Eilean Uaine Thiriodh: Beatha, Òrain agus Ceòl Ethel NicChaluim
The Green Isle of TireeThe Life: Songs and Music of Ethel MacCallum

Margaret Bennett with Eric Rice
ISBN 978-1-907676-49-9

Contents | CLÀR-INNSE


The purpose of this publication has been three-fold: to bring together a collection of Ethel MacCallum’s compositions; to publish them in a format that will be useful to singers, musicians and teachers; and to record the life-story that underlies her creativity and therefore enriches the understanding of those who sing or play music. While the collection will hopefully make a fine contribution to the repertoire of traditional singers and musicians, in the context of Ethel’s life, however, the compositions illuminate an extraordinary biography, which has taken several years to write. The CD accompanying this book is intended to aid singers and musicians learning Ethel’s compositions. It is our hope that, besides the singers who share Ethel’s joy of singing, instrumentalists will equally enjoy playing her music.

The research is largely based upon four decades of tape or digital recordings of conversations, songs and music, as Ethel’s voice was already well known to BBC Gaelic broadcasters and to former colleagues at the School of Scottish Studies. Thankfully, in 1973 she was recorded ‘in her prime’ by Ian Paterson (1916–1990), who retired in 1983, months before my own appointment at the University of Edinburgh. It was not until after my retirement from ‘the School’, however, that I heard Ethel’s voice or met her – the moment is imprinted in my memory, though it seemed so ‘by chance’: in October 2000 I happened to be in a crowded hotel room in Dunoon at an informal ceilidh hosted by the inimitable Morag MacDonald for BBC’s Mire ri Mòr. The fresh young Mòd prizewinners had sung to great applause when Mòrag invited Ethel from across the room. A pin-drop silence ensued as Ethel’s clear, strong voice seemed to convey something more than a song – we were listening to a singer who understood that “music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” (Berthold Auerbach, 1812-1882)


Coinnichidh caoimhneas do mhàthàr thu nuair nach coinnich i fhèin thu.
[Your mother’s kindness will meet you when she herself cannot meet you.]

Ethel was born in Glasgow on January 6, 1937. Unlike most children who love to listen to stories of childhood or about their grandparents’ youth, Ethel enjoyed no such privilege. Instead, this was an account that had to be pieced together over many years, till Ethel could eventually look back on her early life and view it from the best possible position, the present.

Ethel’s mother, Agnes, lived with her widowed mother, Jessie, in a tenement near Glasgow Cross. Like many women of her time, she was a domestic servant and no stranger to hard work. While Agnes spent long hours cleaning big houses, communal stairs and closes, her mother cared for her little boy, born on “the wrong side of the blanket”. When Agnes broke the news that she was going to have a second child, however, the thought of gossiping neighbours was more than her strict, Presbyterian mother could tolerate. In a heated outburst, “for the sake of the respectability” she was shown the door and given no option but to leave.

Though Agnes had four sisters who had all left home and married, only one of them, Ethel, proved to be a friend in her time of need. Without hesitation Ethel and her husband took Agnes in, though they lived in one of the side-streets of the Calton, an area known for cramped, deprived housing conditions. As it happened, Ethel could empathise with her sister, for she too had been forced to leave home in less than ideal circumstances. Ethel had fallen in love with Peter, a Roman Catholic, and when she wanted to accept his proposal of marriage her mother was outraged. Ethel was told to end the relationship immediately or get out. Those were uncompromising times, but Ethel and Peter married and remained devoted not only to each other but also to their belief that such prejudice must have no place in their lives or in new generations. When the time came, Ethel took her sister to the Maternity Hospital at Rottenrow where Agnes gave birth to a little girl. Not surprisingly, she was named Ethel after her special aunt, though the joy of holding a new baby was to be short-lived.

