MEMOIR OF THE LATE JOHN
GREGORSON CAMPBELL, MINISTER OF TIREE.
[The following Memoir is
chiefly from information given by Mr. Campbell's sister, Mrs. Wallace of
Hynish, thanks to whose unwearied and sympathetic assistance it was that
the previous volume in the series, 'The Plans,' was made ready for and
passed through the press, and that the present volume has been selected
and put together from the mass of the material left by the author].
JOHN GREGORSON CAMPBELL
was born at Kingairloch, in Argyllshire, in the year 1836, the second
son and fourth child of Captain Campbell of the Cygnet and of Helen
MacGregor, his wife. The fondness for study, the devotion to his native
literature and lore, which were such marked features of his life, and
which earned for him an abiding reputation as a Gaelic student, would
seem to have been his by birthright. His maternal grandfather was an
ardent Gael, as may be judged by the letters that passed between him and
Dr. Mackintosh. On his mother's side he was descended from Duncan
MacGregor, 13th in direct descent from the first MacGregor who settled
at Roro, in Glenlyon, Perthshire, whilst through a paternal ancestor he
traced back to a race that had had dealings with the `good people,' and
on whom a bean shith had laid the spell `they shall grow like the rush
and wither like the fern' (fasaidh iad mar an luachair 's crionaidh iad
mar an raineach).
The house of his birth on
the shores of Loch Linnhe was small and lonely, and when he was three
years of age his parents removed to Appin. His childhood was that of
many young Highlanders. From earliest boyhood he attended the parish
school in the Strath of Appin, walking daily with his older sisters the
long stretch that separated it from his father's home. He loved to
recall his early schooldays, and their memory was ever dear to him. He
had learnt more, he was wont to say in after years, at that school than
at all his other schools put together. And on the hillside and along the
valley, traversed twice daily, he drank in a love for and knowledge of
nature in all her manifestations that remained to him as a priceless
possession throughout life. At ten he was sent to Glasgow for further
schooling, passed first through the Andersonian University, and went
thence to the High School, preparatory to entering College. We have
interesting glimpses of him at this period. He seems to have been a
dreamy, quick-witted but somewhat indolent lad of whom his masters said,
`if Campbell likes to work no one can beat him'; hot-tempered too, as
Highlanders, rightly or wrongly, are credited with being. The only
Highlander in the school, he had doubtless much to put up with. His
Glasgow schoolfellows had probably as little liking for Highlanders as
Baillie Nicol Jarvie himself, and many were the petty persecutions he
had to endure. He has himself related how he suffered several hours
imprisonment for fighting another boy `on account of my country.' Like
all who are steadily bilingual from early youth he recognised how
powerful an intellectual instrument is the instinctive knowledge of two
languages, and was wont to insist upon the aid he had derived from
Gaelic in the study of Hebrew and Latin. To one familiar with the
complex and archaic organisation of Gaelic speech the acquisition of
these languages must indeed be far easier than to one whose first
knowledge of speech is based upon the analytic simplicity of English.
From the High School he
gladly passed to College, where a happier life and more congenial
friendships awaited him. He had many Highland fellow-students, and at
this early date his love for the rich stores of oral tradition preserved
by his countrymen manifested itself. He sought the acquaintance of good
story-tellers, and began to store up in his keenly retentive memory the
treasure he has been so largely instrumental in preserving and
After leaving college he
read law for awhile with Mr. Foulds. In his lonely island parish he
later found his legal training of the utmost assistance. Many were the
disputes he was called upon to settle, and, as he has recorded, few
there were of his parishioners who needed to take the dangerous voyage
to the Sheriff's court on a neighbouring island. At once judge and jury
his decisions commanded respect and acquiescence. At this period, and
for some time previously, his interest in and mastery of Gaelic
lengendary lore are shown by the fact that he acted as Secretary to the
Glasgow University Ossianic Society, founded in 1831 by Caraid nan
Gaidlieal, and still flourishing.
