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EVAN MACCOLL—THE "BAED OF LOCHFYNE."
During a visit last year to Canada the writer had the great pleasure of spending a few days with Evan Maccoll in his happy home, Kingston, Ontario. The agreeable impressions made upon him, and the manner in which he enjoyed himself with " Clarsair nam Beann," or the "Mountain Minstrel," and his interesting family, is already known to the reader. While it would be agreeable again to go over the same ground, our purpose at present is to give a sketch of his career, from his youth upwards, as a man and a poet; and with that object we must, without further preliminaries, proceed.
Evan Maccoll was born on the 21st September 1808 (not 1812, as stated in "The Beauties of Gaelic Poetry"), at Kenmore, Lochfyne-side — a farm situated on the banks of that famous Loch, about five miles west from Inveraray, Argyleshire, and at the time in the joint occupation of several tenants, the poet's father, Dugald Maccoll, being one of them. The bard, who was the youngest but one of a family of six sons and two daughters, was fortunate in having for his father one who, in addition to many other excellent qualities, was famed far and near for the possession of the richest store of Celtic song of any man living in his part of the country. His home became, in consequence, the common resort of those in the district who delighted in such things, and long and frequent were the winter ceilidhs at his house to listen to him singing Gaelic song after song—especially the Jacobite lays of such favourite minstrels as Alairi nighean Alastair Buaidh, Alexander Macdonald, and Duncan Ban Macintyre, every line of whose compositions he could repeat from memory, and in a manner well calculated to attract and captivate the rustic audience congregated round his hospitable fireside. He had a keen and genuine appreciation of the beautiful and the grand in the natural scenery which adorned his native land; and it was charming to hear the bard relating his recollections of how, when a mere boy, his father had made him familiar with the best positions in the neighbourhood of his home from which to view to advantage any scene of more than ordinary attraction— a circumstance which, no doubt, tended to implant in the mind of the future poet that love of Nature which afterwards found such mellifluous expression in his "Address to Loch Lomond;" his " Sonnets descriptive of Lochawe," which appeared in these pages; his "Loch Duich," and many more of his most beautiful and best descriptive poems.
Dugald Maccoll, possessed of a manly presence, fine personal appearance and great natural intelligence, was received among, and lived on close terms of intimacy with, men who moved in a sphere of social life far above his own, and was in consequence able to procure the use of books, otherwise quite inaccessible, for his children; for Parish Libraries in those days were things undreamt of. Nothing delighted him more than to see the patriot flame fanned iu the bosom of his young family by the perusal of such books as Blind Harry's Metrical Life of Sir William Wallace, the Life of Hannibal, Baron Trench's Autobiography, and other works of a similar character. He was descended from an old family— the Maccolls of Glasdruim—a family in which resides, it is said, the chiefship of his clan, and a small but heroic branch of the race of Somerled of the Isles. He possessed superior natural endowments—physical as well as mental—and was reputed to be altogether as fine a specimen of the Highlander as could be found in the whole county of Argyll in his day. Ho delighted to wear the Highland dress, and continued to do so at least as a holiday dress, long after it had ceased to be so used by any other of the adult population of his native parish.
Hi his mother, Mary Cameron, a daughter of DomhnuH mor a Gharbhchoirra—in his day a man of considerable mark in the district of Cowall —the bard was scarcely less fortunate. She was noted for her storehouse of traditional tales, legendary and fairy lore, and withal she was thoroughly familiar with her Bible, and led a life of much active benevolence; and for her memory the bard cherishes the most tender filial feelings and affection. She is also said to have been somewhat of an improvisatrice, and her leanings in this direction, coupled with her frequent exercise of the gift, gave a bent and tone to the boy mind which time, an ardent soul, and carefully directed thought have fully developed, if not perfected in the man.
