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Thursday, 18 June 2015

Black House Into White

A radio play entitled Black House Into White was first broadcast by the BBC on its Third Programme and serialised on 14th and 16th of March and on 4th April, 1949. The script came about through the co-operation of David Thomson, Dr Werner Kissling and Calum Maclean.

The three-hour long programme had a cast which featured Alex MacKenzie, who would later star as the skipper in the comedy The Maggie (1954), along with Rhona Sykes, Angus MacDonald, Duncan MacIntyre, Archie Henry, Morven Cameron, Effie Morrison and Neil Brown together with minor parts played by Joan Fitzpatrick, Pat Vicary and Tom Smith. Musical accompaniment by way of Gaelic song was supplied by John MacLeod, John MacInnes, Kate Buchanan and Calum Johnston.

The opening announcement from the radio script ably sets the scene:

1.    ANNOUNCER: “BLACK HOUSE INTO WHITE” – We present the story of the passing of a traditional way of life in the Outer Hebrides.

The script then goes on to describe stormy Hebridean weather and then a typical dwelling-place at the turn of the twentieth century. The influence of Dr Werner Kissling, an expert on blackhouses, is easily discernible:

3.    NARRATOR: To this day in the treeless, rocky islands of the Outer Hebrides, the rain and the gales of the Atlantic and a ferocious sea, have made the ordinary daily work of man into a trial strength. Thirty or forty years ago most of the people lived in houses which had thick double walls of stone and earth, stout enough to withstand the onslaught of the winds and to provide calm and shelter from the violence outside. Granite stones, of suitable shapes and sizes, were collected and built into walls, with earth and turf instead of mortar. The rounded corners of these houses (some even had rounded end-walls), the small roof and rounded roof ends, seemed to link them in origin with the ancient beehive hut, and with their low solid walls they hugged the ground against the wind. They had no windows, but where the roof joined the wall there was at least one small hole through the thatch to let in the light and to let out some of the smoke from the peat fire which burned on the middle of the floor. Most of the smoke had to find its way out through the thatch; indeed it was not intended to escape until it had lingered there and saturated the roof with peat tar. When the thatch was so sticky and sooty that no smoke could find its way through, it was stripped from the rafters and used as manure. But meantime the inside of the house was thick with peatsmoke, night and day and glistening, pitchy pendicles of black soot fringed the rafters. It was indeed a Black House, and in character it had not changed for more than a thousand years.
It will be clear from the stories to be told in this programme – stories, by the way which were noted down probably for the first time only a few weeks ago – that the oral literature of the people lived in these Black Houses had remained unchanged in character for more than a thousand years. But so had the climate of the Atlantic coast. The Hebridean leant towards the ideal, he concentrated on the past, and except where extreme necessity drove him, the desire to improve the material conditions of his life was more or less latent. But while the chance of satisfying that desire was just as remote as, let us say, his wish to tame the wind and the sea, he could ill have dispensed with his heritage of memories and with the ideals which gave him a motive in living. Not that material conditions are improving, now that the small boys of the island will discuss among themselves the merits of a jet-propelled plane and the young men and women are interested in written literature, they must somehow discover a new force to bind their communities together. They have escaped the worst evils of our industrial age. Perhaps they will be able to show us how to glean the good things from it. For their independence of mind and their strength have not changed – and the wind and the sea and the rain which govern the work they do – these have not changed.

As the narrator moves away from a graphic description of the dwelling-house to that which was then the way of life in the Hebrides, the influence of Calum Maclean can be seen. The progamme then turns to a typical ceilidh scene:

1.    RONALD: Then the man of the house would start to tell one of his stories and all the people in the house would be silent. I learnt many such stories from my father – some would take four or five evenings to tell, but the shorter ones would last perhaps an hour.
Our language, as you know, is Gaelic – my mother and my father had no English at all, and the little children had no English (no more have they nowadays) but my brother and sisters and I had learnt English at school. So now when we let you hard hi story, as he told it sitting by the fire, spinning heather ropes maybe, or making horse’s harness of seabent, Ian here will put it shortly for you in English. Much of the wonder and glory will be lost to you in English, so I will ask you first to listen to the sound of the Gaelic and the style it was spoken in that held our ears bound to the story of a hero.

There then follows an English translation of the tale known as The Son of the King of Lochlan. The tale was recorded by Maclean from Duncan MacDonald, one of the very best storytellers that Maclean had the privilege to encounter when collecting in South Uist. The translation is clearly the work of Maclean. After the story has been narrated, all the characters then discuss some points of the story and raise questions or make observations of what they had heard. Thomson doubtless had discussed with Maclean all that he had picked up about traditional ceilidhs and used his knowledge to good effect in creating an authentic atmosphere for the radio play.

The rest of the play continues in a similar vein in that it reproduces a ceilidh scene of yesteryear including more Gaelic song and stories. Yet it also contains contemporary material with mention made of the Second World War and also local issues. Such a brief summary can hardly do justice to the vitality and fullness of the original script never mind the actual performance of the actors involved in the production of the radio programme. The broadcast received some outstanding reviews: (Evening News, 23/3/49). “This was a most fluent and exciting presentation of the passing of a traditional way of life in the Outer Hebrides symoblised by the gradual disappearance of the Black House. It was a rich, artistic and emotional experience to listen to this piece which was evidently compiled in the main by an English producer―very English, I can assure you―named David Thomson.” Special praise is reserved for Duncan MacDonald’s performance: “There were some fine individual performances by a mixture of professional and amateur artists. Noteworthy was Duncan MacDonald, the traditional storyteller. He has a powerful voice which he uses with a high sense of poetry and feeling for the past.”

