Thursday, 27 February 2014
Reproduced in full from The Scots Magazine is an article by John Lorne Campbell. The bard in question was John Campbell, from South Lochboisdale, in South Uist. He was known locally as a poet and seanchaidh. the South Lochboisdale bard. Transcribed by John MacInnes MBE. Due to demand for the short-run of the first edition, a revised reprint was published in 1937. Fr Allan McDonald (of Eriskay) also transcribed a handful of songs from Campbell which remain unpublished. A selection of Campbell’s poetry is also available in Ronald Black’s monumental anthology An Tuil (1999).
Calum Maclean mentions John MacInnes in his diary entry when he and Angus MacMillan visited his home in Gerinish, South Uist, for a house ceilidh in 1948:
Dihaoine, 16 An Sultain 1949 [NFC 1301, 95–96]
Thòisich mi air sgrìobhadh sa mhadainn agus bha mi ag obair air adhbhar Aonghais MhicGilleFhaolain. Bha mi a’ sgrìobhadh an latha air fad gus an robh e mu chòig uairean feasgar. Rinn mi deagh-chuid obrach an-diugh. Mu sheachd uairean, thàinig an càr gam iarraidh agus chaidh mi fhìn agus Aonghas Barrach sìos a Ghèirinis a choimhead air Iain Pheadair. Thug mi an Eidifión leam a chionn bha mi a’ dol a thabhairt òrain sìos bhuaithe. Fhuair Aonghas Barrach agus mi fhìn gabhail againn gu math an taigh Iain Pheadair. Bha Iain a’ gabhail òran feadh na h-oidhche. Tha e a’ dol a dh’ ionnsaigh a’ mhòid air an t-seachdain-sa a’ tighinn agus bha e a’ cleachadh nan òran. Ach thug e dhomh roinn de sheann òrain bhrèagha. Agus de sheann fhuinn. Bha òran na dhà aige a chuala e aig Iain Caimbeul nach maireann, bràthair Sheonaidh Chaimbeil, agus athair Aonghais Iain a tha anns an taigh-òsta, ann an Loch Baghasdail. Thug e dhomh cuideachd òrain a rinn Seonaidh Caimbeul fhèin. Bha e mu uair sa mhadainn nuair a dh’fhàg sinn taigh Iain Pheadair. Bha oidhche againn a bha glè thaitneach. Chòrd an oidhche ri Aonghas Barrach cuideachd. “Cha tàinig rud cho math seo riamh an lùib dhaoine,” ors’ esan. Tha e a’ còrdadh ris a bhith a’ dol a-mach còmhla rium a chruinneachadh sgeulachdan is òran.
Friday, 16 September 1949 [NFC 1301, 95–96]
I began transcribing in the morning and worked on the Angus MacLellan’s material. I worked all day long until around five o’clock in the evening. I did a good day’s work today. Around seven o’clock, the car came to fetch me and Angus MacMillan and I went down to Gerinish to visit John MacInnes. I took the Ediphone with me for I was going to record songs from him. Angus MacMillan and I got a great welcome in John MacInnes’s house. John was singing songs all night long. He’s going to the Mod this coming week and he was practising the songs. But he gave me a number of beautiful old songs and the old tunes. He had a song or two that he heard for the late John Campbell, Johnnie Campbell’s brother, and from Angus John’s father who is in the hotel in Lochboisdale. He also gave me songs composed by Johnnie Campbell himself. It was around one in the morning when we left John MacInnes’s house. We had a very pleasant night. Angus MacMillan also enjoyed the night. “Nothing is as good as people’s company,” he said. He enjoys coming out with me when I’m collecting stories and songs.
Here, then, is the following article as mentioned previously:
Since the foundation of the Folklore Institute of Scotland in 1947, and the work of the Irish Folklore Commission in the Hebrides, interest in the traditional storytellers and bards of the Outer Hebrides has been revived. It has been my own privilege to know several of these striking personalities quite well. The one whom I knew best was my fellow-clansmen, John Campbell, called in Gaelic, Seonaidh Caimbeul, Seonaidh mac Dhòmhnaill ’ic Iain Bhàin (Johnny son of Donald, son of Fair-haired John).
I met him in the following way. In the spring of 1934 I went from Barra to South Uist for the purpose of organising new branches of the Sea League, which was then engaged in carrying on propaganda for the closure of the Minch to trawlers, for the creation of a local Fishery District Committee and for the establishment in Lochboisdale before my visit. The secretary of this branch, Mr John MacInnes, a native of South Lochboisdale, is well known today as a Gaelic singer and is at present the clerk to the local District Council.
