Annie & Calum Johnston, Gaelic Tradition-bearers
Annie and Calum Johnston made a large number of invaluable recordings for the School of Scottish Studies and these will be made available on the Tobar an Dualchais website.
Annie and Calum came from a family of three brothers and five sisters, raised on a croft near Castlebay on the Isle of Barra. Annie became a schoolteacher at Castlebay School, while Calum left school at the age of 14 to work in Manchester and then Edinburgh as a draftsman. He became a prominent Gael there and was secretary and treasurer of the Highland Pipers’ Society. Calum returned to Barra on his retiral. Although Annie and Calum went their separate ways in life they each remained devoted to the Gaelic tradition.
Click below to listen to a fairy song sung by Annie and Calum and to hear the story behind the song, as told by Annie. (School of Scottish Studies ref nos. SA1954.31.A5a & SA1954.31.A5b)
Calum excelled in piping, especially pìobaireachd (1), and in singing òrain mhòra (great songs). Calum piped the coffin of author Sir Compton MacKenzie to the graveside in a howling gale at the age of 82. Annie excelled in òrain luaidh (2) (waulking songs), anecdotes and òrain bheaga (little songs), especially those sung to children. Click below to listen to Annie and others singing the waulking song, A Mhic a’ Mhaoir, which was recorded in 1954. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no. SA1954.31.B3)
They owed much of their oral tradition to their mother, Catriona and also to two remarkable sisters, their neighbours Ealasaid and Peigi MacKinnon, who had a wonderful store of traditional Gaelic stories and songs. Click below to listen to a tale about Luran, one of the fairy people, as told by Calum. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no. SA1965.10.B3)
In addition to the recordings themselves, Annie greatly contributed to Gaelic folklore research with her excellent local knowledge and would introduce collectors of folklore and songs to some of the best women folk-singers of Barra who would otherwise have been too shy or too inaccessible to have been recorded. The first person whom Annie helped in this way was Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser (1857-1930), a collector and arranger of Gaelic songs. Annie would invite a group of older women to a cèilidh at her parents’ home and encouraged them to sing while Kennedy-Fraser recorded them. Annie wrote down the words of more than 20 songs sung that evening.
Kennedy-Fraser subsequently published Songs of the Hebrides, which appeared in three volumes between 1909 and 1921. Annie and Calum’s contribution to these volumes was substantial, particularly in volumes 1 & 2.
In volume 3, Kennedy-Fraser refers to Annie as her ‘indefatigable collaborator’ and recalls ‘the many fine tunes’ for which she was indebted to the Johnstons.
John Lorne Campbell (1906-1996), the famous Scottish folklorist and historian, also acknowledges Annie’s assistance in 1937 and 1938 and again in 1951 when the Barra Folklore Committee, of which Annie was a prominent member, organised a number of recordings for him. Annie also provided information for John Lorne Campbell’s edition of Father Allan MacDonald’s Gaelic Words from South Uist. John and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw were very fond of Annie and she would often visit them at their home on the Isle of Canna.
Other publications to which Annie contributed include Deoch-slàinte nan Gillean (1948), Gaelic Folksongs from the Isle of Barra (1950) and Stories from South Uist (1961).
Roddy Campbell and Annie Kearney, Calum and Anna’s niece and nephew recall the musical influence that their uncle and aunt had on them. Calum gave Roddy his first practice chanter when he was 11 years old and his first set of small pipes when he was 14. Roddy went on to become a renowned piper and Gaelic singer. Anne learnt many òrain luaidh from Annie and now runs workshops, teaching these songs to other people.
John Lorne Campbell paid a fitting tribute to Annie and Calum with these words: ‘Those who had the privilege of knowing Annie and Calum will treasure the recollection of highland hospitality, warmth of personality, generosity of spirit, and love for and knowledge of the oral Gaelic tradition, all at their very best and all expressed with completely natural spontaneity.’
Click below to listen to Calum singing Gradh Geal Mo Chridh’, a traditional version of the Eriskay Love Lilt. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no. SA1954.31.B8)
- Pìobaireachd is piping music composed in a classical style that goes back several hundred years.
- Òrain luaidh are songs which were traditionally sung by women while waulking cloth. Waulking involved a group of women beating newly woven tweed rhythmically against a table or similar surface to soften it.
All of the sound recordings in this article are reproduced bilingually in text form in Tocher no. 13, published by the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh.
This article had been adapted from an article written by John Lorne Campbell in Tocher no. 13. We would also like to thank Roddy Campbell and Annie Kearney for permission to write this article and for their contributions to it.
Annie Johnston © Mrs Annie Kearney
Annie (right) with friends Christine Macleod and Neil Sinclair in 1933 © Mrs Christine Reid
Calum Johnston in 1960 © C H Tillhagen
Calum playing the pipes (1972) © School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh.