Captain Hugh Anderson (1837-1909) a Lismore Bard

Captain Hugh Anderson.l

2009 marked the centenary of the death of Hugh (Eoghan) Anderson, a Lismore-born bard, whose Gaelic songs are highly rated, but some details of his life remain a mystery.

The certificate of Anderson’s death on 22 August 1909 in Stevenston, Ayrshire, states his age as 70 and his parents as Janet Anderson née McGregor and (blank) Anderson, Doctor of Medicine. We know from the introduction to the published booklet of his songs, written by his daughter, that he was a native of Lismore and attended Samuel McColl’s school at Kilandrist; but there is no sign of the birth of Hugh Anderson in the parish records, nor of the Anderson family in the census returns for the period when he would have been at school.

However, in 1841, there was a Janet McGregor, aged 30, living in Baligarve township with her son Hugh (4) and, in 1851, they were still there, with Hugh (14) attending school. By 1861, he was no longer on the island but Janet lived on in Baligarve, unmarried, until her death in 1883. In 1871 she was recorded as a pauper. The evidence of his age, his mother’s name, and the fact that he is known to have lived on Lismore in the 1840s and 1850s, tells us that this Hugh McGregor is Hugh Anderson; and his identity is confirmed by the inscription on her impressive obelisk gravestone in Lismore graveyard: ”Erected by Hugh Anderson, Master Mariner, in memory of his mother Janet McGregor who died 20 June 1883, Aged 84 years”. (Somehow, he got her age wrong). On her death certificate, her age (77) is correct, the date of death is the same, and there is no pretence that she was anything other than single. The text on her gravestone suggests that she had experienced prejudice: “Shall not the judge of all the Earth do right? Gen. XVIII 25”. The apparent inconsistency between the poor pauper woman and the grand obelisk raised in her memory has been resolved by studying her will, which shows that she had £240 in a deposit account in the Commercial Bank in Oban (equivalent to around £15,000 today). Clearly, her son had been supporting her generously for some time.

This brings us to the question of who Dr Anderson was. The bard’s son-in-law, Colin Campbell, who witnessed the death, clearly believed that there had been a Dr Anderson (although he did not know his first name) and that Hugh’s mother had been married to him. The record of Hugh’s first marriage in 1865 names his father as Colin Anderson, surgeon, deceased. Through the exhaustive detective work of Sharon Smith and Coralie Ross (great grand daughter of Hugh Anderson) we now, almost certainly, know who he was. Colin Alexander Anderson born 15 August 1805 to Lieut. Alexander Anderson & Mary Thomson, Glenstockdale, Appin, graduated as Master of Surgery from Glasgow University in 1827. As a student, he gained some celebrity as the only cabin passenger to survive the sinking of the Comet II at Gourock on 21 October 1825. Only a handful of those on board survived, and over 70 were lost. Anderson managed to swim to an upturned boat and get it righted, finally making it to the shore exhausted.

Dr Colin Anderson married Mary Sinclair on 16 April 1839, leaving in July for Australia, arriving there on the “Superb” on 29 December. With Hugh being born in 1837, it looks as if he emigrated to avoid the consequences of his relationship with Janet MacGregor. The Andersons prospered, owning a large sheep farm called Newstead at Inverell, New South Wales. Colin died there in 1852. Although the Andersons were prosperous, there is no direct evidence that they provided any financial support to Janet and Hugh. However, on an island where the young were at work as soon as they were old enough, Hugh was still at school at 14, even though his family were paupers. He may also have benefited from later support in rapidly building a successful career in the merchant navy. However, the role of Samuel McColl in equipping clever boys, such as Alexander Carmichael of Carmina Gadelica fame (5 years older than Hugh), to make their way in the world, should not be underestimated.