It seemed out of the question to ask Ethel and Peter to continue sharing their home with a second family, especially as they were starting out in marriage and hoped to have children of their own. Agnes tried hard to obtain maintenance from the baby’s father, but to no effect. With little choice but to approach ‘The Parish’ for assistance or find work, the best option she could see was to give up her baby for the sake of her little boy. The Glasgow Corporation dealt with the arrangements: Agnes would return ‘home’ to be with her son, while the little sister he never saw would be placed in an orphanage. Things would be ‘back to normal’ except for the fact that when Agnes returned to work she would have to take the wee lad with her until he was old enough to go to school. The Granny-sitting service was apparently no longer available, so the boy was to experience a side of life that few pre-schoolers see. Many years later Ethel was to hear what it was like:

He remembers there was a great sadness in the house and that his mother cried a lot, but of course the little boy wouldn’t know why… She used to take him to work with her and he had to sit on the stairs of wherever she was working. She worked for Barr’s Irn Bru – in the big house of whoever owned Barr’s Irn Bru. The little fellow went with her and he had to do what he was told … be quiet, read a book or something. Maybe that’s where he learned the great love he has of reading, and his love of books – and years later he became a published author.

Meanwhile, Ethel was in care in the austerity of a Glasgow orphanage. When she was nine months old, however, life took a turn for the better. She was placed with foster parents, and, from all accounts, it seemed as if this would be the ideal home for a little girl.

I went to Cullen in Aberdeenshire … to a couple who had a son of their own and obviously wanted another child. I can remember a big man coming in for his dinner. I remember a little boy playing with me and I remember a kindly lady. I remember going for walks with them and something very strange, as far as memories are concerned – I can’t but wonder why this particular image has stayed with me: We were going out into the country for a walk when we came to an old cottage and the door was open. There was nothing in it except an old dresser and I can remember that sitting on the dresser were two jam jars and they weren’t the glass jelly jars, they were stoneware. Isn’t it that strange that I remember that?

While the rest of the world was caught up in a war that was to affect every household, for the first few years of it Ethel’s foster home seemed blessedly unaffected. Alas, however, the peaceful, carefree days were numbered:

I remember going to school. I remember a kindly home and it couldn’t have been bad because bad things stay with children they remember… So it was a great mystery to me what could possibly have happened. When I was six years old, I came back to Glasgow and had to start again with the Glasgow Corporation.

On November 19, 1943, without any warning, the contentment and security of a happy home was suddenly gone.

What a mix up for a young child to be sent from pillar to post and not know what would happen next. And knowing my own nature I’m quite sure I would have wondered at the time “What have I done wrong? Was it me they didn’t like?”

With nobody to explain what had happened or to reassure her, it would be unreasonable to expect a child to respond in any other way. The reason behind the change in circumstances in her foster-home may never be known, though it could have been due to the stressful effects of war on so many families – call-up papers, rationing, sudden illness, infirmity, domestic strife or bereavement. In terms of officialdom, however, the placement was seen to have become unsuitable.

Arriving in Glasgow there was no warm welcome and no friendly faces, far less family:

I ended up in this children’s home and I hated it. I would pity any child that ended up in it. It was very strict. If you didn’t like your porridge then you got it at dinner-time. I don’t remember a lot of it because I’ve blanked it out. I didn’t like getting my hair washed. They just pulled and hauled at you and there was no kind word. You were just there. You were a botheration. You were a nuisance.

The daily routine may have suited the care-home staff but it certainly did not suit Ethel. Nevertheless, looking back she gives due credit to Glasgow Corporation for making sure that the children were warmly clothed, schooled and fed. Glasgow was in the grip of war, especially as the Clyde shipyards had become prime targets. Ethel remembers being drilled in the use of gas-masks and how to respond to the sound of the siren as they were marched into air-raid shelters. Though she knew nothing of the devastating effects of the Clydebank blitz of 1941 or the more recent bombing raid of March 1943, she sensed the terror of war every time the siren sounded:

I can remember the fear, the terrible fright. I have memories of all the noise and getting us into an air raid shelter... and I was frightened of that and for a long time afterwards, just terrified of loud noises. Perhaps they were kind enough that night taking us to the shelter though we were cold and hungry. All we could do was wait in the shelter for the all-clear to sound. But I remember to this day, after that particular raid, when we came out, we were taken back to the home, but it wasn’t suitable for us to stay in it.

