Friday 27 November 2009

A St Kilda Wedding I

The lively reel called ‘The St Kilda Wedding’ has had many outings on record and CD over the years. Judging from a written account preserved in the Carmichael Watson papers, by the late nineteenth century a real-life St Kilda wedding may not have been quite so exhilarating. The following report comes from a speech delivered on 16 December 1886 by Ross-shire man Kenneth Campbell (1862–1929). Campbell had been employed as a schoolmaster on the island for a year during 1884–85 by the Edinburgh Ladies Highland Schools Association.

On a certain morning after ringing the school-bell as usual I awaited the arrival of the children. When they did come one of them ventured the information that a marriage was to take place that afternoon. On casting some doubt upon this statement, the boy replied, ‘Oh yes, they are just now polishing their boots in the house.’ …

About 4 in the afternoon I noticed a party of 4 people pass on their way to church. With bent heads & solemn faces they paced slowly & humbly on their way. Eager to see something more of this serious affair I followed to the church where I was soon joined by some others of the people who having been at work in the fields had thrown down their implements & come to church barefoot as usual. Looking round the church I saw the young couple with their 2 attendants seated in a corner, having their heads resting on the bench in front of them and looking the picture of misery. Now comes the minister who starts a long solemn discourse, admonishing, warning, advising. When he had married them to their own & his satisfaction they marched out of church as solemnly as they had entered, looking neither to the right or left. No handshakings! no congratulations! One could not help wondering what a funeral would be like when a marriage could be so miserable an affair.

Later on Campbell was invited to ‘a bit of a spree’ at the manse by the couple, each of whom had a bundle wrapped up in a handkerchief.

Arrived at the manse, we had tea. Nobody spoke. For my part I was afraid to speak, but at last in desperation I hazarded the question where the married party intended to spend their honeymoon.
At last, whether inspired by the tea I know not, but the bridegroom made a remark about the birds. Looking around the table I saw the bridesmaid busy untying her parcel, while the groomsman was quite as busy with his on the other side. After some tugging and a vigorous use of front teeth, the one brought to light three large oatcakes that had been prepared for the occasion, while the other produced a large piece of mutton & some cheese. The groomsman had to do the carving. With pocket knife in hand he succeeded in cutting [&] passing around a rib with its attachments to each of us. After some more edifying talk about the birds, eggs, feathers, and the weather we went home & heard no more of the marriage.


CW MS 395 fos. 21–25
Michael Robson, St Kilda: Church, Visitors and ‘Natives’ (Port of Ness: Islands Book Trust, 2005), pp. 572–74.
Image:  St Kilda.

Ewen MacLachlan – Dance Master, Catechist and Storyteller II

The tradition bearers of both South Uist and Barra told Calum Maclean of what they had heard about Ewen MacLachlan (c. 1799–1880) when he was collecting in the Southern Hebrides during the 1940s and 50s. For example when Maclean went to a dance in Iochdar, South Uist, he fell into conversation with Iain Ruadh MacLeòid (‘Red-haired John MacLeod’) who told him what he knew of An Dannsair Ciotach (‘the Stumpy-handed Dancer’). This John MacLeod was a good dancer and had learnt his dancing from Gilleasbaig Saor (‘Archibald MacIntyre’), a dance master from Iochdar who had in turn been taught by MacLachlan himself:

Bha mi greis a’ bruidhinn ri Iain Ruadh Mac Leòid agas thug mi tarrainn air an Dannsair Chiotach a thug na sgeulachdan do Chalum Barrach. Thubhairt Iain Ruadh gur h-e Eoghain Mac Lachlainn a b’ ainm dhà. ’S ann ’s a Fhrainng a chuala Iain a bha e ag ionnsachadh a bhith na shagart. Bha seann-duine ’s an Iochdar a dh’ eug o chionn ghoirid agas b’ ann bho Eoghain Mac Lachlainn a dh’ ionnsaich an duine seo. (IFC MS 1300, pp. 80–81)

I was a while conversing with Red-haired John MacLeod and I mentioned the Dannsair Ciotach that plied Calum MacMillan with stories. John MacLeod said that his name was Ewen MacLachlan and John had heard that he had gone to France in order to be educated for the priesthood. There was an old man in Iochdar who died recently he was taught dancing by Ewen MacLachlan.

