton working on a tack for eighteen pennies a day. He also did scythe work for which he was paid two schillings a day.
An Aberdonian by the name of Bain owned Creagorry Inn in Benbecula and asked Angus MacMillan’s father for permission to see if he would work on building roads in the Isle of Rum. Bain had won a contract for the work. MacMillan’s father gave his permission and Angus set out in a fishing boat from Creagorry to the Isle of Rum. MacMillan along with the rest of the workmen worked on the roads for two schillings a day. A year passed at this work and his father asked him to return home. MacMillan also complained that all the hard labour had made his hands sore. The foreman persuaded him to stay by offering him light work as a post man. MacMillan only had to work three hours a day. For the next period MacMillan worked at delivering goods on horseback from Kinloch to where the work worked. MacMillan carried out this work for some time and his hand by now had completely healed. For entertainment the men used to drink whisky (delivered by MacMillan) and they also used to hold roups [auctions]. MacMillan interestingly mentions that the workforce consisted of Lowlanders and Gaels and they kept their own company and never really mixed.
MacMillan’s next period of employment was working on the West Highland railway line between Fort William and Mallaig. MacMillan spent three years working on the line. Various men from the islands such as Skye and Harris worked along with the locals and Irish. There was tension between the groups of workmen especially when drink was involved. MacMillan gives a graphic description of a fight that took place one night when the islanders and the Irish fought one another. A while afterwards MacMillan got a job as a carter on the railway line and describes this in a fair amount of detail. After breaking his fingers in an accident, MacMillan left the job after receiving compensation.
After recuperating at home, MacMillan was called up to the Militia during the Boer War. MacMillan lied about this age on the advice of the recruiting sergeant so that he would receive higher pay. For training, MacMillan travelled to Aldershot and thence to Ireland. MacMillan describes in a fair amount of detail his journey from Uist to the mainland, including a disturbance that took place on the ferry when he was making his way home. MacMillan then gives an account of his courting days. He then describes an incident with a travelling woman. An anecdote about a particularly religious Harrisman then follows. MacMillan then relates his experience of storytelling to a Sergeant-Major. MacMillan notes that he got the opportunity to go to Africa but he unfortunately caught measles. On his recovery, MacMillan went back on home on leave but by accident overstayed. He eventually went back to the Militia without consequence and then took part in two tours of Ireland. MacMillan was then bought out of the army as his father was ailing. Overall, MacMillan reckoned that he spent fifteen years in the Militia.
MacMillan used to poach salmon using a net on a river near Griminish and relates an episode when he was nearly caught by the bailiff. On another occasion, MacMillan tells of a time he was poaching wild-fowl (geese) by using traps. This was one of his most successful poaching expeditions. He came under suspicion from the local gamekeeper and they fell out over this despite having previously been on good terms. On another poaching expedition, MacMillan caught many wild-ducks. MacMillan also relates an occasion when he went out to the loch to get some nets and found swan eggs. When meeting his sister who was coming home, MacMillan went to Lochmaddy, North Uist. MacMillan borrowed a gig from the priest in order to travel to Lochmaddy. He was entrusted by a policeman to take a letter to the Fiscal in Lochmaddy. Whilst in the company of the Fiscal, MacMillan relates a poaching tale. MacMillan then relates the events of travelling back down to Benbecula and then to South Uist. MacMillan then relates an anecdote of a missing wild duck that he found but hid from the gamekeeper.
MacMillan volunteered to take the township’s bull for sale to Lochmaddy. He rode all the way there and describes his adventures in doing so. Many folk came out to view such an unusual scene as he rode the bull. On his approach to Lochmaddy a car stopped at his rear and passengers got out and took photographs of him riding the bull. MacMillan stayed overnight and reckons that it was one of his best trips. On another occasion, MacMillan accompanied a priest to Lochmaddy and he relates their trip and the dangerous crossing of the ford when they were both very nearly drowned. Around this time MacMillan was nearly killed by a rampaging bull but for the fact that he struck it on his horns whereby the bull did not regain consciousness for a few hours. On a fishing trip on the east side of Benbecula, a whale was spotted and on going out to investigate the crew were very nearly drowned. MacMillan then relates a story of his courtship days when he visited his sweetheart who eventually became his wife. Another anecdote follows where MacMillan describes a time when he in the company of other children climbed upon the chapel roof.
MacMillan relates the background of how he came to marry his wife. The local priest persuaded him to marry his sweetheart before she had an opportunity to leave the island. MacMillan says that he greatly appreciated the advice that the priest gave him and that it had been a good decision to marry his sweetheart. MacMillan explained that she was also a MacMillan, Peigi nighean Aonghais Mhòir. They moved into MacMillan’s parents’ house. MacMillan relates that his own mother was a MacDonald who was from Benbecula and she died at seventy-five. MacMillan says that she was a good singer and had scores of old songs. His father belonged to Barra folk and never left Uist once he moved there. He died at the age of eighty-eight.
MacMillan relates that on helping give birth to a cow he told to story, a very long one. MacMillan kept on telling the story until around six o’clock in the morning. On another occasion, MacMillan began relating a story to a group of women but by the time five o’clock in the morning had gone he was not finished. In a week’s time he asked them if they wished him to continue and they all said that they didn’t wish for him to keep going as they had been lambasted for being so late on the previous occasion. On yet another occasion, MacMillan began telling a story to group of folk; the story lasted all night and by the time the story was finished the sun had risen. MacMillan says that he told stories in many places and if he was in a hurry he would shorten them. On another storytelling occasion, MacMillan began telling a story by a wall to the local blacksmith who was very keen to hear tales and as he continued around fifty people had crowded around him to listen. By nightfall he had not finished telling the story. Then MacMillan tells of a lad [Calum Òg] that he and his wife adopted. He reckons it was the best thing that he had ever done. He later went on to marry a woman from Barra [Anne MacLean]. MacMillan ends his biography by saying that he is growing progressively weaker but also wishing to bless anyone who listens to his tale.
Calum Maclean notes the following at the end of the transcription of Angus’s autobiography: “Angus finished telling his life story on this very day (23/8/1950). I first met Angus in March, 1947. Ever since then I have been transcribing anecdotes and stories from him. He is mentioned in my notebook diaries since March 1947. I will be working with him for a good while yet, I hope.”
NFC 1180: 301–548 [Transcription of Angus MacMillan’s autobiography]
Angus MacMillan, c. 1930s, Griminish, Benbecula.