From Cape Breton's Magazine
"Oran do Shep"
- an Englishtown Song
From interviews with John and Geordie MacAskill by Danny and Joan Hathaway
[This article Is taken from conversations about a Gaelic song concerning a dog named Shep. The song was made by George Ewan MacAskill of Englishtown. Danny and Joan Hathaway visited George's sons, John and Geordie MacAsklll, In 1989. While In the final editing John does most of the talking, Danny and Joan have made It clear that both men were the source of this article.]
John MacAskill ( Englishtown): The song was made as if it were Phillip Carmichael singing it. He was lamenting about his dog that had run away from him. I heard my father aing it. I remembered it. He sang it for the man who shot the dog and the man nearly fell off the chair laughing, I've heard others sing it since then. He taught it to "Little Murdoch" MacAskill. He's dead now but it was one of his favourite songs. He used to sing it for people who asked for it. you know, and I've heard him sing it half a dozen times.
(Danny Hathaway: Was there much singing back then?) We all tried to sing. Some of us weren't very successful. (John laughed.) The singing was always done at the house gatherings. If there was a fiddle in the house, or a harmonica, there'd be music and dancing too.
(Joan Hathaway: Did your father write songs regularly?) He used to compose songs when there were different things. I don't know any of them. I heard little bits of them when I was young, nothing more than that. Yes, he had a gift for composing verses. (Danny: Does anyone else remember any of his songs?) No. no, not today, who remembers them. (What kind of things would he write songs about?) Oh gosh. (Long silence.)
Well, he wrote one song about-well, he didn't write the songs, he just composed them and sang them. One song is about a group of young people who used to visit, congregate in the schoolhouse at night and have a little party for themselves. They had someone playing a Jew's harp and they danced to the music and--a little party for themselves. I remember he composed a song about that. I don't know it myself. It was funny.
(Tell me about Shep.) Well. Carmichael. He and his father had a dog. They called him Shep. He was a kind of degenerate collie, good for nothing, half crazy. Father called him over one day-there were cattle in the field-and he called the dog over so he'd drive them out. And the dog only barked at him instead of the cattle. So he ran to encourage the dog to run after the cattle. The dog leaped up on his back and tore his shirt from here (touching his shoulder) down to the belt (John laughed)-left three or four marks of his nails on (my father's) back.
The old man and woman died and their son (Phillip) was left alone.... And he advertised for people to come and live with him. So this family named Sweet came up from Neil's Harbour. Their son was Stewart on the Aspy and he heard about it so he came to see Fhillip and arranged for his father and mother, and his brother and a nephew that grew up with them, to come and live with him.
So they didn't think much of the dog. And they had a cot in the kitchen and the dog took this over, took the cot over. He wouldn't allow anyone on it, with a growl at them. They were trying to get rid of him. This was the only thing left that Phillip had to remember his father by, was the dog. end they didn't want Phillip to know that they were plotting his destruction. (Laughs.)
So, we had a cousin named Norman MacLeod. Norman "King." He used to buy boiled lobsters from my father and Mr. Sweet and sell them in Baddeck. So-Mr. Sweet was home all alone and Phillip Carmichael was out working on the road out in Kelly's Mountain, so they thought it was a good time to get rid of the dog. They had a son themselves named Ernest. He didn't want to shoot the dog himself, but he borrowed a .22 from a couple of young fellows, the Campbell boys, and he got three or four cartridges for it. It was a little single-shot, bolt-action .22, and the thing was sad being worn. Sometimes it wouldn't set off the cartridge-PWUHMPUH! (Laughs.)
So Norman tried. The dog was lying in the back doorstep and Norman tried two or three times to shoot. (Laughing….) The gun wouldn't go off. Neil stuck his head in the door, and he (Norman) said, "This damned gun is no good," he said (…still laughing), "It won't shoot. Look," He pulled the trigger. The gun went off-and the bullet hit the dog in the backside. (Now John gets somber.)
Away went the dog. He ran around to the front of the house and he went up on the steps there, and Norman went down and peeped around the corner, and he was there licking the wound. So he fired again and this time he killed him. The dog ran off a little way and died. So Mrs. Sweet got a sack, an empty feed sack, there were lots of them around in those days, and they put the dog in the sack and they buried him in a little swampy patch of ground back of the fence.
And when Phillip came home he missed the dog and Mrs. Sweet told him she didn't know what had happened to him, that he followed a car. He used to bark at cars sometimes-that he followed a car and she went looking for him and she couldn't find him. So Phillip looked for him. He looked for him on the shore, and he looked for him up on the hills, and in the woods, and everywhere, and he couldn't find him. He didn't know till long years afterwards what had happened to the dog.
So my father made up this rhyme. Herman was in. Norman MacLeod one night, and father was lying down on the kitchen cot and he began to sing a song about Norman and the dog. And I can hear Norman laughing yet. So then the song became known. Phillip knew nothing about him till one night "Little Murdoch" MacAskill was at their place, at the Sweets-no, it was MacLeod's-it was Willie and Mary MacLeod's, and Murdoch sang the song. (Laughing.) And that's the first that Pbillip knew about the dog.
(How did Phillip react?) Oh, it was so long ago. After that it didn't matter to him then. (How old would you have been when they shot the dog?) Oh, I was grown up. Now I can't tell you the year it happened. It would be in the 1930's, (And how long after that before Phillip heard the song?) Oh. my father was dead before Phillip heard the song. My father died in 1951. (Was it the late 50's Phillip heard the song?) Yes, I think so. Phillip died in 1959....