During the course of my visit Mr MacInnes, who knew I was interested in Gaelic, told me that there was a bard living in his district and that it was a pity that his songs were not written down and published. I agreed. I suggested that as he was a neighbour of the bard, the best thing he could do would be to take down as many of the songs as he could himself, and I would type his manuscript and see it through the press, and that the expense of publication might be raised by collecting subscriptions locally. This would save us a good deal of the cost of distribution and the usual commissions exacted by publishers and booksellers.
This plan was agree upon. Mr MacInnes set to work that same winter. He had thought there would be about twenty or thirty songs to write down—by the time he had finished the total was a hundred. Out of these forty-five were chosen for publication, notes and a short biography added, and the book was printed privately in Dunfermline on behalf of the subscribers.
Not long after that first conversation I had the pleasure of meeting the bard himself. He was dignified, good-looking old man, then aged seventy-five, with a twinkle in his eye and the great fund of songs and stories that one often found amongst the men of his generation in Uist and Barra. He possessed the remarkable memory of men of his type as he had no formal education. He could write little more than his name, and his English was limited to a few expressions like “How do you do.” His mind was uncluttered with the lumber of a formal English education and filled with the poetry of the Gaelic bards of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and with the local traditions and anecdotes of his own island. He possessed an unbounding good nature and great patience and gave us all the assistance he could.
Seonaidh and his wife—they had no children—lived in a little three-roomed house on a small croft of what would be called extreme marginal land on the south shore of Lochboisdale. He cultivated this croft himself with the cas chrom.
Once the songs had been written down and typed it was my duty to revise them carefully with the bard himself, to make sure that no errors or misunderstandings had crept in. I used to got every evening from a neighbouring house along half a mile of wild and boggy road to Seonaidh’s house with the manuscript. Here Seonaidh would recline on the bench with his hands beneath his head, and taking up the first line from my reading would sign through the whole song. Practically every poem he ever made was made to some tune or other, for music permeates the literature of the Gael, and a bard would hardly every think of making a rhyme without having a tune in mind to which it would be sung.
I noticed when doing this work that Seonaidh was practically word-perfect. It was very seldom that he would omit a stanza or sing one in the wrong place, or even change a word from what had been written down several months before. But I have a much more striking proof of the accuracy of memory. It was known at the time that Mr MacInnes wrote these songs down that some of the m had been taken down over forty years earlier by the late Rev. Father Allan McDonald of Eriskay and by the late Rev. Dr George Henderson, formerly lecturer in Celtic at Glasgow University, who was interested in traditional Gaelic literature, and who used to pay visits to the islands for the purpose of collecting it. Fifteen years after the publication of the book of Seonaidh song’s I found these earlier manuscripts in the Henderson papers in Glasgow University Library. Collation with Mr John MacInnes’ transcriptions showed that practically no alteration had crept in during that time. The date of the earliest one I found in these papers is 1886, composed to a girl from Eriskay who died in a measles epidemic that year.
Seonaidh’s brother, John, known as Iain Clachair or John the Mason—their father, Donald Campbell was also a mason—had also been a bard. Seonaidh’s nephews, Angus and John Campbell, and the late Roderick Campbell were also gifted in the same way. This talent often runs in families in the Hebrides.
Seonaidh’s songs, which I am not quite sure are completely disentangled from his brother Iain’s—it is possible they helped each other in composition—cover all aspects of local life. It is in that that their importance to the folklorist and the social historian lies. I remember one reviewer remarking that although the songs were of some local interest, they had not great literary merit. It is not literary merit alone for which we are looking at them. The interesting thing about them is that they describe a way of life and point of view which, after having existed for hundreds of years, is now passing away like the morning dew in the sunshine.
Seonaidh had been a fisherman in the old days of sailing boats, when men from the islands had travelled to the East Coast of Scotland and engaged as members of crews fishing out of Peterhead and Fraserburgh. He had fished all over the Minch and the Moray Firth, he had met Gaelic speakers from all over the Highlands and Islands and learned to understand their dialects. If we want to find out what the life of these was like, we must turn to his songs and the songs of men like him. There is no other first-hand record of their feelings and their experiences. Seonaidh’s songs celebrate, for instance, the introduction of the mechanical capstan in the fishing boats, and the coming of the marine paraffin engine—inventions that revolutionised his profession.
There was no incident in a local life of any interest on which he was not equal in making a song. One long poem describes life spent in a sheiling with a companion during the winter, collecting sea tangles for kelp, watching and hoping that every winter storm would bring a fresh supply ashore. At the end of the winter the wages for six months of unpleasant hard work amounted to a guinea. It is not surprising to find that Seonaidh, like other bards of his kind, celebrated the introduction of the old age pension in a long and heartfelt poem which brings home how very hard life in the Hebrides must have been for old people, especially old people without young relations to support them, before the introduction of that measure by the late Lloyd George. The poem shows how the pension altered the whole aspect of life for people in Seonaidh’s position, and won them a new independence and respect.
