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Storytelling in the Gaelic Tradition – Sgeulachdan à dualchas na Gàidhlig

The Scottish Storytelling Forum (SSF) is a membership organisation, dedicated to keeping the art of live oral storytelling alive and growing in Scotland – a diverse network of storytellers and individuals supporting Scotland’s vibrant storytelling community. It’s facilitated by Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland (TRACS) and based at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

The SSF blog series hopes to introduce you to the many different strands within the storytelling scene in Scotland and beyond.

This month, we hear from Ruairidh Maclean who tells stories from the Gaelic tradition in both English and Gaelic. Cluinnidh sinn bho Ruairidh Mac’illeEathain à Inbhir Nis am mìos seo. Bidh Ruairidh ag innse sgeulachdan à dualchas na Gàidhlig ann am Beurla agus ann an Gàidhlig

‘Tha cuimhne agam o chionn bhliadhnaichean gun robh mi ag èisteachd ri buidheann de bhodaich anns an Eilean Sgitheanach, a bha ri crac is seanchas fad ùine mhòr, agus iad nan suidhe ann an cròileagan fo stiùir an uachdarain, Iain Noble. Bha mi air mo bheò-ghlacadh leis na sgeulachdan is naidheachdan a bh’ aca, agus iad air an aithris ann an Gàidhlig bhrèagha, nàdarrach. Bha mi a’ faireachdainn gun robh mi ann am fìor thaigh-cèilidh dhen t-seann nòs. Abair gun robh e tlachdmhor!

‘I couldn’t help but start my blog in Gaelic, for it is a special language to me. Not only a tongue of land, people and nation, but indisputably a language of stories. We have an immense heritage of tales, legends, anecdotes (and utter barefaced lies!) in Gaelic, and it is to our shame as a country that we have allowed both the language, and the storytelling heritage of the Gaelic people, to fall into the weak position it now occupies. On the other hand, that rich well of material we can draw upon is inspirational and gives us an immediate helping hand. One feels like a child about to leap into water for the first time, a parent’s warm hand in the small of one’s back, and the sense that they will help propel us headlong, and at speed, into a new challenge. A bit like the young Fionn MacCumhail being taught to swim by his stepmother – but that’s a story for another day!

‘I have felt for some time that we need many more of us to leap into the rich, deep pool of the traditional story heritage. It has been instructive to me, over the years, to tell a tale of the Fianna, or perhaps of Deirdre (she of the Sorrows), to clients in my ‘Gaelic Awareness’ courses throughout Scotland. We share this heritage with the Irish (whose language is a sister tongue to our own), and virtually every Irish person in my groups, be they from Northern Ireland or the Republic, has known of these tales. Why? Because they get them in school. Because they’re proud of their heritage.

‘On the other hand, the native-born Scots, and many Gaelic speakers among them, are almost entirely ignorant of these tales today (I would reckon less than 10% of my clients had even heard of them, let alone heard one told). And that in a country where the redoubtable Bishop John Carswell roundly criticised the people for being more interested in telling heroic legends than in appreciating and recounting the sacred gospels! We may look at our loss of identity and intellectual subjugation as being among the factors that have brought us to this sorry state. Bishop Carswell might have added (with a sigh of relief) ‘religion’, but I’m not so sure.

‘All, however, is not lost. Story collectors, mostly working in the 19th and 20th centuries, have left us with a wonderful legacy of collected tales, both in print and now, increasingly, in digital format. The Tobar an Dualchais website is a godsend (if I might use that term, Bishop!)

‘And there are some among us who have been lucky enough to grow up in an environment where Gaelic stories were being told regularly and who themselves have continued the tradition. They’re thin on the ground today, but I’ve been lucky enough to hear some of them recount their tales. I can’t say I sat at their knees, but I did sit in the same room.

