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16 Dec 2020

A Canna Christmas

A close-up of a branch on a Christmas tree with three red baubles. The baubles have gold stars and swirls painted on them. Twinkling lights are in the background.
​Through material from the Canna archives, Margaret Fay Shaw’​s images and Fiona’​s own camera, learn about the local traditions, stories, food and song in the Hebrides, through the ages.

So, close your curtains, get yourself a glass of eggnog, mulled wine or cranberry juice and a mince pie, and immerse yourself in Christmas memories old and new. This special festive talk is accompanied by some lovely Gaelic Christmas songs as well as carols sung by Fiona herself.

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Canna House and Hebridean traditions at Christmas


Feasgar math agus Nollaig Chridheil dhuibh uile. Good evening and a very Happy Christmas to you all! My name is Fiona Mackenzie and I am the archivist in Canna House on the island of Canna. I thought it might be nice to involve you in some of the local Canna tradition, the traditions from Canna House, the music, the stories etc which are associated with Christmas.
A little insight into life in the Hebrides in the winter, particularly at Christmas time, but through the whole of the winter, both today and days gone past. I’m going to use some of the media archives, from Canna House to help to tell stories and I’m also going to give you some lovely Christmas songs. And just a general lovely Christmas experience, maybe some guest appearances from Canna residents today.
We’ll start with a little walk around Canna House garden, as it is in the winter. I hope that you enjoy that. Just pull up your chair, take your shoes off, get some eggnog or some pomegranate juice or whatever your tipple is, sit back and let’s go for Christmas.
So here we are in a rather wintery Canna House garden, I thought it might be nice to let you see what the garden looks like at this time of year. I’ve had to wait a few days to take this video because the weather’s been so bad but at least today it’s a little bit drier and there’s not too much wind so I thought I should just do it while I can. Liz and Pete, the gardeners, have been working very hard in the garden to prepare it for the rigours of all the storms during winter and they have been in particular on the escallonia tunnel, giving it a haircut. At the moment it looks a bit bare, but by next summer hopefully, you’ll be able to come and enjoy it when it’s at its best. There are still splashes of colour in the garden, the hydrangea there which normally I love because it reflects the colour of the saltire which should be at the top of the flag pole but we take the flag down for the winter because otherwise it would never survive. So there is still splashes of colour and you can still hear all of the birds and up there in the fruit garden they have been turning over the ground there for the strawberries. We’ve had quite a few storms already and this is only November but today’s nice.
Cats are still ok, they’re being very, very good at their social distancing! They’ll have to be going inside for the winter soon though. And there are still some nasturtiums out. These are my favourite rose bushes; they don’t look like them at the moment but they are beautiful, old-fashioned yellow roses in the spring time.
Then up to the vegetable garden, where Liz and Indie, who is working on Canna for a period of time, have been working hard providing vegetables for the community. The community bought the seeds and Liz and Indie have been growing them, so they have kept us supplied for the last few months with lovely cabbages, broccoli, leeks, tatties, beetroot and carrots. It’s been really lovely.
So just a wee moment of stillness. It might be winter but there is still a lot happens.
Well hopefully in the next few years you’ll be able to see the escallonia tunnel in all its glory. And speaking of glory, here’s a short video which was made in winter 2019 made by the Scottish Gaelic Awards for the symposium, which we had on Canna, which was nominated for Event of the Year and in fact won the category in the Gaelic Awards that year and they sent a videographer to come and capture the glory of Canna in winter.
We I hope you were able to understand that. I know that the text was in Gaelic but I hope that the subtitles helped you to enjoy that and the wonderful scenery too.
Winter on Canna doesn’t actually change very much through the years. We don’t get very much snow, owing to our proximity to the Gulf Stream, but we do get very bad wet and windy storms. So here are some of the films and photographs from the Canna archive, of Canna at all times of the year, but particularly winter.
We don’t really have much in the way of stories of Christmas on Canna itself from days gone by, other than a few diary entries describing delicious lobster Christmas dinners. John would even catch lobster in December when the weather was good enough.
But here is a flavour of what Margaret Fay Shaw’s Christmas was like on South Uist in the 1930s, taken from her book Folksongs & Folklore from South Uist.
