James McLetchie

James McLetchie talks about what prompted him to write the words to the song “Na seann daoine”. He explains the references to local people and family members, and reflects on how things have changed in his local community.

It’s about – it came about with my mother deciding to leave her home at 82 years of age after living in the village for over forty years. And for me it was a very sad time because I felt as if she was going to go and I would lose all contact with her and everything, even though she was only going 25 miles to another island. But there’s something very symbolic in that. Um, and it made me look at the life I’d had and the life she’d had there. And I felt at the time it was wrong for my mother, maybe for a selfish reason because my mother was suddenly going to be half an hour away from me rather than five minutes. Um, but for her I realised that it was moving on as well. My father died five years ago. She hadn’t really moved things out of the house. And I felt that she was as if preparing her life for something else. Um so when I wrote the verse “Tha na seann daoine a’ falbh, a’ toirt ceum bho ar saoghal” it meant that they’re stepping out of our lives, and heading into another one of their own.

One of the verses is “Mi a’ cuimhneachadh air m’ athair, ‘s na dh’fhalbh às an sgìr’, leithid Murchadh a’ mhachair, ‘s na sheall iad dhomh gun phrìs”. I remember my father, and the people who left our village, and the communities, and for example the likes of Murdo MacCuish. Murdo MacCuish was in my own village a great influence on me in my childhood, him and his wife. I was always there. He taught me all I know about the beaches and the sea and everything. But he also – what he gave me he never asked for anything in return, just to see me happy – but what he actually did for us – he was in the wars, he was a prisoner of war. And I think it’s really important that we remember these people for these reasons, of what, the life that we actually have today was because of their efforts and their endurance. And I think that comes through in the song. Er, in Gaelic it’s got a lot more meaning than it does in English translation because of the hidden meanings and the associations to people and what it means.

Um, but there’s also a verse, um, “Chan eil eich a’ treabhadh sa mhachair, ‘s tha an iodhlann gun chruaich. Far an do thogadh teaghlaich tha làrach feanndagan mar chuimhn’”. Um, when I came here first of all in 1969/70 there was horses ploughing on the machairs. I still remember them, and it was a way of life. It was a tradition. But today, everybody’s got hydraulic ploughs. They’ve got big tractors and everything, and it’s no longer got that same community feeling that it did have. Er, and then I look around the islands and I see – in my own village was 70 people – today there’s only 21. And all around there’s ruined houses of nettles and where big families were once brought up.

But that’s not only a poignant reminder of what happened in my generation. It’s also a poignant reminder of the clearances, and the emigrations, and the potato famines, and all of those people left here. And I think a lot of them come back today, looking for that ancestry. And it’s very symbolic – nettles is what’s left instead of people in a lot of the communities throughout these islands.

The great thing about my father was he was a very social person. And he took me everywhere with him into houses, so whenever he went there it was like everybody would gather round and he’d tell stories in the oral way. So a lot of what I know was what I learnt orally, but I think the influences on myself were mainly my father for poetry writing and song writing, was because he recited poetry he learnt in school. And he could recite maybe twenty, thirty verses of stuff, and even people like Keats and Wordsworth and all those people. So the intelligence was there and the knowledge was there. Um, but cèilidhs were great at them times, but people had more time. Today you look at your neighbour’s house, and you don’t go there. So our community’s not changed, we’ve changed as a people. And that’s one of the messages in the song. The last verse in the song, there’s a bit in it “Tha sinn làn pròis gun ghliocas, a’ milleadh na thug iad dhuinn”. We’re too full of pride, and lacking in knowledge. And we’re at risk of ruining the lifestyle that they actually gave us. The idyllic lifestyle that we try to lead today, in a world that sometimes looks on idyllic lifestyles as abnormal, but the normality of the life here was what they had.

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