Professor Charles W. Dunn (1915-2006) taught Celtic Studies at Harvard University for many years and is probably most celebrated for his fieldwork amongst Scottish Gaels in North America. See biography here.
Interview with Professor Charles W. Dunn
In his home in Cambridge, MA
By Michael Newton, 4 April 2002 (beginning at circa 9:30 PM)
MN: Would you mind recounting how you got involved in the whole Gaelic world?
CD: Well, before I embark on that rather large subject, I might say that I taped a great many informants, sometimes with great difficulty, and I always forgot to say who was there and when we were there, so all the tapes I have are totally dateable only by all kinds of subtle deductions. [Laughs]
Yes, the larger question, how did I become involved. It was all a gradual process, I think I was brought up in a highly humanistic tradition on all sides of the family, all my parents and grandparents and so on were all interested in literature and rather well educated and so I was brought up with a tremendous encouragement from all sides of the family to think a lot and read a lot and observe a lot and I was drawn to science at first because it was very dramatic when you could make things explode with chemicals but gradually I got drawn towards more literary humanistic side of life.
And ah, by the time I got to college I moved into literature and took a degree in English and German honors with Latin and Greek options, as extras on the side. And, I abandoned at that point study of science and of mathematics too, which always fascinated me, so then when it came time to go to graduate school, I applied to Harvard because I was interested in, primarily in the literary and cultural history of Scotland, and the minute I arrived at Harvard, Prof Fred Norris Robinson got hold of me and I became one of his students and took his Chaucer course, but then he encouraged me to take Middle Irish as a background for Celtic Studies, and I was reminded then of the background of the Gaelic people, Gaelic speaking people I had known, and in particular, Donald MacLean Sinclair, who had been the minister’s assistant at Greenside Parish Church in Edinburgh, when my father was minister there, and Donald MacLean Sinclair, descendent to the Bard MacLean, turned out to be the ideal person to lead me into Gaelic studies.
And ah, I was encouraged to apply for support in that area, in a practical way by the head tutor in the English department at Harvard, who encouraged me to apply for a Dexter traveling fellowship to take me to the cathedral towns of England, and I said that I’d been to them, and he said Well, where would you really like to go, beside that, and I said, well, I’d like to go to Nova Scotia, and pursue study of the Gaelic speaking people in Nova Scotia.
So off I went for the summer, with $500 from the Dexter traveling fellowship. On that I got married, I bought a car, a Plymouth, blue Plymouth, and drove off with my bride, and arrived in Cape Breton. And we were most kindly greeted, thanks to Donald MacLean Sinclair, who had prepared the way. We went to the Gaelic College, as it was called, in St Anne’s, and we spent a most glorious summer, the two of us, studying Gaelic together, and from there on there was no returning from that particular Celtic angle of my whole life.
MN: So that first summer – was that 1941?
MN: And were you doing any recording at that time?
CD: Yes, we took along a fine old ancient tape recorder that had been used by a distinguished Harvard folklore ballad collector whose name I can’t at the moment remember, and he had left this tape recorder for anyone who wanted to use it. And so, I took it off with me and used to plug it into the battery in my car when I was totally isolated from normal electric support.
MN: Did you have the impression that there were lots of songs to collect at that time in Cape Breton?
CD: Oh yes, I mean, that, people were just, just mention anything whatsoever and the materials sprang forth, but they would always refer deferentially to, “Ah now, it’s a pity you never knew Angus,” well he was dead, “Ah well, it’s a pity you’ve never been into the upper so-and-so” because all of the Scottish placenames, it’s always the place itself and its always one that’s the upper, and upper is always remote and there’s always some real seer who lives in that recess, “Ah well, you must get to meet him, he knows so much more than the rest of us.” That was the kind of sort of outburst of information.
