National Geographic : 1947 Feb
Hunting Folk Songs in the Hebrides BY MARGARET SIHAW CAMPBELL With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author ONE morning I sailed northwest from Scotland to the long line of blue is lands known as the Outer Hebrides (map, page 252). As we entered the narrow neck of the bay at Barra, we passed herring boats sailing out eastward in single file to the fishing grounds. The crews could be seen on board readying the nets for the night's work. Lying at anchor were Swedish mackerel boats that had come to buy and cure the mackerel caught by the Scottish herring drifters. The isleman has a prejudice against eating this fish, believing that it feeds upon the bodies of drowned men. Ahead of us, at the foot of a hill, lay Castle bay, chief port of Barra, with its cottages, shops, and church with clock and steeple. Beyond, the land was a dark-green shadow. In the bay itself the ruined castle of Kis mull, ancient stronghold of the Macneils of Barra, seemed to float upon the water, the full tide submerging the little island on which it stands (pages 254, 260). A Refuge of Gaelic in Scotland The pier was crowded with people welcom ing the boat. As we tied up, I heard a great rush of Gaelic and realized that I was in a Scotland unknown to me-strange and foreign and really individual in a way the English speaking Lowlands could never be. Here were the Outer Isles-a refuge of the Gaelic tongue and customs. I had come to collect folk songs. At a concert in Scotland I had heard these old songs, and their strangely moving beauty had lured me to their home. As headquarters I chose South Uist, since it seemed one of the least visited islands and probably less under outside influence. Old songs should flourish there if anywhere. But to collect them I must learn the spoken Gaelic first. For that reason I stopped for a time at Lochboisdale, acquainting myself with the language. On New Year's Day I had dinner with the chief merchant of this island of loch, moorland, and sandy beach, and, as was customary, neighbors came in afterward to talk and to sing Gaelic songs. One of the singers had a strange clear voice, and her songs enchanted me. On the first calm day I sailed across the loch to ask her to sing to me again. Mary MacRae was her name, and Mairi Andra her Gaelic patronymic. Her cottage was whitewashed and thatched; her door, not five feet high, was painted virgin blue. I knew that this was where I should be, for here were numerous genuine, traditional songs, many unrecorded. I soon arranged to live here, and Mary's house became my home for nearly six years (pages 253 and 257). At first sight, South Uist appears to the stranger as a somber and desolate waste, but its melancholy beauty casts a strange en chantment. Long fjords cut between a noble range of magnificent hills. On the skyline lies the dark isthmus, with thatched houses standing like haystacks on the rim of the world. Beyond them the lonely Atlantic stretches all the way to Labrador. Screaming sea gulls overhead sail the con stant wind. It is difficult not to put one's house in the path of every storm that rages. "Fast moves the husband of the thriftless wife on the machair of Uist."* Fair enough in summer, in winter it is open to the Atlantic, bleak, windswept, cold, with out a wall for shelter. Thatched Cottages Now Disappearing Mary MacRae's cottage was in a small vil lage of thatched houses. Four new cottages were so-called "white houses," built partly by grants obtained from the Department of Agri culture for Scotland. These are now replacing the thatched cottages. The thatched house differs in each island of the Hebrides. On one, the houses are very long with rounded ends, having the cattle under the same roof but with a separate door and partition for them. Not very long ago many of the houses had the fire in the center of the floor, the smoke eventually finding its way out through a hole in the roof. Such a house has one advantage, for "to gather round the fire" can be taken literally, and there is room for all. Moreover, the vent is usually so constructed that rain seldom puts the fire out. The smoke hangs in the rafters until it finds the hole. It is more comfortable to sit on a low stool so as not to be in the cloud. My landlady's cottage had been such a house, but she had had the initiative to put chimneys at both ends and erect partitions, *Machar, or machair, a plain by the sea.