There is a humorous side to many of these songs as might be expected. They describe comical incidents such as the local postman getting lost on the moor, or a dead steer which, being washed ashore on the Atlantic side of Uist, was buried and dug up again by some bright lands who thought they could sell the hide.
There is a song about a rouge of a travelling dentist who persuaded Seonaidh to let him remove his teeth, under promise of supplying a fine new set. The money was paid in advance but the new set never came, until the local policeman was appealed to for assistance. His intervention produced a set of teeth, but instead of being what was promised they were practically useless!
If many of Seonaidh’s songs do not possess great literary merit, at least they have the virtue of being true to life and absolutely sincere. He composed touching elegies on some of his relations and friends who predeceased him, and two or three religious poems on the birth and Passion of Our Lord which prove how strong a grasp the mind of an unlettered person of his type could have upon the essential realities of his religion.
Seonaidh’s book was a success as Gaelic books go. The first edition of four hundred copies at half a crown a piece was quickly sold out. A second edition followed in 1937 in which certain errors in the text of the first edition were corrected. This also sold out and another eighty copies, printed from the standing type before the war, have all gone also. The book is presumably out of print today. I am glad to say that after all the expenses had been met it was possible to hand over to the bard the sum of about ten pounds, representing the profit from the venture—a satisfactory outcome, as few Gaelic books make their authors a profit.
Seonaidh died at the end of the war. He continued making songs now and again, the last I believe on the rationing of tea, until near the end of his life. More than half his songs still remain unpublished. The language in which they are expressed is not always particularly easy, being the Gaelic of South Uist, employing a rich vocabulary including many localisms and also many allusions which are very difficult for an outsider not in the know to understand. It will be easier for students to read them when the dictionary of the dialect of South Uist, made by the late Father Allan McDonald in the [p. 5] nineties and recently rediscovered, has been edited and printed. Meanwhile, they serve to remind us of the wealth of the traditional literature of the Hebrides and the fact that a knowledge of Gaelic is essential to a proper understanding of that tradition.
All Seonaidh’s acquaintances regretted his death deeply. He was on of the most good-natured of man and the most entertaining of companions. His poetic talent, though sometimes used for the purpose of good-natured digs at his neighbours, was never employed for satire or lampoonery. I am afraid that there are not many people like him left today, and that in another generation even his songs themselves would be disappearing from local memory under the impact of English education, if they had not been written down. His type deserves all the encouragement it can get, in particular the encouragement of an attempt to transcribe and preserve the oral literature of the islands before it is too late.
John Lorne Campbell, ‘Portrait of a Bard’, The Scots Magazine, vol. LVIII, no. 1 (October, 1952), pp. 1–5
NFC 1301 [Calum Maclean’s diaries from 1949 to 1950]
The photograph of John Campbell using a cas-chrom (or foot-plough) was taken by Margaret Fay Shaw and may be dated to the 1930s
Tuesday, 25 February 2014
Sir Compton Mackenzie, perhaps most famous for his comedic novel Whisky Galore (1947), described the Coddie (sometimes the Coddy) as “the outstanding character in Northbay.” Owing to recurrent surnames in the islands nicknames came in handy so John MacPherson was given his at a young age which stuck to him all his life. His patronymic was far longer, Iain mac Nèill ’ic Iain ’ic Aonghais ’ic Chaluim ’ic Iain but, to many an outsider, he was simply known as the “Uncrowned King of Barra.”
MacPherson first saw the light of day in the township of Northbay, Barra, in 1876 and was a son of Neil MacPherson and Ann MacLachlan. In his fine introduction to MacPherson’s Tales from Barra: Told by the Coddy (1960), John Lorne Campbell (1906–1996) described the Coddie as:
Rather short, thick-set and Napoleonic; he had an extremely fine-looking head and was quick of movement – and of speech, whether in English or Gaelic. His MacPherson forebears originally came from Benbecula…The MacPhersons or Curries or MacVuirichs are sharp on their tongues and apt scholars.
In 1951, in conversation with another writer, John Marshall, the Coddie summed up his life thus far:
I’ve tried a great variety of jobs in my day. I’ve been to sea. I’ve followed the herring—and the white fish, too—most places around our coasts. I started a wee shop on this island. Not long after, the gales scattered it—shop and all it contained—to the four winds and the sea. That night I near wept my eyes out; but I started up again—and this time I got on; later I got the Post Office. After a while they sent me to the District Council, then I went to Inverness as a County Councillor, but I gave up the public committees after we lost the boy in the Air Force. And here I am to-day.