It also was very noticeable that the women in the families would always be on the background rather almost subserviently to their husbands but I still remember in, I think it was Christmas Island, there was a wonderful informant, a male, and not very fluent in what he remembered, and he would get part of a story out, and then his wife would come in and say, “Ah yes, and now you must remember that…” and then I would get the whole story, whether it was in English or Gaelic or a mixture of both, prompting. And the women were really the people who remembered as an audience, and the males were, tended to be, even at that date, when tradition was much stronger than today, perhaps, the males were becoming rather fallible as memory carriers. But the women as trained audience would interject, and say “Ah, but the story goes on to say…” [Laughs]
MN: At that time when you were first there, did you see a noticeable difference in the capability between generations, in terms of Gaidhlig, were the younger people as self-confident or capable as the older people?
CD: Well, in the 1940s — that’s hard to answer. There was a great deference, “Ah, my grandfather would know, or my grandmother would know that.” Yes, I mean, the grasp of the vast oral lore was certainly disappearing quite rapidly. I noticed that more when I would go back later.
MN: What did you see developing over time with your visits?
CD: Well, to counteract the decline of memory of materials, I did notice a kind of reaction in which the younger people became interested in and fascinated by their parent’s and granparent’s lore and they became, any time I went back to an area, they seemed to be even more interested in collecting every f4agment that could be collected.
MN: Do you think that it’s possible that your presence there as somebody of prestige who was interested in their tradition, do you think that that might have helped to stir some people to doing something, or being aware of the value of their tradition?
CD: I suppose so, yes. I, as a comparatively modest, just out of graduate school kind of person, I didn’t realize I had any prestige at all but, I do remember that Red Dan Smith said to me once, a wonderful informant of mine, at St Anne’s, Cape Breton, I was sitting, listening to him, very reverently, as he was reminiscing about his life and travels, and he stopped from what he was saying, and said “Now, isn’t it a strange thing, that I should be sitting here, as a lobster fisherman, telling a Professor what he ought to know.” [Laugh] I hadn’t realized, and never did quite come to realize, that there was that kind of distinction, and of course, it was acute, because the people in Cape Breton always referred to the Boston States, in the sense that, the Boston States were the center of learning, and so on.
And so, no matter how foolish I might be, I carried the aura of the Boston States with me wherever I went.
MN: And speaking of that connection, did you, did you make many contacts with the Gaelic community from the Maritimes when you were in Boston? You mentioned before that both the people here and the people there had some sort of close ties…
CD: Oh very, oh yes. And there was the church connections, and so on – there was the Gaelic speaking church that I wrote a little note about years ago, and everyone gathered there, and they were all Cape Bretoners. It was Scotland transported to Cape Breton and then intermingled with various different, Lewis and Harris, and so on, they were all intermingled in the church, but they all had a common tie with Cape Breton.
MN: You mentioned before that there was certain sorts of material that were hard to collect from people, especially things that were sensitive to members of the community, and that ministers were reticent about giving over some sorts of information – things that might have been considered scandalous or obscene, or just impolite, not kind. I think you mentioned a sature on somebody once…
CD: Oh yes, I was always well aware historically, that the body of the oral body of material must inevitably contain a vast amount of satire, and finally in the North Shore of Cape Breton, I asked a very fine informant, “Ah, did anyone ever make a satire of…” “Oh well,” he said, “oh yes, oh yes indeed. There was that terrible satire but I couldn’t tell you that.”
Actually, the only time that I ever managed to collect a satire was when I was in Glengarry County, and I was calling on a delightful Catholic priest, and he said, “Oh, satires were very fierce.” He said, “Oh, I’ve just, I don’t think you really should think about them.” And he laid, he produced out of the air, almost, a little transcript of a satire that he had somehow recorded, and he laid it on the desk in front of me, and left the room, and said it was something that could never be published, so I wrote it down rapidly while he was absent. [Laughs] And he returned, and I put my notebook away, and we didn’t say anything to one another, but satires were very clearly part of a very, the most potent part of the whole poetic tradition, the whole bardic tradition in Celtic literature. They in effect destroyed a person, politically in fact, within a community, so that he virtually ceased to exist.