A Barra tradition of Ewen MacLachlan was collected from Neil Angus MacDonald, a schoolmaster and noted piper:

Dubhairt Niall Aonghus gour chuala seisean a mhàthair a’ cainnt faoi’n “Dannsair Ciotach.” Rinnceóir clúmhar a bhí ann agas bhí sgoil dhamhsa aige i n-Uibhist. Eoghain na Laimhe Bige a thugaidis air. Bhí sé ‘sa Spáinn a’ foghlam de bheith ’n-a shagart agas ní raibh sé oiriúnach le bheith ’n-a shagart mar gheall ar an làmh ghórtach a bhí air. Nuair a d’ fhill sé as an Spáinn thosaigh sé a’ foghlam rinncí agas a’ bailiú sean-sgéalta. Bhí sean-fheari n-Uibhist a d’ fhoghaim rinncí uaidh agas bhí sé féin ‘n-a mhuinteóir rinnce. (IFC MS 1299, pp. 433–34)

Neil Angus heard his mother speak about the Dannsair Ciotach: a great dancer who had a dance school in Uist. He was called Eòghain na Làimhe Bige (‘Ewen of the Shrivelled Hand’) and he had been in Spain training for the priesthood but left due to his disability. After his return from Spain he started to teach dancing and to collect old stories. An old man still alive learnt to dance from this man’s tuition and who subsequently became a dance teacher himself.

Another Barra tradition, this time from the Coddy, or Iain MacPherson, from Northbay, who adds some additional detail to the previous accounts:

Dubhairtan Coddie gur innis Calum Barrach go raibh an Dannsair Ciotach air “bhanais-taighe”, bainfheis tighe, i n-Ormaicleit agas go raibh sé a’ rinnce ann. Mhúch sé an cruisgín (cruisgean) seach n-uaire le n-a chosa leis chomh maith agas bhí cumhacht na gcos. Fuair na rinncéoirí i mBarraidh agas i n-Uibhist na rinncí o’n bhfear seo. Bhí sé le bheith ‘na shagart ach b’ éigin do éirigh as mar gheall ar na làmha aige a bhith giortach. (IFC MS 1299, p. 431)

The Coddy heard from Calum MacMillan about the Dannsair Ciotach and how he had been at a wedding feast in Ormaclete in South Uist and had danced at it. This man was so good at dancing that he managed to snuff out candles with his feet seven times in a row. The dancers in South Uist and Barra were taught dancing by this man. He was going to become a priest but had to give this up because of his injured hand.

Although not a great deal has been added to our sum knowledge about Ewen MacLachlan other than reinforcing his reputation as being an able dancer, storyteller and teacher, as well as his unrealised ambition of becoming a priest, he was still remembered by some who were but only one remove from those who had actually heard the dance master recite stories or who had been taught how to dance by him.

Calum Maclean’s manuscripts, IFC MSS 1299, 1300.
Image: Dancing Feet

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Ewen MacLachlan – Dance Master, Catechist and Storyteller

There can be little doubt that Ewen MacLachlan has left his mark upon Gaelic oral tradition, particularly of South Uist. When Calum Maclean (1915–1960) was collecting in the Southern Hebrides his name was mentioned more than a few times especially if the topic of dancing was raised. Many of the numerous tales recorded by Maclean from that great storyteller of the twentieth century, Angus Barrach MacMillan (1874–1954), can be traced to Ewen MacLachlan:

In Angus’s family there had been a tradition of story-telling. His father, Calum MacMillan, who died in 1917, was in his day a noted story-teller. Angus maintains that he does not have even a third of the tales his father had. About the year 1850 there arrived in South Uist an itinerant dancing-master named Ewen MacLachlan. He was also a noted story-teller. In South Uist he met Calum MacMillan. When MacLachlan decided to go to Benbecula and hold a dancing-school there, he went to live in MacMillan’s house. Such a guest as an itinerant dancing-master, who as well had a large repertoire of tales, would have been welcome in any house in the Hebrides. In that little house in Griminish, Calum MacMillan learned most of the tales he knew and later passed on to his son. MacLachlan stayed with MacMillan for the greater part of a winter, and in the evenings on his return from the dancing classes told tales well into the night.

So far, so good. But there are many contradictions regarding MacLachalan. He died in 1879 of ‘natural decay’ in Daliburgh, South Uist, aged 80, and where he is described as a dance master and single, which means that he was born around 1799. His father’s name is given as Angus MacLachlan but no mention is made of his mother. Presumably the informant, Neil MacCormick in this instance, simply didn’t know the name of MacLachlan’s mother. And it may well be asked did MacLachlan know himself? But according to another source, MacLachlan was called mac Iseabail Reitealain (son of Isabella of R(h)etland), Retland being a place in South Morar, and, of course, part of the Clanranald territories. Matronymic names in Gaelic society usually indicate illegitimacy but MacLachlan’s death certificate contradicts this. To add further to the mystery, the census returns of 1841 and 1851, indicates that Ewen MacLachan was born in Greenock, Renfrewshire. Could it be then that MacLachlan was born in Greenock, from Highland parents, namely Angus MacLachlan and Isabella (probably a MacDonald) and was perhaps brought up in South Morar? In South Uist and Barra tradition, MacLachlan is referred to as Eòghan na Làimh Bige (‘Ewen of the Shrivelled Hand’) or An Dannsair Ciotach (‘The Stumpy Dancer’) indicating that he had a deformity. It is also related, according to oral tradition, that he travelled to the Continent in order to study for the priesthood but either due to his illegitimacy or his deformity he was barred from ordination. Whether there is a grain of truth to this tradition or not, MacLachlan, like his near contemporary Ruaraidh Ruadh MacCuithein ('Red-haired Roderick MacQueen), was a catechist.