MacPherson’s verbal virtuosity manifested itself as a skilled raconteur and wit and with his oftentimes witty stories together with his ability to hold an audience no matter what their cultural background, attracted a bewildering range of people who came knocking at the Post Office house in Northbay:
Coddy’s personality and talents as a host brought him before long a large number of visitors, some of them distinguished ones – peers, politicians, officials, descendants of Barra emigrants to Canada and the U.S.A., scholars from Scotland, Norway and Gaelic Ireland, archaeologists, ornithologists, sportsmen and holiday-makers … all made their way to the Coddy’s, attracted by his vigorous personality and the kindness and hospitality of his wife and family.
What attracted these various people was that the Coddie was not only a character but a very able storyteller who knew intimately the traditions of his native island and had such a way with words and with his storytelling style could charm a visiting audience as only he knew how:
As befits a diplomat, he has a fine feeling for language. Not only for his native Gaelic, but even for our English…If anyone in the conversation chanced to coin a particularly apt phrase, Coddie was always the first to catch it up, savour it with his own tongue and nod approval. But, better still, to catch Coddie himself in mood for ceilidh…Then you meet [the] Coddie the storyteller. His favourite tales are from the folk-lore of his island…his tales, when the tells them, have his element of magic—the compelling magic of the born storyteller and a wizard with words. Not that he tells the tales with words alone; for they are punctuated with nods and sideways movements of the head, now and then and elevation of the mobile eyebrows, a pursing of the lips, a portentous downward roll—or a mischievous sideways flick—of the eyes.
Outside the Post Office sitting on his bench, the Coddie was wont to hold court and would engage in conversation with all and sundry. This was when he was in his element and if the mood took hold—as oftentimes it did—he could be the consummate entertainer. An example of the Coddie’s repertoire about a method of divination, recorded and transcribed by Calum Maclean on the 23rd of January 1947, may be given in translation:
A' chiad Dia Luain dhe’n ràithe, nì thu frìth an latha sin, mas urra dhut a dhèanamh, ’n uair a bhios an latha a' bristeadh a-mach aig dealachadh nan tràth. Na daoine a nì frìth chì iad nichean a tha a' tachairst agus rud a tha a' dol a thachairst. Chì iad cuideachd daoine th' air chall, a bheil iad beò na marabh. Chunnaic mi fhin té an Uibhist agus dhèanadh i frìth; Catrìona Dhonnachaidh an t-ainim a bh' oirre.
And the translation is as follows:
The first Monday of the new season, you will make the frìth [augury], and if you can, first thing in the morning when the dawn breaks. People who perform this augury will see things happening and events that are about to happen. They also see people who have gone missing and whether they are dead or alive. I saw myself a woman in Uist performing this augury. Her name was Catrìona Dhonnchaidh.
Every story that he told was stamped with his warmth and personality that would always seem to shine through and his repertoire had a wonderfully eclectic mix of myth, tradition and anecdote.
Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (1899–1970), a prolific travelogue writer and frequent visitor to the Western Isles, visited the Coddie in 1948 and the ensuing conversation was recollected as follows:
…he spoke of Prince Charlie with an intimacy which would have made me reluctant to disbelieve him, and he mentioned that he was one of the Seven Men of Moidart, returned from the dead, and now dwelling in Barra, committed to the sacred duty of keeping green, in that locality, the memory of the luckless Jacobites. Indeed, nothing would have surprised me less than to have learnt from his own lips that he claimed to be the descendant of Cluny MacPherson, that valorous name-sake of his, better known to Scottish history as Cluny of ‘the Forty-five’.
“There’s a bit more I should be telling you about Fuday,” the Coddy interposed the other day, recalling a previous conversation he and I had concerning this grassy isle lying in the Sound of Barra, at no great distance, from his home at Northbay. “But wait a moment,” he added, “while I get the magic wand I like to have in my hand when storytelling to the likes of yourself.” Straightway he made for the sitting-room of his house, in order to take from its customary corner there, the bamboo stick which, he informs me, the harsh landlord occupying the north end of Barra after the Clearances used as a means of frightening anyone refusing to obey his commands.
Thereafter the Coddie, clutching his bamboo stick as a prop, continued his narrative:
“In the ‘Forty-five’, MacNeil of went over to Fuday to see a man, Donald MacInnes, who was then a prosperous crofter on the island. MacNeil explained to MacInnes that he came to Fuday to ask him for money to assist Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was about to land in Scotland to claim the throne of his ancestors. Without any delay, MacInnes put his hand on a mogan–he had it hidden away behind the rafters: that was the bank, you see–which contained three hundred pieces of gold; and he gave it all to MacNeil for the good cause. That’s worth recording, you’ll agree. You won’t collect the like of that one anywhere else than from myself…A good cause it was; and we all know what happened to it, without criticising it in any shape or form…We all know it was lost.
