Technology to the rescue of forgotten Argyll ‘peoples’ history’

George, the 8th Duke of Argyll
George, the 8th Duke of Argyll

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150 years on, handed-down home truths wait to be told from Scotland’s first ever oral history project.
Journalist Gerry Burke turns the pages of John Dewar’s treasury of Gaelic despatches, the largest collection of translated Gaelic tales ever gathered in Scotland

A hand-written treasury of tales of west Highland life in the times of clan power struggles and domestic strife will finally make the printed page in full, after 150 years.

Thanks to technology, the collected stories from a host of people all over Argyll and the isles, Arran and Perthshire, Lochaber and Loch Lomond are being dusted down again.

The huge anthology of action dramas and intrigues could have provided the plots for Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, and might yet inspire some new Outlander plots for Diana Gabaldon.

The accounts are drawn from as far back as Robert the Bruce’s time and their re-telling in English, with a new Gaelic translation from the original, is the result of an ambitious translation and transcription project by a team of dedicated volunteers at home and abroad.

The bulletins of hard lives and brutal deaths of celebrity rogues, clan collisions and disputed throne wars and post-Jacobite hostilities will be published in a geographical series of 10 starting in 2021.

In these accounts, legendary big names borrowed by Hollywood dispense with scripted lines and staged actions. Tooled up with claymore and other hardware Rob Roy, for example, does not throw down a sassenach gauntlet for challenge. He has a glove which he appears to carry on his person for the purpose of conveying challenge. He hands it to Charles Stewart of Ardshiel to do likewise, confirming his acceptance they will cut and thrust the following morning. Rob planned the use of the rising sun as part of his cunning plan and it worked to a degree but the ageing chief lost – bloodied but unbowed and still belligerent.

The release of a first volume of the celebrated ‘Dewar Manuscripts’ was a bittersweet publishing triumph in 1963, and became history itself when the print schedule for the rest of the series was unexpectedly cancelled.

The first ‘sumptuous’ edition, with extensive academic commentary and interpretation, ran out of ink after the first 397-page tome. A potential educational resource that was beyond the scope and ambition of the Scottish curriculum is now a prized collectors’ item.

The extraordinary trove was compiled by a 19th century investigative reporter from sources in the southern half of the west highlands and islands whose inside knowledge included a secret that would last for more than 200 years. Arrochar-born John Dewar’s adventurous mission was encouraged and promoted by three dukes of Argyll, was financed by a flamboyant 20th century whisky baron and ended in bankruptcy for its absent-minded, sometimes recklessly-adventurous publisher.

The bequeathed eyewitness trove of traditions and unofficial histories includes an almost-forensic account of the Appin murder of ‘Kidnapped’ fame jotted down before Robert Louis Stevenson put pen to paper.

John Dewar, quite sensationally, had the hidden identity of the killer which was a family-guarded secret for more than two and a half centuries and his information was confirmed by Anda Penman, an 89-year-old descendant before she died in recent times. Donald Stewart, a nephew of the laird of Ballachulish, was finally blamed for one of the most notorious crimes in Scottish history.

The huge archive was commissioned by George, the 8th Duke of Argyll a leading statesman and politician of his day. Its origins were verbatim interviews and conversations Dewar conducted in his native Gaelic with those who related the recollections of the deeds and interactions of their ancestors and their neighbours.

He had re-skilled himself as a collector and scribe of traditional fireside tales after injury working as a woodman on the Argyll estates. His notes, hand-scribed using a self-taught version of Pitman’s shorthand, were then transcribed into copperplate scholar-Gaelic script and mailed for eventual translation into English.

His enthusiasm and reliability was such that he was kept on the duke’s payroll as a self-directed ‘roving reporter’ tramping the old drovers’ tracks and ferry routes recording all manner of tales and anecdotes untainted by poetic creativity.

He reported to the duke’s ‘news editor’, the renowned Celtic scholar and author John Francis Campbell of Islay, who consulted with the ‘commissioning editor’ at Inveraray Castle. He stated in 1873: ‘As a personal, minute, picturesque description of life in the Highlands as understood by the grandsons of the persons described, this beats any novel that I ever read.’