The wartime efforts to keep children safe saw thousands of children removed from the cities to the safety of the countryside. Such a massive operation of evacuation could not happen overnight, as safer homes had to be located and arrangements made. As hundreds of families were separated, little ones clung closer to their mothers, who, in many cases would also be evacuated. Understandably, for little ones with no parents it was infinitely more traumatic:

We were taken to another place, which seemed to be a hall and our belongings seemed to be there. Then, bit by bit, the children were moved and we ended up in this big house. Nothing much had changed though perhaps the beds were a bit more comfortable. And then some of us were told, we were going to a place called Tiree – we found later that we couldn’t go back and live in the home.

Children in the orphanage, to whom days seemed as long as months, felt that the evacuation process took ‘forever’. Many years later, however, Ethel was to discover that ‘forever’ was only a matter of a few weeks. As the actual date was December 7, 1943, it now seems remarkable how quickly the City of Glasgow Corporation succeeded in evacuating children to safety.


Cha do dhùin doras nach d’ fhosgail doras.

[No door ever closed, but another opened.]

One of the most unsettling aspects of the evacuation was the absence of any explanation or reassurance that someone would look after the children. From the day she left the orphanage, however, her story unfolds through vibrant personal memories rather than her more recent efforts to research family background.

Though we were told that we were going to Tiree, they never told us where Tiree was – they told us nothing about the place. I think it was terrible how they treated the children – couldn’t they just have sat down and said “We’re going to take you to this nice place?”

No! “We’re going to Tiree” (wherever that was), and we were put on the train.

There was a crowd of children and Nurse MacDonald, who was nice to us really, she was there with us – with tea and the soggy sandwiches! [laughs] I remember the commotion of going on the train because there wasn’t just us, there were other children going to other islands.

I can remember a boy and a girl who were with us on the train and they were very well dressed with nice school caps on. They looked a bit different from us – I don’t suppose they looked just so woebegone. What had happened was, they shouldn’t have been on the train at all! They weren’t one of us. So when the train stopped, I assume at Crianlarich, two very irate parents came on and took these children away. Gosh I envied them. I still wonder about them to this day, where did they go and who were they?

Our journey carried on to Oban – I think it was a Wednesday. We traipsed across the hard wooden boards from the train to the platform, by then tired and half asleep. Where on earth were we going now? Then we got to a boat. I’d never been on a boat before, but I can remember being on the ‘Hebrides’ – the old S.S. Hebrides. We sprachled up the gangway, just a ladder in those days, but what was even more frightening was that the crew didn’t speak English – there was this strange language, even in the commands from the Captain. All the crew had Gaelic in those days – that was the first time I heard Gaelic but nobody thought to explain to us. So we thought we on a foreign ship going to a foreign land and the only one that was speaking English was this Nurse MacDonald. But seemingly she was full of Gaelic as well! It was all quite frightening to young children more or less couped out of their beds and put on a train and sent God knows where.

It was a wild day. I don’t remember being sick but I do remember it was a very rough day. I’d never seen the sea in my life, and here I was bobbing about like a cork in the water, on a boat with men and women talking a strange language. And I remember the big stove in the middle of the floor, on the deck – the hard decks and the hard floors and the hard seats. A strong wind was blowing and I was cold. And you had nobody. Adequately clad? Yes. I think that’s one thing about the Glasgow Corporation, I think we were well enough clothed. I had a wee case with my clothes and a Bible, and a savings bank book.

Well eventually we got to the pier at Scarinish, a long pier. It was a wild, wild day and I remember them carrying us down the gangway. I remember these big men with their yellow oilskins and their sou’westers and their welly boots. They were very kind to us, right enough. Lifted us off the gangway – we were just tiny little things. They possibly had a job keeping the ship at anchor if the ropes were threatening to break. It was just a case of getting people off, hurry up and whatever else.

