Tracy Chipman is a storyteller and oral historian from Wisconsin who has amassed a remarkable collection of Gaelic folklore from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland: the Hebridean Folklore Project (follow the link to visit the site). In the following interview, Tracy tells us about the Folklore Project, her love for Gaelic culture, and the significance of Gaelic folklore for Americans of Gaelic descent.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up in Wisconsin with ties to both city life, near the great lake, Michigan, where I lived with my parents and the pastured and wooded lands of northern Wisconsin where my grandparents lived. My love of stories and storytelling began early on, fostered by stories read to me by my mom and from listening in to the stories and anecdotes told at weddings and family gatherings up north. As far back as I can recall there was a great fascination with Great Britain…and with Scotland. My roots are English, German and I suspect Scots through a matrilineal line. I am certainly ‘hieland in my heart”.
In my 20s I traveled to Europe and that opened my eyes wide to how others live. A year later, having saved my pennies, I left Wisconsin with a one way ticket to London and traveled on my own through Great Britain and parts of Europe. I went up to Scotland with a 30 day return (roundtrip) bus ticket and was deeply affected; I ended up there for over 6 months. It is an understatement to say I fell in love with the land, people and culture and coming to Scotland altered the course of my life. I eventually found my way back in 1995 and this time made it up to the Outer Hebrides where the seed of an idea was planted one wild windy night in North Uist. That seed led to the founding of The Hebridean Folklore Project and years of field research visiting with the old ones and recording oral tradition in Gaelic and English.
Over the years I have also enjoyed working in education, the arts and non-profit realms. These days my hats of choice are immersed within the oral traditions of storytelling and teaching yoga. I have lived in many beautiful parts of the states; Vermont, Oregon, New Mexico and Iowa. Moved more times than I can count on fingers and toes, and in 2009 I moved back to Wisconsin and found myself living a primitive cabin near Lake Superior in a sub-arctic January where I lived there for two amazing winters. Now I live in NW Wisconsin with my partner, an ever growing food forest, three chickens, and a sassy black cat called Pip.
How did you come to embark on the Hebridean Folklore Project? What can you tell us about it?
I embarked on the HFP after a series of inspiring events. During the early 1990s I lived and traveled in Scotland. The land, the culture, and the characters of this wild country made a deep impression in me. In 1995 I went back for another shorter visit…and I was drawn to exploring Scottish folklore, I was hungry to find “something purposeful to do,” in this land that I felt such a connection with.
A journey to South Uist with an ornithologist friend opened the door wider, and what transpired next was a mix of being in the right place at the right time and simple youthful passion and naiveté. You can read the whole story on my website. When I left Uist I was inspired and charged to take action, but not knowing exactly what or how. I certainly knew I would return.
Back to the States I went, back to my simple life teaching preschool in Eugene, Oregon. There was a budding community of Celts there and after a bit of gestation…the seed that was planted on Uist began to root and sprout. It wasn’t long after that I founded The Hebridean Folklore Project, with a mission to “help keep Scottish-Gaelic folklore alive and accessible”
The contributions from folks in Oregon, Washington and beyond combined with my own funds made for a very grassroots beginning, but it was a good beginning. In the summer of 1996 I journeyed back to the Western Isles to begin fieldwork with a mission to keep Scots-Gaelic folklore alive and accessible.
By day I traveled the single-track roads and moors. I walked, hitched, ferried and sometimes bused my way the length of Barra, South Uist, Berneray and into parts of Harris and Scalpay. I visited with the elders, the tradition bearers of these wild islands. All 35+ of them were native Gaelic speakers. Over many visits, many cups of strong tea I listened and when the time was right they might let me record a story or poem in Gaelic, sometimes in English. I learned quite a bit of Gaelic in this way! And so it went, in all seasons over the years with 2 week to 3 and 5 month trips bringing me back to listen and connect with these good folk and the land. Recordings happened from 1996 – 2004.
In 1998 great attention was put into transcribing both the Gaelic and English recordings. During this process, with support from a local Gaelic scholar, it was very important to stay true to the Gaelic dialectic variations of the stories. For example, if a story was recorded by a tradition bearer from South Uist it was important that their (South Uist) Gaelic dialect came through on the transcription and translations.
Now in 2016 long overdue efforts are under way to digitize the recordings, which were all done in an analog format. You can learn more about this on the website as well.
Once the collection has been digitized the recordings will be given back to the Islands, to various Gaelic organizations and museums. They will also be made available to interested groups and individuals around the world.
What do you find interesting or inspirational about Gaelic culture, stories and storytelling in particular?
Well, over the past 20 years many aspects have interested and inspired me. Gaelic culture has such a richness and much of that richness is still evident in its oral culture. To me there is this simple awareness, wise intelligence and deeply rooted connection to the old ways…and to the land. Many of these old ways are still part of some folk’s day to day lives. There are stories and songs that are just simply kept alive in the telling and singing. The resourcefulness of their farming practices, their strong ties to their history, and their deep connection with the land and sea all make these the people and their remote islands a very special place. I would say also there is a connection to an indigenous way of life that is still evident, though much has changed just in the last 20 years.
The other piece is the richness of how the hundreds and hundreds of years their native language, Gaelic, which was primarily just an oral language, has colored and shaped their views, culture and certainly storytelling and the stories.
In your view, what might Americans of Gaelic descent discover by exploring Gaelic culture?
Well, all of the above mentioned points are there to discover. I think in the extremely fast, modernized mechanics of 21st century culture we all long for a connection to something deeper, something more human. I think tapping into the richness of Gaelic culture can offer that and even more so if your roots (blood or soul) are connected to that place. So what is possible here is a sense of belonging to a cultural identity that is rich, ancient and alive.
