Friday, June 1, 2007

RIP: Sandaidh 'ic Iagain Alasdair Ailean

The name above is the Gaelic sloinneadh or patronymic form for Sandy Cameron of Mabou, Cape Breton, who died yesterday at the age of 89. Sandy was one of the last remaining Gaelic storytellers in the New World -- possibly even the very last, for all I know. In contrast to those whose stories came down from the ancient Fenian epics, Sandy was a master of the m├Čon-sgeul, the compact, self-contained story of a humourous or historical or superstitious nature.

He was one of the last of the old Gaels, by which I mean one whose imagination and outlook was formed by a mostly non- English- speaking and rural upbringing. In his old age he was well aware that the Cape Breton he had once known had all but disappeared, and that its people were now mostly immersed in the same cultural currents as the rest of the country, flowing in from far away in the form of movies, TV, and the Internet. Once, during a session of telling stories about forerunners and fairy lights, he turned to me and self-consciously added: "But nobody sees these any more." Although he himself had seen these visions on different occasions and believed deeply in their importance, he knew that probably nobody else would ever do so again; the receptivity to seallaidhean had vanished along with the older way of life.

Sandy lived in an old farmhouse on a steep hillside overlooking the Mabou River, at the same spot (and, if I understood him correctly, in the same house) where his ancestors had disembarked on arrival from Scotland around in the early nineteenth-century. As a momento of that crossing he still owned a fiddle that had been brought from the old country, and which he liked to play now and again. His Gaelic was another relic of that crossing: its distinctive dialect was that of Lochaber in western mainland Scotland. Mabou was settled mostly by Gaels from this area, so much so that the village's residents were once nicknamed na h-Abraich. Sandy visited the ancestral lands of the Camerons around Loch Iall on at least one occasion, but he wasn't much impressed by the tartan sentimentality and clan pageantry that has eclipsed much of traditional Gaelic culture in Scotland, as it has also done here in Nova Scotia. He was notorious for having tried to engage the (English-educated) Chief of Clan Cameron in Gaelic conversation, and then turning away in disgust on finding that the latter couldn't understand him. Even so, Sandy was proud of his clan affiliation, and I once saw him introduce himself to a Gaelic-speaking stranger with just the one word: "Camshronach!"

Soraidh leibh, a Shandaidh, agus fois d'ur anam. Cluinnear "Caismeachd Chloinn Chamshroin" anns na speuran an-diugh!

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