TOBAR AN DUALCHAIS: Saving traditions in our changing communities

Gillean agus Nigheanan Chullaig (Hogmanay boys & girls) – Sineag, Callum Joseph, Clara, Seonaidh, Aonghas, Mìcheal & Iagan

Flòraidh Forrest, project director of Tobar an Dualchais, on community-based Gaelic traditions, and the potential to support them through heritage legislation….

“Tha mise a-nochd a’ dol air Chullaig, a dh’ùrachadh dhuibh na Callaig…”

It’s been over a month since Hogmanay but those words are still ringing in my ears. They’re the beginning of a Hogmanay rhyme that I learnt recently through teaching it to my children.

Although they were reluctant to learn it at first, they soon realised its value as they, along with other boys and girls, recited it at the doorsteps of houses in my home village in South Uist and accumulated an impressive haul of sweets, crisps and a fair bit of cash too!

Once the rhyme had been recited, the children were welcomed inside and the occupants of the house were blessed individually with a specially made candle alit, held upright, and rotated clockwise in a circular motion either in front of, or above, each person’s head.

This blessing is considered good luck for the year ahead – as long as the flame doesn’t go out!

After this, the children took turns playing or singing for their hosts; my eldest son played Auld Lang Syne on the pipes whilst everyone joined hands and sang along.

For a bit of contrast, my nephew gave a few good rounds of Pirates of the Caribbean in those homes with pianos.

The night was an overwhelming success; a wonderful opportunity to connect with neighbours and have a bit of fun before bringing in the bells. 

Unfortunately, owing to a number of factors, this tradition has almost died out in all but two or three villages in South Uist and Eriskay (I’m not entirely sure of the situation in other islands where it was also practiced).

As Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart reflected in his WHFP article on the Cullaig tradition several years ago: “The decline of such communal celebrations across the Scottish Gaelic world suggests a fraying of community ties.” (02/01/2020).

In my own village, the tradition went into hiatus in the 1970s – a time of extreme change in the Islands where Gaelic language and culture began to decline at an incredible rate. 

In recent years my sister Iseabail, who is a primary school teacher in Daliburgh, has helped reinvigorate the Cullaig in the area.

We both became interested in the tradition a few years ago when my late Auntie Mary MacInnes of Hann, Eriskay, encouraged us to teach it to our boys (it was boys who traditionally took part).

The first item of business then was getting the rhyme.

91 year old Ann MacMillan of Milton, South Uist, raises the ‘caisean-challainn’ (Hogmanay candle) above her head and rotates it three times clockwise. 

This was essential, as the title of the aforementioned article by Dòmhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart explains: ‘No admission without a rhyme’! Fortunately, Tobar an Dualchais has many examples, and these helped give us a better understanding of the subtle differences in its composition and practice from place to place. 

The track I preferred was made in 1958 by School of Scottish Studies fieldworker Calum Iain Maclean of Peggy MacDonald of Locheynort discussing Hogmanay customs and reciting a rhyme she remembered hearing from a young boy (Track 39693).

Whist talking about these recordings and other local examples, my mother chimed in and said, “you should be learning from your father!”

Well, we didn’t know my father had ever taken part in the Cullaig – he had never mentioned it and, prior to this, we had no reason to ask.

But, sure enough he had, and even though it was almost 70 years since he and his friends went round the houses in the village, he still had every word of it.

Iseabail recorded him, I helped her transcribe the rhyme, and we set about learning it for the following year. Not only that, but my sister taught it to all the children in her class.

Last year she managed to teach it to all the children in the school – girls as well as boys.

Parents sent her videos of their children reciting the poem and participating in the Cullaig with their families.

This tradition is by no means safe but, at least for another year, it still exists in the area. 

But why am I writing about this now, over a month since we brought in the new year? 

Just before Christmas it was announced that the UK Government had finally agreed to ratify the 2003 Convention for Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH).

For those of us working in the heritage sector, this could be transformational.

UNESCO describes ICH as: 

“…traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditionsperforming artssocial practices, rituals, festive eventsknowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

Our tangible cultural heritage, like buildings, monuments and physical artifacts, have long enjoyed some level of protection, but our songs, stories, customs, traditional festivals have mostly been ignored or otherwise gone unrecognised by past governments. 

How this new legislation is implemented is currently unclear.

The first step will be the creation of an inventory of the UK’s ICH, with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England creating their own lists which then feeds into the wider UK list.

There is currently a period of consultation under way and a survey online where interested parties can add their voices. 

Of the different criteria being used to assess whether something can be added to the ICH list, one is particularly significant to those of us in traditional Gaelic-speaking communities where the language is under threat; that it must still be practiced.

Community-based, Gaelic cultural traditions like the Cullaig rely on a high level of Gaelic fluency and are in real danger of disappearing in places like Uist where culture and language are intrinsically linked.

Perhaps there is an opportunity to support and safeguard our intangible heritage where it still exists with this new legislation.

If so, repositories of cultural memory like Tobar an Dualchais could play an important role, as Steve Byrne of TRACS (Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland) and writer of the report ‘Mapping Scotland’s Intangible Cultural Heritage’ explains:

“It cannot be underestimated the major culture change this has brought about for ICH and the significant possibilities it presents…Although material in archives is often considered mostly historical, numerous projects show that the material and practices still persist in the living memory of people in those places and communities. Repatriating such recordings to the communities in which they were recorded is a simple yet essential method for building a strong base for ICH…”

With over 30,000 Gaelic recordings currently on Tobar an Dualchais, people anywhere in the world may access these recordings, including those living in the same Gaelic-speaking communities in which so many of them were made.

As important as resources like TAD are in supporting ICH, the fate of traditions like the Cullaig ultimately rests with individuals and communities.

The consultation ends on the 29th of February and I would encourage those with an interest to fill in the online survey

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