James Oliver (Seumas Chatriona Dhomhnuill Aonghais Bhig) is from Glendale in Skye. He is currently based in Birrarangga/Melbourne, where he works at RMIT University, but here through the Tobar an Dualchais project recalls some of the memories of his family home….
Oidhche Shamhna – Halloween appears to endure in our social memories as forever young, timeless.
It brings to our mind’s eye some of our earliest memories of community connections.
My earliest memories of Halloween relate to two different social experiences revealing different relationships that I will deal with separately.
Firstly, particularly vivid are my memories of the Halloween parties we had in Borrodale Primary School.
Sometimes these parties would involve a wee ‘house cèilidh’ of performances at the school, with family and friends invited to visit the fun.
As the occasion drew near, we would spend time away from regular lessons and prepare for our party by reorganising the classroom: carving out swedes for our lanterns (the smell!), setting out stalls for spooky games and tricks, and of course for dunking or ‘dooking’ for apples.
If you listen to these tracks recorded at Borrodale in 1986 you will hear some wonderful sounds of young people in play and in place, and of performances practiced for their community: in track 32546 the children are singing a little rhyme in Gàidhlig about Halloween being a time of fun, running from witches and going out in disguise; and similarly, in track 32548 is a short play, where two girls are on their guising visits and to their surprise find themselves in a witch’s house.
Borrodale school was built at some point after the 1872 Education Act (Scotland), conforming to the same model as those found throughout the country from that time, to varying degrees of similarity and size.
There were three of those schools in Glendale, to encompass the ‘tuath’ or ‘munntir Gleann Dail’, with those in Borreraig and Colbost closing long before Borrodale.
For a period, these schools were central to our childhood connections and friendships within the communities, many of which had effectively spanned across generations, following in the footsteps of parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents.
Borrodale school did not yet exist during the youth of my great-grandfather (Angus Cameron b. 1858 in Ramasaig), but I imagine he will have walked with his children there, our Seanair included.
During my own time in Borrodale (1978-85), and that of my siblings, like generations of family before us, we walked between Borrodale and our home in Fàsach many times.
And now, like in the time of our great-grandfather, again the school is no more. I sense every step of that journey.
In 2007, Borrodale school closed for that last time. And yet, if we listen, we can still hear from Borrodale, forever young and in timeless cèilidh.
Put in this kind of context we can sense how community relationships are deeply connected to change. The continuity of change, both backwards and forwards, gives us insight, and proximity with different and creative ways of being in place.
Times change and culture continues. It is important to be hopeful in this and to not perceive the shadows of the past as a fading life force but as an index pointing to future relationships.
The second social experience is of course relates to the typical excitement of guising at Oidhche Shamhna. Originally, Oidhche Shamhna was integral to (and still resonates with) our sense of place and the cultural relationships of life cycles, including time itself.
Oidhche Shamhna is ‘the night of summer’s end,’ and in our older understanding of the festival, it reveals that new life begins in darkness and is born into light; similarly, just as days used to begin and end at dusk, the move to the darker half of the year is also the continuation of a cycle and is equally about new beginnings.
In the deeper memory of Gaelic cosmology, this is the beginning of the new year, and of course, November is still called ‘an t-Samhain’ in Gàidhlig.
My earliest memories of guising would be like those of many, our dad taking my sister and I for a few easy visits to long-standing neighbours and family friends. Even though we would only go to a few houses in those early days, the intensity and excitement of the initiation on a cold dark night was largely experienced through the warmth and kindness revealed in the relationships that emerged in the evening.
Guising, then, is a form of cèilidh, where the encouraging and nurturing of the gift of exchange is more intangible than we always appreciate. It is that dimension of sustaining or developing relationships that seems most important to me.
One of the first homes we would have visited on my first Oidhche Shamhna will have been that of Angus and Effie Ross in Fàsach. In my early years it was a home that we probably had more time in than any house outside of my family.
It was a home I visited everyday day walking home from Borrodale school. My errand was to collect our newspapers from the post office, but it wasn’t a job, it was a relationship.
Our family had a strong connection with these Rosses. In 1883, Angus Ross’ great-uncle Alexander Ross had been nominated to deliver the prepared statement for the Fàsach crofters (along with his supporting testimony) to the Napier Commission.
In it he testified specifically to the clearance of my great-great-grandfather from Ramasaig (Donald Cameron, who had also been cleared from Feriniquarrie to Ramasaig decades earlier), who was removed along with all the families from Ramasaig around 1880-81, to make way for sheep, congesting further the land in Fàsach. So, it is from at least that time that our family had been friends.
Alexander Ross’s brother, Kenneth Ross, also Fàsach, had among his eight children a first son called Neil and a second called Norman, both being young boys during the land wars.
Neil Ross went on to win a poetry gold medal at the first Mòd and was eventually its President and was awarded a CBE for services to Celtic literature; Norman Ross (‘Tuam’) stayed on the croft and can be found here in Tobar and Dualchais, speaking of the land history and his cultural knowledge in Glendale: (Norman Ross (‘Tuam’) person ID 4494).
In fact, it is no coincidence his voice was recorded, as Norman’s son James Ross was a field researcher who recorded a wide range of material for the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh: (James Ross person ID 406).
James was a BBC journalist and wrote various research articles about Gaelic poetry and song, and also a socio-linguistic reflection on emergent bilingualism in Glendale (Scottish Studies, volume 6, 1962). He also recorded his sister Margaret singing songs they grew up with: (Margaret Ross person ID 448).
I did know Margaret but I never did met James Ross as he had a fatal accident in the early 1970s in Glasgow, outside the BBC.
Angus Ross and Seanair worked together on the County lorry (on the roads). We saw Angus and Effie a lot and my mum credits him with telling her and her siblings about their Cameron origin story in Glendale.
A mysterious tale of a man with long grey hair and a beard living in a cave at Scornandaoine on the east side of Loch Poolteil. He had arrived from Lochaber, in the mid to later 1700s, likely a refugee from any number of social problems in the Gàidhealtachd of that time.
Even now it still sounds like a good Halloween story. Certainly, my mum has never been a fan of beards in the family, but we were always welcomed by the Rosses in the ceilidh ethic of everyday relationships.
By way of gathering some threads here, I wish to draw attention to another track from James Ross’ recordings of his father, (track 105602), Tobraichean a’ Gluasad (Moving Wells).
Here, ‘Tuam’ talks about his knowledge of local wells the necessity to move between different wells for sustenance, and so there will be times when a well in one place becomes dry while water would be plentiful in another well.
A resource such as Tobar an Dualchais helps us think about our many and varied relationships with culture, place, and time.
Part of the intangible gift to be found within the archives, and also with the people and places around us, is how the wells of culture will be found popping up with all their potential, anywhere and everywhere, carried through the voices and relationships we nurture and come to know.
Importantly, this can activate new dialogues, experiences, and gestures of cèilidh, and to embrace these for all in our communities, our futures, wherever the wells emerge.
Ri Tìde (with time)
Time becomes us
all over again
the deer who returns to the well
of collective memories
Time becomes futures
and our open circle
pasts and prospects
Time becomes us
through cultural bonds
all the relationships found
and yet to be formed
Time becomes futures
and our moving wells
our kist o’ richesJames Oliver
The website tobarandualchais.co.uk contains some 50,000 oral recordings of songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.