Margaret Bennett: Scottish Folklore Collection
Codroy Valley, Newfoundland 1969–2009

Legacy of Allan MacArthur: Traditions Across Four Generation

To the memory of Allan MacArthur (1884—1971), whose inspirational legacy comes from his unfailing loyalty to the language and traditional culture of his own people; and to his wife, Mary (MacDonald) MacArthur (1896—1975) who radiated kindness and wisdom in her companionship.


Here’s a health to the traveller who left Scotland!

For the traveller crossing the Atlantic on a northern route from Scotland to North America, the first sighting of land is Newfoundland. For Scottish emigrants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, it was not the first port of call, particularly for Highlanders exiled during the infamous Clearances, that began in the 1740s and lasted till the late nineteenth century.

‘The Rock’, as some affectionately call the island, was settled in the seventeenth century by Irish, English and French fishermen harvesting codfish. The Irish knew it as ‘talamh an èisg’—land of the codfish—as it was the currency of the island for centuries. To this day, strong influences of all three peoples can be heard in tunes and instrumental styles, songs and speech patterns and can be seen in dances. Less well known, however, is the history or folklore of the Scots who now make up a mere one percent of Newfoundland’s population.

The Codroy Valley on the west coast became the final destination for a close-knit group of Gaelic-speaking immigrants who came, not for the lucrative fishing, but simply for a piece of land on which to make a living. Official histories of their time give little or no detail about them or their experiences, but they themselves kept alive their history, culture and Gaelic traditions for several generations. Today, the common language is English, but if you visit the Valley you can still sense the Scottish Gaelic influences in the way of life, as well as in the music, songs, and dances.

You may even catch the occasional turn of phrase in everyday conversation. The cèilidh still has its true meaning (literally, a house-visit) just as it did a hundred and fifty years ago, and a cup of tea is still an essential part of it, although the language now spoken in the kitchen is different.

All the songs, stories and tunes in this album originate in the kitchen of a first-generation Newfoundlander, Allan MacArthur. He was born in 1884, raised in the old homestead, and up grew to be the seanchaidh of his generation, as his mother had been before him. When he died, he left behind a priceless legacy of tradition, celebrated here by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Intensely proud of their Gaelic roots, they weave new songs and music into the old style as they keep alive the traditions of the cèilidh, or ‘kitchen party’ as some now say.

Allan MacArthur’s grandparents were among the emigrants who sailed to ‘America’, as they called the entire continent in those days. His paternal grandfather was a MacArthur from the Inner Hebridean Isle of Canna, his maternal grandfather was a MacIsaac from Moidart and his grandmother a MacDonald from Glengarry. Like countless Highland emigrants, they left behind the hardship, poverty and post-Jacobite oppression that blighted the Gaels. They set sail with little but hope and faith, perhaps materially impoverished, yet in possession of one the richest stores of oral tradition in the world.

When they eventually received land-grants in ‘the Garden of Newfoundland’ they were thankful to accept the challenge of carving out a living, clearing land for farming, and adapting to a new climate, landscape and neighbours speaking French, English or Mi’kmaq. At the same time, they retained the old Gaelic ways, particularly those connected to language and culture. Every aspect of life had songs connected to it, from their daily tasks such as milking, churning and spinning to the gentle lulling of the baby to sleep each night. When daylight faded, their evening entertainment was the taigh cèilidh (house visit) where neighbours would gather and nobody noticed the hours pass. Beside the kitchen stove, usually knitting or plying some craft, they could travel the world, listen to adventures of soldiers, sailors, pirates and smugglers, or stories about ghosts, fairies and witches. They could reminisce, recite genealogy, tell of local characters, the witty and the wise, the foolish and the strong. Sometimes the whole evening would be devoted to songs, music and step-dancing, depending on the company and the general atmosphere of the visit.

