The Gaelic way of liv­ing in the world

The Victoria Standard - - Culture / Heritage -

Have you ever cleaned out an old trunk and found some­thing that had been con­sid­ered pre­cious enough to be pre­served? Donna (Mac­don­ald) Camp­bell of Bad­deck has kindly shared her find with me: six weath­ered, old sheets of pa­per; five hand­writ­ten Gaelic songs. As Donna tells it, “When clean­ing out the old homestead (on Rocky Side, South Haven) af­ter my Un­cle Mal­colm sold it, we came upon these trea­sures….”

Two songs are very fa­mil­iar, the lo­cal beloved "’S e Ceap Breatainn tìr mo ghràidh", (‘C.B. is the land that I love’), by Dan Alex Mac­don­ald, Fram­boise; and "Fear a’ bhàta", (‘The Boat­man’), writ­ten late in the 18th cen­tury by Jean Fin­layson of Tong, Lewis, for her sweet­heart, Don­ald Macrae, a young fish­er­man from Uig who, de­spite the ad­vice of the other boat­men in the song, she did marry. The date in­di­cates when this song was copied: Novem­ber 10th, 1937.

A third MS con­tains a lesser known song, “Am fear a chaill a lean­nan” (‘The one who lost his sweet­heart’), writ­ten in 8-line stan­zas by the ‘Skye Bard’, Neil Macleod; see his book, ‘‘Clàr­sach an Doire’’ (1833). It can be heard sung on the ‘‘To­bar an Dualchais’’ar­chive by Rod­er­ick Camp­bell. The bard com­plains that his sweet­heart’s prom­ise to him hasn’t lasted long; even as the wed­ding guests are ar­riv­ing, she takes off with the red-haired lad! In­censed, the bard swears to give him a pound­ing when he catches up with him!

But these three songs are just the pre­lude to the fi­nal two, tan­ta­liz­ing ones. One of these, writ­ten cur­sively in ink with wa­ter splotches, is the only other song with a date, this time Feb. 1(?), 1937. Ti­tled “O, sein­nidh mi duan (do’n ghru­a­gaich mhaisich)” (‘O, I will sing a song to the bonny lass’), it is to be sung to the tune of “Muile nam Mórb­heann”. It is a love song in which the bard, while he ex­tols his Lewis sweet­heart, laments her leav­ing him for a “young lad”. The writer is clearly well­versed in Gaelic po­etic struc­ture; here he uses the fa­mil­iar 4-line stanza with end rhyme in the first three lines, and all fi­nal lines rhyming with each other. But who made the song?

The last un­known piece is reli­gious in theme. Be­ing hand-printed, it is im­pos­si­ble to tell whether the same in­di­vid­ual au­thored this and the pre­vi­ous song. It has a cho­rus and twelve num­bered verses; the number XIII at the end sug­gests a thir­teenth verse yet to be writ­ten. No tune is sug­gested. The au­thor im­plores his “fool­ish friends/re­la­tions” to flee from Sodom and come to Christ, not to dis­dain “the best in­vi­ta­tion they have re­ceived, of­fer­ing eter­nal life and peace in Par­adise”. The verses have a sim­i­lar rhyming pat­tern to that of the pre­vi­ous song. But who made them?

What clues do we have? The Lewis ref­er­ence in the un­known song, and the prob­a­bil­ity that Donna’s great-grand­fa­ther’s roots were in Leur­bost, dis­trict of Lochs, Lewis, are highly sug­ges­tive. This relative, Don­ald Smith (18361922) of Rocky Side, is said to have built the homestead; his son, ‘Red’ Dan (1892-1975), prob­a­bly in­her­ited it as the only other son died young. We do know Red Dan left the homestead be­fore his mar­riage in 1945, al­low­ing his wid­owed mother, her daugh­ter Mary Cather­ine and hus­band, Mur­doch An­gus Mac­don­ald, to move there.

What was that date on the songs again? Ah, yes—1937. Could it be that our au­thor is *Red Dan? He was well-known in the com­mu­nity, and the like­li­hood of his oc­cu­py­ing the homestead in 1937 points to him as a plau­si­ble can­di­date. The fact re­mains, how­ever, that we do not know. But I won­der...

*See Ron Ca­plan’s ac­count of meet­ing him in 1972. (CB Magazine, Is­sue 71, 1996)

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