The Way it Was: a reflection on an evening of storytelling with Seoras Macpherson
We were delighted to welcome Seoras (George) Macpherson the celebrated Seannachie from Glendale in Duirinish on Skye, at our October HighlandLIT meeting. He was joined by his wife Morag.
A storytelling life
Seoras told us about his own life as a storyteller. He learned his first story back in the 1930s when he was 3, and for the next seven years learned more stories from family members and old local storytellers. ‘That’s not the way it was,’ he was admonished when he got the details of a story wrong.
He wasn’t allowed to tell these stories outside the house until he was 10, after which he was expected to share them, and to collect stories on his own initiative. This he has been doing ever since. Every nation in the world has its story lore, Seoras said. When he is abroad he makes a point of collecting local traditional tales.
He proudly recalls a conversation with Nelson Mandela, during which Mandela said ‘If you have no stories, you have no past. If you have no past, you have no future.’
‘Stories happen all our lives,’ says Seoras. In fact, he adds ‘Life is a story.’
‘Layers of stories’
Seoras described the different ‘layers’ of stories. There are ‘big stories’ (big not necessarily in length, but because of their content and significance – for example stories containing herbal remedies.) Only Seannachies can tell these stories, and they must be passed on as you receive them, with no alterations. (The longest story Seoras tells takes three days, he assured us.)
Then there’s a second level of story – where the facts must remain the same, but the narrative embroidery linking the fact can be amended.
And finally there are stories whose sole function is entertainment: these can be told by anyone, and you can tell them any way you like depending on the situation and audience, re-crafting the words to entertain your stories.
The Seannachie’s role
And how do you become a Seannachie? Traditionally, each clan had its bard, trained for 7 years, appointed by the clan chief. This Seannachie’s role was to be a repository of the stories of his clan and the neighbouring clan.
And he could even satirise the clan chief if the latter showed shortcomings. No matter how bitter the satire, the story-bearer could not be killed – as long as he was telling the truth. Seoras told a story about the Duke of Argyll who, seen by his bard fled from the battlefield at Inverlochy, leaving his men behind to be slaughtered.
The Seannachie turned this into a story which was widely heard, and the Duke said he would kill the bard with his own hands if ever he encountered him.
Well, if there didn’t come a hammering at the door of the old Invereray Castle shortly afterwards, and who should be there but the Seannachie, bold as brass.
‘I’ve come to collect what’s due to me for composing that powerful story about the battle,’ he announced, as the Duke descended the staircase.
And the Seannachie was invited into the castle, and provided with food and a bed for the night, and before he left the next morning, did the Duke not dip into his purse and pull our three pounds for the Seannachie.
‘You see?’ said Seoras. ‘Not even the Duke of Argyll could break the bond of tradition.
But some storytellers were killed, he added, because there was falseness and untruth in their words.
An evening of stories
And in the course of the evening we heard many stories from the mouth of the old bard – ghost stories; love stories such as the tragedy of the Romeo and Juliet characters who died together at ‘the stone of the rose’; stories about wise women and their unearthly lore; modern stories like that of the old man from Skye bemused by his first ever visit to an Inverness supermarket; stories from the deep past which have echoed through the generations and are now given voice with spellbinding tension and gentle humour by their servant the bard.
Story of a grandfather
Seoras told us that as storytellers grow fewer he has taken to recording the old stories in books to ensure that they are not lost to generations to come, but my, hearing them spoken on a living, warm breath is so much more enriching than simply reading them from a cold page.
His first book was about a friend of his grandfather’s, the ‘Skye Martyr’ they called the man, John Macpherson was his name, and Glendale in Skye his home ground. Macpherson was determined to stop the Highland Clearances, and set up the Scottish Land League to oppose the landlords, local government, the church, the establishment at large. Well, he was arrested and taken to court in Inverness, and sentenced for three months, but not after he’d scornfully announced ‘How can anyone have anything but contempt for a court such as this.’ You see, all the jurors were landowners, so the court was corrupt, biased.
Once out of prison, Macpherson set up more and more branches of the Land League, and the government decided to send three artillery regiments, and naval vessels too, to exterminate the troublesome people and make an end to the Land League.
‘What should I do?’ said Macpherson to Seoras’s grandfather. And the latter replied ‘What you should do is this. Tell the people to welcome the troops with open arms, and invite them in and treat them like friends.’
And this is exactly what the crofters did, giving good food and good drink to those who had come to exterminate them. And the press were there looking for a good story of guns firing and crofters fleeing, but they saw another tale, these journalists up from the cities – a story of struggle and dignity and warm hospitality, and the national press turned against the landowners, and their pressure resulted in the establishment of the Napier Commission, which supported the crofters, and so that at last they were given security of tenure.
But even this was not enough for the crofters of Glendale. ‘Tenure?’ ‘Tenure?’ On land which had been theirs by right of backbreaking labour and tillage for generations? ‘Tenure?’ The Crofters of Glendale did not rest until 1909, when they bought the land. The have been managing it ever since.
Storytelling has power to awaken and transform us. We’re so grateful to Seoras for kindly and graciously introducing us to the wonder of words sung through history.