MN: On a related note, there’s the whole issue of nicknames, and names that would be put on somebody behind their back and used by everybody except in front of him.
CD: Oh yes. I always wondered if they knew their own nickname. [Laughs] Surely they did. You’re thinking of the story of the Squirrel? That came out of St Esprit and I was staying with a wonderful family, Strachan was part pf the family name, Strachan being a non-Highland name, but the Strachan part, Strachan himself who had brought the name to St Esprit had come from Aberdeenshire where my Strachans, with whom I’m related, came from, and he had come to St Esprit and ended up, as, so they say, as a music teacher. I don’t know quite how he made a living at that, but anyway, he was reputed as a music teacher.
But St Esprit had its own special types of stories, and this one person who was referred to in conversation , and they said of him, “Well, he was always sort of rushing out, rushing in, where other people couldn’t get there.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean?” And they said, “Well, we’re referring to the Squirrel” and I forget his clan name. “The Squirrel?” I said. “Yes,” they said, “one time when snow was so heavy no one could get to church, but this fellow turned up in church, and the next week he said, ‘I didn’t see any of yous at church – why?’ ‘Oh well, the snow was terrible!’ ‘Yes, yes,’ said one of them, ‘it’s very easy for you when you’re a squirrel and run along the top of the fence above the snow to get to church.’” And his name became permanently thereafter, “Squirrel” MacDonald or MacLeod or whatever it may have been, I can’t remember the details now, but that name was placed upon him forever more, and his family, of course.
MN: At what point did you, did the idea of Highland Settler come to you?
CD: Well, after Pat and I went to Cape Breton for one summer, then I went off and taught far, far away in Columbia, Missouri, then I met with the Rockefeller Foundation, who were making a study of Nova Scotia on a sort of cultural basis. And the person in charge of the investigation had been a roommate of Jerry Whiting, B. J. Whiting, a very witty Medievalist at Harvard, a Maine Democrat, and absolutely wonderful instructor, and this fellow from Rockefeller Foundation said, “Now you’ve been for a summer and written a report on your Dexter Fellowship, how would you like to go back and make a fuller study of the area?” Well I said, “Oh, well, fascinating, yes.” So Pat and I went back, this time without any car, or without any recording equipment, and we spent one year primarily in Cape Breton, and I kept a careful diary of al the people I met and where we stayed and totally detached description of what we were seeing and hearing, and Pat and I both studied Gaelic, more and more thoroughly, and became more and more closely connected with all of the people we stayed with.
We were able to stay with not only with, in, Protestant communities, but also in Catholic communities, and we were warmly welcomed in Antigonish by the faculty at St Francis Xavier University, and Father Nicholson, P. J. Nicholson in particular, lead me into very close perception of the Catholic areas, and in this case, it was particularly interesting because my grandfather being a minister in Pictou county, a Scottish Presbyterian, and in his own wandering career, and the, in his day the clash between the Protestants and Catholics was very severe, and one of the priests at St Francis Xavier, forgetting that my Presbyterian background, told me what a dreadful place Pictou was because on one occasion, the priest had been settled there, and he wondered where he would get a suitable housekeeper, and the people rigged it so that he ended by getting the local whore as his housekeeper!
I was happily, totally accepted between Protestant and Catholic and also inundated with strong messages from the Lowland Scottish tradition through the experts in history, the historians at Dalhousie who tended to emphasize in their approach to the history of Nova Scotia, they tended to emphasize the immense importance of teachers such as MacColluch [sp?] who, from their point of view, Pictou academy established academic excellence in the province.
On the hand, the Highlanders themselves whom I was living with and visiting, were very well aware of the fact that they, in their Highland tradition, had gone into the ministry, through education, or they had gone in as Protestants, or they had gone into the priesthood as Catholics, from a totally Highland point of view.
MN: Did it seem as though the Highlanders felt that they had something to prove?
