Retribution and a name

This is a story about my brother’s name. It will mean nothing to anybody except myself and a few others, but I’m going to tell it here, because I’m still startled at how it was resolved.

I’ve said many times before that I often find old people fascinating, and a source of great stories and experiences. Sometimes the older generations are not always valued enough. Sure, growing old doesn’t always happen gracefully nor do the unmannered young always acquire their share of manners when they reach old age themselves, but often there’s a story to unlock or a lifetime’s experiences to learn from. When my sister and brothers, Maggie, Neil, Ian, Donald, Calum, and I, get together, we often re-tell and re-enjoy stories of our parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts, great-aunts and great-uncles, the events that made up their daily lives, sometimes ordinary, sometimes extraordinary.

My grandmother, Maggie Lindsay, was brought up by her own grandmother, Granny Rose, in a remote farm in County Antrim at the turn of the last century, when Victoria was Queen of Great Britain and Ireland. Coming from a large family, and being the studious one, my mother thought it would help me with peace to study if I went to stay with her for a few years, so I was packed off to her little home near the old Toll on the road between Glasgow and Paisley. I loved to hear her tell stories of her life as a girl in Ireland, the stern discipline of Granny Rose, whom she loved to distraction.

My grandmother came to Glasgow after Granny Rose died at the age of 104. For decades, she had an old black and white picture of Granny Rose, sitting on her chair at her farm door; and when she herself died many years later, her daughters took the picture and, as she’d always asked, placed it in the coffin with her. Although with no great formal schooling, Maggie Lindsay had an extraordinary love of poetry, and recited many poems and verse tales to me during long winter nights. A glass of whisky often helped her, and I remember her tour de force, with the wind rushing and the dark rain pounding the window outside close to midnight one Friday night, re-telling from memory the whole of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and in a grippingly authentic German accent (though she spoke not a word of German). I think this was my earliest realisation that poetry is an oral art, not a literary one. People who only read poetry in books must miss this. Of course, her main repertoire was that of the great Irish and Scots poems and ballads, and on many another night, she’d recite from the great stalwarts like Sir Walter Scott and many others. Often, a recitation would be sparked from something heard on radio or perhaps television – she only had a television in her late seventies, an ancient wooden one with a screen no bigger than twelve inches, and which only received the solitary BBC channel available then.

On one of these winter evenings, it must have been a Sunday, she had been watching a televised lecture by the late Rev. William Barclay, a Scottish theologian and lecturer at Glasgow University. Now, it’s very likely that few today will ever have heard of Bill Barclay, a small man with whiting hair and always in his black academic gown, but he was a marvellous and engaging speaker and I still remember him, pacing up and down, fists on the back of his hips and elbows out, discussing and lecturing on the Letters of Paul or the Acts of the Apostles. The signature of his weekly lectures was the scherzo of Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ symphony, and I can never hear it without immediately going back forty years and seeing the Reverend Barclay. I cannot remember what his subject was that Sunday evening, but during the course of his talk, he used the word “retribution“; and immediately my grandmother said “You know, thats a marvellous powerful word, ‘Rrretrribution'” – rolling the word and giving proper Scots stress to all the consonants – “I can never hear that word without thinking of Callum O’Glen.”

“Who’s Callum O’Glen?” I asked.

“Oh, listen to me”, she said, and she began to tell me the story, recited in riming verse, of an old Highland soldier lying wounded on the slopes of a hillside. It is the aftermath of the ‘Forty-five’, the 1745 Jacobite uprising etched in blood in the Scottish collective consciousness with the carnage that followed Culloden; when houses and farms and villages were fired, entire families herded into barns then locked in and burned to death. All of his sons have been slain, and he is waiting for the bloodhounds to come for him and kill him too.

“The ‘bloodhounds’ are the redcoats” she explained, “ordered by the Duke of Cumberland to slay every man woman and child they could lay hands on, to teach a lesson to anyone who’d rise up for Charlie. And he vows there will be stern retribution for the butchers.” And she would launch again into verse with the story of Callum O’Glen, and in the process hold me spellbound with the ancient art of story-telling and verse, a spell that has lasted more than forty years.