It is probably trite to say but there would have been no Whisky Galore (whether speaking of the book or the film adaption) without the Coddie’s involvement. Even though, according to Compton Mackenzie, MacPherson had the gall to mix whisky with lemonade! This perhaps does not befit the image of an islander imbibing the strong stuff but the Coddie may be forgiven as he had quite a few stories up his sleeve about the shenanigans that went on after the S.S. Politician foundered near Eriskay in 1941 with her cargo of whisky still intact.
The Coddie even made a cameo appearance in the subsequently highly successful Ealing comedy made in 1949 where he can be seen dispensing some ill-gained whisky from a jar during the rèiteach, or engagement, scene. The Coddie was given the role of honorary adviser to the film-makers and acted as a mediator between the production team and the locals. With regard to local customs and getting the local ‘feel’ as authentic as it could possibly be as well as, of course, film locations, his advice was sought and heeded.
Despite the very poor summer of 1949 subsequently causing many delays to shooting and thus the budget to go well over, the project was very nearly abandoned but for a last minute reprieve. The Coddie’s involvement made the smooth working of local arrangements less of a burden to the production crew than would have been otherwise.
In 1945, when Compton Mackenzie decided for health reasons to quit Suidheachan, his house in Eoligarry, the Coddie told him in a letter that he was rather distraught that he was leaving Barra after having stayed a dozen years there:
…I am very sorry to hear you are winding up at Suidheachan and unfortunately cutting out Barra from your map. The fact that you were staying on it attracted a big percentage of the visitors to the island. Let us stick together and hold the Fort. This was hit me hard, losing Neilie, the flower of my family, and the business very much gone downwards…
Due to the loss of his son during the Second World War and that his shop was not doing so well as he might have hoped, the Coddie’s thus far fulfilling life was blighted during his remaining years. The Coddie being the Coddie, of course, kept going and could reflect upon and be proud of a rather remarkable career. The highlights of his public life were twofold as Barra’s Country Councillor; he saw success crowning his campaign to obtain funding for a new pier at Castlebay, and his involvement with Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore. With his passing in 1955, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Barra had lost a real character the like of which will never be seen again.
Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, The Western Isles (London: Robert Hale, 1949)
John MacPherson, Tales of Barra: Told by the Coddy, ed. by John Lorne Campbell (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1992)
John Marshall, ‘Meeting the Coddie’, The Scots Magazine, vol. LIV, no. 6 (1951), pp. 73–77
NFC 1030: 197
John MacPherson, Northbay, Barra, c. 1947
John MacPherson, The Coddie, Calum I. Maclean, Gaelic oral traditions, Northbay, John Lorne Campbell, Tales of Barra, Barra
Although Calum Maclean had very little to do with FIOS (Folklore Institute of Scotland), his colleague and close friend, John Lorne Campbell (1906–1996), certainly did. In a letter printed in The Scotsman newspaper, Campbell set out a vision of how oral traditions were in urgent need of being recorded. Up until around that time, the institutional neglect of preserving the fast-dying Gaelic oral traditions was a concern not only for Campbell but also for other like-minded individuals. Campbell had the necessary drive and energy to do something about this and he, along with a few others, founded the Folklore Institute of Scotland (FIOS)in 1947, largely based upon the Irish Folklore Commission (founded a dozen years earlier), which shared similar objectives. The rather ill-starred FIOS only lasted five years as it soon became obsolete with the foundation of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh in 1951. In his letter, Campbell gives a brief overview of the recent efforts made in Scotland to record and preserve oral traditions and makes recommendations for the best ways in which such efforts may be done in the years ahead:
Gaelic Folk-Songs: Work of the Collectors
by J. L. Campbell, President of the Folklore Institute of Scotland
Now that the Edinburgh Festival is an established annual event, it is to be hoped that Scottish people will be roused to take a fresh interest in their own heritage of folk-music, for in spite of the fact that some Scottish eighteenth and nineteenth century collections of folk-songs were in advance of work done in other countries at that time, the start has hardly been maintained.
The controversy that raged in the correspondence columns of The Scotsman a year ago on the question of the treatment of Gaelic folk-songs by the late Mrs Kennedy Fraser show at any rate, that interest in the subject is alive. It would be as well if this interest could be directed into the practical channels of recording, transcribing, and publishing the surviving songs before it is too late; there are a great many more of these in existence than is generally realised, but they are usually well known only to people over 50 or 60 years of age.