What could it mean for projects like yours, and creative people like yourself, if there were substantial support in the US for engagement with Gaelic culture?
If more substantial support were available for projects like this, for anyone with an interest and a passion for Gaelic culture, it could mean the flowering of many wonderful things. It could help build stronger, mutually beneficial connections between both native Gaelic speakers and learners here in the States and in Scotland. These cross-cultural connections could mean a more vibrant Scots-Gaelic culture that connects deep into its roots, fosters the flourishing of what is happening now in Gaelic culture and prepares the creative path for generations to come.
In what ways could GaelicUSA develop or encourage that engagement?
That is a great question and I think regular attention to this question by all involved will be part of the ever-evolving answer. The words that comes to mind here are participation and connection. Encouraging participation (more than just reading this!) and asking your members and readers what they want and would like to see happen is important. Also help develop connections, not just online, but face to face as well. This is hugely important, more than ever. We have created a brilliant infrastructure to connect with SO much information AND now we need to find ways to connect it all back into our simple connections as humans, in the flesh. I have no ideas on what this would look like, but I do know it is possible and necessary.
A tale from Tracy’s collection, as told to her by Mary MacRury, Loch Carnon, South Uist 1997. The Gaelic version follows.
Two or three centuries ago there lived in Iochdar a young, capable, strong boy, and he became engaged to be married to a girl who lived near him. But anyway, Iain met another girl and decided that he preferred her so he jilted the first one. He became engaged to the second girl.
But anyway, one night he was at a wedding in Gaisinnis (directly opposite where I live today) and they were dancing and having fun all night and when the wedding was finished and the day having dawned, they set off down the moor. They went down Strome, Aird, and the Iochdar moor till they came to a loch – a loch known today as MacEachen’s Loch. There are two or three islands on the loch. There is also a fort there which I am sure was built in the fifteenth or sixteenth century when people were running away and hiding on the island. But anyway, on one of the small islands there was a swan nesting and the boy said, “Wouldn’t a swan’s egg be nice for breakfast?”
And one of the other boys said, (there were four of them, another three boys and perhaps a girl ) “Oh, I would not go out at all because that swan is liable to turn on you.”
“Oh,” said he, “strong as she is my hands are strong and I will overcome her.”
So out he went. He took off his clothes and swam out. As he was approaching the island the swan rose up from the nest and started walking on the water , and in a very short time she turned into a woman. And the woman she now was, was the woman to whom he had promised marriage and then let down. She attacked him there till eventually he sank and was drowned. And now it must be that the girl, or her mother, or someone in her family, possessed some way of getting rid of that poor boy as punishment for letting them down in this life. But that is why MacEachen’s Loch is so named today.
That is how I heard the story when I was quite young.
Loch Mhic Eachainn
O chionn, tha mi cinnteach, a dhà no trì linntean air ais, bha a’ fuireach a-staigh anns an Iochdar, gille òg, tapaidh, làidir, agus thug e gealladh pòsaidh do nighinn a bha a’ fuireach faisg air. Ach co-dhiù thachair Iain ri nighinn eile agus ghabh e air fhèin gum b’ i i sin an tè a b’ fhèarr leis agus leig e sìos an nighean eile. Thug e gealladh pòsaidh dhi.
Ach co-dhiù bha e oidhche air banais ann an Gàisinnis ( thall dìreach mu choinneamh an àte sa bheil mi a’ fuireach an-diugh ), agus bha iad a’ dannsa ‘s gan cluich fhèin fad na h-oidhche ‘s nuair a bha a’ bhanais seachad is i air soilleireachadh gu snog, ghabh iad sìos am mòinteach. Chaidh iad sìos Stròm, an Àird, agus ghabh iad sìos mòinteach an Iochdair agus thàinig iad gu loch – loch ris an canar an-diugh Loch Mhic Eachainn. Air an loch tha dhà na trì eileanan. Tha dùn air cuideachd ‘s tha mi cinnteach gun deach a cur ann san chòigeamh no an t-siathamh linn deug nuair a bha daoine a’ teicheadh agus a’ dol am falach anns an eilean. Ach co-dhiù, air fear dhe na h-eileanan beaga a tha air, bha eala a’ nead agus ‘s ann a thuirt an gille,
“O, nach e bhiodh math ugh eala airson bracaist.”
Agus thuirt fear dhe na gillean, ( bha ceathrar aca ann, triùir ghillean eile còmhla ris is nighean ma dh’ fhaoidhte ), “O cha rachainn idir a-mach oir faodaidh an eala sin tionndadh ort.”
“O,” ars esan, “làidir ‘s gu bheil i tha na làmhan agamsa làidir is nì ni an gnothach oirre.”
‘So’ dh’ fhalbh e a-mach. Chuir e dheth aodach is shnàmh e a-mach. Agus nuair a bha e gu bhith aig an eilean dh’ èirich an eala bhàrr na nead is thòisich i air coiseachd air an uisge, agus an ceann ùne gu math goirid, thionndaidh i na boireannach. Agus ‘s e am boireannach a bha innte a nighean a bha e air gealladh pòsaidh a thoit dhi, agus a leigeil sìos. Ghabh i dha ann an sin gus an do chuir i fodha e agus gun do bhàth i e.
Agus a-nis feumaidh gun robh e aig an nighinn a bha sin no aig a màthair, no aig cuideigin anns an teaghlach, gun robh dòigh aca air dèanamh air falbh leis a’ ghille bhochd a bha sin air sàilleabh mar a leig e sìos iad anns an t-saoghal. Ach ‘s e sin an-diugh an t-ainm a tha air Loch Mhic Eachainn.
Sin mar a chuala mise an naidheachd nuair a bha mi òg.