The role of the bard, or 'filidh', has for centuries been held in high esteem by Gaelic society. Despite the collapse of the clan system, and with it the role of the professional clan bard, the tradition continued in local communities in the shape of 'bàird baile', or village poets, who were well known locally for their talents in composing poetry and song about local events and people. The Tobar an Dualchais website features many excellent examples of local bàird baile, and among some of the most interesting and extensive examples are the recordings of Catherine Dix (Ceit an Tàilleir) of the Isle of Berneray (Sound of Harris). Her trenchant wit, humour, and unique talent for composing and recalling hundreds of songs, stories and poems almost instantaneously give a fascinating insight into her life, and into the life of a Gaelic-speaking community in the mid-20th century.
Catherine Dix was born in 1890 and was the third of seven children born to Archie MacLeod (Gilleasbaig Tàillear mac Iain Dhòmhnaill), a tailor, and his wife Anne (née MacKillop). Archie was originally from Balemartin in North Uist but moved to Berneray after his marriage to Anne, a native of the island. Archie was well known for his spontaneous verses of witty poetry and Catherine inherited this gift from him, along with the ability to recall many of her father's own compositions and stories.
Like many women of her generation, Catherine's attendance at school was limited by her caring responsibilities at home, often being needed at home to care for her siblings while her parents carried out the daily tasks. At the age of fourteen, she left the island to work as a dairymaid in Appin in Argyll. She moved to Oban after four years and worked there until the start of the First World War, during which she worked in a munitions factory in Gretna. In 1918 she returned to Oban, where she met her future husband, Jack Dix, a marine engineer from Sunderland. They married and moved to Sunderland at the end of the war, where they raised their three children.
After the outbreak of the Second World War and the commencement of bombing raids on ports along the east coast of England, it was decided that it would be safer for Catherine and her children to live in Berneray. Her husband joined them when he retired at the end of the war.
Catherine had a croft on which she kept animals and grew her own vegetables. She was a keen cook and loved to go fishing and swimming. Catherine was also an integral part of the community and social events would not be complete without her reciting a poem or two or telling a story. In this recording she tells a story about an elderly couple who lost a bannock but gained a cow. Visitors to her home would receive a warm welcome and gifts of food.
Catherine's generosity and talents left a lasting impression on many people, including the singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan, who lived in Berneray in the late 1960s. She recalled how Catherine would bring milk from her own cow to the singer every day. Catherine was credited as co-writer of the song 'Iris's Song for Us' from Vashti's 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day. Vashti said of her: "She was the kindest of women, the fiercest of souls, and I adored her."
Catherine remained on the island until her health started to fail, after which she was looked after by one of her daughters in Harris until her death in 1981, at the age of ninety.
We are privileged to host almost 600 recordings of Catherine Dix on the Tobar an Dualchais website, the majority of which were carried out between 1967 and 1978 by Ian Paterson of the School of Scottish Studies. The recordings feature an impressive array of material, and as well as featuring her uncanny ability to compose poetry instantaneously, the recordings also showcase Catherine's remarkable memory for the poetry of other local bards. In this recording she recites a verse composed by Fionnlagh Cìobair (Finlay the Shepherd) to a man who sold hens. She was also a prolific teller of tales, anecdotes, riddles and sayings, and the TaD collection features many examples of these, including her version of the cumulative story of Biorachan Beag and Biorachan Mòr gathering nuts in the forest, a story she learned from her father, and recorded in her late 70s.
References and Further Reading
Dix, Alison, Ceit an Tàilleir à Beàrnaraigh: Eachdraidh Beatha agus Taghadh de Stòiridhean is Rannan (Inbhir Nis: Clàr, 2019)
Munro, Ailie, and MacLeod, Morag, The Folk Music Revival in Scotland (London: Kahn and Averill, 1984)
Paterson, Ian, 'Ceit an Tàilleir', in Tocher vol. 20: Tales, Songs, Traditions: Selected from the Archives of the School of Scottish Studies (Winter 1975), ed. by Alan Bruford, pp. 121-137