Tobar an Dualchais: The Skye cobbler and the minister who left for Prince Edward Island, Canada

Iain MacPherson’s grandmother’s house in Prince Edward Island, Canada

Dr Iain S MacPherson of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig looks at the collections on the Tobar an Dualchais website and examines the contributions of Calum Bàn Buchanan’s ‘Òran Imrich’ and Rev Norman MacDonald.

 ‘S biodh am fear as fheàrr tùr, Nis na shuidh’ air an stiùir’  / ‘Let the most intelligent one, Now be sitting at the helm’ – from ‘Òran Imrich’/’Emigration Song’ by Calum Bàn Buchanan.

This is indeed a story of ‘stiùireadairean’: helms people of the best ‘tùr’ – the best discernment and intelligence.

It’s also a story of an Isle of Skye-born cobbler and emigrant to Prince Edward Island and a church minister also from Skye who preached in PEI more than a hundred years later. And finally, it’s a story of a line of various hands and voices who carefully, lovingly ferried the freight of this remarkable song-poem from its original early nineteenth-century composition in a unique New World Gàidhealtachd down to our own present twenty-first century. 

First among our helms people is Calum Bàn ‘MacMhanainn’ or Buchanan as his surname has survived to this day amongst his descendants on PEI.

The Flodigarry-born cobbler emigrated on board the Polly with other ‘Selkirk Settlers’ to Prince Edward Island, British North America, in the summer of 1803 and went on to compose this piece of migrant oral literature par excellence sometime after landing. 

Then, next in line, comes Ruairidh Mòr MacLeod, an informant indentified to me in conversation with Dr Tiber Falzett: a PEI Gael who, on the 29th of March 1883, recited or sang our song-poem which he had learnt in his youth from Calum Bàn himself to a certain Ewen Lamont, Eòghann MacLaomain in Gaelic.

Ewen Lamont, according to the Cape Breton Island-based Scottish Gaelic newspaper Mac-Talla, had transcribed the lot. 

Next comes Murdo Lamont, or Murchadh ‘Cam’ MacLaomain as he signed himself, the one who submitted our song-poem, which he says he got from a friend whom we assume to be Ewen Lamont, to Mac-Talla in the spring of 1895.

It then appeared for the very first time in print on the 13th of April of that same year. 

At this point in our line of helms people, we can mention in passing the Canadian Gaelic scholar and Presbyterian Church minister Alexander MacLean Sinclair who also published Calum Bàn’s song the following year, 1896, in The Gaelic Bards from 1775 to 1825

From here we then move on into the mid-twentieth century in the person of the ‘Minister’ from our title, the Rev Norman MacDonald, Valtos. He spent some time working with congregations of Skye and Raasay descent in Prince Edward Island before returning home to Skye. 

On a February day in 1953, the lovely near perfect numerical harmony of it all from 1883 to 1953, seventy years after Ruairidh Mòr MacLeod had saved Calum Bàn’s song from certain oblivion, Rev MacDonald sat down with the School of Scottish Studies’ ethnographer, Calum Maclean and recorded two pieces where he both recited and sang parts of ‘Òran Imrich’ while also reviewing it in the process. 

From Rev MacDonald we move on to Sister Margaret MacDonell, a Canadian Gaelic scholar and researcher, and member of La Congrégation de Notre-Dame, Montréal, who published Calum Bàn’s song in her seminally-important and widely-circulated The Emigrant Experience: Songs of Highland Emigrants in North America. 

And finally, we can mention and praise the careful, custodial work of Tobar an Dualchais itself and their digitising of the School of Scottish Studies’ store of field recordings: allowing us to hear, most probably, the original melody of the Calum Bàn song-poem composed overseas and over two hundred years ago.

And this is where I want now to rest a moment, on the 12th of February 1953: eavesdropping, as it were, on the Rev Norman MacDonald as he sits with visiting senior field worker Calum Maclean and ferries into the waiting and ready sound recording equipment of the day two precious parts of this story. 

First, he recites in his lovely Gàidhlig an taobh sear, the ‘east side Gaelic’ of his native Valtos district, from the middle of the seventh verse down to the tenth and final verse of the song-poem.