Given that Alexander Carmichael was assiduously collecting oral traditions all around the Uists and that MacLachlan had a reputation of being a good storyteller then why is it that there seems to be no mention of him amongst Carmichael’s papers? It is inconceivable that they did not hear about one another, or, indeed, that they did not meet. Maybe the answer lies in the fact that they did meet but simply did not get on well. Or was MacLachlan just too suspicious of Carmichael because he was an exciseman? It is perhaps doubtful that a definitive answer can ever be reached but other sources elsewhere might flesh out MacLachlan’s career and help to clear up some of the mystery that surrounds such an intriguing character.

Maclean, Calum, 'Hebridean Traditions', Gwerin: Journal of Folk life, vol. 1, no. 1 (1956), pp. 21–33.
Melin, Matts, Hebridean Dancing (1989, 2001) []
Image: Dancing Feet

Friday 20 November 2009

The Red-haired Catechist

One of the main sources of oral traditions in the Uists was Ruaraidh Ruadh MacCuithein (‘Red-haired Roderick MacQueen’) who lived from around 1750 to 1830. He was a catechist which afforded him good reason to travel all around the Uists. A catechist was a layman who assisted the clergy by going about teaching the non-literate population the contents of the Catechism, and, once the religious education was over with, then it would be natural enough for the participants at such gatherings to relate songs and tales and, perhaps, even play instrumental music. It seems that whatever religious differences there may have been between a predominantly Protestant North Uist and a predominantly Catholic South Uist held but few barriers for it is remembered that many of the heroic tales known in Catholic South Uist could be traced back to the telling of this Protestant catechist, Ruaraidh Ruadh from North Uist. In a note about him it tells us that an informant’s source for a Fenian lay who ‘heard these duans from Ruairi Mac Cuinn who lived at Malacleit and who had a free piece of land there from the proprietor for his duans.’ An informant, Catherine MacQueen (c. 1799–1871) or Catrìona nic Lachlainn, the catechist’s niece, from Clachan a’ Ghluip, in North Uist, recorded a number of Fenian lays for Alexander Carmichael on 5 October 1865. Carmichael wrote at the time: ‘Her people were noted old-lorists. Her uncle, Ruaraidh Ruadh Maccuithean, was story-teller to Lord Macdonald, from whom he had free lands for his sevices.’ These included a version of Am Bròn Binn, entitled in the notebook as Aisling Righ Breatinn as well as the popular Laoidh Fraoich:

Learnt this from Ruairi Rua[dh]
Ceisteir sa cheanna Tuath
[Do[mh]nallach] more than 50 years
People came from Edin[burgh] for
seanachas na Feinne and
this was the best from whom
this was best got in the High-
lands of Scotland.

She added further that she could also recite Duan an Deirg also learnt from her uncle, which Carmichael later transcribed on 4 May 1869, who had also lived at Scolpaig, on the north-western shore of North Uist, only a short distance from Malacleit:

He was a catechist and used to go about
from house to house. He had eighteen
books written about the Feinne which his
son who turned a F[ree] C[hurch] burnt.

It is somewhat ironic that such religious short-sightedness shown by a convert to the Free Church of Scotland should destroy such a treasure of Gaelic oral traditions collected by a presumably devout catechist. One can only imagine Carmichael’s expression when he heard about such a lamentable loss.

Carmina Gadelica ii, p. 375
CW 105/2 f. 12r, CW 105/5 f. 18v and CW 105/10 f. 25v
For Am Bròn Binn, see Carmina Gadelica v, pp. 86–105
Image: Celtic Cross

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Milk Libation to the Gruagach

Gruagach Stone, Colonsay
A great source of traditions concerns fairy belief and Carmichael managed to gather in a great deal of these. One such story tells of a flagstone named Leac na Gruagaich (‘The Flagstone of the Gruagach’) at Liniclate in Benbecula. An offering of milk was poured into the hollow of the flagstone – a practice that was carried out throughout the Highlands and Islands and elsewhere – in order to appease the Gruagach so that she would not interfere with any livestock. Such a custom was carried out on a daily basis until the arrival of a Skyeman, Peter Nicholson, who refused to continue with such a practice as he saw it as mere superstitious hocus-pocus. He came to regret his decision and had to revert to its use in order to protect his crop from any further damage. At one time, traditions such as these were tenaciously adhered to for they seemed to be beneficial for it was seen to be foolhardy indeed to invoke the wrath of the fairy people.