According to his daughter, he rose in the marine service to become a master of vessels in the coastal trade between Glasgow and Liverpool before moving to be the commander of ships owned by the Nobel Explosives Company (at Ardeer in Ayrshire, part of the future ICI). From census records, we know that in 1861, aged 24, he was mate of the Clementina of Port Glasgow, in the lime trade; and by 1871 he was master of the Termagent of Glasgow, with a crew of 10. Nobel Company records show that, in the 1870s (from his mid 30s), he was captain of the steamers “Maggie” (142 tons, carrying up to 85 tons dynamite and 100 cases of detonators) and “Argyle” (100 tons), sailing overseas. This was dangerous work, as shown by the cryptic comment that the Argyle “made 1 disastrous trip only”. This does not seem to have harmed his career because he went on to command the “Lizzie” (213 tons), the “Marmion” (324 tons, which features in one of his songs) and his last ship the “Lady Tenant” (452 tons, carrying up to 400 tons of explosive). His service continued for around 30 years, into his 60s.

Hugh Anderson's Family

Hugh Anderson’s Family

An image of Captain Hugh Anderson in later life (from the Lismore Museum Photographic Archive) has written on the back: “In front of Dunstaffnage & Ardluing Cottages, Ardrossan; probably taken at the end of last century or around 1900. The children are possibly his grand daughters Christina & Julia Campbell but the lady holding their hands is not their mother Mrs Campbell”. According to Coralie Ross, the only person that can be identified without doubt is Hugh Anderson; the couple to the right are not her grandparents, Colin and Christina Campbell

New Light on Hugh Anderson from the Carmichael Watson Project

The visit to Lismore in November 2010 of Lesley Bryson, Kirsty Stewart, Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart, and Andrew Wiseman, the team of researchers and archivists who are cataloguing and studying the extensive collections of Alexander Carmichael in Edinburgh University Library, shed a great deal of new light on Hugh Anderson, and particularly on his mother Janet MacGregor.

Although Carmichael did much of his collecting of songs, stories, folklore and devotional material in the Outer Isles, the Edinburgh University team have now identified, from his notebooks and papers, the dates when he collected on his native island. In 1868, his wife travelled to the Carmichael family home on Lismore for the birth of their first child and, on 1 December, Alexander Carmichael was on the island, visiting Baligarve, where Seònaid Mhòr (Big Janet) dictated to him the words of the song Chunna mise bruadar glé shuaimhneach a-raoir [I saw a very gentle vision last night] which had been composed by the Lismore minister Rev. Donald MacNicol (1735–1802) for his wife Lillias.

Seònaid Mhòr was, of course, Hugh’s mother, Janet MacGregor, and the information gleaned from the Carmichael papers changes our view of her completely. Rather than a poor rejected unmarried mother, Seònaid Mhòr, presumably a big woman physically, was a valued carrier of tradition within the community; her sister Isabella was described by Carmichael as ‘the most beautiful singer of Gaelic songs he had ever heard. Not the nightingale, at its best, had a more sustained and beautiful voice than had Miss MacGregor.’ Clearly, Hugh served his apprenticeship as a bard in a cèilidh house and, as well as composing his own songs, he continued his mother’s role as a carrier of tradition: the notebooks record that Carmichael collected verses of his favourite song Tha mo rùn air a’ ghille [My love is for the boy] from Anderson when he was living at Saltcoats. The warm relationship between these two men, and their nostalgia for the past on Lismore is clearly shown by the letter at the end of this webpage from Anderson to Carmichael, transcribed in full with permission of Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart (Carmichael Watson Project).

With this new information, we can see Seònaid Mhòr and her sister Isabella as part of the unbroken chain of tradition carriers on Lismore, stretching back beyond Donald MacNicol (the champion of James Macpherson and Duncan Ban Macintyre). It is highly likely that Donald MacGregor, the stone mason from Baligarve, from whom Carmichael collected legends in the 1880s, was also a close relative.