His thoughts and
aspirations had early turned towards the church, and in 1858 he was
licensed by the Presbytery of Glasgow. But suffering as he then was from
the effects of inflammation of the lungs, the result of a chill caught
in his student days, and the effects of which were perceptible
throughout life, he was forbidden to preach for six months. The
interval, spent in recruiting his shattered health, was profitable to
his growing zeal for folk-lore studies. In Ayrshire or at Blair Athole
he showed himself a keen and sympathetic collector of floating oral
In 1860 he accepted the
appointment to the united parishes of Tiree and Coll from the Duke of
Argyll, and took up the work which was to occupy the remaining thirty
years of his life. It is to be wished that a sphere of activity more
commensurate with his abilities had been accepted by him, as when he was
offered the assistantship of St. Columba, Glasgow, and he seems at times
to have felt as much. But such thoughts were certainly no hindrance to
the performance of his duty, interpreted in the largest and most liberal
sense. He was the guide and counsellor of his flock, who turned to him
with unfailing confidence for advice, exhortation, or reproof. An
amusing instance of his parishioners' belief in his capacity may be
cited ; a sailor lad from Tiree got, as sailor lads will, into some row
in Spain and was marched off to jail. He took the matter
philosophically, remarking, 'so long as the minister is alive I know
they can't hurt me' (bha fhios agave cofad's a bha'm ministear bee nach
robh cunnart domh). The esteem and affection in which he was held by his
parishioners were cordially reciprocated by him. He is reported as
saying that nowhere could be found a more intelligent community than the
Duke's tenantry in Tiree, and in the preface to Volume IV. of the
present series he bears witness to the knowledge, intelligence, and
character of his informants.
We do not go far wrong in
conjecturing that the minister's zealous interest for the preservation
and elucidation of the native traditions was not the least potent of his
claims upon the respect and love of his flock. How keenly the Highlander
still treasures these faint echoes of the past glories and sorrows of
his race is known to all who have won his confidence. Unhappily it has
not always been the case that this sentiment has been fostered and
turned to good account by the natural leaders of the people as it was by
John Gregorson Campbell.
In the guidance of his
people, in congenial study, in correspondence with Campbell of Islay and
other fellow-workers, specimens of which will be found in the appendix
(infra 138), time passed. His mother died in 1890 at the manse, and his
health, for long past indifferent, broke down. The last years of his
life were solaced and filled by the work he prepared for the present
series. At last, Nov. 22nd, 18g i he passed from his labours and
sufferings into rest, the rest of one who had well earned it by devotion
to duty and to the higher interests of his race.
In person Campbell was
tall and fair, with deep blue eyes full of life and vivacity. He was
noted at once for the kindliness of his manner, and for the shrewd
causticity of his wit. The portrait which serves as frontispiece is
taken from the only available photograph, and represents him in middle
HIS WORK AS A FOLK-LORIST.
The Gaels of Scotland
cannot be accused of indifference to the rich stores of legend current
among the people. From the days of the Dean of Lismore, in the late 15th
century, onwards, there have not been wanting lovers and recorders of
the old songs and stories. Unfortunately, in the i8th century, a new
direction was given to the national interest in the race traditions by
the Macpherson controversy. I say unfortunately, because attention was
thereby concentrated upon one section of tradition to the neglect of
others equally interesting and beautiful, and false standards were
introduced into the appreciation and criticism of popular oral
literature. Valuable as are the materials accumulated in the Report of
the Highland Society, and generally in the voluminous literature which
grew up round Macpherson's pretentions, they are far less valuable than
they might be to the folk-lorist and student of the past, owing to the
misapprehension of the real points both of interest and at issue. Two
generations had to pass away before Scotch Gaelic folklore was to be
studied and appreciated for itself.
To Campbell of Islay and
the faithful fellow-workers whom he knew how to inspire and organise,
falls the chief share in this work, belongs the chief honour of its
successful achievement. The publication of the Popular Tales of the West
Highlands was epoch-making, not only in the general study of folk-lore,
but specially for the appreciation and intelligence of Gaelic myth and
romance. No higher praise can be given to John Gregorson Campbell than
that his folk-lore work is full of the same uncompromising fidelity to
popular utterance, the same quick intuition into, and sympathetic grasp
of popular imagination as Islay's. His published work has indeed a
somewhat wider range than that of Leabhar na Feinne and the
Popular Tales of the West Highlands, as it deals also with those
semi-historic traditions, the nearest equivalent the literature of these
islands can show to the Icelandic family sagas, which Islay excluded
from the two collections he issued. The following is a complete list, so
far as can be ascertained, of the published writings of John Gregorson
Campbell, in so far as they relate to the legendary romance, history and
folk-lore of Gaelic Scotland.
HIGHLAND MONTHLY. Vol. I.
No. to. p. 622, Introduction, &c.
WAIFS AND STRAYS OF
Argyllshire Series, No.
I.: The Good Housewife (p. 54-69). Argyllshire Series, No. IV.: The
Fians: or Stories, Poems, and Traditions of Fionn and his Warrior Band.
Collected entirely from oral sources. 1891.
IN presenting his
material to the English reader Campbell may profitably be compared with
Islay. In few ways was the work of the latter more fruitful than in his
mode of rendering Gaelic into English. It is impossible, for instance,
to look at the work done of late by the distinguished Irish folk-lorists
who are adding a new chapter to Gaelic romance, at the work of Douglas
Hyde and W. Larminie and Jeremiah Curtin, and not recognise how much in
point of colour and tone and smack of the soil their translations excel
those of the pre-Campbell generation. Islay may, at times, have pushed
his theory of idiomatic fidelity too far, occasionally where he aims at
a rendering he achieves a distortion, but as a whole the effect of
strange, wild, archaic atmosphere and medium is given with unerring—one
would call it skill, did one not feel that it is the outcome of a nature
steeped in the Gaelic modes of conception and expression, and bold
enough to invent the English requisite to give an adumbration of them.