‘Christmas Eve I walked with my Catholic Friends to midnight mass at Dalibrog. It was a long 5 miles in the dark, and as we made our way we went with a storm lantern around the slop at Carrisaval. You could see far away many tiny lights spread over the black machair towards church. Others joined us out of the darkness, and we made a long and cheerful procession. The Christmas story was read in Gaelic and they sang the Christmas song; Tàladh Chriosda or The Christ Child Lullaby. It is recently here found that Father Rankin composed the words of their beautiful hymn in 1855 and it was first taught to the people of South Uist and Eriskay by Father Alan Macdonald, who had it printed with other Gaelic hymns for private circulation. The tune was originally a waling song and I was given the version that is sung in South Uist. After church, shaking hands with each other and giving the wish of Nollaig we walked the long road home in the early hours of the morning, there waiting was a feast of mutton cooked the evening before for it is the custom to kill a sheep for the first food on Christmas morning.’
Of course, John and Margaret Campbell were truly international and travelled widely throughout their long lives. They were very keen on both of them having American roots and in 1937 they travelled to Nova Scotia to research native Gaelic speakers there.
While they were there, John took the opportunity to record two Mi’k Ma’q speakers, Chief Gabriel Syllaboy and Levi Poulette. Here are some images of that trip, accompanied by Levi singing a Mi’k Ma’q Christmas hymn and I hope you enjoy both seeing these images and hearing their voices. It’s quite hard to hear but I think it’s worth it. This is possibly the only recording there is of this particular Mi’k Ma’q Christmas hymn.
Of course, 2020 has been a very difficult, challenging year for us all and in addition to coping with COVID we have all been mourning the very sad loss of Magda Sagarzazu, a life-long friend of the Campbells. She died in June and she is very, very sadly missed on the island. She was a great inspiration and friend to me and I do miss her every day.
So, I would like to share some images of her over the years with you and also for you to hear her voice. This is a recording which John made in 1962 when Magda visited Canna House with her father and her sister Maria Carmen and they are singing a Basque Christmas called Aintza Zeruan, I hope I’ve said that right. So I hope you enjoy this, it’s about the glory of Christ.
Well if you are anything like me you will have family films traditions which you would trot out at Christmas time, and for me Christmas starts when I get the opportunity to sit down with my daughter, a glass of mulled wine and sit and watch The Sound of Music and sing along with all of the songs.
But what, I hear you say, is the connection between this film, a Hollywood blockbuster and Canna House. Well, a couple of years ago I was delving about in some covered-up bookcases upstairs in Canna House and I came across this lovely little book, The Trapp Family Christmas Songs, a delightful book of some of the songs and musical notation of some of the songs sung by the original Von Trapp family on their song tours in the years after the Second World War. There’s an inscription inside which reads, To Meg and John Campbell, Recollections of Paris 1950. That’s all very nice, but what makes it all very special, is that on the inside we’ve got the signatures of every single member of the original Von Trapp family singers. The original ones, not the film cast.
So to me that makes it very, very special and this little book was just stuffed down the back of a bookcase, so there are still treasures galore to be found it Canna House today and that’s just one of them.
Hogmanay or New Year’s Eve is of course a great celebration throughout Scotland and no less so in the Hebrides. Margaret collected and described for us the traditions associated with Hogmanay in the islands in particular. The recording you are going to hear is a recording of the Hogmanay Duan or rhyme, recorded by John Lorne Campbell in 1951 from Duncan McDonald. It describes the charm of the skinstrip, a piece of sheepskin which is tied to a stick and set alight to be used as a purifier, as well as a light. The rhyme is a charm to show the old year out and the new year in – Fosgail an dorus is lig a staigh mi!
“I am coming tonight to you to renew for you Hogmanay. I have no need to tell you of it. It existed in the time of my grandfather. My Hogmanay skin strip is in my pocket and good is the smoke that comes from it. It will go sunwise round the children and especially round the housewife. Tis the housewife who deserves it, hers is the hand for the Hogmanay. A small thing of the good things of summer to keep a promise got with the bread. Open the door and let me in”!
Margaret herself also wrote of other traditions at Hogmanay in Folksongs & Folklore and I’ll just read you some of the traditions here.