John Mackenzie, in his " Beauties of Gaelic Poetry, and Lives of the Gaelic Bards," informs us that the poet's "parents, although not affluent, were in the enjoyment of more comfort than generally falls to the lot of Highland peasants; and were no less respected for their undeviating moral rectitude than distinguished for their hospitality, and the practice of all the other domestic virtues that hallow and adorn the Highland hearth." Of the bard himself, with whom he was intimately acquainted, the same writer says :—" At a very early age he displayed an irresistible thirst for legendary lore and Gaelic poetry; but, from the seclusion of his native glen and other disadvantageous circumstances, he had but scanty means for fanning the latent flame that lay dormant in his breast." He "however greedily devoured every volume he could procure, and when the labours of the day were over, would often resort to some favourite haunt where, in the enjoyment of that solitude which his father's fire-side denied him, he might be found taking advantage of the very moonlight to pore over the minstrelsy of his native country, until lassitude or the hour of repose compelled him to return home." The same author continues:—"His father, Dugald Maccoll, seems to have been alive to the blessings of education; for as the village school afforded but little or nothing worthy of that name, he, about the time that our bard had reached his teens, hired a tutor for his family at an amount of remuneration which his slender means could scarcely warrant. The tutor's stay was short, yet sufficiently long to accomplish one good purpose—that of not only enabling Evan properly to read and understand English, but also of awakening in him a taste for English literature. A circumstance occurred about this time which tended materially to encourage our author's poetic leanings. His father, while transacting business one day in a distant part of his native parish, fell in with a Paisley weaver, who, in consequence of the depression of trade, had made an excursion to the Highlands with a lot of old books for sale. Maccoll bought the entire lot, and returned home groaning under his literary burden, which Evan received with transports of delight. Among other valuable works, he was thus put in possession of were the "Spectator," 'Burns's Poems,' and the 'British Essayists.' He read them with avidity, and a new world opened on his view; his thoughts now began to expand, and his natural love of song received an impetus which no external obstacles could resist. Contemporaneous with this literary impulsion was the artillery of a neighbouring Chloe, whose eyes had done sad havoc among the mental fortifications of our bard: he composed his first song in her praise, and, although he had yet scarcely passed the term of boyhood, it is a very respectable effort, and was very well received by his co-parishioners."
The means taken for the publication of this first effort, as related to us by the poet himself while his guest in Canada, is worth telling. The bards were not at the time held in high esteem in his native district, and this fact, of which he was well aware, coupled with the subject and nature of the song, made him unwilling to make it known even among his most intimate friends. He, however, felt conscious that his effort possessed some small merit, and was anxious to submit it to the local critics, which he did in the following manner :—Taking into his confidence a young friend, who was an excellent song-singer, Evan taught him his first attempt, without however letting him so far into the secret as to name the author. The same evening a ceilidh " of lads and lasses" was held in the house of a poor widow who lived rent-free on the farm of Kenmore—that on which our bard was born—and Evan's friend engaged to sing the song during the evening, while the bard decided to remain outside, and hear, through the chinks and crevices with which the walls of the primitive domicile was pretty freely riddled, not only the singing of the song but the criticism which was sure to follow. His nerves were strung to the highest pitch, waiting the result, which to him was of the utmost consequence. The song was sung; it was received with loud and unanimous applause, and its unknown author, whom every one became anxious to discover, was praised without stint. Evan heard the whole; he felt himself a bard, and became supremely happy, and the genius of which this was the firstfruit broke forth from that moment with the result so well known to the lovers of genuine poetry throughout the length and breadth of the land, wherever Highlanders are located, and to all of whom the name of Evan Maccoll is long since a household word
Of his educational opportunities in early life the bard, in a letter recently received from him, gives the following interesting account:—
"My earliest schoolboy days were spent in a most miserable apology for a school existing quite close to where I lived, and conducted by a dominie of whose scholastic acquirements you may judge from the fact that he was content to be paid for his services at the rate of £10 per annum, besides board and lodging—the last being secured to him at the expense of a constant round of house to house billeting, one day at a time for each child attending school Here, in a building little better than a hovel, and wherethediscipline was such as I even nowshudderto thinkof, I first learned to master the ABC, the ab abs, and so forth. This important preliminary being once through, I, in common with all little ones of similar standing, were made to grope our way through the Shorter Catechism—the English version, mind you—for to be taught at that stage of our progress to read a word of Gaelic was a thing never dreamt of. So much for our First Book of Lessons 1 Our next was the Book of Proverbs, then the New Testament, and afterwards, the Old—all in English, of course, and the samo as Greek to most of us. These were followed by some English Collection, or it might be Goldsmith's History of Eome, on the part of children whose parents could afford to buy such books; and where that could not be done, I have known an odd volume of Dean Swift's writings doing duty instead! Last of all came in the Gaelic Psalm-book for such of us as might wish to attain to a knowledge of reading our native tongue. When it is considered how very little English any of us knew, I think it must be allowed that a total reversal of all this would have been the infinitely-more sensible procedure. In those days, and in such schools, a boy caught speaking a word of Gaelic was pretty sure to be made to mount the back of some one of his sturdier schoolmates, and then, moving in a circuit around the master, tawse in hand, get his hips soundly thrashed. You may well guess what a terror was inspired by such a mode of punishment in the case of little urchins wearing the kilt, as most, if not all of us, then did. Another barbarous mode of forcing us to make English our sole vehicle of speech at school was, to make all trespassers on that rule carry on their breasts, suspended by a gad made to go round the neck, the skull of some dead horse! and which he was by no means to get rid of until some other luckless fellow might be overheard whispering a word in the prohibited tongue. How Highland parents, with the least common sense, could approve of all this is to me now inexplicable. Little wonder if, under such circumstances, we could often devoutly wish that the Saxon and his tongue had never existed! It is to be hoped that no such foul, short-sighted means of killing off my good mother tongue are still allowed to exist in any part of the Highlands, If it must die— though I see no good reason why it should—let it have at least a little fair play in the fight for its life.