For indeed the speech of the Popular Tales is a distinctive variety of
English, deserving study both from the philologist and the artist in
words. Islay himself never handled this speech to better effect than did
John Gregorson Campbell in the fine tale, for instance, of Sir Olave
O'Corn (Gaelic Soc. of Inverness, Vol. XIII.), or in the Nuileartach
(Waifs and Strays, Vol. IV.), though as a rule he keeps closer than
Islay to the ordinary standard of English expression. Readers of this
volume cannot fail to note the exceeding skill with which the pithy,
imaginative turns of thought, so plentiful in the original, are rendered
into English. The reader is at once taken out of nineteenth century
civilisation, and, which is surely the first thing required from the
translator, by the mere sound and look of the words carried back into an
older, wilder, simpler and yet, in some ways, more artificially complex
life The difficulty of rendering Gaelic into English does not lie in the
fact of its possessing a rude simplicity which the more sophisticated
language is incapable of reproducing, but rather in that, whilst the
emotions and conceptions are close to the primitive passions of nature
in a degree that our civilisation has long forsworn, the mode of
expression has the richness of colour and elaborate artificiality of a
pattern in the Book of Kells. To neglect the latter characteristic is to
miss not only a salient feature of the original but to obscure the
significance of a dominant factor in the evolution of Gaelic artistry.
That Campbell, like Islay,
felt the paramount necessity of endeavouring to reproduce the formal
characteristics of his Gaelic text is certain; like Islay, he too, had
the true scholar's regard for his matter. To put down what he heard, to
comment upon what he found, was his practice. It seems obvious, but many
collectors neglect it all the same. Nor in his essays at interpretation
is he other than in full sympathy with his subject. He not only
understands but himself possesses the mythopoeic faculty, and if this is
endowed with a wider knowledge, a more refined culture than belonged to
the Gaelic bards who first gave these songs and stories their present
shape, or to the peasants and fishermen who lovingly repeat them, it
differs in degree only, not in kind. It may be doubted that the framers
of the Afuileartach consciously embodied the conceptions which Campbell
has read into the old poem (Waifs and Strays, IV. pp 131-135), but I
think it certain that he does but give shape with the precision of a a
higher culture to ideas which, with them, never emerged from the stage
of mythic realisation.
THE PRESENT WORK.
MOST of the matter
contained in the present volume had been partially, if not definitely,
prepared for press by the author. The choice and arrangement are largely
due to his sister, Mrs. Wallace, his devoted fellow-worker. Still it
must not be forgotten that we have here a collection of posthumous
remains which have not enjoyed the benefit of the author's final shaping
and revision. But it has been judged best by the editors of the series
to preserve these remains substantially as they were left, with a
minimum of indispensable revision. The volume may lose in other
respects, but it is, at all events, the work of the author and not of
his editor friends. The latter have felt that regard for the genuineness
of Mr. Campbell's text was the first of their duties towards his memory.
This volume thus
represents the contents of Campbell's note-books rather than provides
such an ordered collection of material, bearing upon a particular
section of Gaelic folk-lore, as he has furnished in the preceding volume
of this series. But for this very reason it yields better evidence to
the wealth and variety of Gaelic popular tradition. A large portion of
the book is local legendary matter, and is closely analogous to what the
Icelandic Sagas must have been in one stage of their development, a
stage overlaid by the artistry of a greater school of prose story
tellers than ever took the sagas of Gaelic Scotland in hand. Professor
York Powell has well analysed the phase through which such stories as
those of Burnt Njal or Egil Skallagrimm's son must have passed before
they reached the form familiar to us. He describes the popular narrator
working up a mass of local, fairly authentic detail about his hero,
running it into a conventional mould, and then fitting the result into a
scheme of wider historic scope. The Gaelic matter preserved alike by Mr.
Campbell in this volume and by Mr. MacDougall in the first volume of the
series has not got beyond the local anecdote stage, though, as in the
variant forms of the tale of the Grizzled Lad and MacNeill (p. 5, et
seq.), we can see the conventionalizing process at work, accentuating
certain details, discarding others, with the view of transmuting the
blurred photographic variety of life into the clear-cut unity of art.
