Bard of Lorn

The Oban Times - - Front Page - SANDY NEIL sneil@oban­

THE STORY be­hind Oban Gaelic Choir’s Storas con­cert on June 8, ex­plor­ing the riches of Ar­gyll­shire Bar­dachd.

THE Empty Spor­ran

of the Bard of Lorn, a Dal­mally shoe­maker called Mal­colm ‘Calum’ Camp­bell MacPhail, was re­vived at a Gaelic con­cert ear­lier this month, to the de­light of his fam­ily.

Oban Gaelic Choir ex­plored the riches of Ar­gyll­shire Bar­dachd at its Storas con­cert on June 8 at the Cor­ran Halls, and fea­tured one poem by Calum MacPhail 104 years af­ter his death ti­tled An Spo­ran Falamh, The Empty Spor

ran, with a new tune by the choir’s con­duc­tress, Sileas Sin­clair.

The poem imag­ines a hu­mor­ous con­ver­sa­tion be­tween a man and his empty spor­ran. ‘It must have been a bad day that day: not enough shoes be­ing sold,’ joked Calum, the bard’s grand­son, a fid­dler also called Calum Camp­bell MacPhail. ‘The work that Sileas Sin­clair had put into it brought it to life,’ he said. ‘She un­earthed it and pro­duced the melody for it.’

Calum and his wife of 50 years Ann still live at the bard’s cot­tage in Glenorchy, which the poet named Fin­gal’s View, over­look­ing Loch Awe, Kilchurn Cas­tle and the mon­u­ment to an­other lo­cal bard, ‘ the Gaelic Robert Burns’, Dun­can Ban MacIn­tyre.

Sit­ting in the liv­ing room of their croft, once old Calum the shoe­maker’s shop and now dec­o­rated by young Calum’s many fid­dles, Ann said: ‘This was a busy place. I am sure there was great ceilidh-ing up there. We al­ways keep [a pic­ture of] him hang­ing here. It is his home.’

‘I am 74 and I have been here all my days,’ young Calum said. ‘I am the third to have the name Calum MacPhail. I have two daugh­ters. I am the last of the MacPhails.’

Hear­ing the poem and Sileas’s new tune at the con­cert was ‘won­der­ful’, they said, and he in­tends to learn and play them.

The bard Calum MacPhail was born in 1847 on the ‘Braes aboon Bon­awe’ at Ar­deny in the parish of Muck­airn, Up­per Lorne, and later lived for seven years at In­ver­aray where ‘he first be­gan to court the muses’, act­ing as in­ter­preter in court, trans­lat­ing ev­i­dence from Gaelic into English.

Among his first ef­forts was a poem in praise of the Mar­quis of Lorn, later the Duke of Ar­gyll, on the oc­ca­sion of his mar­riage to the Princess Louise. At In­ver­aray Cas­tle in 1871, ac­cord­ing to one re­port in The Daily Record

and Mail, MacPhail sang Gaelic songs by spe­cial com­mand be­fore roy­alty.

Celtic scholar John Francis Camp­bell, of Is­lay, en­cour­aged MacPhail to print his verses, and his first and only known vol­ume of Gaelic po­etry, Am Filidh La

thur­nach, was pub­lished in 1878 to ‘a large sale’.

Oban was ‘the hub of the Gaelic move­ment’ around 1870, Mal­colm Ma­cLeod writes in his book

Mod­ern Gaelic Bards: ‘A project was de­vised and orig­i­nated by the Lorne Os­sianic So­ci­ety, of hold­ing Gaelic lit­er­ary com­pe­ti­tions and award­ing prizes for mer­i­to­ri­ous con­tri­bu­tions. On the first and sec­ond years the first prize for Gaelic po­etry was car­ried off by Mal­colm Camp­bell MacPhail, now known as Am Bàrd Lathur­nach’. In Dal­mally, Calum set­tled down to his fa­ther-in-law’s shoe­maker’s busi­ness, ‘where he is much es­teemed and held in high re­spect both as a trades­man and as a mem­ber of the com­mu­nity’. His mar­riage to Cather­ine pro­duced four chil­dren - Calum, Don­ald, Jessie and Katie, The Daily Record and Mail mis­tak­enly printed MacPhail’s obit­u­ary on Fe­bru­ary 10, 1913 – a year be­fore he died – which it de­scribed as a ‘re­gret­table blun­der’ caus­ing the fam­ily and friends of ‘the sweet singer of Lorne’ ground­less alarm and anx­i­ety.

‘The many friends and ad­mir­ers of the pop­u­lar Gaelic poet will be glad to hear that it was all a mis­take and that they may yet look for many more songs and po­ems from him.’

Alas, there was not long for many more: MacPhail’s obit­u­ary in The Oban Times, dated Jan­uary 3, 1914, an­nounced his death in De­cem­ber aged 66: ‘Mr MacPhail had not been in ro­bust health since early in 1911, when he had a nar­row es­cape from be­ing run down by a mo­tor car on the road at Sron-mhiol-choin,’ it said. ‘The re­mains were con­veyed to the beau­ti­ful Clachan-an-Diseart and the fu­neral was at­tended by a large gath­er­ing of High­landers from far and near.’

Calum and Ann MacPhail in Fin­gal’s View, the home of his shoe­mak­ing grand­fa­ther also Calum MacPhail, the Bard of Lorn.

Calum MacPhail’s obit­u­ary ap­peared a year be­fore he died, ‘a re­gret­table blun­der’.

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