This was the world into which Allan MacArthur was born and in which he grew up, absorbing every available aspect of Gaelic tradition. He had a phenomenal memory, which he attributed simply to ‘the schooling I got from God,’ adding respectfully, ‘and anything my mother told me, I never forgot.’ Anyone privileged to have listened to him as he spoke of historical events in the Highlands, told his stories, sang Gaelic songs or quoted poetry, can be thankful to have been in his presence.

In 1952, when the Celtic scholar, the late Professor Kenneth H. Jackson of Edinburgh University, described attributes of the ancient Gaelic bards of Scotland, his words could equally have applied to an outstanding tradition-bearer such as Allan MacArthur:

In general, they were men of high intelligence and keen minds, passionately interested in tales, widely educated in the oral learning of the Gaelic race...Their minds were not cluttered with all the miscellaneous rubbish with which we burden ours, and they were not in the habit of pigeon-holing knowledge in the form of written notes and forgetting it till it is wanted again, as we are.

By the late 1960s when I first met Allan MacArthur, he had long been regarded as the most knowledgeable Gaelic speaker and cultural custodian in the Valley. He was in no doubt that, whatever he knew about his culture, he had learned it the same manner as his parents and grandparents before him.

In 1913 Allan married Cecilia MacNeill with whom he had four children—Lewis, Jim, Frank and Loretta. At the age of 24, sadly his young wife died after the birth of their baby daughter. Allan’s mother was a godsend in helping to look after the children, till in 1923, he married Mary MacDonald. Frank reflected. “We were so lucky, you know,” for she was the kindest, gentlest woman you could meet. Allan and Mary had seven children—John, Martin, George, Margaret, Dan, Sears and Gordon—and raised all eleven children in an entirely Gaelic-speaking household. [CD 2, track 10] Naturally, prayers and daily devotions were in Gaelic and the children were also nurtured with song, music, dancing and all the traditions of their people.

The local priests could all speak Gaelic, but, as in Scotland, it was the policy of the Newfoundland Education department to employ monoglot English-speaking teachers. Even after Confederation with Canada in 1949, the province was relatively late in providing schooling for all children. Though it was still common in the sixties to meet Newfoundlanders who had never been to school, Allan and Mary (typical of the Scots) were, for their generation, well educated. Their own children followed the pattern, knew how to work hard, sing, dance, play music and, not least, to share the faith of their forebears.

The Clan MacArthur crest is Fides et Opera, and although I never heard Allan himself talk of it, the younger generations proudly claim it. Not only is it a connection with their MacArthur roots in Scotland, but it is also a reminder of the example set by the family that nurtured them—‘faith and works’.

Allan MacArthur liked nothing better than to be surrounded by those who shared his love of Gaelic song, music and oral tradition. When I visited with my parents to ‘bring in the New Year’ at the beginning of 1970, it was evident from the welcome we received that Allan was moved to have ‘greetings from Scotland’ at this time of year that all Scots hold dear. He and my mother, Peigi, compared how they brought in the New Year in days gone by. As I listened and tape-recorded, I heard (for the first time in my life) about a New Year custom that had died out in Skye before I was born, though my mother (b. 1919) was quite familiar with it from her youth—Oidhche Challainn. (CD 2 Tracks 3 & 4) When Allan recited his rann [rhyme] he was as delighted as I was amazed to hear Peigi recite her version from Skye. Everyone in the company was in their element to be part of a real, old-fashioned cèilidh, the likes of which we had never seen outside Gaelic Scotland—and even there, much of what we experienced had already faded. Naturally a few songs and tunes were part of it and Peigi contributed, as did my father, George, with his life-long love of playing the bagpipes. The teapot was refilled several times, and, being New Year, there were the customary drams as you may hear from the recording—Slainte! There were toasts too, and Allan’s memorable remarks: “ I don’t think there’s any country in the world that can put down Scotland for their poetry—I don’t think so.” When we were leaving their house to step into the snow, Allan told us, “Well, I would like to see you coming every week.”