CD: Oh yes, some of them admitted that they labored under a sense of slight shame, sensitivity, about speaking a “foreign language,” as it were, and some of the extreme Protestant ministers really were opposed to the continuation of the study of Scottish Gaelic – they were openly opposed to it.
MN: What sort of relations did you see as a whole between the two religious communities in the Highland settlements? Did it seem as though the people themselves got a long fine, but they felt torn between their confessions, or did the ministers seem to be the source of their contention, or did the people themselves seem not to trust the other communities, or did there seem to be no problem at all between them?
CD: Well, the ultimate test, of course, was inter-marriage and there are wonderful instances of that – love always found a way, of course. But I think the rivalry merely happened to be occasionally religious, but there was a sort of in-bred rivalry between districts, and there’s this famous story of a New York sociologist who came to study the kind of fights that broke out between districts. And he came – I can’t remember just where now – fortunately for him I can’t remember his name just now – I think the people got a sense that he was looking at them with a cold and distant sociological eye, and so they, he went, he’d been told that the dances were the thing to go to, and it used to be said that the Highlanders loved dancing so much that all you had to go, in a district, when the population was fairly dense, just go out and shout, “Let’s dance!” and people would immediately congregate.
So in these, such occasions, occasionally somebody, some group, would come in from the neighboring village and would start joining in the dance but would end up in fighting, the men fighting one another from the two different areas. But anyway, some how or other, the word got around that this outsider was coming to look for a dance fight, and so, they carefully contrived it so that it broke out right around him, so he left town and never returned to Cape Breton, and never published a paper on the subject whatsoever. Does that answer your question? Only rather indirectly, I know.
MN: Well, this brings up the other point, which is, how self-conscious were people in Cape Breton about being a subject of study, and did you get responses from people about your book, that they felt they had been fairly treated, that they had been unfairly treated, that they were glad to see someone paying attention to them?
CD: Well, my experience with writing a book is that, after it’s published, there is a deathly silence. Nobody ever says anything about it, and then all of a sudden, somebody says reluctantly, “Oh, that was an interesting book.” So, I wasn’t, I never had any mass of fan mail from people who said “That was terrific.”
What I was gradually impressed by was that I had come in as an outsider without any foregone conclusions about people and I simply described things as they were, the way the people were, and I implied perhaps a certain affection for all of them, and on the whole, people seemed to be rather glad that I was able to speak as an outsider about the terrible differences that separated Catholic from Protestant, and also, of course, the Protestants within the Protestants who always managed to subdivide in subtle ways or non-subtle ways, the terrible division between the continuing Presbyterian church and the United Church which was uniting, joining with other Protestant denominations, with the occasional absurd result that a local population of three or four hundred people at most would divide 50-50 and one would stay Presbyterian and the other would build a United Church next door.
There were places, for instance Little Narrows, where the Reverend A D MacKinnon, the great influence on keeping calm in a community, the Reverend A D persuaded the community that whatever they did, they should vote, should agree to vote one way or the other, totally unanimously, so despite the dissension when they were thinking about it, they finally voted unanimously, let us remain totally a Presbyterian church, no United Church, so Little Narrows ended up by a very quiet, peaceful, no tempest-torn kind of community with one church. But so many other places within the Protestant areas ended with two churches, one a United Church and the other Presbyterian, thus subdividing the population, which, was all, in those cases, all Protestant in origin, into two conflicting groups.
MN: Now, you went beyond Nova Scotia and you went to other parts of Canada, such as Glengarry and Bruce County.
CD: Yes, we, one summer we went to Glengarry County, and that was absolutely fascinating. The area that we were living in was more or less engulfed with French speaking people by the time we were there – a hundred years earlier it was rather different. But the area was unfortunately in that case not divided by religion, it was divided by political economy. We were in a factory area in which the factory owners, the factory workers, all of them Scottish, Gaelic speaking immigrants that had settled in the early 1800s, were divided against one another very sharply and bitterly, so that the managerial groups were divided against the workers, and so on.