And we walked up this big, long pier – the Tiree pier was not as long as it is now, but quite long in those days. And there we were like drowned rats, standing on the pier at Scarinish, wet, cold and all very frightened – and all these people talking that language, the same as we heard on the boat. Then, lo and behold, there, on the pier was a Glasgow taxi! I couldn’t believe it! There were other cars too and some of the children were ushered into them, but I was put in the Glasgow taxi. And then they distributed us throughout the island, wherever they had names of people that were looking for children, families who’d like to foster kiddies. And the nurse had the addresses – she knew where she was going, right enough.

Throughout this memorable tour of the island the children had no idea if this was to be a short-term measure, for the duration of the war, or whether it could be for life:

I think a lot of them were there for the war, and yet an awful lot of them never went back, they were there till they’d leave school. Some of the children were there for just the duration of the war and then they went back to their parents. Local people had volunteered to care for these children and I think they got paid for it from the Glasgow Corporation. They also got clothes given, so they never had to buy any clothes for them. They didn’t get much – the recompense they got was very little but I suppose it fed the children. Apparently every three months there would be so many children come to Tiree but I’m not very sure how that worked.

Huddled together in the taxi or one of the other cars, the children were filled with anticipation of finding a new home and family. They had no idea of how a decision was reached, but as the vehicles stopped along the way and Nurse MacDonald got out of the taxi, they began to get the idea: it was a matter of choice. Silently, anxiously they watched Nurse MacDonald in conversation at each door, then return to the vehicles accompanied by an adult. The evacuees sat in silence, as one by one they got out and headed for their new home. Ethel began to wonder what her fate might be:

They went round all these houses and folk came out and had a look at you, and walked away. And I was last in the taxi – I felt terrible! Though I didn’t like the children’s home, I began to wonder if maybe I would have been better staying where I was. Possibly this wee lassie looked like a waif, you know. But I really think it was meant to be – I believe today that it was in God’s hands because this lady came to the taxi, and she’d such a lovely kind face. Apparently they had had a [foster] boy who had died while he was a young man in his twenties – John. So they wanted a boy for the croft to replace John. And I arrived on the scene, and I became the boy for the croft. I’ll never forget it. There was a light in her face – I’ll always remember her face. I felt so reassured even before she spoke. This was a lovely person, somebody that I could trust and I did. There was something about her – she was such a very good Christian lady. And she took me by the hand, saying ‘Coiseach comhla ruimsa’. [Come along with me.]

Though the ‘lovely lady’ also spoke Gaelic as she smiled and offered her hand, the ‘strange language’ suddenly took on an entirely new significance in Ethel’s young life.

... More


Preface | Ro-Radh
Acknowledgements | Buidheachas
Introduction | Facal-toisich
Ethel | Ethel
Evacuation | A’ gluasad
A new Home | Dachaigh ùr
Growing up in Tiree | Ag èirigh suas ann an Tiriodh
Inveraray | Inbhir Aora
The Next Ferry to Tiree | An Ath Aiseag a Thiriodh
A taste of Home | Blas na Dachaigh

The Songs, Tunes & Stories

01. Mi Nam Shuidhe aig an Teine
02. Eilean Ì
03. Air Madainn Diardaoin
04. Banrighinn a’ Chuain
05. An Cridhe Tùrsach
06. Cogadh Mòr Na Roinn Eòrpa
07. Gus am Bris an Là
08. Inveraray Loch Fyne
09. My Highland Home
10. Catrìona Òg an Òr Fhuilt Bhuidhe
11. Stàball Bhetlèheim
12. Catherine Anne MacCallum’s Wedding March
13. Our Broken Dreams
14. Leaving Shira Glen
15. Colorado Wedding
16. Goirtean Dòmhnaill
17. Eilean mo Mhiann
18. Seòl an Iùbhrach
19. Eilean Uaine Thiriodh

Audio Resources for Teaching and Learning
CD: Home to Argyll with Ethel MacCallum