The Songs

In 1865 in Glasgow, Hugh Anderson (28) married Christina McGregor (24), the daughter of a Morvern farmer, and they had four surviving children, Christina, Catherine, Hugh and Alexandrina. They lived in Glasgow until around 1890 when they moved to Ardluing Cottage in Ardrossan. After his wife died in 1898, Hugh (aged 61) married a Welsh girl, Annie Myfannwey Jones (aged about 20), and they had a son Thomas Colin in 1900 and a daughter Janet Mary in 1908. After Hugh’s death in 1909, Annie took her family to join her brother in Quebec. According to Annie Fownes, her descendant living in Nova Scotia, Thomas also had a distinguished career as a captain in the merchant service, and involvement with the sea continues in the family up to the present.

His daughter, Christina, married another seafarer, Colin Campbell, captain of Nobel steamers between the 1890s and the 1920s. They lived next door to Anderson at Dunstaffnage Cottage. Several years after Hugh’s death in 1909, she published eleven of his songs, in Gaelic only, with sol-fa accompaniment (drawing on her competence as a music teacher):

Many people in the West Highlands would have been familiar with the “Sweet Fruit of the Garden” in his lifetime. According to Christina, her father was “well-known and notable in the north of Argyll among sea-faring folk. He was a shrewd and capable man who was not given to found his judgements unthinkingly on other people’s observations and opinions. He was generous and sociable at all times, and had a keen appreciation of humour. The songs … reveal better than any account which could be written the real character of the man.”

Ronnie Black, the well-known Gaelic scholar, writes:

“The songs are excellent and for each of them the music is given in sol-fa notation. From a literary point of view I was struck by the strong influence of Alexander MacDonald from Moidart (whose mother was from Morvern), the most dynamic and innovative of all the eighteenth-century Gaelic poets. Three of the songs are of the “wet sheet and a flowing sea” variety, vivid and detailed descriptions of the most exciting parts of epic voyages. Among the places mentioned are Holland, Germany and Sweden, reflecting his work for the Nobel company. One is a love-song saying that “when I get home I’ll go straight to see you, we’ll have the banns read and Norman will marry us”. In another song Nobel orders him home, which means Glasgow where his family are, and he sails via Orkney, then gives a verse to each of his children: Eoghan cruinn-gheal na stairirich (round white Hugh of the rattling noise), Aile who is “so happy in the morning on your mam’s shoulders”, Ceit, obviously beginning to grow up, whose “eye’s like the sloe under slender eyebrow untroubled”, and finally Ciorsti, presumably the Christina who later published the poems, who is “quick on the piano, your white hands striking the keys, / music loud and melodious that would set gentlefolk dancing”.

“There’s a song to Lismore calling the island Paradise but ending “But the way your population has been thinned / By death and notices of eviction, / Today I don’t dare to return / Because the visit would be too painful.” This is reflected in another song called “The Highland Journey” where he goes back and there is a sense of mounting tension as he gets nearer Lismore – describing daybreak at Scarba, then Kerrera, Dunollie, Dunstaffnage, Stalker, Duart and finally the “Garadh” – the garden-island herself, whose usual name he doesn’t dare speak, as if too holy. Then Morvern, Mull, Duart again: he’s circling around in a gingerly fashion. And finally a verse to his own island ending “It was painful to me to turn my back / And when I left you behind a tear fell from my eye.”

“There are poems to summer and winter very much on the lines of Alexander MacDonald’s on the same subjects, but still fresh and real. That is in the spirit of traditional Gaelic verse. The poet always focused on the best models and tried to out-do them within an existing palette of subject-matter. So for example in winter “the bee has folded up his pipes, / his gentle drones no longer hum” – bee-imagery and bagpipe-imagery often use the same words, but no other poet that I know has pushed the image so far as to make the bee a piper.”