‘Of the celebrations of feast days in Glendale the ritual performed on New Year’s Eve by the lads of the township was of great antiquity and was possibly pre-Christian. Known as Hogmanay to the Scots and to the Gaels, it began as soon as darkness fell. The sound of boys’ voices calling was heard in the distance and when they reached the house, they walked around it sunwise chanting Hogmanay ballads or duan, two of which I have given in this book. While they chanted, we sat in silence and then the door was opened for them to enter. The torch bearer passed his brand of smouldering sheepskin three times around the head of the wife, a very bad omen if it should go out during this ceremony. And then she produced the three round bannocks, which the leader of the boys carefully put in his bag and then gave another one to her in return. Other good things were put in the bag for the feast at the end of their journey. When they left and the door was closed, they called out the blessing of god on the house for its hospitality. After midnight came the first footing, men either singularly or in pairs, came to be the first to bring good wishes for the new year. They carried a bottle of whisky to give all in the house a dram. Using the one glass the guests would fill it and then pass to everyone present. It was not necessary to finish the contents but only to put the lip to the glass and give the salutation to each person by name. Then the owner of the house would give a glass from his own bottle. It was wise to take little as the first footing might continue to day break and all who called in the night might bring and certainly be given refreshment. It was said to be good luck to the unmarried members of the house if the first man to enter was fair, while the daughter or the mistress was dark or the other way about.’
During lockdown, I have been devoting some time to transcribing some of Margaret’s diaries. They truly are fascinating insights into her wonderful life at various point of her life. I particularly love the diary she kept during her year at school in Helensburgh, from 1920-21. Her sister and aunts who were raising her, after she had been orphaned at a young age and they decided to send her to school in the Old Country might sort her out, as she was quite a difficult child. So, this is an excerpt from her diary of Christmas, her first Christmas in the UK in December 1920, which she spent in England with her uncle and I particularly like the description of the smoking.
“Friday December 24. This day was spent shopping in Finchley Road and in the evening we went to a dance here at the boarding house where we had great fun, It was my first sight of English Gayety and I enjoyed it I can’t however become used to women smoking – although I must say I wish I could do it too (in the privacy of the cellar!) only I prefer the corn cob pipe. We filled our stockings tonight and some little boys are singing “Good King Wenceslas” away down the street.
“Saturday December 25. Merrie Christmas. This has been a grand and glorious day spent in opening the loveliest presents and eating the marvelistist food. After exploring our stockings in our dressing gowns & pajamas, we had breakfast and then opened our presents. I got some lovely presents and money and went to church in the morning. Katharine Hodge came for dinner then went to tea with us in the afternoon at the McClouds who live across the heath, with the nicest little children. Then afterwards we went out to the McDonalds for dinner who also live near the Heath. We had turkey and a burning Christmas pudding and played English games. It was the nicest Christmas England could give me.’
The practicalities of life on Canna at Christmas time can be a real challenge. I myself have been stranded twice on the mainland at Christmas time with all of the presents and food on Canna, and us unable to reach them due to bad weather. It can make for a very unsettling time and we have to be prepared to change our plans quite frequently. But it’s always nice to get back to the island, light the fire and close the door behind us, hopefully with family in tow! Donald, as Harbourmaster, is the first person to greet visitors as they come off the ferry and he’s the one to keep us informed every day as to the latest in ferry logistics. So here he is down at the pier battling to keep the pier open in some beautiful balmy Canna winter weather!
‘Hello, I’m Donald Mackenzie, the Harbourmaster here on Canna, we’ve just said goodbye to the Loch Nevis, our ferry. The next one’s not due until Sunday but at least that the first lot of supplies for Christmas. So, we’ve got lots of coal, lots of food and hopefully the presents will be coming soon. I hope you are going to have a good, if different Christmas this year, so happy Christmas from all of us here on Canna.’
One of the first Gaelic Christmas hymns I ever sang is called Tàladh Chriosda or the Christ Child’s Lullaby, which Margaret mentioned earlier in her book Folk Songs and Folklore of South Uist. It is a very popular hymn and is sung at Midnight Mass on at the Churches on Eriskay, Barra and South Uist. Everybody knows it and everybody sings it. There are several versions of the melody, but I’m going to sing the one which Margaret collected for you. Basically, the chorus sings about
“My love my dear, my darling, My treasure you are. My dear son, the joy of me you are. My beautiful fair son art thou. I am not worthy of you.”
There is a very good chorus and there is only one word and I hope you might be able to join in and that is ‘Alleluia’. So I hope that you enjoy this and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas wherever you are and although it may be a different Christmas, I do hope you manage to enjoy yourself and look forward to welcoming you all back to Canna as soon as possible.
So Nollaig Chridheil, a happy Christmas to you.