In 1859-60 John F. Campbell and a couple of selected friends went on a mission to collect and preserve for posterity the Popular oral folklore of the West Highlands and Islands. The criteria for storytellers was that they be illiterate and a speaker of only Gaelic. This meant the stories obtained would be pure unadulterated oral traditions passed down through the generations. As Campbell says, in his exceptionally well-rounded and thorough introduction,
“I have received assistance from other clergymen of various persuasions, including the Rev. Thomas Pattison in Islay. I am happy to have it in my power to mention such names; for the strange idea possesses the people in many districts, that to repeat the most harmless sgeulachd is a grievous sin, and that fables, and poems, and novels of every sort ought to be put down and exterminated, because they are fictions.”
As the Highlanders were known to be a very pious religious people it was deemed most productive to lay it before them that their acts of storytelling were sinful superstitious actions that would lead them to the fiery pit on their demise. This was the same tactic used by many of the religious prelates of the Clearance era. They would tell the people it was for their sins they were being forced out of their ancient glens and valleys. This wouldn’t have worked had they not been a completely devout Christian population, yet claims from the Clearance-apologists would have you believe they were the most backward of Pagan barbarians. The aim of the 1616 Education Act (Scotland) was to ensure that
“the vernacular English tongue be universally planted, and the Irish language, which is one of the chief and principal causes of the continuance of the barbarity and incivility amongst the inhabitants of the Isles and Highlands, may be abolished and removed.”
Part of this was the quashing of the telling of Gaelic tales as it continued the language instead of aiding in it’s eradication. There were already plans in action for the incorporating Union of 1707 and it was felt by the establishment that the population of the island could only be of use if they were solely English speakers. The 1616 Act was furthered and compounded by the 1696 Education Act (Scotland), the purpose of which remained
“for rooting out of the Irish language.”
The Rebellions of 1715 and 1745 also inspired the Acts that also denied Scots the right to wear anything that could be considered national dress and carry weaponry, at a time when it was a necessity in most, if not all, of the world’s countries to be able to defend yourself. The effect of the Acts as regarded clothing is outlined in the small note at the bottom of this page. It’s the 1st of only 2 wee notes included at the very end of volume 4.
So the West Highlands and Islands had been particularly targeted in the couple of centuries leading up to Campbell’s project which became very quickly the commendable task of saving these stories, as told by the last survivors of the extirpation of the Gaelic race, from extinction. Of the people from whom he obtained his stories he says,
“I found them to be men with clear heads and wonderful memories, generally very poor and old, living in remote corners of remote islands, and speaking only Gaelic; in short, those who have lived most at home, furthest from the world, and who have no source of mental relaxation beyond themselves and their neighbours.”
Of the stories he says,
“Those, then, who understood Gaelic, thought popular tales unworthy of notice; those who did not understand Gaelic, could know nothing about them; and there are many now living in the Highlands, who speak Gaelic and yet believed, till they searched at my request, that stories had become extinct in their districts.“
The last 6 scans are of my second copy of ‘Popular Tales’ volume 4. I obtained it purely because I was a fan of the cover design and I wasn’t able to purchase the other 3 volumes of that edition. The pages are very rough cut and the binding is wanting to start coming apart so I don’t work from that edition.
[Vol. 1 Contents]
[Vol. 4 Contents]