Song to Captain Calum MacCorquodale

Song to Captain Calum MacCorquodale

“There’s a fine traditional eulogy to Capt. Malcolm MacCorquodale, Port Ramsay. He says how the girls all used to be after him, but “None of them were worth anything to you / As your eye was in Baliveolan”, a compliment to his wife of course. I also note: ‘S an diugh an Glascho na Beurla / Cluinnear Hay ‘gad fheòrach’. “And today in English-speaking Glasgow / I hear Hay asking for you.” Who is Hay I wonder? A shipping magnate? And finally there is a very good hymn.”

“The translations in the above are off the top of my head and not for publication. If anything is of particular interest I can produce proper translations for you. It would be a pleasure because this is good Gaelic verse by a forgotten poet. Forgotten by the Gaelic world at large, anyway. I was very struck by the song to winter because I was translating Alexander MacDonald’s song to winter just this morning!” (extracted, with permission, from an email of 24 July 2008)

Captain Anderson S.S. “Marmion”
Falmouth 7th March 190-

A. Carmichael Esq
32 Polwarth Gardens

My Dear Friend & Countryman

Excuse me for not breaking my silence sooner. I was waiting to receive proofs of some poetry from the Printer at Saltcoats – two of which I beg to enclose herewith, the “Samhradh” [Summer] and “na h-iasgairean” [The Fishermen] – the three of whom you well knew, namely “Dughal mor”, “Mr Jarvie” and your humble “servant”. This song I composed many years ago – when we were all upon the scene. They have gone the way of all the earth and I, alone, am yet left. The Summer, however, is of a more recent date. I am certain Miss [Ella] Carmichael will sing you the summer ode, knowing as I do, that she is familiar with the air of it. I am sensible that there are a few mistakes in the spelling, probably by a slip of the pen. Perhaps it would be too selfish on my part to blame the Printer.

Did I tell you that I was in Lismore last April? I called on Mr. John Stewart (Iain Mairi Stiuard). I was glad to see him, and he was, I daresay, as glad to see me. Also the Revd. Alexr. Livingston (Alastair Cholla). I walked up to “Drium na Bithe” to have a look round and after I surveyed with the eye all the surrounding familiar lovely hillocks whereon [I] often roved in my youthful days. What? “Port a charrain”, “Moine na’n Corr”, “Cnoc-Aingil” etc. etc. After I took these views in, and while looking on, shall I tell you what I was obliged to do? I had to sit down and wet my handkerchief in my tears. “Baligarve”, “Clachan”, the “Manse”, “Killeondrist” etc etc seemed to make efforts to speak and say “are you not sorry for us?” Afterwards I dandered down to the “Crois” (cemetery) and spent a while among the dead, and after looking & reading, I wrenched myself away, went down to “Tobar a chlachain & washed my face. No one knows this ordeal but yourself.

My dear Friend, how is your Family? Mrs Carmichael and all the rest? Give them my kind compliments altho’ we never had the pleasure of meeting. Highlanders’ compliments to Highlanders are always warm & real, whether they know each other or not. I may mention that I am going to sail for home tomorrow if weather permits and will probably arrive about Saturday evening.

Beannachd leat a chriosduidh
Kind Compls. Yours sincerely
H. Anderson

This webpage was written with the help of Margaret Black; Jim and Maureen Mitchell, who provided details of Nobel Ships and their masters; Jim MacGregor, whose researches have filled in much of the detail missing in the first version of the webpage; and Ronnie Black, who drew our attention to Hugh Anderson, and was kind enough to interpret the Gaelic texts. Our thanks also to Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart for editing the “New light” section

Recently, we have benefited from the extensive research carried out by Sharon Smith on behalf of Coralie Ross (Hugh’s descendant), particularly their work in revealing “the real Dr Anderson”. We were very pleased to be able to welcome them to the island in 2011. By chance, also in 2011, this webpage came to the notice of Annie Fownes, Nova Scotia, who had been searching for information on her great grandfather, Hugh Anderson. She provided us with interesting information on the later life of Annie Jones/Anderson. Any further information on Hugh Anderson and his circle of contacts would be gratefully received and acknowledged (contact