The Gaelic Idiom
It is very unfortunate that the work of a single well known folk-song collector and arranger─or perhaps rather the uncritical admirers of her work─has had the effect of laying a dead hand on research in this field. Writers such as Sir Robert Raft and George Pryde in Scotland in the Modern World series, and G. M. Thomson in A Short History of Scotland, have suggested that, but for Mrs. Kennedy Fraser, nothing would have survived, and that her arrangements are improvements on the originals.
The latter assertion can be dealt with briefly. I doubt whether any of the critics who had made it have ever heard the originals, or were familiar with the idiom of the originals. Gaelic music is not a barbaric idiom that has to be polished for refined ears; such a notion is absurd; but it has had to be bowdlerised and sentimentalised for ears that have been unfamiliar with modal folk-songs sung in the natural scale (which are really hardly susceptible of harmonisation) and for listeners who had subjective notions of the Celtic Twilight.
We may indeed be grateful to Mrs Kennedy Fraser for braving the hardships of travelling to the Islands in the old days and arousing public interest in our folk-songs; but the arrangements she published have no scientific value and the notion that she has exhausted the subject has done great harm.
Some statistical information on the latter point is of interest. Examining the four volumes of Songs of the Hebrides one finds therein 214 arranged songs and 121 unaltered airs given in the prefaces as specimens of Hebridean music. The latter have far more interest for serious students of folk-music than any other part of the books, but unfortunately many of them are printed without any words at all, and none give more than the opening verse. However, they are objective, at any rate.
Wealth of Material
Comparing the work of other objective collectors of whom there have not been many, one finds
Miss Frances Tolmie 105 folk-songs from Skye, complete with words and translations, Journal of the Folksong Society, 1911. Some of these airs were utilised by Mrs Kennedy Fraser.
Miss Lucy Broadwood, 72 songs, mostly from Arisaig district, word deficient; same Journal.
Miss Amy Murray, 26 airs published in the Celtic Review and Fr. Allan’s Island; 15 airs known to exist in MS., of which a photostat copy is in possession of the Folklore Institute of Scotland. Miss Murray is known to have collected at least 150 airs in the Island of Eriskay, the MS. of which is being searched for (at the instigation of this Institute) in America at present. Words often lacking.
Miss Margaret Fay Shaw, 12 songs from Uist in the English Folksong Journal, with translations and notes. Miss Shaw has over 100 other songs collected in Uist, as yet unpublished.
Mr Calum MacLean, working for the Irish Folklore Commission, has recorded over 70 in Raasay and Canna and 170 in Benbecula.
The writer and other collaborators working under the aegis of the Folklore Institute of Scotland have recorded 500 folksongs in Barra, Eriskay, Morar, Canna, South Uist, and Cape Breton, since 1937.
The Linguistic Survey of Scotland has already recorded a number of Gaelic songs.
Although there is certainly some overlapping among these collections, what has been done already proves beyond doubt that the total amount of material in existence must be very large indeed─certainly something to compare with the 5000 English folksongs which have been collected, or with collections made in Ireland by the Irish Folklore Commission, or with the 7000 folk-songs collected in Hungary by Bartók and Kodály─something, that is to say, far in excess of what is popularly realised.
Most of the early collectors were greatly handicapped by not knowing Gaelic themselves and by lacking efficient mechanical means of recording the airs, for writing down from the singers themselves is a most laborious and slow process. The whole subject has received a fresh impetus from the perfecting of portable mechanical means of recording on tape, wire, or discs. Now that these devices exist it is most urgent that the work of collecting our folk-music should proceed on a systematic and scientific basis.
An Urgent Need
There are still hundreds, if not thousands, of folk-songs to be collected in Scotland, particularly in the Hebrides. There is still time to do what has hardly been attempted, viz., the collection and collation of versions of the same song as sung by different singers in different places. There is still time to trace out persons living in Canada and other Dominions who have emigrated from Scotland, or whose forebears emigrated from Scotland, bearing part of this tradition with them.
It will, indeed, be a grave reproach to all who are associated with the study of the humanities in Scotland if no co-ordinated attempt be made to recover this material before it is too late. In the past this work has been hampered by political and utilitarian prejudices, but these should not be allowed to operate to-day. It is certainly no credit to Scotland that hitherto such work has been left to amateurs and that the only outlet for the publication of Scottish Gaelic folk songs is still the Journal of the English Folk-Dance and Folk-Song Society.
It is essential, in other words, that the collection, recording, transcription, and cataloguing of our folklore should be put on a proper whole-time basis, as is done in Ireland, Scandinavia, and the United States. It cannot be left to amateurs, even though Scotland may have been exceptionally fortunate having has amateur folklore collector of the stature of J. F. Campbell of Islay, Alexander Carmichael, Frances Tolmie in the past. For this purpose, the endowment of a body in Scotland similar to the Irish Folklore Commission would be the best step; but the universities, the B.B.C. and the Scottish Education Department ought to co-operate and aid this work to the fullest possible extent.
