A hard time for people of faith

Lassintulloch Graveyard, Picture, Sean Purser

By John Purser, From the Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o’ Riches archive

John Purser is internationally celebrated as a composer, musicologist, writer, playwright, poet and broadcaster. His landmark book (and accompanying radio series), ‘Scotland’s Music’ (1992 and 2007) drew considerably from recordings now digitised and available from the Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o’ Riches archive, and is arguably the single most important volume on Scottish culture ever written. John is a researcher and regular guest lecturer at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and lives near Elgol where he and his wife, Bar, maintain a croft with a small herd of cross-Highland cows.      

It must be a particularly hard time just now for people of faith.

Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples are closed. The places where one would most clearly feel the presence of spiritual community are cut off – never mind that a pandemic might tempt one to question faith in any deity. Here in the Highlands many still can access the temple of nature, but for some even that temple is essentially out of bounds. We are exiled in our own homes.

The theme of exile for some wrong-doing – not necessarily a penance but for something perceived as wrong by others – is, of course, international, never more so than right now.

In the Gàidhealtachd, however, with a history of mass emigration, exile retained a particular relevance well into modern times. So I have gone to Tobar an Dualchais and to Dugald Buchanan, for if there was anyone who understood the agony of spiritual exile and the loneliness of doubt and fear and who grappled with them with profound courage, it was him.

Buchanan lived from 1716-1768, part of the time among the broken men of Rannoch, amongst whom he taught and preached. He was sent by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in 1755. He was to be a teacher and a catechist: the catechism was a sort of question and answer method of teaching religion, and its spiritual values.

Dugald Buchanan’s cottage

The place Buchanan was sent to was Kinloch Rannoch, and it was in dire need of religion and spiritual values. It was on the edge of Rannoch Moor and was so remote that all the rejects of society – outlaws, dispossessed and banished, had gathered there, as far from the law as possible.

The broken men of Rannoch were a people destitute and desperate. In ministering to these last vestiges of society, Buchanan was working at its roots, not certain if they were strong or rotten, not certain if his own motives were good or bad.

In Buchanan’s imagery, we engage powerfully with a Dante-esque poetic imagery:

’N sin cruinnichidh gach cos ’us làmh,

Chaidh chur san àraich fad o chéil:

’S bi’dh farum mòr a’ measg nan cnàmh,

Gach aon diubh dol nan àite féin.

Each limb, each member – foot and hand, that ever buried were in land or sea or battle-field, shall come together. Loud is the noise among the bones, each coming to its place.

Buchanan’s Lathha a’ Bhreitheanais (Day of Judgement), from which that quotation comes, is well within the tradition of Celtic visionary literature. It is not, one would have thought, fertile ground for cherishing hope, yet Buchanan’s spiritual poetry is sung to this day. A particularly fine example is the recording by John Robertson of part of Latha a’ Bhreathanais – The Day of Judgement (TaD ID 9936).

In the five verses Robertson has chosen out of one hundred and twenty-one, the last trumpet is heard and the mountains pour out lava.

“Quench your thirst with it, you horders of gold”. The sun is in mourning, the moon steeped in blood, the stars are shaken.

The poem is terrifying, and the hope of salvation depends not upon anything one does oneself, other than placing one’s trust entirely in God’s mercy. This is not something you earn: it is something you have to be given. And yet this solemn song, with its simple pentatonic melody, verse after verse, has a beautiful and hypnotic power.

I am no believer, but this is powerful stuff and not to be lightly dismissed.

Confronting the great dilemmas of self-consciousness in his confessional diary and his poetry, Buchanan emerges triumphant and yet sober, thoughtful and grateful.

In such a place at such a time it is a magnificent achievement. The song An Claigeann – The Skull – came to Buchanan when, following a young woman’s burial, he picked up a skull left exposed in Lassintulloch graveyard near Loch Rannoch.

Today, the graveyard is as neglected as were the people living there in Buchanan’s day. Picture him then among the tombstones, looking out northward and the thoughts racing through his mind like the wind through the branches of the surrounding trees as he addresses the skull in his hands.

He asks the skull if it belonged to a preacher and did the preacher care for his flock or leave them to the care of the fox? Buchanan ends assured that there is hope even in the grave, that the eyes that were once in the skull may shine again as brilliantly as the stars, and that the soul may fly to Christ with the speed of the eagle – to be greeted with love.

An Claigeann is forty-four verses long of which the first four were recorded by the Reverend Willie Matheson (TaD ID 19933).

The verses are stitched together – each half verse repeated and the repeat of the second half becoming the first half of the next verse. I asked Allan MacDonald, Glenuig, to record ten different verses using much the same tune for the BBC Radio Scotland series Scotland’s Music, back in 2007. I hope that recording will make its way into Tobar an Dualchais one day.

I met Willie Matheson just the once long ago – Allan insisted I come with him to the hospital where Willie was in a wheelchair, frail but with bright eyes and a welcome smile. I was just at the very beginning of coming to an understanding of Gaelic culture, but there, with my hazy stumbling knowledge, I felt included.

Such brief encounters can mean so much.

But perhaps the most striking of these recordings is that by Murdina MacDonald, singing the first thirteen verses of Fulangas Chrìost – The Sufferings of Christ. The tune is described as “Simple as a Christmas carol, it soon became a favourite throughout Perthshire, being sung to a sweet plaintive air . . .”

Murdina’s singing, so perfectly pitched, so beautifully complex in its decorations, comes straight from the heart without any show (TaD ID 73870).

You can find the original Gaelic in the Reverend Sinclair’s Reminiscences of the life and labours of Dugald Buchanan, Edinburgh 1875 and English translations in Lachlan MacBean’s Buchanan, the Sacred Bard, London c.1919.

Not the cheeriest of stuff, but realistic and seeking joy against all the odds.

To website www.tobarandualchais.co.uk contains some 50,000 oral recordings on songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield. The number of recordings online is now approaching 50,000.