One of the things that’s immediately obvious, and which he himself admits to, is that he’s reading from Alexander MacLean Sinclair’s 1896 version of Calum Bàn’s ‘Òran Imrich’.

The proof is when he reads ‘ged a rachamaid gu fèill’ / ‘although we’d go to sales’ instead of ‘ged a readhmaid gu fèill’ which appears in Mac-Talla’s 1895 première of the work.

It’s a small thing. But it shows the dominance of the printed word over the transcribed dialectal reality of that March day back in 1883 on Prince Edward Island when Ewen Lamont wrote down ‘readhmaid’: this form being not just the speaker’s pronunciation but also that which allows Calum Bàn’s skilful mid-rhymes in the rest of the stanza to work. 

Then, after reciting the final evocative verse where Calum Bàn sings the praises of ‘Eilean an àigh’, ‘an Island of plenty’ where he and his fellow settlers now find themselves, with his enumerating the bountiful fruits of the earth including ‘fresh, colourful red rum’ in ‘every cabin and shop’ drunk there as ‘abundant as water’, Rev MacDonald says the following to Calum Maclean: ‘Aidichidh sibh gu bheil e math…air a dhèanamh’ / ‘You’ll admit it’s well…composed’. 

And then he returns to the opening verses of the song-poem, and highlights the poet-emigrant’s desire that the ablest, wisest person take the helm to steer the boat safely out and around from Portree harbour into the Minch and the waiting North Atlantic beyond.

MacDonald is at his most poignant here, as is Calum Bàn himself in his song-poem, while invoking the litany of place names recited by a character on board the Polly, a certain MacFadyen from Digg:

Tha cnap eil’ ann no dhà,

‘S ann dhiubh sin Clach nan Ràmh,

‘S Bogha Ruadh tha fo Àird ‘Ic Thòrlain;

Leac na Buinne seo shuas

‘S Rubh’ an Aiseig ri cluais,

Mol a’ Mhaide ‘s e cruaidh le dòirneig;

Thoir an aire gu dlùth

Cumail àrd os an cionn –

Seachain sruth Rubh’ Hùnais, ‘s mòr e.

And another nook or two, like Clach nan Ràmh and Bogha Ruadh under Àird ‘Ic Thòrlain. Then Leac na Buinne further on, and Rubh’ an Aiseig close by: and Mol a’ Mhaide pebbled hard.

Be very careful, keep well above them, and give the Rubh’ Hùnais current a miss: it’s pounding.

MacDonald in fact praises Calum Bàn’s song for this very freight of place names contained within it and how one can visualise some of the ‘sgeirean mara’ / ‘sea skerries’ as though seeing them ‘air an dearbh mhionaid seo’ / ‘at this very minute’.

And the minister ends this first part by stating that Calum Bàn, our cobbler from Flodigarry who could neither read nor write according to the PEI informants and transcribers who ferried his song on to us, prospered in his life on PEI as did ‘na h-eilthirich gu lèir’ / ‘the emigrants entirely’. 

In the second recording from that day in 1953, this one being only a minute and four seconds long, the Rev MacDonald, in answer to Calum Maclean’s asking if he was going to sing a verse of the song-poem, goes on to sing the fourth verse in its entirety, prefacing his performance by modestly stating that the difficult melody might not agree with his voice. 

He needn’t have been so modest; for as you can hear for yourselves, he does both the melody and the lyrics proud. 

Proud also surely would have been Calum Bàn MacMhanainn to know that his composition from and about his new life on Prince Edward Island, a work in which he excoriates the ‘new master’ back in Skye and highlights the economic necessity which meant that ‘an tuath’, ‘the people’, were better off leaving for overseas.

Fasgadh nan craobh’, ‘shelter of the trees’, regardless of all the admitted pastoral beauty of Rigg in May, was still being heard, learnt and sung more than two hundred years later thanks to all our many ‘stiùireadairean’ in an almost interrupted but never severed line from there to here.

For more on this story, visit Tobar an Dualchais, and search for Track ID: 2675 / Original Tape ID: SA1953.024

The website contains some 50,000 oral recordings of songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.