Neat Work

Timothy Neat, well known as a film maker, has been for a number of years adding another dimension to his reputation: that of interviewer and author. When I was Young: Voices from Lost Communities in Scotland: The Highlands and North-East of Scotland (Birlinn, pbk, £14.99) and, in the same series, The Islands (Birlinn, pbk, £14.99) are the third and fourth in a series that began in 1996 with The Summer Walkers, a study of the travelling folk and pearl fishers of the Highlands of Scotland. A fifth book in this ‘Highland Quintet’ is presently in preparation.

The books are all substantially made up of reminiscences, photographs, swatches of autobiography, gossipy asides, prose and poetry, and general reflections on life as lived by travellers, crofters, fishermen, musicians and bards, and the like. For the most part they are given in the interviewees’ own words. They speak freely, sometimes passionately, sometimes reflectively, but always in vivid and intimate language that makes compulsive reading. It would probably be less than fair to Timothy Neat not to acknowledge the editorial skills that he has employed in shaping and rearranging his materials and presumably on occasion deftly expanding them. For instance, did Neil MacGillivray in Mull really repeat (or read out loud) the entire passage quoted from James Boswell in addition to a poem by D.H. Lawrence and a poem by Iain Crichton Smith in Gaelic, followed by the English translation? More likely, he alluded to them and left it to the editor to insert them in full. But stylistically this is of no consequence. All the possible additions and extensions fit into the narrative with perfect ease.

The ‘lost communities’ of the subtitle include a number of Hebridean islands and one in Orkney; on the mainland they stretch from Dundee through the central Highlands to the far north of Sutherland. A sense of community and communal life certainly emerges from these reminiscences. But it is individual sensibility, the unique vision that every one of the speakers has preserved of his or her community, that gives the recollections real and highly piquant flavour. Since the people who have given these ‘memorates’ (as students of oral narrative call them) vary considerably in profession and occupation and life style, there is predictably much variety of content.

Christie Campbell in Durness is eloquent about the eighteenth-century poet Rob Donn and claims that ‘like Burns and Mozart, Rob Donn was a freemason.’

The extraordinary experiment of taking a young family to uninhabited Heisker of the Monach Isles in 1945 is the main theme of Lachlan Morrison of Grimsay’s enthralling tale. His father Peter, poet, storyteller and man of many skills, ‘had a vision of life as it might be, as it should be

… there was no school, no library van, no radio

… People thought we were crazy

… but for us it was great

… For my mother the years on Heisker were the happiest of her life


In Raasay, John Cumming tells of a woman who had a great knowledge of plants and medicine and ‘she acted as the local chemist for us.’ He recalls ‘her rows of jars – full of leaves and seeds and coloured sticks.’ It is disquieting to think that a whole world of medicinal lore has been lost with the passing of such healers.

A most fascinating character, no longer with us to tell his own tale, Ewan Nicolson was held by some to have preternatural abilities. He was seen ‘ swooping over the corn stooks and standing on them like a bird

… He could mesmerise you

…’ In fact, Ewan had learned a good deal of stage magic during his youth as a sailor. Indeed, some said his mentor was Iain Dubh, ‘Black John’ MacLeod (see The Voice of the Bard). I remember Ewan well, his genial ways and his slow, mischievous smile. Incidentally, his by-name was not ‘Turcay’ as given here but Trigear, the first element from English ‘trick’.

Over half of the contributors are Gaelic speakers. Regrettably, all the Gaelic texts require fundamental revision that ought to be done for the reprints these books certainly merit. They contain the kind of mundane information about everyday life that each generation takes for granted and that succeeding generations would give so much to possess. Timothy Neat is to be congratulated on having retrieved it in such abundance.

Copyright John MacInnes 2005.


4 Comments on "Neat Work"

  1. Sheena McCowan on Fri, 23rd Apr 2010 8:30 pm 

    My Great Uncle John (Cumming) was a wonderful character. It’s nice to read some of his words online.

  2. Viola James on Thu, 21st Oct 2010 1:39 am 

    Was your John Cumming born on Island of Raasay? I am researching the Murdo Cumming family and they had a son John Cumming b. 1893. He had 10 siblings. This Murdo Cumming wife was Margaret MacLeod. I would be interested in hearing from you. I live in Michigan.

  3. Iain Cumming on Mon, 3rd Oct 2011 7:30 am 

    John Cumming b 1893 (my Grandfather) was a Glasgow Grocer’s Manager for A.Cochrane & Son. Fought with RGA WW1 & was an elder of the FP Church. Died Jan 1985.

  4. Sheena McCowan on Sat, 4th Apr 2015 12:16 pm 

    Uncle John was born in Raasay and we have a massive family tree, sorry I never got a notification of your comment.

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