TOBAR AN DUALCHAIS: Historical gems from a visit to Gairloch

Teacher Ann Munro with Laide School pupils in 1936 (C) Gairloch Museum

Friseal MacRaibeirt on stories, culture and language from Wester Ross……

“Bha an Loch breac le bàtaichean…” – “The Loch was speckled with boats…”

Those were the words of Ann Munro (1901-2001) in 1971 when recounting her early memories of her native Gairloch to Ian Paterson [TAD ID 130135] of the School of Scottish Studies.

Referring to the traditional practice – common in her youth – of harvesting and processing seaweed from local islands to use as fertiliser on crops, Ann tells the story of its gradual and steady decline, replaced by the artificial fertiliser of the post-war years – a microcosm of the accumulation changes experienced by Ann over the course of her one hundred years living around Gruinard Bay.

Born in 1901 in Badluachrach on the shores of Little Loch Broom, and a schoolteacher a few miles along the coast in Laide for most of her days, Ann’s recordings – of which there are now 18 on the Tobar an Dualchais website – are a precious record of local life at the beginning of 20th century, just before the tidal wave of societal and linguistic transformations changed Wester Ross communities for good.

Since the beginning of the year, the team at Tobar an Dualchais has had the pleasure of working closely with our partners at Gairloch Museum to trace local archival contributors and their families to enable us to make more of the wealth of Gairloch archival recordings – such as those of Ann Munro – available on our website, to enable more people to delve into the stories, culture and language of the Gairloch Parish area, extending from Little Loch Broom in the North to Loch Torridon in the south. 

Representatives from Tobar an Dualchais and Gairloch Museum who worked together to organise the event.

These newly-added recordings, many of which were shared with the community at a local event at the Museum last month, also include more personal, life stories, recorded by BBC Radio nan Gàidheal in the 1990s as part of their Dealan-dè programme.

Donald (Dòmhnall Ruairidh) MacLeod of Achgarve (1903-1991) was recorded [TAD ID 95168] recounting – in his rich Wester Ross Gaelic – his experience of being taken prisoner in the Atlantic by the navy of Nazi Germany while working on a convoy headed for Australia via the Panama Canal, and subsequently spending five years in a Nazi Prisoner of War Camp.

Brushing over the issue of a lack of food, he goes on to tell us about the other Gaels from the islands who were also unfortunate enough to have found themselves in the camp.

The generation born early in the 1900s feature prominently in the newly-available recordings, and they give a fascinating insight into the changes of the 20th century as well as being precious examples of local dialects of Gaelic – the dominant language in Gairloch until the middle decades of the 20th century.

John Gunn of Sand who was recorded for an episode of the BBC programme Dealan-dè (c) John Gunn

John Gunn of Sand (1904-1998) was also recorded for an episode of Dealan-dè [TAD ID 97898] and spoke at great length about life in Sand and how it had changed over the course of his life, placing particular emphasis on the amount of people who left the area for work overseas, following the well-trodden emigrant path to Canada, or to Patagonia in Argentina – a popular destination for those who were skilled in working with sheep. 

Those born in the early 1900s, however, are not the oldest contributors recorded in the Gairloch area.

A Mrs Matheson of Inverasdale – who we believe to have been born towards the end of the 19th century – was recorded by Dr John MacInnes of the School of Scottish Studies in the 1960s.

Mrs Matheson shares her memories of various local beliefs which used to be widespread – one fascinating example of this being the belief in the Evil Eye. In one recording from July 1960 [TAD ID 53269] she explains that – when she was young – a man came to the house asking for something made of gold to mix with water to use on his cow who had been afflicted by the Evil Eye after having been overly-praised by someone with the ability to cast it.

After being sprayed by the golden water, the cow returned to health. 

The concept of the Evil Eye is well-attested in many cultures globally, and – in a Highlands-specific context – was the subject of a study by Robert Craig Maclagan in 1902, who found no shortage of evidence for the belief all over the Highlands, and also in the lowlands and in Ireland.

This recording here, however, demonstrates the decline of the belief and the generational differences in Wester Ross at the end of the 19th century.

In other recordings Mrs Matheson also speaks about fairies, and old beliefs, and it becomes clear that her generation seems to be the last with a direct link to these traditional beliefs.

Our oldest confirmed contributor – recently added to our website – is Farquhar MacDonald (1876-1965) of Kinlochewe, who was also recorded by Dr John MacInnes in his 86th year in summer of 1962.

Farquhar was a crofter and shopkeeper in Kinlochewe and was recorded speaking mostly about weaving in the local area. 

In one recording, he describes how people would travel far and wide to the weavers in Kinlochewe to have their wool processed.

He explained how people would come from as far as Lochcarron to the area – on foot – and would carry the finished cloth on their backs, much to the surprise of John MacInnes.

From a 21st century perspective, where clothes are often delivered to your door in a matter of days, probably having been made in Asia, is testament to the radical social change over the past century and a half.

It has been a privilege to the Tobar an Dualchais team to have been able to spend the past couple of months delving into the wealth of recordings from the Gairloch area featured in the School of Scottish Studies Archive and the BBC Radio nan Gàidheal archive, and to make these recordings more accessible – to local and not-so-local people alike.

We have been overwhelmed by the generosity from local people in sharing their local knowledge of these contributors, as well as their local knowledge more generally about life in Gairloch.  

Our community event two weeks ago in hosted by and in partnership with the Gairloch Museum is an excellent example of how important it is for us at Tobar an Dualchais to work closely with the local communities to learn more about the recordings and how essential it is too that we showcase and publicise the wealth of local history, heritage and culture we have on our website.

In these trying and testing times, it’s never been more important to dig where you stand.   

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