An Interview with Rosemary McCormack

By Liam Ó Caiside, Gaelcast
“Ged a sheòl mi air m’aineol, cha laigh smalan air m’inntinn”
“Though I sail abroad, sadness does not lie on my mind.”

Gaels from the Highlands and Hebrides first came to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton in the late 18th century. They came from all parts of the Highlands and Islands, including the island of South Uist. Rosemary McCormack, born in South Uist and raised there and in Perth, on the Scottish mainland, is one of the latest in a long line of emigrants to follow in their footsteps.

Rosemary — or Ròsmairi, in Gaelic — is descended on her mother’s side from the MacMhuirich clan, a family once famous in Scotland and Ireland for their bardic talents (the name is sometimes anglicized as “Currie”). Although her father spoke only English, she grew up with Gaelic and with a strong love for the language.

For more than 25 years, Rosemary has studied and promoted the Scottish Gaelic language and the Gaelic traditions of Cape Breton. She has been involved in a wide range of activities, from organizing a croileagan — a Gaelic playgroup — in the 1980s to hosting a CBC Radio program, Island Echoes. She is co-owner and co-manager of B&R Enterprises, a Gaelic-oriented business.

B&R has a broad portfolio: producing compact discs for performers including Mary Jane Lamond (her first album, Tìr nan Craobh), and the North Shore Gaelic Singers. In 1998 B&R released a collection of classic field recordings of Cape Breton Gaelic singers, Òir Cheap Breatainn, and Talant nam Bàrd, a CD of Gaelic songs from Cape Breton performed by singer Margo Carruthers. B&R also offers two compilation albums that showcase the talents of various performers, including Carruthers, Lewis Mackinnon, Kenneth Morrison, Neil MacPhee, Jeff Macdonald and Catrìona Parsons.

In 1997, Rosemary and a group of musicians from Nova Scotia called Gu Sìorruidh Buan (Margo Carruthers, vocals; Dave Burke, keyboards; Stephanie Wills, fiddle) brought music, songs and stories from Cape Breton to the Oatlands Celtic Festival in Leesburg, Va. This interview with Rosemary was conducted at the festival.

Ó Caiside: Can you tell us a little about your background?

McCormack: I was born in Daliburgh in South Uist. My mother was one of the Curries from Loch Boisdale, and that family was full of songs and stories and poetry. There was a lot of folklore and a lot of entertainment that was done just with the language itself. When my grandfather was still alive most of the entertainment was related to the language — it was in visiting back and forth with other people and spending evenings just talking and telling stories and doing rhymes and bàrdachd and songs and riddles. I was really lucky to have been born and brought up in Uist at the time that I was, because I probably caught the last of that real traditional culture and heard some of the last real traditional singers.

Ó Caiside: How do you define “traditional”?

McCormack: It was the people whose singing and stories and lifestyle were really established just by the generation of people before them. Some of the people I knew in South Uist when I was growing up, for example, Bean Eairdsidh Raghnaill, Mrs. Kate MacDonald … her singing wasn’t influenced by anything modern at all. The only influence on her singing was her own personality and the singing of the generation before her.

Ó Caiside: And was Gaelic the language of your home?

McCormack: We actually had both languages because my father was from Glasgow and he had gone up to Uist in the early ’30s to look for work, and he had no Gaelic at all. He understood Gaelic, though he never did learn to speak very much of it. So we had both languages going in the house when I was growing up.

Ó Caiside: Was much English spoken in the community?

McCormack: Hardly any. In fact, my father was one of the few people who had English and didn’t speak Gaelic. Most of the others in the community had all been taught English in school, so they could speak English, but they tended not to at that point. This was in the late 40s and early 50s. It was an almost totally Gaelic community. Except of course that some of the government officials, the minister and people like that, they would be “from away” as people would say in Cape Breton, and so they came in with English. The good jobs went to the English speakers!

Ó Caiside: How long did you live there? Did you leave after going to high school?

McCormack: I left earlier, actually. The rest of the family, the older ones, they left to go to school and to work on the mainland at about the age of 15, but our whole family left and came to the mainland when I was about eight or nine. But we managed to keep up the Gaelic in the family, mainly because of my mother. We came to Perth, which is sort of between Edinburgh and Aberdeen. There was some Gaelic there and there was a Gaelic society and there were mòds and choirs, but it wasn’t a Gaelic community at all. My mother worked very hard to keep up the Gaelic with us younger ones. She felt that the other ones in the family had Gaelic pretty well established. In Uist we went into school at age five and there was no Gaelic taught at all. We were taught in English by a teacher who would have been more comfortable teaching us in Gaelic but wasn’t allowed to. And the other children in the class … I had English, but nobody else did. And we would have got some Gaelic, but it would have been taught to us in high school or junior high, as a foreign language. In South Uist! We would have started to get Gaelic the way French is taught.

