Wells of Joy: the Poetry of the Reverend Murdo Campbell, Resolis

The Reverend Murdo Campbell died in 1974.  Now, almost forty years later, his son, David has published a collection of his father’s Gaelic religious verse.

It immediately set my mind to working out connections.  Writing was in Murdo Campbell’s blood.  His brother, Angus (‘Am Puilean’) was a distinguished author, best remembered for his autobiography, ‘A Suathadh ri Iomadh  Rubha’ (‘Rubbing Up Against Many a Headland’).  His other brother, also named Angus but known as ‘Am Bocsair’, was a gifted bard, and his two sons, Alasdair and Norman, have made notable contributions to recent Gaelic fiction.  Mr. Campbell’s own son, David, the editor of this volume, chose a different path, becoming a distinguished Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, having previously studied under another eminent Highlander, Donald Mackinnon, Professor of Divinity at Cambridge.  To complete the connections, the translator, the Reverend Kenneth MacDonald, a native of Applecross, and one of our foremost (if most unassuming) Gaelic scholars, was for many years a colleague of David’s at Glasgow.

Which all goes to show how perceptive was the Puilean’s choice of title.  The Gaidheal does indeed rub against many a headland.

It is probably self-indulgent to reflect on some personal connections but, then, it’s nearly Christmas, and so I’ll take the risk.  Mr. Campbell was the minister when my parents married in Glasgow in April 1938.  His wife was away from home at the time, and unable to attend the reception.  She did, however, send a telegram:  ‘Best wishes to the bride and groom, and love to the minister.’

Thirty years later I had the privilege of preaching at Mr. Campbell’s last Communion in the Black Isle parish of Resolis.  By this time he was suffering from a heart-condition and on Monday afternoon Mrs. Campbell suggested that she and I head off to Cromarty to visit Hugh Miller’s cottage.  Off we went, then, in my old Morris Minor, for what turned out to be an unforgettable afternoon.  Mrs. Campbell had charm, warmth and humour in abundance, and I began a life-long love-affair: not with Mrs.  Campbell, however, but with Hugh Miller.

Now, to complete the circle, one of the items in this collection is an elegy to Mr.  Campbell composed by my mother.  The dominant theme was one she had learned from himself: the happiness of the believer finally at home.

Mr.  Campbell was already a well-known author during his lifetime, his outstanding contribution being ‘Gleanings of Highland Harvest’, an invaluable collection of Highland Evangelical traditions which would otherwise have been lost.  The last (1989) edition was edited by the late Professor Douglas MacMillan, who was married to Mr. Campbell’s daughter, Mary.

There are six Gaelic poems in this collection, along with biographical material and a Gaelic sermon broadcast in 1957.  Two of the poems are elegies; and in keeping with the tradition of Gaelic hymnody, all the poems have an evangelistic concern.  Dugald Buchanan’s emphasis on judgement is still in evidence.  But so, too, is the lyricism of Peter Grant.  In fact, one of the poems is set to the tune of Grant’s best known composition, ‘Tha Sion a Seinn’ (‘Sion is Singing’), and as I read the others I instinctively found myself humming them to well-known Gaelic tunes, only to find that the last line had a different meter.  Were it not for this, the poem ‘Air an Turus Dhachaigh’  (‘On the Journey Home’), for example, would go well with the air of ‘Eilean mo Ghaoil’ (‘Island of My Love’: Lewis, of course).

As those who knew Campbell’s preaching would expect, the recurring theme of his religious verse is love.  Two of the poems are explicitly on this subject (‘Am Mo Cheud Ghràidh’/ ‘The Time of My First Love’; and ‘Ghradhaich Criosd an Eaglais’/ ‘Christ Loved the Church’).  But the theme pervades all the poems, both in their portrayals of the divine love and in their reflections on the love which bound together an older generation of Highland Christians.  The poem, ‘Air an Turus Dhachaigh’ certainly reflects the exile’s natural homesickness (‘Mo chridhe tha blàth le gràdh do dh’eilean mo rùin’/ ‘My heart warms with love for my native island’), but while part of the picture is the memory of glens and bays and hills, what he misses most of all is the social aspect of Christian discipleship: gatherings where the one theme was the glory of the exalted Christ.

On the other hand, the longing for heaven means not only a longing to see the Christ who is waiting for him, but also a longing to find himself once again beside those who were the subjects of his elegies: his former College Principal, John Macleod, and a revered lay-preacher, Calum Morrison.

But there is also a pervading sense of the indefinable: a fellowship (‘comunn’) with the divine which is often referred to, but never described.  This is what those who remember Campbell would expect.  There was always a strong ‘mystical’ (for want of a better word) dimension to him, including what John Kennedy called ‘the secret of the Lord’ and secularists would call ‘second sight’.  This went right back to his childhood when, often absent from school through ill health, he would claim that as he lay by the fire he ‘saw’ what his siblings were reading in class.  More than once he challenged myself, ‘Do you believe in dreams?’ to which I had to answer, ‘No!’  But he believed in them, the most memorable occasion being the time very early in the Second World War when he dreamed that God would destroy Hitler, and wrote Churchill to tell him so (and the great man replied gratefully).

In all this, Campbell was typical of the Highland evangelicalism of his generation.  But he was also typical in the assured certainty of his faith, particularly in the face of death.  His elegy on Calum Morrison contains the splendid lines:

Cha bhàs do bhàs, a charaid ghràidh,
        Ged d’fhàg thu tìr nam beò;
Your death is not a death, beloved friend
        Though you have left the land of the living;

Today, we have neither the linguistic nor the spiritual depth to write such poems, and I fear that, to adapt Campbell’s own language, they are themselves the real last gleanings of the Highland Evangelical harvest.  I hope they get the marketing they deserve.

Murchadh Caimbeul, Tobraichean Sòlais/ Wells of Joy: Gaelic Religious Poems with Translations by Kenneth MacDonald and Notes by David Campbell (Kilkerran: Covenanters Press, 103 pp. pbck.  £12.95).

This review first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on Friday, 6 December, 2013