I mention this particular cèilidh, though we had many others, not so much because it marked a turning point in the year, but a turning point in my own life. Full force it struck me—still in my early twenties—how suddenly these old traditions can disappear if nobody passes them on. Sometimes circumstances outside our control can intervene. Two World Wars had managed to wipe out Oidhche Challainn in Skye because ‘nobody had the heart to visit’ when so many mourned the loss of husbands, fathers and sons. My own family is a point in case: there were four brothers at the start of the First World War, strapping young men, and only one, my grandfather, was left at the end of it.

Other times, however, there seems to be a mass oblivion of the factors that rob us of our heritage, especially those with silvered screens. As Allan MacArthur said, just a few years after the coming of electricity, “When the television came in the front door, the stories went out the back.” And, as everyone in the Valley knows, only strangers, (English-speakers in Allan’s), time knock on the front door, as family and friends use the back door beside the kitchen.

In that cèilidh Allan MacArthur demonstrated the importance of upholding the language as it is the vehicle that carries tradition from one generation to the next. Gaelic had been the language of all my mother’s family and she, like Allan and Mary’s children, had no English when she went to school. It happened, however, that my generation had to speak English at home, as it was commonly thought children ‘would get on better in life’ if they learned English, and we learned no Gaelic at school. With my mother we learned plenty of Gaelic songs, and a few phrases, but New Year 1970 showed me that this is not enough to maintain a culture. Thus, I determined to learn to speak Gaelic so I might at least try to follow Allan MacArthur’s example. I began my early recordings regretting that this could not be an all-Gaelic project because I was not fluent, then slowly realising that it might have been for the best—had I spoken Gaelic in the first place, perhaps I might have taken it all for granted and therefore missed it completely. Over these four decades I can truly say that neither my interest in, nor enthusiasm for, the culture and tradition fade over time—if anything, along with my affection for the family, they increase, thanks to that New Year spent with Allan and Mary MacArthur.

That said, traditional folk culture cannot stand still if it is to remain alive. Subtle changes in an old song or tune are a sure sign of life, for, as long as someone is singing it, playing it, then it lives. Allan’s older brother Murdoch, the song-maker of his generation, may have seen the writing on the wall when he began to turn his bardic talent to composing macaronic songs, mixing English lines with Gaelic. That way, everyone could join in or at least be amused. As often as not, however, only the Gael could catch the subtlety or punch line if there happened to be one.

There is no doubt that this ancient bardic strain, with its song-makers and poets, has continued through every generation right to the present day. Four generations of this remarkable family are represented here and although the language has now declined and been supplanted, it was not through choice: “That’s how things were, and it happened so quickly.” In his poem ‘Forgotten Roots’, Allan’s grandson, Brendan MacArthur, (Frank’s son) reflected in 2007 on the language shift since he left high-school in 1968:

“Ciamar a tha thu?”
He asked me with a smile;
Twas the first time I’d heard Gaelic
In a very, very long time.
“Glè mhath, glè mhath, chaneil mi’ gearan,”
I respectfully replied.
As he moved o’er the bench,
Bid me sit by his side,
“A bheil Gaidhlig agaibh?”
His eyes twinkled in a gleam.
“Tha mi ag ionnsachadh,” was my sad reply…

Translation: ‘How are you?’ … ‘Very well, very well, I’m not complaining’ … ‘Do you speak Gaelic?’ … ‘I’m learning it’ …]

Like his Uncle Murdoch before him, Brendan composes poems ranging across the spectrum—from amusing sit-com incidents to political, social and cultural issues, all grist to the satirist’s mill. And, like Murdoch, he sometimes weaves both languages into his poetry, even though the balance has long-since tipped to the point where English predominates.