Ó Caiside: Nach neònach sin? (Isn’t that strange?)

McCormack: O, tha neònach, tha neònach (It is, It is). But it was felt that Gaelic was a burden. And they justified doing that sort of thing … of course if you take children from one language group and you take them into school and you give them nothing but another group’s language, they’re not going to keep up. They are going to be slow. We were very quickly given intelligence tests when we got into school. And not only were they in English, but they were set up for kids in Glasgow and the big cities, and we scored very low on these. So obviously, Gaelic children were carrying this very terrible intellectual burden and it had to be eliminated.

And that was a lot of the justification for concentrating on English, because we were failing intelligence tests. Nobody put it together that obviously we were not going to do well if they were not teaching us in our language, that this foreign language was being brought into our classroom and we were supposed to function in it. We were supposed to be dumb, but the officials in the department of education didn’t figure that one out for a long time.

Ó Caiside: What brought you to Canada?

McCormack: The urge to get away from home! It was the spirit of adventure. I was really fortunate, for when I got to Nova Scotia there were people there who still were in really good form among the older generation of tradition bearers, people who were like Bean Eairdsidh Raghnaill and the people I had grown up with in Uist, who had the real tradition, without any influences from outside.

Ó Caiside: Who were some of the people you met?

McCormack: I was really fortunate to have people like Malcolm Angus Macleod in Sgeir Dubh and his wife Annie May and Tommy Peigi Macdonald to welcome me into their homes and take me around and introduce me to other singers. Malcolm Angus would sit and sing to me for days. If I had the time, he had the time. He was wonderful. I met up with them about 1969. And Malcolm Angus had so many songs. He was one of the people that had some of the women’s waulking songs as well, the songs that had come over from Scotland. A lot of these had gone out of use because the men were drawn into the milling or the waulking in Cape Breton. After that, a lot of men’s songs came in around the milling table. Malcolm Angus still had a lot of the songs that his mother had sung when only the women would have been present.

Ó Caiside: You have an interesting perspective, having lived in the Gàidhealtachd in Scotland and then Cape Breton. You could compare the similarities and differences between the two. What to you were some of the more striking differences or unique qualities of Gaelic culture in Cape Breton? How did the way of life compare?

McCormack: Well, the first thing that struck me was the similarity. Going into houses on the North Shore and other places in Cape Breton and seeing people who were so physically like the people I had left behind in the islands, who sounded exactly the same, whose language was the same. In the North Shore you get Lewis and Harris accents on the Gaelic, but in spite of that the people sounded the same. They had the same sense of humor, and they had much the same lifestyle, though they were better off here, I suppose, because they had more access to land and had larger chunks of land that they owned. And they had larger homes, but they decorated their homes in much the same way. In Malcolm Angus and Annie May’s house there was still the beingidh — the bench that was in the kitchen where the stove was. And food was cooked and served in that room. It was the same way that houses at home would have been set up. It was the similarity that first struck me.

I remember when I had been in Cape Breton about a year, Joe Neil MacNeil took me to visit some people that were related to me in Grand Mira. They were Curries whose ancestors had come from South Uist … I think there were three brothers who had come over around 1840. So they were cousins of mine. I met up with them and I met a connection of theirs that lived in Sydney. Looking at their family photographs, and listening to them talk, and looking at themselves and their faces — they were my family. It was quite amazing. We went through their photograph albums and they were saying this is so-and-so Currie from Grand Mira, and I was seeing Allan Currie from Loch Carnan and Jean Currie from Loch Boisdale and Duncan Currie from Loch Boisdale and photographs of people who looked exactly like my mother. And they had the same sense of humor, they had the same slant on things and the same mannerisms … they even had the same family names running down through their family here on this side of the Atlantic as we had in our family.

