Steer my course
28 June 2021
A song by John Cameron (1919-1989) Researched and sung by Eòin Cumming
O steer my course to my native land
O steer my course to my beloved land,
O steer my course to my native land
That I miss, by night and by day.
I wouldn’t thank you for the land of France
I was nearly lost there, with a surfeit of mud;
When they served me toad’s legs
And cooked snail, I didn’t ask for more.
Holland indeed does not agree with me,
The land was flat, so low and spreading;
The seas threatening to breach the walls
Indeed I would not like to live there.
Desolate Africa, I rested there
The heat oppressed me, water was scarce,
With the heat of the sun, half my reason deserted me
I wouldn’t stay there for Egypt’s gold.
Italy is a midden for strange people
Who’ll sing to you to pass the time,
Like sly old cats you’d be stroking
Although it might be purring, it would spit in your eye.
That cold Russia, I visited there
Among these people I was lost;
They were so sullen, without compassion or pity
I wouldn’t stay an hour there, if I could escape.
O, steer my course to my native land
The healthy, fragrant land of peaks and mountains
Of the fresh air which would energise me
By the side of Loch Ewe, I’ll be contented there.
Why I chose this song
I wished to find more information about songs from my own district of Wester Ross. There are several poets I could have chosen. John Cameron is an exceptional poet and I decided to research his life and work because the substance of his songs relates to local things I know well and feel a connection to.
John Cameron was born on 28th December 1919 in Inverasdale, where he spent a lot of his life. He was educated in primary school in Inverasdale and in secondary school in Gairloch. After he left school he had a variety of jobs, for example at Poolewe Farm, the County Council, and as a joiner.
In 1939 he had to go to war. He fought in Africa, France, Holland, Italy and in Germany. He was captured in Germany in 1944 and was a prisoner of war there for nine months until he was liberated by the Russians. Shortly after this he returned home where he went to work at the Boom (Boom Defence Depot) at Loch Ewe and he had many different jobs there during his life.
He married Effie MacAskill from Harris and some of his poems are about her. After John retired, he and Effie moved to Dingwall where they lived for the rest of their lives.
Much of John’s poetry praises Wester Ross, the area in which he was born and where he lived. He often selected a tune and composed words to it. He was crowned Bard by An Comunn Gàidhealach at the National Mod in 1953. He also used to write plays in Gaelic and poems in English. He and his wife both died in 1989.
Here are some opinions about John Cameron recorded from Hector MacKenzie. John was his uncle.
“He had a good relationship with neighbours and acquaintances from all walks of life - from crofters to distinguished Naval officials. He had strong convictions on various topics and would vigorously defend his views and principles, particularly in support of Gaelic. John was also an accomplished speaker and so he was in demand at weddings and formal dinners.”
Hector has a slightly different story about John’s time in the war. He says that John contracted diphtheria in the prison camp but even so he still managed to escape with three companions and make his way back to Britain. He spent the next six months in hospitals and convalescent homes before he returned home. The war had a profound effect on him, as can be seen in his poetry. He saw the horrors of war and he always used to say that we should never forget how lucky we are to live in a peaceful and free place. He rarely spoke about what happened during the war.
Steer my course is about the second war and especially the places where the poet fought. The chorus is full of hope and longing. The poet was away from his home for about six years and, as we see in his words, there was nothing pleasant about any of the places he was in. There are some harsh and direct words used, and the poet’s feelings are very clear. He holds nothing back even if he is being contemptuous of some people. Today some might say that these words are not appropriate but we have to remember the history and the context in which they were written.
I contacted Gairloch Museum to find out whether they had recordings of John Cameron singing his own songs. I received sound files from them which helped me find the tune for Stiùir mo Chùrsa.
There are no recordings of the song. John Cameron’s songs are published in the book Inbhir Àsdal nam Buadh, edited by Roy Wentworth and Maoileas Caimbeul, published by Clàr 2006.