Argyllshire Tradition in Canadian Exile

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I’m working on a paper about the literary and cultural legacy of Alasdair Friseal (aka, “Alexander Fraser”) for the next World Congress of Scottish Literatures in Vancouver this June, and in this blog post I’ll examine another aspect of that legacy.

Fraser was the first archivist at the Ontario Archive and was a central figure in the Scottish Gaelic circles in Toronto, and beyond, in the turn of the nineteenth century. He conducted his own fieldwork in Ontario and collected transcriptions from Gaelic oral tradition collected by other people in Canada, some of which were printed in Gaelic columns of the many newspapers and periodicals that Fraser edited.

One of Fraser’s friends and collaborators was Eóghann MacColla (aka “Evan MacColl”), a celebrated Gaelic poet native to Loch Fyneside in Argyllshire who spent many years in Ontario and also became a central figure to Gaelic life in the Canadian province. He is noted as being an authority on Gaelic literary tradition and history who entertained many Gaels with a similar interest in their heritage in Canada (see Seanchaidh na Coille, 401-406). Both of MacColla’s parents (Domhnall MacColla of the MacColls of Glas-Dhruim and Màiri Chamshron of Garbh-Choire) belonged to native Argyllshire families and the traditions which MacColla inherited and recorded belong to a deep vein in that district.

Folder F-1015-6-2-2 in Fraser’s papers in the Archives of Ontario contain a letter to the archivist written by MacColla which contains two songs from the poet, both from family tradition (given at the end of this blog post). There are several interesting things to note about the contents of this letter. First, that MacColla had an excellent command of Gaelic orthography, showing no lack of confidence about his level of education in the language. Second, the first song describes a réiteach – an engagement ceremony – which was a common Gaelic custom that survived until recently in the Hebrides; songs giving details of these rituals are quite rare, so the text is valuable. Third, MacColla sees no problem in adding two verses to the song he inherited from family tradition.  Fourth and finally, the second song that he gives — the “sheiling song” – is clearly a variant of a waulking song that is still sung today in Barra. This is one of many examples of how Gaelic oral tradition provided a solid and unifying cultural foundation that  encompassed all Gaelic speakers, from Cowal to Lewis to Glenisla.

I noted many years ago (in Am Bràighe, c. 1997) that Eóghann MacColla possessed a copy of a very important manuscript transcribed by a Rev. MacColl that contains variants of texts (mostly of Argyllshire provenance) as old as the sixteenth century. A selection of these texts were printed in volumes 1 and 2 of the periodical the Highland Monthly (1889, 1890), having been copied by MacColla, but the rest of the manuscript has not been accounted for. I’m pleased to say that I found some further remnants of the copied MacColl manuscript in Alasdair Friseal’s papers in the Archives of Ontario (namely in a small notebook dated Nov 2, 1895 and July 27, 1895 in F1015 – MU 1090). Hopefully the rest of it will be discovered in the future.

Especially given the massive and rapid depopulation of the Highlands that occurred in the nineteenth century, and the migration of those masses to North America, a huge vacuum has been left in the documentary record as to the Gaelic traditions and literary expressions of the mainland. Some portion of this might still be recovered by scholars searching through the cultural remains of immigrant communities of North America. Wouldn’t it be great if educational institutions on this continent started to provide support for this type of research?

Song Texts from MacColla’s Letter

Song One: “Còrdadh Ghillebeairt” describes a réiteach; all but last two lines (by him) are old; MacColla learnt this text when he was very young.

Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Ithe is òl aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Aran is feòil aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Cearcan is geòidh aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Fìon agus beòir aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Branndaidh gu leòir aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Cluich agus ceòl aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Còrdadh, còrdadh, còrdadh Ghillebeairt
Sean agus òg aig còrdadh Ghillebeairt

(last two lines added by MacColla himself)
Deireadh na ròic aig cordadh Ghillebeairt
Bathaisean breòit’ aig cordadh Ghillebeairt

Note from MacColla on song two: “It is fully sixty years since I last heard sung the shieling song … I give it as my father used to sing it, barring one or two very slight alterations.”

Bha mi ’n raoir air àirigh bhuaile
Hug orin ò, hug òrin o
Ged a bha, cha b’ann gle shuaimhneach
Huth o eile, hug orin o

Thàin am balach dubh mu m’ thuaiream
Cha d’fhuair e ach cuireadh fuar bhuam
Sgaoil e bhreacan fliuch air m’ uachdar
Dh’iarr e ’n sin uam pòg nach d’fhuair e
Thuirt e rium nach robh mi suairce
’S thuirt mi ris nach robh e uasal
Bhuail mi breab air, thilg mi bhuam e
’S rinn mi leaba ’n cois na luatha
Mo ghaol sealgair an làn-daimh
’S an Rinn Mhaoil ri taobh na tràgha
Siubhlaiche nan dùn ’s nam fireach
’S òg fhuair thu mo rùn gun sireadh
On sann leat b’fhearr leam bhith mire
Greas a-nall gun tuille cuirre!


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