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Friday, 25 May 2018

The Rev. Norman MacDonald

Of all the Gaelic prose writers of the twentieth century the Rev. Norman MacDonald (1904–1978) can make a claim to be one of the most accomplished. He belonged to Valtos, Trotternish, Isle of Skye and was the son of Donald MacDonald, a crofter, from Valtos, and Ann MacDonald. After gaining his early education in the schools of Valtos and then Portree, MacDonald went to Glasgow where he attended Celtic studies at the university there under the tutelage of the Rev. George Calder. He then later trained to become a minister. To Gairm and An Gàidheal Òg as well as other periodicals and journals besides, MacDonald regularly contributed material especially about themes or topics mainly but not exclusively based on oral tradition. He did not restrict himself only to this subject, a long-held interest of his, for he possessed a seemingly inexhaustible curiosity with regard to all aspects of Gaelic tradition, poetry and song as well as an abiding interest in comparative religion, mythology and the occult. Prolific though he was, his ability as a writer of elegant prose is easily discernible whether in English or Gaelic. Little wonder then that he should attract the attention of Calum Maclean who fortunately took the time to record details from him in 1953 talking about his life and the writing that he was then undertaking. It is perhaps testimony to his training as a minister that he had clear diction and was an excellent communicator in his native tongue. The transcription may be listened to (and read along) at the link to the Tobar an Dualchais website:

Rugadh mise ann am baile beag Bhaltois―’s e ainm Lochlannach a th’ ann an sin―air taobh sear an Eilein Sgitheanaich na mar ’s còir dhomh a ràidhtinn a-nist Tròndairinis―ainm eile a tha glè Lochlannach―anns a’ bhliadhna 1904 [nineteen-four]. Agus tha mi ga mo mheas fhìn an-diugh glè fhortanach dha-rìreamh gun robh na seann-chleachdaidhean Gàidhealach beò agus air an cumail air adhart mar a bha iad riamh anns a’ chiad chuid dhe mo bheatha ann am Bhaltos. Nar a bha mi ma shia bliadhna, chaidh mi gu ruige sgoil, bha mi ann an sin fad an latha ach an sgoil na b’ fheàrr ann nar a bha sgoiltean a sgaoileadh mu àm an fheasgair ’s e an a dh’ràidhtinn an cèilidh agus glè bhitheantas anns an dachaigh againn fhìn a bhiodh an cèilidh. ’S chruinnich na bodaich an fhìor sheann seòrsa agus bhiodh iad a’ chèilidh ann an sin agus fhuair mi mòran dhe m’ eòlas bho na seann daoine a bha cromadh ris a’ cheithir fichead ann an toiseach mo latha. A’ chuid bu mhotha dhiubh, cha robh dad de Bheurla aca. Cha robh lide idir de Bheurla aig na boireannaich. Dh’fhàg sin gun robh ’Ghàidhlig aca gu math agus gu sàr-mhath. Agus fhuair mi eòlas farsaing air saobh-chràbhadh agus air cleachdaidhean nan Gàidheal anns na linntean a dh’fhalbh. Bha ùidh mhòr agam bhon is cuimhne leam idir bha ùidh mhòr agam anns na gnothaichean a bh’ ann an sin anns na sgeulalchdan, anns na h-òrain, anns na geasreagain, agus anns a h-uile nì a bhoineadh a shaobh…Fhuair mi mar sin, mar a dh’ainmich mi, eòlas farsaing air saobh-chràbhadh, geasreagan, òrain agus beul-aithris bho na daoine aig an robh e ann am pailteas aig an robh gu leòr dheth. Agus tha cuimhn’ a’m fhathast nar nach robh ach ma ochd bliadhna do dh’aois a bhith ’g ràidhtinn rium fhìn nar a bhithinn a’ buachailleachd gur mi bhiodh toilichte nan tigeadh an t-àm anns am bithinn comasach air a h-uile càil a chuala mi a chur cruinn ann an aon leabhar. Oir nach beag a bha a dhùil agam an uair sin gun tigeadh an t-àm as am bithinn comasach air seo a dhèanamh. Tha cuimhn’ agam gun robh mi anabarrach eudmhor as leth na Gàidhlig agus rinn mi…chaidh mi gu uchd mo dhìcheall airson a bhith comasach air a’ Ghàidhlig a leughadh. Bhithinn a’ toirt leam leabhar Gàidhlig nar a bhithinn a’ dol a bhuachailleachd agus le cuideachadh leabhar òrain. bha mi comasach air Gàidhlig dhoirbh a leughadh. Agus bhuaithe sin, chaidh mi gu Gàidhlig na bu doirbhe ’s na bu doimhne, fhuair mi Caraide nan Gàidheal agus rinn sin air m’ ionnsachasdh gu math agus gu ro-mhath. An dèidh dhomh an sgoil fhàgail ann am Bhaltos, chaidh mi gu ruige sgoil Phort Rìgheadh. Bha mi sia bliadhna deug aig an àm ’s shaoil duine an-diugh gun robh sin gu math sean agus bha e sean cuideachd. Ach anns an latha ud cha robh e air a mheas sin bha cuid bu mhotha ceithir deug nar a bha iad a’ dol don sgoil Phort Rìgheadh. Cuid dhiubh beagan na bu shine. Bha mi ann an sin agus a’ chiad bheagan bhliadhnaichean bha mi a’ faotainn eòlais air cànanan mar a tha Fraingis, ’s Laidinn, a’ Bheurla. Ach anns a’ bhliadhna mu dheireadh, bha mi glè thaingeil gun tàinig maighstir-sgoile Gàidhlig a thug leasanan Gàidhlig dhuinn. Cha robh mi ach trì bliadhna ann an sgoil Phort Rìgheadh nar a dh’fhàg mi agus chaidh mi gu ruige Ghlascho. Ann an sin bha mi ag uallachadh airson an oilthigh agus thug mi geamhradh bho theagaisg ministeir a tha na sgoilear Gàidhlig sònraichte ann an Glascho. Agus rinn esan m’ ullachadh airson a dhol gu ruige an oilthigh. Chan e nach robh mo cheann fhìn luma-làn Gàidhlig ach an dèidh sin gu lèir dh’fheumainn beagan eòlais fhaotainn air Gàidhlig a sgrìobhadh agus air Gàidhlig Èireannach. Chaidh mi gu ruige Oilthigh Ghlascho agus bha an t-Urramach an t-Ollamh Caldair mar a tha fios againn a’ teagaisg ann an sin. Agus bha mi fo theagaisg-san. Fhuair mi ann an sin, fhuair mi àrd-eòlais air a’ Ghàidhlig Albannach agus air a’ Ghàidhlig Èireannach cuideachd. Agus nar a chaidh mi a-staigh gu ruige Talla na Diadhachd fhuair mi nam fhear-cuideachaidh ann an Eaglais Chaluim Chille ann an Glascho agus bha sin feumail dhomh. Bha mi comasach air feum a dhèanamh dhe mo Ghàidhlig agus air a bhith ga searmonachadh agus a h-uile Sàbaid bha an t-Ollamh Urramach gam èisdeachd agus ’s iomadh latha crìdheanach a bha mi ’teagasg, chan e idir gun robh eagal orm gun dèanainn mearachd a thaobh na Diadhachd ach ’s e a bha cur a’ chùraim orm uile gun dèanainn a’ mhearachd bu lugha a thaobh litearchais. Bha a leithid a’ chluas gheur aige ga chumail fosgailte ris a’ chùbaid. Agus nan rachadh duine leud na roinneag ceàrr ann an litreachas dhèanadh sin dragh dha. Dh’aithneachadh sibh e. Ach bha mi bruidhinn ris a-rithist agus tha mi glè thaingeil nach d’fhuair e riamh cearb air m’ theagasg.