So powerful was the effect of this recitation on me that, a year or so later, when my mother was expecting her sixth child, due at around my own birthday, and my parents told me that I could choose the new baby’s name, I didn’t hesitate. Calum.

My grandmother died in July 1968. I had always meant to ask her to recite one more time, so that I could capture the poem. It was lost. All I could remember was

“The redcoated bloodhounds lie in kennels so near me,
No child to protect me where once I had ten.
But the day is abiding of stern retribution,
On all the proud foemen of Callum O’Glen.”

For many a year, I sought it; asked my mother, my aunts. I went to libraries to search, and found nothing. I had it in my head that it may have been one of Walter Scott’s, for the metre was much like that of ‘Lochinvar’. But years more searching brought nothing. And a decade or so ago, not too long after we came south to Surrey, I went to the library here and searched all through Scott’s works again. Nothing. Since then, I have searched the internet, still with no luck. I wrote to the Scottish Poetry Library’s ‘Lost Quotations’ service and sent them what I could recall, but even that drew a blank. In the last ten years of the internet, a more or less weekly or fortnightly search for the text I could remember gave me back only the quotation I myself had given to the Scottish Poetry Library, unanswered. My aunt Mary, the last great memory-hoard of the Lindsay family, knew of the poem but not the author or any of the lines. I was never going to find it. I wondered if I had mis-spelled the name, and tried all combinations of Calum, Callum, M’Glen, O’Glen, and so on. Nothing.

Last year, I remember it was Bastille Day, I tried once more. Into the search engine I typed the smallest phrase I could remember that had no punctuation marks and that I might have been least likely to mis-recall. I typed “no child to protect me”.

I expected tens of thousands of more dead ends to be returned. There were three results. Two were my own citations to the SPL from years earlier asking for help. But the third was not, and to an elation I cannot begin to describe, I was staring at the Holy Grail.

I sat back in my chair, dumbstruck. I punched the air with both arms and shouted “Yahoo!” It was recorded in the National Library of Scotland’s web site. As I read it, line after line came flooding back, familiar once more; lines I had struggled and failed to recall were fresh again.

I had misremembered some of the lines, as can be seen, the listing on the NLS site entry had only been made in the prior few days, for I had already tried all sort of permutations of spellings and subsets of lines before. I had thought the original name spelling to be Calum McGlen, which is why Calum’s name is spelled with one ‘L’.

And it wasn’t Walter Scott after all. It is one of the old ‘broadside ballads’, probably a lot older than its first publishing in Dundee in around 1880. It may not be the greatest of dramatic verse, but it is still a fine ballad, and not just because of the powerful associations it has had for me over the years.

Anyway, here it is; and as I read it, I’m still hearing Maggie Lindsay, nearing eighty years old, two glasses of Scotch in her to invigorate the Muse, casting the same spell she cast forty years ago.


Was ever old warrior of suff’ring so weary?
Was ever the wild beast so bayed in his den.
The Southern bloodhound lie in kennel so near me,
That death would be welcome to Callum O’Glen.
My sons are all slain, and my daughters have left me,
No child to protect me, where once I had ten ;
My chief they have slain, and of stay have bereft me,
And woe to the gray hairs of Callum O’Glen.

The homes of my kinsmen are blazing to heaven,
The bright sun of morning hath blushed at the view,
The moon hath stood still on the verge of the even,
To wipe from her pale cheek the tint of the dew.
For the dew it lies red on the vales of Lochaber,
It sparkles the cot and it flows in the pen ;
The pride of my country is fallen for ever,
O death, hast thou no shaft for Callum O’Glen?

The sun in his glory has looked on our sorrow,
The stars have wept blood over hamlet and lea ;
Oh, is there no day-spring for Scotland, no morrow,
Of bright renovation for souls of the free !
Yes! One above all has beheld our devotion,
Our valour and faith are not hid from His ken ;
The day is abiding, of stern retribution,
On all the proud foemen of Callum O’Glen.

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