Am Bratach No. 242
November 2012


Song guardian
Mandy Haggith talks to James Graham

It was standing room only in Drumbeg Village Hall on Saturday November 12, as people crushed in to hear James Graham performing the Gaelic songs of Assynt. An intimate session gave what he called “an airing” to a crucial aspect of the district’s heritage.

James’s performance was the highlight of a ceilidh celebrating the end of the Life and Death in Assynt’s Past project. The Historic Assynt project has involved three archaeological digs and activities exploring the lives of people from the past. One dig was of a pre-clearance house in Glenleraig, near Drumbeg. Earlier in the day, in Lochinver Hall, there were demonstrations of a range of activities, which for the people who lived in that house would probably have been a normal part of life: carding, spinning, weaving, knitting plus basket and net making. The local Gaelic choir also sang a few songs, giving a taste of the evening session.

When James studied at the Royal School of Art, Music and Drama in Glasgow, he pulled together a collection of songs from Assynt, trawling the archives and quizzing local Gaelic speakers. His performance in Drumbeg covered many of these. Former BBC Young Traditional Musician of the Year, he takes his custodianship of the song tradition and related stories seriously, and one of the delights of the evening was the way he wrapped tales around the songs, bringing their creators back to life.

Most extraordinary was the story of a song written some 300 years ago by the daughter of the laird of the time, expressing her love for a sea captain, Black Currie of the Ropes. The legend has it that he was up from Gairloch to Kylesku, where he ran his boat onto rocks. While waiting for repairs, he and the laird’s daughter fell in love, but Sir John Mackenzie of Achmore had his eye on her, and had her father’s favour. When the sea captain returned a few months later, she had been married off to Sir John. The lovers managed a secret tryst, but when Sir John found out he shot first the sea captain, then his wife, before turning the gun upon himself.

There are inevitably some grey areas in determining who, in an oral culture, was the true originator of a song. One example is Cathair a’ Chùl-Chinn, which means the Seat at Culkein. The bard John Macleod, known as “The Professor”, lived at Culkein, and had a particular rock, the Cathair, which he liked to sit on to look out over the bay. James believes the first five verses of the song were written by him, but not published before he died. The final verse was then added in a quite different style, and published by and credited to Donald Macleod.

It was Dolly “Taigh Ban” Kerr who suggested to James that the song might have a different origin from the published name. She was one of many local people who James consulted in his researches. Dolly knew his father, who went along with James when he visited her. James said: “I put the tape recorder down in front of them and they talked away. She spoke quite the thing. She knew an awful lot about the Assynt songs.”

Altogether James has gathered about fourteen Assynt songs so far. “I wasn’t really uncovering anything new”, he insists, but acknowledges that simply gathering them altogether was a valuable thing to do. “Some were just scribbled down, or spelled wrong so I tried to tidy them all up. I put them with translations and I also wrote all the music down.”

This transcription of the melodies of songs is a vital aspect of his research. Ishbel MacAulay of Stoer was an important source of tunes, James said. “Ishbel sang quite a few for me. Even just a snippet was helpful to give me the tune.”
Another useful contact was Fiona Mackenzie in Golspie. “Her father’s from Stoer and she had some recordings,” said James. Willie Morrison also passed on a recording of his father, who hailed from Drumbeg, singing a beautiful lament by Donald Macleod, also from Drumbeg, to his friend Alasdair Munro, killed in the First World War.

Other sources included James’s old primary school teacher, Kenny Mackenzie, and two Culkein men, Donald “Dunan” and Romy Macleod. He also searched the records of the Edinburgh University School of Scottish Studies and Glasgow University’s Celtic Studies archive. “They were interesting, and I found some good stories, but there was nothing directly linked to songs. The local people told me more,” said James.

When asked if he’d consider publishing the songs he has found, he is hesitant, hoping that some more might yet be uncovered. “An awful lot have been lost, through the Clearances, and things like Norman Macleod leaving with his entourage. Three or four generations on, there might be folk in New Zealand who have old documents or still know some songs. Maybe I need to go to Waipu and get after these people!”

The only existing publication of Assynt songs is a collection of songs and poetry by the bard known as The Professor. John Macleod was an actual professor of English Literature in England, before returning home to Culkein in retirement. As well as Cathair a’ Chùl-Chinn, James sang two other songs of his: a hauntingly beautiful love song to his wife Janet (Seònaid) and the famous shieling song, Àirigh a’ Chùl-Chinn, which includes a plea to the Parliament to return the land to the people. It’s good to reflect that these shielings now belong to local crofters.

James excels at songs of longing, and began his performance with Mullaichean Rudha Stòir by Alasdair Macleod, an Assynt man exiled in Glasgow, missing the landscape of home. There was light relief in a comic song in the form of a conversation between the composer and a stag on the hill. And there was a chance for everyone to join in with Cuir Culaibh Ri Asainte, one of the Assynt songs that is known throughout the Gaelic-singing world, reminding us that, as James said, these songs are “as good as any you will get anywhere”.

At one point James described himself as “preaching to the converted” and with characteristic modesty, asked the audience to “help him out”. As voices joined in with Àirigh a’ Chùl-Chinn, words and tune familiar to local people from ceilidhs over the years, some nice harmonies blending in, there was a real sense of pride in the culture of this place.

James Graham’s impeccable and heartfelt renditions of the local songs are proof that the treasures of the Assynt bards of old are in safe hands.


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