"The nearest Parish School being separated from my father's house by a considerable extentof rough moorland, which made his children's attendance there a thing scarcely to be thought of, it was lucky for me that, after picking up all the little knowledge possibleat the school justdescribed, myfather, while on a visit to some relations in Appin, there fell in with and engaged as a teacher in our family a young man, to whom I am indebted for almost all the education, worthy of the name, ever received by me during my schoolboy days. My worthy tutor had been for several years a teacher under the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in the Highlands, but was, at the time of making this engagement with my father, waiting for a promised situation as book-keeper in one of Mr Malcolm of Poltalloch'8 estates in Jamaica, to which island, after a year spent with us, he went, and where within a period of two short years he died. Poor Alexander Mackenzie Macleod—for that was his name—was a man of rare, ripe Celtic scholarship—a man who well merited being held by me in most loving remembrance."
Maccoll's mind is of a peculiarly delicate and sensitive texture, and the strongest impression of his early childhood still remaining, he informs us, is his recollection of his extreme sensitiveness to pain inflicted on any creature even among the lower animals. This characteristic peculiarity of his nature made the day usually set apart for killing the "Mullag • gheamhraidh," or any other occasional victim necessary to furnish the household with animal food, to him a day of special horror and anguish,
On all such occasions it became necessary to send him out of the way until the necessary proceedings were over. It led him also, often at the expense of much rough treatment from boy companions older than himself, to become a regular little knight-errant in the defence of his favourite wild birds and their brood from the harrying propensities so common to most boys; and a lapwing could not more successfully wile away from her nest the searcher after it than ho often did from their mark the would-be-despoilers of some poor robin's cuach, as yet undiscovered by them. With a boy so constituted, we may well believe him when he writes in his poem on "Creag-a-gharaidh," given to the public a few years ago, that
These were the days a planet new
Would joy its tinder less than there I
Myself alone in Creag-a-gharrie.
Like most Highland boys brought up in rural life, Maccoll was early trained to all the various duties and labour incidental to that sphere of life—the spade, the plough, and the sickle being, for many years, implements far more familiar to him than the pen. The herring fishing season in Lochfyne was also to him for several years of his early manhood a period of more than ordinary activity—himself and his wherry, "Mairi Chreag-a-gharaidh," the praises of which have been already sounded in excellent Gaelic verse in these pages, being generally foremost in opening the fishing campaign, and seldom missing a fair share of its spoils. And, further, his father, in addition to the labour demanded by the cultivation of his small holding at Kenmore, was seldom without a road contract of some kind or another on hand, generally the making or repairing of roads within the policies of the Duke of Argyll at Inveraray. During the last ten years of the father's residence in Scotland, before emigrating to Canada, in 1831, he held a contract for keeping a considerable stretch of the county roads in repair, to which he confined himself exclusively in that particular department. These repairs were usually carried on during the winter, and the bard and his brothers had to work along with the other labourers employed; thus making the whole year to them one unceasing round of hard and active labour. The bard was thus employed for several years—years however during which many of his best Gaelic lyrics were composed.
Through the influence of Mr Fletcher of Dunans, and Mr Campbell of Islay, Evan Maccoll obtained an appointment in the Liverpool Custom House, a situation which he continued to hold until he emigrated to Canada, as we shall hereafter describe.
We shall next deal with his literary labours and his career in Canada, after which we shall give extracts from an interesting diary kept by him during a tour in the Highlands in 1838-39, a copy of which we are fortunate enough to possess. A. M (lo he Continued.)
The Bistort Op Clan Chattan, by Alexander Mackintosh Shaw, is about ready for delivery to Subscribers.