But that was a, behind that lay an extraordinary homogenous kind of settlement of settelrs from Glengarry in Scotland into Glengarry County. It’s one of the rare examples of a, apart from Cape Breton itself, where Scottish Gaelic speakers settled en masse, and totally took over the area.
I’m trying to think of the … kinds of survivals in that area … Very strong survival of Scottish Gaelic singing and of Gaelic, Protestant Gaelic religious communion services, and the singing of, where the presenter of the psalms rhymed out by the presenter himself, ad so on. A very, very strong sense of Highland origin, Highland background, Highland history.
MN: By then the decline in Gaelic speakers must have been very noticeable in Glengarry, I would think.
CD: Yes, except that the ones that one could discover were fascinating, and of course, I inadvertently suggested that this area was entirely Protestant, it was also Catholic, strongly Catholic, and the people I met were extraordinarily well versed in their tradition.
I was told to go to so-and-so, who was 74, and he said, “Ah well, you’d better not call on me, you’d better call on Angus, Donald Fletcher, he’s 86 or 84 and he knows much more than I do.” So I called on Donald Fletcher, and I said, “Do you remember any of the old songs they used to sing?” But he was not wishing to dispose of the matter as easily as that, he said, “Well, I’m not a singer, I play the fiddle.” And he said, “I used to mend the roof on houses and I fell off the roof and broke my arm so I don’t play the fiddle now, but oh, yes, I could sing a sing, yes, I could sing a song.”
And then he remembered a song that had been composed by a settler who came from Iona, of all places, the great spiritual center of Scotland, of Scottish tradition. “And the settler,” he said, “well, he settled on a farm and he didn’t like it much, and then along came the springtime and the fireflies came out, and he’d never seen a firefly in Iona, and he composed a song and – will I sing it to you?” “Oh, yes, please Donald,” and he sang it for me, and it was about “the fireflies are setting fire to my land and burning down my house and my home, oh why did I leave Iona?” I recorded that song and others from this wonderful Donald Fletcher, wonderful, wonderful man.
And then later I called at a neighbor of his, a younger woman, in her early 80s, Mrs. Austin. And by that time, I found that it was useful to know how to collect songs, not by knowing what the person would have for a song, but by telling them what a competitor had by way of a song. So I said, “I’ve just been calling on Donald Fletcher, and he sang me a wonderful song.” “Donald Fletcher, but he plays the fiddle, he doesn’t sing!” “Oh well, but he sang this song about the firefly.” “Oh well, well, now, I’ll sing you a song myself, I’ll sing you a song.” And the song was, “Why will Queen Victoria not allow the Marquis of Lorne to marry,” oh, what’s her name, whatever the name is … sorry, that’s very important, Queen Victoria’s daughter … so then she sang me all 12 stanzas of this song, pointing out how preposterous it was that Queen Victoria was so strict about her rules, about who could marry whom.
So, that area was just full of material, and later I met one of Marius Barbeaux’s – Marius Barbeuax was a brilliant folklore collector of French Canadian material, and Glengarry is very much part of his purview, and he sent somebody to call on the people in Glengarry specifically, and no one had told him, one of the informants I met, no one had told this informant who was bilingual in French-Canadian and English, no one had told him that when people started to sing in Glengarry, they might not necessarily be singing in English or in French, they might indeed be singing in Gaelic. So he turned on his recorder for his first informant, and, as he said to me, this fellow started singing in a language I didn’t even know!
So, there, in the archives of Ottawa, there are songs recorded in Gaelic by French Canadian collectors who didn’t know that Gaelic was the language.
MN: Another place in Canada where you recorded material was Bruce County. How did you know to go there?