The need is urgent; the older people who preserved this lore are passing away─well known Barra folk-singers have died within the last 12 months, for instance. The expense of the work puts it beyond the means of amateurs and unendowed bodies. The dignity and intrinsic merit and significance for the cultural life of Scotland demand that it be recognised as an important object of research and adequately carried out. As folk-music is the basis for all national music and how can Scottish music flourish at the top, if its roots are neglected?
John Lorne Campbell’s plea for further efforts to be made in order to record material did not fall upon deaf ears. He along with other advocates such as Angus McIntosh and James Hamilton Delargy, Director of the Irish Folklore Commission, were instrumental in gaining support in Scotland and beyond for an institution to be set up in order to scientifically record Scotland’s intangible cultural heritage. With the foundation of the School of Scottish Studies, Calum Maclean was transferred on a three-year loan (which subsequently became permanent) to be its first fieldwork collector and researcher. Along with his colleagues, Maclean had his work cut out for him and the recordings made by him in the School’s first decade formed not an insubstantial part of an ongoing sound archive consisting of over 12,000 hours of various materials.
J. L. Campbell, ‘Gaelic Folk-Songs: Work of Collectors’, The Scotsman (17 Sep., 1949), p. 9
John Lorne Campbell as a young man and FIOS logo
Thursday, 20 February 2014
By 1946 Fr John MacMillan was living in retirement in Allasdale, a short distance from his place of birth, Craigston, in the northern part of Barra. Due to a heart condition, MacMillan had been suffering from ill health and, so, in September of 1946, the community decided to organise a fundraising ceilidh in order to give financial relief to the ailing priest. Calum Maclean writing in Irish Gaelic gives a brief description of the event in his diary:
Diardaoin, 26 Meadhon Fomhghair 1946 [NFC 1111, 98]
Bhíos a’ sgríobhadh ar a’ nós céadna ar maidin indiu. Leanas do’n sgríbhneóireacht go dtí sé a’ chlog tránóna. Bhí céilidhe ann anocht le airgead a bhailiú do’n Athair Iain MacGilleMhaoil, nach bhfial a shláinte aige chor ar bith. Bhí sluagh mór annsin, amhránaidhthe, píobaírí, rinnceoíri an-mhaith. Tá neart amhrán aca nach gcuala mise aríamh. Thugas cupla amhrán Gaedhilge (Éireann) dhóibh. Casadh an sagart paráiste orm an oidhche seo, fear deas é féin. Bhí rinnce ann tar éis an cheilidhe. Anois seo e an darna h-uair dhom-sa ag rince ó tháinig mé annseo. Tá cailíní breaghtha ins an oileán seo, is cosula go mór le cailíní Éireannacha iad na cailíní Alban. Bhíos a’ rinnce le caílin amháin a bhí rí-dhathúil ar fad. Bhí sí einéal cosúil le Florrie Fitzsimmons. Cloisim gurab e Rónán is sloinneadh dí. Rugadh í I mBarraidh ach Éireannach a b’ athair dí. Goirim í, an cailín is deise dár casadh orm le fada, fada.
Thursday, 26 September 1946 [NFC 1111, 98]
I transcribed this morning as usual. The transcription work continued until six o’clock in the evening. There was a ceilidh on tonight in order to raise money for Father John MacMillan who is not at all in good health. A big crowd attended, and there were exceedingly good singers, pipers and dancers. There were a great many songs that I’ve never heard before. I sang a couple of Irish songs for them. I met the parish priest tonight who seems like an affable fellow. There was a dance on after the ceilidh. This is now the second time I have danced since I came here. There are beautiful lassies on these islands and they’re far more like Irish than Scottish lassies. I danced with a lassie who was altogether very nice. She was very similar to Florrie Fitzsimmons. I heard he surname was Ronan. She was born in Barra though her father is Irish. I’d call her the nicest girl I have met in a long, long time.
Three days later, Maclean notes in his diary the following:
Dia Domhnaigh, 29 Meadhon Fomhghair 1946 [IFC 1111, 101]
Bhí an lá go h-an-bhréagha ar fad indiu. Chuadhas ar Aifreann a h-aon déag. Bhíos a’ cainnt le Iain MacGill’Eathain, Brudharnais, agus le Séamas Iain Ghunnairigh ar an mbealach abhaile. Bhíos a’ súil le Séamas Iain Ghunnairigh tar éis dinneara, ach nuair nár tháinig sé, thosaigheas a’ sgríobhadh. Tháinig sé ar a seacht a’ chlog, agus fritheadh an Eidifíon do. D’ innis sé leagan áluinn de’n sgéal Ridire na gCeist. Thosaigh sé air ar a cúig tar eis a h-ocht agus ní raibh sé críochnaighthe aige go dtí a deich tar éis a naoi. Buidheachas le Dia go bhfuil sé ann fós. Nuair a d’ imthigh Séamas, chuadhas sall go dtí an Coddie, leis na litreachaí chuig na páipéirí. D’ fhanas tamall a’ cainnt leis annsin. Bhí an oidhche go h-áluinn. Chuadhas a’ siubhal tamall roimh theacht abhaile.