Other reviews were not far behind such as the one from the Bulletin (16/3/1949): “Now that was something―“Black House Into White” on the Third Programme! This fascinating script on passing of a traditional way of life in the Outer Hebrides (South Uist and Benbecula, where the oral literature had remained unchanged for a thousand years) had a magnificent subject…Some of the recordings of the wonderful heroic tales, ancient fruit of the age-long Ceilidhs, were made for the first time a few weeks ago. You don’t need to be a genius to make recordings. Ordinary common sense should have told the local men where to find such material for their recordings.” Waxing even more lyrically was a review from the Scottish Daily Mail (17/3/1949): “These wonderful stories, told in the most poetic and fiery language, whirling the mind into a starry vast by sheer power of words and imagination, are food for our starved, drab souls…Thomson’s script, simple and well knit, was not all fairy tales. It gave a sensitive and accurate interpretation (extremely well acted by our local players) of the change which had come over the islands, and of the muddled, puzzled, wandered young folk who don’t know where they are going.” Perhaps the most realistic review was published in the Observer (20/3/1949): “…a vivid depiction…of the primitive way of life which survives in the Outer Hebrides. Instead of being exhibited as anthropological oddities the islanders were revealed, in their simple dignity, coping with elemental problems for which, in their environment, there is no solution by Wage Board, By-Law or Act of Parliament. The singers and storytellers, all natives of the islands, had me spellbound by their artless recital of legend and tradition. Too often we heard these things as folk-salvage, collected by sentimentalists and displayed in the incongruous setting of one of our lesser concert-halls. But in this stark medium of wireless we made direct and dramatic contact with Barra and South Uist.”

Calum Maclean’s diary entries, originally written in Gaelic but here given in translation, reveal the buildup to the rehearsal and recording of Black House Into White.

Monday, 14 March 1949 [NFC 1300, 118–21]
In the morning I received a message from David Thomson. He came down from London last night and he asked to go down to the hotel where he’s staying so that we could go up to the BBC. Hugh MacPhee was organising matters until David Thomson arrived. He only had one day to get everything organised. Some of the folk who were taking part in the broadcast were present. Two of them spoke Gaelic and one of the woman, Rona Sykes from the Isle of Skye, spoke Gaelic as well. The two men were called Angus MacDonald and Alexander MacKenzie. Angus MacDonald came over to speak with me and he said that he had plenty of stories and he wanted to give them to me. He gave me his address and I promised to go and visit him the next time I’d be in Glasgow. He has the story about Uilleam bi ’d Shuidhe (Willie Sit Down), he told me. He also told me that he has a friend in Glasgow who has many old songs that he got in the Isle of Skye. I thought that it was pretty amazing that I should meet a man like that at the BBC’s Broadcasting Station. Angus MacDonald speaks good Gaelic. He hails from Kilmuir in the Isle of Skye. We spent all day preparing from the evening broadcast. David Thomson called the recording Black House into White. Those that read the parts were very good. They had good voices and the right accent with their English dialects. They went on air at quarter past eight and the recording lasted an hour. David Thomson and I were quite tired when it was all over. We went back to the hotel and we had one drink there. I then went back home.

Wednesday, 16 March 1949 [NFC 1300, 123]
I set off from Glasgow around six o’clock this morning. It was a fine morning and I had a good journey coming home. I arrived about four o’clock in the afternoon and found everyone well. Our programme, Black House into White, was broadcast again tonight. I went over to the hotel to hear it. We didn’t hear it very well at all but some of it was good enough.

Later that same year, Maclean had the opportunity to listen to a repeat of the programme when in Benbecula.

Sunday, 7 August 1949 [NFC 1111, 36]
I didn’t do much worth mentioning today. I spent a while in the afternoon at the house of Janet, Angus MacLellan’s widow as I had to do some writing for her, writing about the late Angus’s money. I was pleased, anyhow, that he left her a little. I then went up to Angus MacMillan’s house. Our recording, Black House into White, was broadcast on the Scottish service tonight. We all listened to it.

Maclean’s brief stint in broadcasting had actually began five or six years previously when he was in resident in Ireland (specifically Dublin) where he wrote and presented a number of programmes about Gaelic and Irish. Such experience and his undoubted ability to write attractive prose stood him in good stead for his later (and crucial) involvement during the production of Black House Into White. David Thomson, on the other hand, continued his successful career in broadcasting and writing and would later pen a number of works such as The People of the Sea (1954), in which Calum Maclean’s assistance was acknowledged, and the novel for which he is perhaps best remembered Nairn in Darkness and in Light (1987), published a year before his death.

NLS, David Thomson, Acc 10129/100
NFC 1111; 1300 [Calum Maclean’s diaries for 1949]

Alex MacKenzie during the filming of The Maggie