And then of course when I started to go around more and went to the milling frolics, then some of the differences started to strike home. The very fact that men sing the milling or waulking songs, that I wasn’t quite prepared for until I was taken to a milling frolic by Malcolm Angus. At that time there were some women who would sing the milling songs. There tend to be fewer of them now. It’s quite usual to have all men around the tables these days, but it was a bit more mixed company at the time I started going to milling frolics. It was very interesting to see how the time and distance had changed that tradition and how the songs had been adapted. The other thing of course was that songs that would not have been sung as milling or waulking songs in Scotland were being sung as milling songs here, and that took a little getting used to.

Ó Caiside: Can you give some examples?

McCormack: The one that comes to mind is Fal-il-eo is horo eile. That would have been sung fairly slowly as a slow, gentle kind of love song. The boy has taken off and the girl is not sure he’s coming back but she’s going to wait around for him even though her family doesn’t approve. But that song is used as a milling song in Cape Breton. Mo rùn geal dìlis I had just heard just as a slow, sad love song and there’s a milling song version of that here.

Ó Caiside: The Rankin Family recorded it at a very fast pace.

McCormack: Yes, that was on their first recording. And they actually sang it very much the way it would be sung at a milling frolic in Cape Breton today. And in fact on the North Shore some of the singers like Malcolm Angus did like to add some of the English verses. They sang in English as well, some of them, and Malcolm Angus liked to add in some of the songs that he sang the English versions that are in print.

Ó Caiside: You’ve done a lot of research into bàrdachd (poetry) from Cape Breton …

McCormack: I’ve been working on that mostly in the last five or six years. And finding incredible songs.

We are concentrating to a large extent on the song tradition of our own area. We’ve been able to dig out some songs by local bards and eventually we want to take them into schools and raise awareness among the children of the bardic assets that they have right on their doorstep. They’ve learned about Tennyson and Keats and people like that but they don’t learn about Hughie Mackenzie or about his father Eardsidh Sheumais or his brother Archie Alex. They don’t learn about these people and if they’re not taught about them in school they don’t value them as much. School gives a legitimacy to these sorts of things that it’s really hard to get in any other way, so we want to get them into the school. We haven’t quite worked out how we’re going to do that.

Ó Caiside: What kind of songs, local songs, have you rediscovered?

McCormack: We found one last May that no one’s been singing in the community for a long time. It was composed by a man that they called the “professor.” He was quite well educated and he lived in Beaver Cove … Joseph D. Mackinnon was his name. He raised quite a large family and they became quite prominent in education and the co-op movement and things like that. One of the youngest sons, Martin, was killed in the First World War, and his father wrote a lament for him which is to the tune of An Ribhinn Donn. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song and we were able to resurrect that. I had one of the older singers sing it for us, and we worked out the words and tune and got it to the point where we could teach it at Fèis nan Ã’ran. That was a song that had gone out of use completely. We’re hoping we can bring songs like that back.

Ó Caiside When was the hey-day for composition of songs by local bards in Cape Breton?

McCormack: The last two hundred years! There are beautiful songs that were composed all through the 19th century, and in central Cape Breton it seemed to carry on into this century. There were fewer and fewer bards as we got into this century. Hughie Mackenzie (of Christmas Island) would have been one of the last and then Archie Alex his brother. There was Dan Alec Macdonald from Framboise who wrote a lot of songs. He was writing up until … he died around the same time as Hughie Mackenzie, which would have been in 1971. There’s been a lot of publishing of songs in Cape Breton … if it were possible to collect these songs together it would be a real treasury. There’s lots of social comment, and real people reacting to historical events.

Ó Caiside: That’s something I find very interesting: the experience of people coming into a new place and how they viewed and interpreted what happened to them.

McCormack: Right, and like the lament for the young soldier who died, just the distances involved in that … the parents are talking about the fact that he died in Flanders and he is so far away and they will never actually see his grave. They could never think of going that far at that time. That really … it’s very, very sad but it brings home the distance and the feeling that they had of the distance. It’s not something we think about particularly today.

There’s another song from about that time, when another bard goes back to his old home on the French Road, which is close to Louisbourg, and he talks about how the whole village has just emptied out completely. He was writing just after the First World War, because a lot of the boys who left that area, his contemporaries, went to fight in Europe and didn’t come back. And he talks about the wonderful times he had when he was young and they were all growing up together, and now there’s none of them left. So it gives you a real insight into how war and conflict affect very ordinary people. It’s the politicians who should learn these songs.


This interview first appeared in An Cuairtear Ceòlmhor, Winter-Spring 1998. An Cuairtear Ceòlmhor is the bulletin of the Mòd Committee of An Comunn Gàidhealach Aimearagaidh.

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