‘People like the recently deceased Dr. John MacInnes, and Donald Archie MacDonald, both great collectors and tellers of tales – delivering them melodically in the most wonderful, rich Gaelic imaginable. I recall sitting with the late Donald Angie Maclean of Scarp in his home in Sleat in front of a crackling fire when he recounted historical figures as if he had known them. In the storyteller’s way, of course, he had. And there are the great traveller storytellers – Alec John Williamson and Essie Stewart – inheritors of the traditions of the master wordsmith, Ailidh Dall, and the generations that went before him and told their stories in the bow-tent or around the fire.

‘Not that I ignore or discount those who tell their tales in English. Not at all – I have listened to, and enjoyed, tale-weavers from many parts of the world who relate their stories in English. And, indeed, those who tell tales from Gaelic tradition in the English language.

‘And that brings me to the exciting Ignite Project, in which I am currently involved as a Gaelic Fellow – a post funded by the Scottish Book Trust and Gaelic Books Council. I wanted to encourage the Gaels, particularly young folk, to re-engage with their own ancient hero tales in a meaningful way, and to give them a sense of ownership of their heritage. One way to do that is to retell some of these ancient legends in modern Gaelic, with vocabulary and idiom that is accessible to the population at large. It’s all very well having a story collected by John Francis Campbell, or one of his team, that is in beautiful, complex, archaic Gaelic that was probably old-fashioned in the 1850s. But unless these tales are on the lips of Gaels today, then the heritage, while rich and praiseworthy, is a dusty artefact that belongs in the realm of academia, and not in the everyday lives of the ordinary people.

‘My task is to take some of the hero legends of the Fianna and other heroes and heroines, and refashion them in a way, and in language, that is readily understood by teenagers and young adults, so that they can engage with them and enjoy them. To that end, I have been working with a superb mentor who tells stories from Gaelic tradition, but in English, as he was not brought up a Gaelic speaker. He is George MacPherson of Glendale on Skye – a well-kent figure to those who have been attending the Scottish Storytelling Centre over many years. To me he is Seòras nan Sgeulachdan ‘George of the Stories’ – and what a collection he has!

‘George had already been thinking it would be nice to have some of his stories converted back into the Gaelic in which they originated – so I came along at the right time! He heard most of his repertoire from Gaelic speakers, people like his great-uncles in Ardnamurchan (many of his tales come from Ardnamurchan, Skye and Mull), and they in turn learned them in the original tongue. On some occasions, when George was a young lad, a story was told to him in Gaelic and instantaneously translated by a bilingual relation so that he would understand it in English. George has a prodigious memory and he has been adding to the collection in his head since childhood. When I say to him, ‘George, do you have a story about such-and-such?’, the answer, delivered with a modest and gentle smile, is invariably, ‘Oh, yes, I have several …!’ For the seeker of treasures of the narrative tendency, George is a veritable goldmine!

‘At the end of the project, I will be able to make available some stories from our tradition, told in modern Gaelic, that I hope will be used by teachers, parents, students and others – in written form, so that people can read them and use them for inspiration in their own creative writing or to inform their own contributions to the art, literature, understanding and presentation of Scotland.

‘But I hope they will also be used and promulgated orally, so that we can breathe new vitality into this genre of stories, and into the art of storytelling in the Gaelic language. I dream of a new generation of storytellers going out and being ambassadors for our heritage, so that the people of Scotland once again understand that they are inheritors of a wonderful tradition that should be celebrated and enjoyed.

‘Agus ’s e sin mo sgeul!’

Read and listen to some of Ruairidh’s stories for Gaelic learners on ‘An Litir Bheag’ Website
and ‘Litir do Luchd-Ionnsachaidh’ Website

Ruairidh will also be contributing a story to our new Gaelic storytelling podcast series, Sgeul is Seanchas, which will be launched next month.
Bidh Ruairidh cuideachd ag innse sgeulachd dhuinn airson ar sreath phod-craolaidhean ùr, Sgeul is Seanchas, ri thighinn an ath mhiòs. 

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