Dewar told his tales unadorned but they conveyed a wealth of detail overlooked or dismissed by contemporary writers who felt increasingly- sophisticated literary tastes might require a more refined diet.

Duke George was adamant that Dewar, who had moved from Glendaruel and based himself at Rosneath on the Gareloch, should stick to the narrative and   Campbell quite candidly passed the instruction on. He told Dewar: ‘… I don’t want you to drop a curtain on the murders or other misdeeds of the clan. On the contrary, I want them written as they are told and the more the better, but as some few get praise from MacAuley [the historian and author] there must be some good recorded of somebody in Argyll and I have seen none of it so far in the history of John Dewar. Don’t let us make out to be worse savages than we are but let us tell the truth and shame the de’il.’

Dewar did not hold back with the home truths. He told it like he saw it and the unadorned reports came in like Reuters foreign news despatches. Brigadoonery had no place in his unvarnished black and white sketches.

JFCampbell, in 1867, must have been another sceptic with regard to the ‘tartaneering’ promotion by Walter Scott for the Edinburgh visit of George IV, the first by a reigning monarch for nearly 200 years. His curiosity about the validity of clan tartans prompted him to set Dewar on an investigative mission worthy of a Channel 4 Dispatches programme and would still have resonance if his findings ever get a hearing – a fanciful swatch of fussy, fabric, fashion designs with more colour than historical substance, by JFC’s account.

Ronnie Black, honorary fellow in the department of Celtic and Scottish Studies, and author of recently-published Campbells of the Ark is directing the project with Gaelic academic Dr Chris Dracup. It will publish 5,000 pages of Dewar’s work in ten volumes, mainly regional, beginning with Islay, Jura and Colonsay in 2021.

The collaborative project follows the opening to the public in 2012 of the Argyll Archives with a professional archivist, and the formation of the Friends of the Argyll Papers three years later.

Mr Black said: ‘The Dewar Manuscripts are the peoples’ history. I think it can be fairly claimed to be Scotland’s first-ever oral history project.  They are of great interest for many reasons, one being the prominent part played by strong, courageous women.’

The manuscripts, seven at Inveraray Castle and three in the National Library of Scotland, have all been digitised, enabling transmission worldwide for volunteer transcribers. The original Gaelic has been newly-translated, mainly by Mr Black, who states the publisher Birlinn will do the new publishing job that stalled all those years ago.

At the time Ian Douglas, the 11th duke, wrote: ‘For too long have Gaelic traditions been regarded as mere fairy tales and ghost stories. This collection shows that the old Highland people cherished and preserved the memory of the mighty deeds of their fathers and handed the story of these down carefully to such as should come after them.’

John Dewar wrote, apparently, until his death aged 70, at a brother’s home in West Bridgend, Dumbarton, in 1872 -nine years after the great west coast journalist, novelist and Para Handy tale-teller Neil Munro was born in Inveraray.

The men behind the 1963 Dewar Manuscripts publication

Bill MacLellan, the publisher who produced the 1963 volume, died aged 80 in 1996. His passing was widely lamented, not least by up and coming writers and artists who sometimes benefited from his unconventional business methods. Some established figures today believe he was let down in his time by a London establishment glitterati who were dismissive of the Scottish arts and literature sector for political and cultural snobbery.

The last paragraph of his obituary in the Glasgow Herald read: ‘When no other publishers knew that Scottish art and letters existed, Bill MacLellan did the best he could for them and lost his family’s little business in the process. We must wait for a thorough history of our native culture before his part in it is properly recognised.’

Charles Hepburn, who put his hand into his pocket for the 1960s volume, died aged 80 in 1971. He and business partner Herbert Ross invented the world-famous Red Hackle whisky blend after first world war service with the Black Watch and employed veteran comrades on the workforce.

They used converted Rolls Royces with tongue-in-cheek livery as despatch vans in Glasgow. Mr Hepburn used some of his fortune as a major patron of the arts providing Glasgow university with Hepburn House for its History of Art department. He was a benefactor of the College of Piping and the Scottish Rugby Union. He paid for Murrayfield to have the first underground-heated rugby ground.