Bard of Lorn
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’.