CD: Bruce County… I knew about it in various ways, partly because of a family nurse we had when, let’s see, when Peter was born, our second child, Pat and I, she knew Bruce County well, and then, we were spending a summer, Pat and I and our family, were spending a summer in Edinburgh, and we were living in Garscube Terrace, and next door, the people came over, and said, “I hear you’re from Canada.” “Yes,” I said, “indeed.” The person saying that was an academic in education named Archie MacKinnon. And Archie MacKinnon and his wife were spending a year academic abroad, travel, in Edinburgh, and we became close friends, and constant companions, and Archie MacKinnon started telling me about his background in Bruce County.
And so, Pat and I went to Bruce County and called on Archie MacKinnon’s father. And Archie MacKinnon’s father said he was Gaelic speaking, but quite reluctant about it, feeling he was not an expert, “Oh, I know the songs, yes. Oh, I’ve heard them sing,” and so on. So we didn’t really collect very much from him. But, one of the, by that time, I was becoming a little more adroit about extracting material from people who had things hidden away in their cultural history, and I said, “You know this song from Bruce County.” “Oh, yes,” he said, “oh, I know it, yes, yes.”
So, I was desperate to get him to sing it. – how could I do it? I said, “I know you don’t sing, but how did it go as a song?” [Laughs] So he started singing it to me, and so I heard the words as they should be, although, later he didn’t quite realize what he’d done, but he’d betrayed himself, [Laughs] in singing a song that he could perfectly well sing, but he thought theoretically he couldn’t sing it.
Material was disappearing so rapidly in Bruce County, it was just pathetic. There could have been buckets, buckets of materials collected …
MN: But no body was there to do it?
MN: And did you see the same sort of thing in Glengarry County?
CD: Well, there it was not decaying so desperately and so rapidly, no.
MN: How much interest was there in academia in these topics when you were working on this?
CD: Well, in Toronto, I had no trouble in… although University of Toronto, University College specifically, had a very rigid program, I was a member of the English department and it was ruled by a wonderful old fellow, A S P Woodhouse, who was a bachelor, and looked after an aged mother, and he had a portrait of Samuel Johnson hanging in his study, and hoped that he would personally remind everyone of Samuel Johnson, and he was an expert in 18th century literature, and used to lecture on it in great detail, and so that, the first term would start at 1832 and get to 1838, until the last week, after which he would fill in the rest of Victorian literature, to the death of Queen Victoria. But he was perfectly willing to let me have a course in Scottish Gaelic, so I did.
And everyone encouraged that. The general interest in folklore studies was also tied in with that rather nicely.
MN: What about addressing a more popular audience? People have such preconceived ideas about what a clan is supposed to be, what a Highlander are supposed to be, do you find that people have resistance to hearing your own experience in Gaelic folklore collecting, or are they just open for anything?
CD: I don’t know – could you tighten that up a bit? I mean, I’m terrified about making any kinds of remark about the clan system, and so on, because the clan system is a very foggy system which obviously changed sharply during the ages, and after the Bonnie Prince Charlie, and so on, period, it changed not merely because of Bonnie Prince Charlie, by any means, but economically and socially, and so on, so I’ve always avoided making generalizations about the clan system.
MN: What I mean is, if you’re an average person, and the only thing you know about the Highlands is what you see in popular films, like The Highlander, and Braveheart, and so on, then you might have one idea about what Highlanders are supposed to be, and if you’re suddenly presented with Gaelic folklore, it might be quite different from what you expect.
CD: Oh, absolutely, yes. I’m caught in a dilemma there, because, I’m terrified by the inner body of people in Scotland who know all this better than I do, and then they hear me as somebody lecturing to people in North America who have a totally, from their point of view, totally romantic, hazy, vague sense of what the Scottish tradition is, and what the clan system is, and tartans, they don’t even like the notion of tartan, the more severe critics in Scotland, so I’m caught in the middle as a sort of would-be radio entertainer – does that answer the question? [Laughs] Then of course, the wild notions on this side of the Atlantic, of what it was all about, the highly romanticized view. It was all about harsh economic reality. Survival, but carrying on the memories and the happiest of the traditions, and the warmest, the most intimate, and so on … the religious traditions, and the family traditions, and the respect for parents, and family itself, and so on – so tightly tied in to the whole Highland way of life.
