Nearly two hundred years ago at Lochbuie on the Isle of Mull –
“Let the reader picture to himself a winter night in a Highland cottage seventy years ago. The fire is in the middle of the floor, and the smoke rising from it escapes through a short funnel of wicker-work stuck in an opening in the roof. In a corner, called the peat corner, is a pile of peats, from which the fire is from time to time replenished. Over the fire hangs a pot, which is attached to a chain suspended from one of the cross-beams.
On one side of the room is a box-bed, and on the other is a dresser fitted with racks in which plates stand on edge with their hollow sides outwards. Elevated on a table, with the shell-like lamp or the torch-like grey candle near him, sits a tailor cross-legged, who, while he plies his needle, recites one of the popular tales of the country. Every chair, and stool, and chest, and even the box-bed, are occupied by eager listeners, many of whom have gathered in from the neighbouring cottages.
The night is often well advanced before the tale is finished, and if it be too long to be finished at a single sitting, it is resumed on the following night. This scene is repeated night after night during the tailor’s stay in the township.
Such is the manner in which the winter nights were wont to be spent in the Highlands within the memory of men still living. It is so no longer, except, perhaps, in some sequestered corner of the Outer Hebrides. The coming in of new ideas from the South, the extension of education, the dissemination of the Scriptures and other religious books, and the influence of ministers of religion, has turned the minds of the people into other channels”. [Source: Waifs & Strays of Celtic Tradition: Argyllshire Series No II: Folk & Hero Tales: Rev. D MacInnes]
The tales composing this collection were taken down at intervals during the 1881-82 years from the dictation of Archibald MacTavish, shoemaker, Oban.
MacTavish, who was in his seventy-fourth year by the time that our joint labours were over, was a thoughtful, modest and respectable man. A native of Lagan, Lochbui, Mull, he heard these tales in his youth from a tailor in the name of Hugh MacLachlann, who resided in his neighbourhood.
MacTavish and I were in the practice of beginning our work at 11am and keeping at it till 3pm with only an interval of twenty minutes for luncheon. I took down a tale every day that we met, except “Koisha Kayn” which took up two days. There was a time when popular tales received scant favour. They were looked upon as idle tales and old wives fables, fit only for amusing children and peasants. All this has passed away, men of light and leading recognise now the importance of these venerable relics of antiquity and feel honoured in having their names associated with them.
I feel proud that, more than 100 years later, Archibald’s contribution to this book is forever kept alive, perhaps in an antiquarian shop, waiting for a discerning buyer; tucked away in an obscure section of a library or floating in cyberspace, where I first found it.
But, most of all, I think of a brave man, who showed such fortitude to narrate these tales in Gaelic, while suffering from cancer of the stomach.
An avid listener, how he must have enjoyed those nights, the tales forever ingrained in his memory.
Did he in turn become the storyteller, on summer nights at the Oban waterfront, surrounded by grandchildren, nephews, nieces and neighbourhood children all eager to hear the folk lore of a bygone era?