Sunday, 29 September 1946 [IFC 1111, 101]
Altogether it was a beautiful day today. I attended Mass at eleven. I talked with John Maclean, Bruernish, and with James MacKinnon on the way home. I expected to see James MacKinnon after lunch but as he didn’t turn up I began transcribing. He arrived at seven o’clock and I set up the Ediphone for him. He told a beautiful version of Ridire nan Ceist (The Knight of the Questions). He began at five past eight and he didn’t finish until ten minutes after nine. Thanks be to God that he’s still alive. When James finished, we went over to see the Coddie [John MacPherson], with letters for the newspapers. I spent a while talking with him. It was a beautiful night. I went for a short walk before going back home.
The letter that Maclean mentioned duly appeared in The Oban Times (and perhaps in other local newspapers as well) in which all those that took part in the ceilidh are give a mention:
NORTHYBAY (BARRA).―The sum of £33 was raised at an enjoyable Ceilidh held in St Barr’s Church Hall, Northbay, on September 26, under the chairmanship of Rev. Fr. Malcolm Morrison, parish priest, to collect funds for a presentation to Rev. Fr. John MacMillan, the noted Barra priest, who had been in poor health for some time. The Ceilidh was opened with bagpipe selections from Mr Muroch MacNeill, a veteran piper of the Cameron Highlanders in the 1914–1918, and Mr Padruig MacKinnon, who served also through the 1939–46 war as a piper in the Scots Guards. The whole parish was well represented, and singers, dancers, and story-tellers from the various townships gave of their best to make the functions an outstanding success. Songs were contributed by Mrs Ronald MacNeill, Miss Mary MacKinnon and Master Alick MacNeill, all from Earsary; Mr J. Maclean, Bruernish; Mrs M. MacDonald, Arisaig; Mrs Galbraith, Mr Buchanan, and Mr Hugh MacKinnon, Eoligarry; Miss Veronica MacDonald, Ardmhor, and Mr C. I. Maclean, Ardveenish, the latter contributing songs in Irish Gaelic. Stories were told by Mr Neil MacKinnon and Mr Donald MacDonald, Eoligarry. Songs and Puirt-a-Beul were contributed by the Ardmhor Gaelic Choir. By the special request of the chairman a Scots Reel was danced by Mrs J. MacLeod, Ardmhor; Mrs Galbraith, Eoligarry; Mr Neil MacKinnon, Eoligarry, and Mr Gilbert MacLellan, Bogach. Rev. Fr. Morrison moved a vote of thanks to the artistes, and Mr John MacPherson, “Coddie,” proposed a vote of thanks to Rev. Fr. Morrison, who had conducted the Ceilidh so admirably. An equally enjoyable dance followed.
Although Fr John MacMillan survived for another five years his health didn’t really improve as he eventually succumbed to a series of heart attacks and passed away in 1951. The funds raised at the ceilidh would have helped him throughout his remaining years. On his return to Barra the following hear, Maclean fondly remembers his time with Fr John MacMillan:
I did return again to Barra, for one rarely fails to do that. I came at the request of Father John MacMillan…He is now almost seventy, but he still sings well and is also a veritable mine of traditional lore. It was a short visit, but in one day alone I recorded over thirty songs from Father MacMillan. One was a very beautiful song addressed to Prince Charlie, a song which tradition ascribes to Flora MacDonald. Many of Father MacMillan’s songs are now known to him alone. He heard them in Barra, Uist, Benbecula, and in Eigg over forty years ago from people who have longs since returned slowly to dust. Barra has many people of whom it can feel justly proud. Father John MacMillan is certainly one of them.
Calum I. Maclean, ‘In Search of Folklore in the Western Isles’, Scotland’s S.M.T. Magazine, vol. 40, no. 6 (1947), pp. 40–44
Calum I. Maclean & John MacPherson, ‘Northbay (Barra)’, The Oban Times, no. 4789 (12 Oct., 1946), p. 6
NFC 1111 [Calum Maclean’s diaries from 1945 to 1948]
Fr John MacMillan of Barra, c. 1946, Barra