MN: What would you hope that Highland Settler be remembered for?
CD: Oh … I suppose it really was a, I was not intentionally, but I was inevitably paying a compliment to the charm and the warmth and hospitality of the people whom I traveled among, they were all incredibly kind and patient and helpful.
MN: What sort of a man was [Jonathan] MacKinnon? He must have been very dedicated … he must have had a very strong vision of what he wanted to accomplish.
CD: Well, actually, in my diary – I’ve just finished reading that part of it – I contrast him with his brother, and Jonathan G MacKinnon was a bachelor and a very fierce, determined sort of person, and his brother was just the extreme opposite. And, very quiet and retiring. Jonathan G lived in Whycocamagh, although he came from Skye Glen, as he al[ways said], he’s a “MacKinnon from Skye!” – and he remained the sort of Highlander within Cape Breton, whereas his brother who worked in Sydney in commercial business, was the sort of Highlander who’s been urbanized and is working his daily eight hours a day at his desk. The two of them were so different from one another, quite extraordinary.
But, he was – when I knew him – he was just in his latter years – I was charmed by the fact that he fell, I think, deeply in love with one of the prize students at the Gaelic course that he taught at St Anne’s. I mean, not in an active way, understand, but he greatly admired one young lady who was taking the course along with Pat and myself and some other students. I thought that was fine, that even as an aged bachelor he was able to find a sort of infatuation with a feminine form.
When he started the paper – again, that’s something that I recorded from what, not what he told me, but what his much, very admiring younger brother told me – Jonathan simply wrote a prospectus for producing Mac-Talla and he required, I don’t know, three hundred subscribers, let’s say, whatever, and he didn’t get that many but he started anyway, and just went on doggedly doing it. Tremendous, extraordinary undertaking.
MN: And of course that had a major impact on the Gaels of Nova Scotia and beyond.
CD: Oh yes. They got out clippings from Mac-Talla or they kept the entire journal in their shelves, or whatever. Yes, it was greatly admired, and circulated in the way that Scottish Gaelic things circulate, in the same way, for that matter the Stornoway Gazette circulates – I still remember, I used to receive in Toronto, a copy of the Stornoway Gazette, when Pat and I were living on an assistant professor’s salary and raising two children we didn’t subscribe to it personally, but we received a copy which had been first read in Scotland, then sent to a friend of the reader in, I think, New Zealand, and then from New Zealand, the copy came to me. And that was true of Mac-Talla, it just circulated in its own quiet underground way around the world, around Gaeldom.
My Scottish Gaelic studies were, I always felt, were personal, sort of, quiet, affectionate indulgence on my part, because I was really, through my academic life, I was primarily editing medieval texts and disseminating particularly medieval English literature. So I’ve led an extremely divided, but very, very happy life, [Laughs] academically, doing just what I wanted. There were always some students, bless them, with whom I could share the joys of what I was working on myself.
MN: Did you ever feel that – given what you’ve just described as a split – that you had insights into the medieval manuscript tradition that you got from your experience with the Gaelic world?
CD: I think I saw, I was able to see Chaucer, who was, and who is, one of my great admirations – when I was a schoolboy at Rivers School, and I could come over here, we had to chose an author to write a report on and I was, you know, 2 or 3 years before you leave school, I chose Chaucer as my favorite, and Chaucer has always been my favorite, one of my favorite writers, and Chaucer was obviously, would have been, a great folklore, well he was, a great folklore collector, because he simply sat and listened to people, and enjoyed them, accepted them for what they were, in all their magnificence or grossness, or whatever , whatever it might be, loved it all, it was humanity, he loved it.
And, he would, he would love going Gaelic folklore collecting, if it had been possible to arrange! I can only do so much in one lifetime.