Leac na Gruagaich
on the croft of Angus
MacAulay Liniclate
Benbecula, “Rudha –
chuidh Oib”. Cuidh
Oib or Cuidh an Ob
ain was an old cattle
fold for generations im
memorial. Raoghull
MacRuaraidh a
Cuail descendant of
Clanranald was
tacksman of Torlum
& unless some milk
was poured in a
little hollow on
the leachd when
the dairy maid
was done milking
every night the cattle
were sure to be in
the corn before day
break but when there was
no milking cows in
the fold the gruagach
never interfered.
Ronald his son
who built oldtigh
Morchochd na
Monadh followed his
father['s] practice in pouring
a share of the milk to
the gruagach or slender
woman of the
green garbe, When
Peter Nicholson from
Skye got Torlum
under still-bow [steelbow] ten-
ure from ClanRanald
he would not hear
of such sheer nonsense
but sheer necessity
compelled him to them
to the old custom
in giving an evening
contribution to the
gruagach, and he
became a firm be-
liever of the story,
Even sixteen men
failed to keep in
the cattle on one
occasion, The dam
age done to the corn
was great. This took
place about the beginning
of this century.

Carmichael in a long note concerning the gruagach – a supernatural female who presided over cattle – wrote that ‘there is hardly a district in the Highlands which does not possess a ‘leac gruagaich’…whereon the milk libation was poured.’ He then lists islands and districts all over the Scottish Highlands and Islands where he encountered such traditions. Carmichael then continued: ‘All these oblation stones are erratic ice-blocks. Some of them have a slight cavity into which the milk was poured on the stone. In making the oblation the woman intoned a rune –

‘A ghruagach, a ghruagach,
Cum suas mo spreidhe,
Cum sios an Guaigean,
Cum uap an Geige.'
Brownie, brownie
Uphold my herds,
Keep down the ‘Guaigean,’
Keep from them the ‘Geige.’

CW1/57, ff. 22v–24r.
Carmina Gadelica ii, pp. 306–08.
Image: Gruagach stone at Balnahard, Colonsay.

Monday 9 November 2009

Christ on the Cross

Alexander Carmichael, on one of his very last fieldwork trips, collecting around Ross-shire (between 1907 and 1909), found that he had in no way exhausted the sheer amount of folklore that still survived. It is more than likely that his son-in-law, Professor William James Watson (1865–1948), a born and bred Easter Ross-shire man himself, and who held the chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh, provided Carmichael with names and addresses of potential informants so that it would ease his collecting in an area that he had hardly been to previously far less than to have combed this extensive area of the Highlands for oral traditions. Out of the many from whom he recorded material was Catherine Maclean, a crofter, from Nàst/Naast, in Gairloch. Carmichael collected at least three charms and a prayer from her recitation (that were subsequently published in Carmina Gadelica iii and iv). She also told him a brief religious narrative showing that Carmichael was still very interested, even at this late period, in collecting anything relating to Christianity whether they be charms, prayers, invocations or even apocryphal legends.

Christ on the Cross
There was no bellows and the
bana-cheard blew the fire over
her sguird apron and the nails
for the cross were made. Then
C[hrist] said Bis tusa a siubhail
bho linnean na linnean agus
do sheors as do dheigh airson
do ghniomh agus chan fhaigh
thus fois oi[dh]che no tamh la[tha]

In brief, this is a very similar story to a medieval legend known as the Wandering Jew who was cursed by Christ to forever walk the earth until the Second Coming. According to the legend, while Christ was making his way to Golgotha where he would be later crucified, the Jew had taunted him and had thus irked divine retribution. It would appear that the legend originated around the thirteenth century and has since then made quite an impact on European literature, ranging from Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century The Canterbury Tales to Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). A more pertinent tradition is related by a correspondent in a brief unsigned note that appeared an issue of Gypsy Lore: 'I should be pleased to know if you have the tradition in the South [of Scotland], that the tinkers are descendants of the one who made the nails for the Cross, and are condemned to wander continually without rest.' Although it would appear that the correspondent received no answer this tradition was still alive and well in Ross-shire.

References:CW 117/100
Carmina Gadelica iii, pp. 32–33; iv, pp. 194–97; pp. 270–71; pp. 298–99
Gypsy Lore, vol. iii (1892), p. 190
The Wandering Jew by Gustave Doré

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]