Another important source for us was song. Tiree has a real reputation for locally composed Bàrdachd and has had that for many, many generations, and it’s still a feature in the island. And the work of bards, again, would introduce values and events, personalities and so on, that reflected very much contemporary issues, almost like a contemporary newspaper would do. And there’s one township in Tiree, the township of Balephiul, which earned for itself the nickname Baile Nam Bard, the township of the bards, because practically every household had someone who could make a song and people got to be a little wary of going to this township in case they put a foot wrong and someone composed a satire about them and so on. And indeed satires were composed! We still know them, the people are still known to us long after their deaths because of being encapsulated in one of these songs. And song also proved to be an important source for us in understanding not just the mores and so on of the community but, for example ... People very soon, especially when they learned I was from Canada, began to speak about Canada as being a destination for emigrants in the nineteenth century. In the main, contact had been lost with families who emigrated, not in all cases but ... So there was not very much precision about where the people had gone to in Canada and if you look at the records, census records and farm records and so on, in Canada, the documentary source doesn’t tell you very much either. It might tell you that someone was born in Scotland or maybe born on the ocean, born to an immigrant couple who were crossing over and so on. There isn’t very often a precise place name, township name or island name, for example, given. But I was very keen to discover where these Tiree people had gone and ... There were some clues, place names in songs composed in the nineteenth century and one of them was a song composed by a man who had emigrated to Manitoba. We knew he’d gone to Manitoba and he composed it on New Year’s Day, 1880, and he sent it as a letter to relatives in Canada and he also sent it as a letter to relatives in Ontario. And there’s a reference in this song to a cockerel, a Kincardine cockerel, who’d lost his virility and as a result of his shortcomings they didn’t have much poultry on the table. But Kincardine is a place name in Western Ontario and that gave me a place to start and I wrote to the editor of the local newspaper and just said I was interested in people from Tiree and wondered if readers of the newspaper had ... any of them had family connections with this island and the Hebrides and I’d be glad to hear from them if they did. This was a weekly newspaper and it took a little while for answers to come but when they started to come they came in quantity because that had been the focus for quite a major settlement in the middle of the nineteenth century but it wasn’t the first. There had been an earlier one and there was this later one with the focus on Manitoba, thousands of miles west. But as a result of that clue in a song I was able to actually start doing fieldwork in Canada and then build up a picture of this whole mass of emigration that started in the nineteenth century and went into the twentieth.

  • Margaret Mackay
Thursday 17th June 2010