A voyage through the School of Scottish Studies

9 May 2012 in Ian Stephen Blog

When I set off across The Meadows for George Square, I didn’t realize I was on a voyage back through stages of life and tiers of friendship. There was the Edinburgh Review and former Polygon office. I was mentally back to a meeting there after receiving a letter from one Peter Kravitz saying yes Polygon did want to publish my collection of poems and it would be part of new international list once a formal merging with Edinburgh University Press went through. It was difficult not to see the tall figure of Hamish Henderson when walking this territory. You can see a bronze bust in Sandy Bell’s bar and another at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Hamish’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenica was re-issued by EUSPB – the student press which became Polygon and the work is still available now from Polygon-Birlinn. I was proud to be on the same list and we did share some arranged readings and impromptu exchanges of yarns.

But of course Hamish had parallel careers as a translator and collector of folklore as well as a poet and writer of a small number of songs which can range from the scurrilous exercise of wit to the enormous scale of the Freedom Come All Ye. I was guided through the archival systems by Cathlin Macaulay and before long there was a reference in my hand which related to a recording made by said Mr Henderson. It related perfectly to a play I’ve got under construction – but not the direct subject of last week’s research.

A shoal of stories. Sir E Scott School.

It’s very like fishing. I was soon into a shoal. Most of the stories held in the archive are summarized in short paragraphs which themselves are fine examples of storytelling. You can then access the oral recording, originally on reel-to-reel machines and now also available as digital files on computer. And who should I meet at the fishing but Deirdre not of the sorrows – the MacMahone woman who organized a wonderful recreation of Gaelic psalm singing over the waters of Loch Erisort, last May.

Deirdre was looking to the north coast of Scotland for authentic links to recorded material. I was seeking versions of key stories in the Morrison manuscript – transcriptions of oral tales made in the 1800s.

Here are some findings:

I have already retold, in these columns, Morrison’s version of the story of the wise factor from Skye and the loss of a cow and boat. In 1958 Angus Cameron from Skye recorded exactly that story for the School of Scottish Studies. It is astonishing how similar even the sketched detail is. But even the English synopsis of this Gaelic recording provides a name for the wise factor.

Morrison records a strong version of the sinking of the galleon at Tobermory, linked to a tale of intrigue and the legend of Lady’s Rock, off Lismore. In 1953, Calum Maclean recorded one Captain D MacCormick describe a tradition which contains a detail of this gunpowder plot.

The story of the three knots which can control the wind ranges around the coasts of Scotland, east, north and west. Morrison lists one which describes the visit of a crew from Heisker, off North Uist to Lewis. In 1962 D A Macdonald recorded Donald Maclellan from Tigharry tell a version which runs very close. Now the Morrison manuscript was not republished until 1975 so the evidence points to an unbroken telling of seminal stories over several centuries. More of these stories later.

For more information about Ian visit his website at www.ianstephen.co.uk

© Ian Stephen, 2012