But the process is rudimentary. It is strange that this should be so
considering the wealth of conventional situations that lay ready to the
hand of the Gaelic story teller in the highly elaborated sagas of
Cuchulainn and of Finn, for the purpose of moulding the achievements of
historical Campbells, MacLeans and MacNeills, into a satisfactory
artistic form. Such convention as is apparent in these scraps of sagas
is related to that of the folk-tale rather than to that of the great
heroic legends. An interesting example is afforded by the story of Mac
an Uidhir. This may well have a basis of fact, indeed Campbell cites an
actual analogue, but it has been run into the shape of an ordinary
separation and timely-recognition folk-tale. Other instances will
present themselves to the reader and afford instructive study of the
action and reaction upon each other of folk-life and oral narrative
Any fresh addition of
moment to the considerable recorded mass of Scottish local historic
tradition increases the wonder that material of such vigour and
interest, full of the clash of fierce primitive passion, rich in
character, should have had so little literary outcome. '1'he stuff is
not inferior to that of the Icelandic tales, but instead of a first-rate
contribution to the world's literature we have only a chaos of unworked
up details. Yet during the time that these implanted themselves and took
shape in the popular memory, Gaelic story-tellers, elaborating and
perpetually readapting the old mythic and heroic traditions of the race,
were producing narratives of rare and exquisite charm. Perplexity is
intensified if, as Professor Zimmer maintains, the Norsemen learnt the
art of prose narrative from the Irish and developed the great school of
Icelandic story telling on lines picked up in Gaeldom. Certain it is
that the Irish annals, relating the events of the 3rd to 9th centuries,
which assumed their present shape sometime in the 10th to the 12th
centuries, contain a large amount of historic narrative that is closely
allied in form and spirit to the contemporary Scotch Gaelic sagas. There
is the same directness of narrative, the frequent picturesqueness of
incident, the pithy characterisation; there is also the same failure to
throw the material into a rounded artistic form, and, most curious of
all resemblances, the conventions at work distorting historic fact are
those of the folk-tale rather than of the national heroic epos. I would
cite in this connection certain episodes of the Boroma [The Boroma, the
story of the tribute imposed upon Leinster by Tuathal Techtmar in the
second century and remitted in the sixth century, has been edited and
translated by Mr. Whitley Stokes, (Rev. Celt.) and by Mr. Standish Hayes
O'Grady in Silva Gadelica.] (in itself an admirable example of the
failure of Gaelic story tellers to work up into satisfying form very
promising historical material) such as that of Cumascach's visit to
Brandubh, or again many passages in the stories about Raghallach and
Guaire. The whole subject is, as nearly everything else in the record of
Gaelic letters, fraught with fascinating perplexities. The present
writer can but here, as he has so often done before, make a big note of
interrogation and trust that Gaelic scholars on both sides the water
will consider the problem worth study, and succeed in solving it.
I note those points which
interest me as a student of tradition in general, and of Celtic
tradition in particular. For most readers these scraps of local history
derive their chief value from the vivid light they flash back upon the
past, from the evidence they yield of the wild, fierce—I had almost
written savage—life from which we are separated by so few generations.
Some there may be to mourn for the past. Not a few Highland landlords
will possibly regret the good old days when the MacLean planted his
gallows in the midst of the island of Tiree, and the last comer with his
rent knew what awaited him (p. 13). Truly a more effectual means of
getting in the money than by writ which the sheriff cannot execute.
The remainder of the
volume comprises matter more upon the usual folk-lore lines; much,
familiar already but valuable in the good variant form here recorded,
much again novel, like the curious tale of the Princess Tyra and her
lovers. Taken in conjunction with the author's previous volume in this
series on the Finn tradition as still living in the Western Highlands,
the whole offers a faithful picture of the imagination, memory, and
humour of the Gaelic peasant playing round the old-time beliefs, stories
and customs handed down to him from his forefathers.
I append a list of the
chief informants from whom Mr, Campbell derived the material contained
in Vol. IV. and V. of the Argyllshire series of Waifs and Strays of
Malcolm MacLean, Kilmoluaig, Tiree.
Hugh MacDonald, do. do.
John MacLean, (bard), Balemartin, Tiree.
Hugh Macmillan, (tailor), Tobermory.
Angus MacVurrich, Portree, Skye.
Duncan Cameron, (constable), Tiree.
Allan MacDonald, Mannal, Tiree.
Donald Mackinnon, Balevoulin, Tiree.
John Cameron, (lain MacFhearchar), Balevoulin, Tiree.
Archibald Mackinnon, (Gilleasbuig ruadh nan sgeirean dubha), Tiree.
Donald Cameron, Ruaig, Tiree.
Donald Macdonald, Mannal, Tiree.
Malcolm Sinclair, Balephuil, Tiree.
John MacArthur, (tailor), Moss, Tiree.
Duncan MacDonald, Caolis, Tiree.
Neil MacLean, (the elder), Cornaig, Tiree.
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