(Do you know the song?) The words? Yes, most of it. (Would you be willing to sing it for us?) Oh. if I could sing, but I'm hoarse now. I can't sing. (Pause.) Oh. how did it go? (At this point, John sang "Oran do Shep." See page 65.)
(John, what is the song about?) The song is about, well it starts off as saying that Shep was the prettiest dog in the place, (laughing) shaggy paws and a tawny face. Now he'd gone away from me. That was where there was a brave dog.
He was good to run after cattle. Not a beast beneath the sun would graze on the place. You know, cut a blade of grass off the place. If he's gone away for a trip he'll be back by Monday evening. He hasn't gone Morth because they didn't see him at the ferry. And he said, I heard that you've been filled with lead, and the birds have been feeding on your carcass.
(John sang verse 7 again, followed by the chorus. Then he translated:)
Now they tell me that Jyou're dead,/ That your flesh is filled with lead,/ On your carcass birds have fed,/ Crows and rooks so greedily.
(He sing sings verse 8 again, followed by the chorus. What's the translation of that?) Well, he said Norman told him how the dog died, that he shot him in the arse, the dog's breath departed instantly. (Laughter.)
(What does the last verse say?) Well, it said the old woman got a sack and tossed the dog's carcass in the sack, and they buried him in a swamp and covered him with rocks and sods. (Laughs.)
(John, why did singers leave out some of the verses?) That verse (8) was never sung in company. It was left out on account soneone might take offence. Only ourselves would sing it. Well, the song wasn't sung so often, just now and then.
Geordie MacAskill: Murdoch knew it (verse 8), but it's very seldom that he'd sing it, in case the minister was there. That would be the only reason that he wouldn't sing it. Nobody (cared) back then. They'd laugh their head off at it.
(So you have the one about his carcass full of lead, then Norman telling how he did it. then the mother burying him in the swamp?) John: Yes. (It's Phillip Carmichael who's supposed to be singing it?) Singing it, yes. lamenting his dog's departure, that the dog was gone. He was such a good dog (laughing). So good to run after cattle. My father put that verse in because, I told you about he jumped on his back when he was trying to get him to chase the cows out of the place. So in the song he had, the dog was good to chase cattle off the place.
(Was he an ugly dog?) He wasn't a pretty dog at all. He had a head about that long (holds his hands out, palms facing with about a foot between them), a right long snout. He was tall. He was about so high. (He put out a hand, palm down, with about two feet between it; and the floor.)
And-he was spoiled. He wouldn't eat bread. A piece of bread, no, turn up his nose at it. He wanted meat, and they used to feed him meat and gravy. Yes, a piece of pie. (Laughs.)
(Was he a mean dog?) No. Well, he was mean to smaller dogs. You know most big dogs won't fight with a little dog. Well, he was the only big dog I ever saw that would pick on a small dog. I've seen big dogs that'd ignore little dogs that were looking for a fight themselves. But he wouldn't. He'd get after small dogs if they came around. (Did he ever cause any other trouble?) Appropriating the lounge for himself. There was a lounge in the kitchen, a cot, and that's where he'd lie down, and he was long enough to stretch almost the full length of the cot when he laid on it. (He wouldn't let anybody near it?) No, he didn't want anybody disturbing him. This was in the Sweets' place. (It must have been tricky at mealtimes or when company was over.) Well, he was full of fleas for one thing. They had trouble trying to get rid of the fleas. They couldn't get them off the dog. He'd leave them on the cot where he'd be lying and....
(Did he have other bad habits?) Well, I know that he tore up my mother's garden. (John and Geordie's mother was Cassie Sarah MacDermott MacAskill.) Well, she hadn't been feeling that well that spring. She used to look after the garden herself, her flower garden pretty well by herself, pastime. So I helped her, I made up young beds for her and helped her to fertilize the garden and plant the flowers, and everything was blooming nicely. And then about July, one day, Shep came over and got into the garden, and started digging with all four feet. You know, going in the bed, sods' flying here and there, all four paws going, and he was a big dog. He ruined the bed.
So I ran to the back door where we kept the shotgun. I was going to shoot him through he open window. I was going to finish him off there and then. And, aw, my mother mght me by the arm, "Oh, no, no. Phillip will feel so bad if you shoot him." And I said, "Phillip won't know anything about it." But, I think she just didn't want the gun fired off in the house. Well, I didn't shoot him, but before summer was over she wished that I had. He ruined all the beds in the garden. He came over more than once like that, couldn't chase him away, but that didn't do any good, he'd be back again the next day. I don't know why he used to do that, but that's what he'd do. He ruined the garden.
He was part collie, and I don't know what the other part would be. just dog. He was brown, tawny coloured, white feet. He was a big dog. He was about two feet at the shoulder. He was as long,as from here to the end of the bed, easily three feet, no, he was more than three feet from nose to tail. He wasn't very popular with the Sweets, the family who came to live with Phillip. They just wanted to be rid of him. He was totally useless and he was a nuisance.
[Danny and Joan Hathaway want to thank John and the late Geordie MacAsklll for sharing this song and information with them, as well as Geordie's wife, Ruth, for her help and hospitality.]