STORYTELLING and Calum Ferguson go hand in hand. The writer of Children of the Black House, Lewis in the Passing, A Life of Soolivan and Hiort: A Gaelic History of St Kilda just can’t help it.
Now in his 80s, he has turned his pen away from the stories of others and towards his own. The result is Casan Searraich or Sunbeams in Memory – a collection of memories spanning more than 60 years - which is available on pre-order from publishers Acair.
Born in 1929, Calum’s tales begin with his babyhood in a blackhouse in Point on the Isle of Lewis, where he grew up. He takes the reader on a journey through his childhood and to school before heading off to the mainland where art college, university and careers in teaching and broadcasting awaited.
One chapter is devoted to the impact of World War II and Calum tells the tale of Collie Dan – a dog that belonged to a young neighbour, Dan Skookan, who was killed in the war. As the household collapsed into grief after the church officials had broken the news, Collie Dan slipped away. Despite the entire village searching for him, the dog was never found.
Calum’s personal stories are all deeply felt and vividly conveyed but he also has a way of giving historical events – such as the torpedoing of British warship the Cornwall – a fresh impact in the retelling. Some tales are moving and earnest; others hilarious – but all are compelling and important as a collection because they capture an era that is beginning to fade from the public consciousness. The book is also genuinely bilingual, with the Gaelic and English versions both written by Calum.
Agnes Rennie, managing director of Acair, said: “You can hear the poetry in Calum’s stories as you read them – stories that take the reader on a journey through a life full of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Whether you choose to read it in Gaelic or English you will be captivated.”
Calum, a father of three and grandfather of 10, said he felt a “compulsion” to write Casan Searraich. On top of his true love of storytelling and an “urge to entertain”, he also felt “there was this corpus of work that I had to leave to my grandchildren”.
He was, he says: “Overcome with a deep desire to express my love of the environment into which I was born and to recall the beauty of the people and wildlife... which shaped my personality and outlook as I grew up”.
He can recall an extraordinary level of detail and verbatim conversations from 70 years ago or more but never kept journals. His recall, he insists, is simply due to the memorable nature of the incidents.
“I remember them so clearly,” he says. “The incidents that imprint themselves on your memory and are worthy of recall and reciting as a story are very, very clear in my mind still.
“For example, when Satan was hit by the stone. I will never forget the impact the stone had on my life because my grandfather was so angry.”
The ‘Satan’ in question here was in fact his grandmother’s rooster which had been causing mayhem among the hens. When his grandfather suggested “why don’t you kill him” to Calum, the youngster happily obliged by throwing a stone – which hit its target.
“I asked you to kill him but not KILL him,” raged his seanair.
“My vocabulary at the age of 10 didn’t stretch to that emphasis,” remarks Calum.
Clearly Calum was always full of mischief. Aged 11, he had agreed to run an errand for his granny which involved crossing a dangerously boggy moor. His mother had made him promise to avoid the ‘blisters’ - places where water was trapped just under the surface turf - but temptation proved too much and Calum spent five minutes bouncing up and down on one, paying no heed to the prospect of drowning, until an old lady came along and shamed him into stopping.
“Years later,” writes Calum, “I learned that my dad had shadowed me all the way and saw me break the golden rule of moorland travel.”
One of the family photographs in the book - there are also cartoons by Calum and portraits by his daughter Margaret, a GP and artist - shows our esteemed writer as a young tyke, brandishing a fist at the camera and pulling a face while everyone else smiles politely from the line-up.
There is a certain poignancy to Calum’s storytelling now. Perhaps this is because, since turning 70, “there are few incidents which are worthy of recall”.
There is also a sense of frailty, however, which is clear from the introduction where we meet a writer mourning the fact he can no longer walk in the hills. “Aged 84, I am only now beginning to understand the meaning of the phrase ‘really old.”
The Gaelic title of the book, Casan Searraich, echoes that frailty. It does not directly translate but refers to the phenomenon of sunbeams breaking through the clouds in a pattern resembling the legs of a foal as it struggles to stand for the first time.
The Casan Searraich are believed to indicate better weather to come and are a powerful metaphor for Calum, who spent three years writing this book.
He said: “I am dedicating the book to all those who are engaged in furthering our language and culture, preserving it, and may the Casan Searraich be a sign of better things to come.”
He was also hoping better things would be to come after the historic referendum on independence on Thursday, September 18.
“The whole purpose of my writing,” says Calum, “was to state my long-held belief that we should be independent. I wanted to live long enough to enable me to vote YES.”
The conditions of poverty and struggle which islanders suffered at the hands of authority over the centuries have undeniably influenced Calum’s politics.
The final chapter, his ‘historical context’, is an excellent edit of this Lewis back story, and features main players such as James Matheson’s notorious factor Donald Munro, who took the widows’ share of charity after 32 fishermen drowned in Ness in 1862 - in order to settle rent arrears. A “lack of compassion for the underdog,” seethes Calum.
This chapter also examines developments, movements and changes in UK politics, from the founding of the NHS and Welfare State by the Labour government in 1946 to the negative impacts of Tory domination since 1980 up to current day.
“Scots are a very different kind of people,” he says. “Ours is a sympathetic, egalitarian nation which wishes for a fair distribution of the country’s wealth.”
Some of the stories in Casan Searraich are deeply personal, such as the loss of Calum’s beloved father - for whom he composed a lament he has never been able to sing in public - but there is a profound sense of a common humanity running through it. In telling his own story, Calum tells something of ours, too.
* Casan Searraich/Sunbeams in Memory is available at acairbooks.com, priced £15.