What has not changed over the generations, however, is the need to sing, compose, play music and dance—it is as strong today as ever. Allan and Mary would be proud of the achievements of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, not only those represented here but others as well. In the new songs composed in English by the younger generations, listeners could not fail to be struck by how Allan MacArthur features in several of them while his influence can be sensed through most of them. The track-notes give details but the songs and the music speak for themselves, as does this one, composed by Allan’s grandson, Gordon:

Looking on MacArthur’s Island as many a time before
Brings back so many memories of home,
I remember Grandpa telling us of Scotland far away,
And praying to God he’d make it there some day.

Allan MacArthur never did see his beloved Scotland, though he lived and died as one of the finest Gaelic tradition-bearers either side of the Atlantic—teacher, singer, historian, storyteller, rhymer, piper, fiddler, accordionist, dancer, craftsman, fireside philosopher and friend. Newfoundland can be proud of Allan MacArthur and of the legacy he left. As three generations of his family return to their roots for ‘Homecoming Scotland 2009’ it’s time to recognise Newfoundland’s Gaelic custodian, Allan MacArthur, whose passion for his language—our language—and culture is an example to us all.

Margaret Bennett
Ochtertyre, Scotland, 2009

The Archive: Folklore Collection Codroy Valley, 1969–2009

CD 1: MacArthur’s Cèilidh

        • 1. Toast to Scotland,
        • 2. ’Illean Bithibh Sunndach
        • 3. Gura Bòidheach am Bàta
        • 4. Them songs came from Scotland…
        • 5. Hù a Hù Ailein Duinn
        • 6. Tom Dey, Calum Crùbach set
        • 7. Fear a’ Bhàta
        • 8. Tha Mi Sgìth
        • 9. Kitchener’s Army
        • 10. Gun Chrodh Gun Aighean
        • 11. Gathering to sing
        • 12. A Mhàiri Dhubh
        • 13. Òran an Tombaca
        • 14. O Cò Bheirinn Leam
        • 15. A Chailin Dhuinn (Frank)
        • 16. King George IV & Muillean Dubh
        • 17. Dominion Mine Strike
        • 18. This Loch Lomond here
        • 19. Farewell to Paddy LeBlanc
        • 20. Òl an Deoch air Làmh mo Rùn
        • 21. Allan’s toast to whisky
        • 22. Bha mi ’n Raoir ag Òl
        • 23. Mo Nighean Donn Bhòidheach 24. Big John MacNeill Set
        • 25. Allan’s Canntaireachd
        • 26. Frank’s MacPherson tune
        • 27. Canntaireachd for accordion
        • 28. Canntaireachd for The Smith
        • 29. Allan on pipes: Cock o’ the North set

CD 2: MacArthur’s Kitchen Party

        • 1. MacArthur’s Island
        • 2. Shamrock, Thistle and Rose
        • 3. Oidhche Challainn (Custom)
        • 4. Rann Challainn (Rhyme)
        • 5. Square Dance Set
        • 6. Christmas Down Home
        • 7. A Chailin Dhuinn & Miss Lyle
        • 8. Calvin’s Mandolin set
        • 9. Will You Marry Me?
        • 10. Allan & Mary on Gaelic & proverb
        • 11. Òran an t-Saighdeir
        • 12. Miracle of Christmas
        • 13. Ailein Duinn (2007)
        • 14. Tullochgorm
        • 15. Making moccasins and songs
        • 16. Oran nam Mogaisean (1970)
        • 17. Oran nam Mogaisean (2002)
        • 18. Last word on moccasins
        • 19. Cock Your Leg Up
        • 20. Gaelic Tongue Twister
        • 21. Dèan Cadalan Sàmhach
        • 22. Daddy’s Girl
        • 23. Miss Rowan Davies
        • 24. Tips Eve Jig
        • 25. Remember Home
        • 26. Cha Dèan mi ’n Obair
        • 27. Nach do Ghoid mi ’m Piatan
        • 28. MacArthur’s Kitchen Party
        • 29. Deoch Slàinte, Lord Lovat