As a historian in an age when history was still dominated by studies of ‘Great Men’ and battles, John was ahead of his time in paying attention to the lives of ordinary people recounted in their own words.
‘Communities where an oral tradition predominates are so much out of the experience of the modern Western world that it is extremely difficult for anyone without first-hand knowledge to imagine how a language can be cultivated without being written to any extent, or what an oral literature is like, or how it is propagated and added to from generation to generation,’ he wrote.
To John the Gaelic mind existed in a vertical plane – it had ‘historical continuity and a religious sense’, whereas the consciousness of the modern West existed in a horizontal plane – it had breadth, it knew a little about a lot, but it was concerned with purely contemporary happenings which were forgotten soon after they happened. ‘There is a profound difference between the two attitudes, which represent the different spirits of different ages, and are very much in conflict.’
Working in this ‘vertical plane’ could yield amazing results – storytellers in the Hebrides could go back 1,000 years to the Vikings for material for their stories, which they made vivid with a strong sense of reality. But these sources were not easy for the outsider to access. Recitals of oral tradition did not often take place in public, belonging to the fireside or everyday tasks such as rocking the cradle, milking the cows, waulking the home-made cloth, or rowing boats. To be present at these events required the collector to be trusted by the performers and invited into their homes or working lives, and that took time, patience and empathy.
The great treasure trove of folklore collected by both John and Margaret is testament to the trust and respect they inspired in Hebridean communities, and none more so than South Uist, and Barra.
One inspirational storyteller was The Coddy (less often called by his real name, John MacPherson). It was The Coddy who not only provided John Campbell with accommodation in a guest house he ran at Northbay, but was to teach him Gaelic and help him achieve the blas, fluency with the spoken language which would enable him to communicate easily with native speakers. The Coddy would also provide invaluable contacts and information. He knew everyone in the islands, was an exceptional source of news and gossip and was one of the chief tradition bearers – the teller of innumerable stories from Barra’s history and culture. John immediately liked him and found in him, perhaps a little of the father’s discipline he had lacked so far. In their lessons, when John stumbled over a phrase and retreated into English, the Coddy would hold up his hand to stop him: ‘Abair siod fhathast, Iain.’ (‘Say that again, John.’). John called him King of Barra.
It was also The Coddy who provided a turning point in John’s own story. In March 1938 he gave him the news that the Isle of Canna was for sale and would shortly be going on the market.