Agus tha…bha miann mòr agam air a dhol a-null gu ruige dùthaich Chanada. Bha mi a’ cur romham nam b’urrainn mi idir a dhèanamh gun toirinn sgrìobh a-null air feadh na tìreadh agus gun cuirinn seachad bliadhna no dhà ann. ’S e seo an rud a rinn mi anns a’ bhliadhna 1930 [nineteen-thirty]. Chaidh mi a-null gu ruige Chanada. Thug mi a’ chiad gheamhradh ann an Quebec a-measg nan Gàidheal ann an sin ann an an cridhe mòr-roinn Quebec. Fhuair mi an uair sin fios airson a dhol gu ruige Ceap Breatainn ann an earrach…anns an earrach 1931 [nineteen-thirty-one]. Chaidh mi gu ruige Baile Sydney ’s e ceanna-bhaile Eilein Cheap Breatainn. ’S nar a ràinig mi sin, fhuair mi a-mach gun robh e ceart cho Gàidhealach ris an dùthaich a dh’fhàg mi as mo dhèoidhinn agus ann an seagh gun robh iad mòran, mòran na b’ eudmhoire as leth na Gàidhlig na bha iad air feadh Gàidhealtachd na h-Alba agus mòran na bu chùramaiche nar a bhruidhneadh iad Gàidhlig nach cuireadh iad faclan Beurla a feum agus nach dèanadh iad idir idir facal Beurla le earball Gàidhlig a chleachdadh. Bha mi an sin a-measg Ghàidheil Cheap Breatainn airson an earraich, ’s fad an t-samhraidh, agus criomag mhath dhe an fhoghair. Thill mi an uair sin gu ruige Montréal agus ghabh mi beagan gheamhra’ anns an a’ cholaisde…anns an oilithigh mhòr a tha sin ceangailte ri McGill agus an ath shamhradh a-rithist…tha…chaidh mi a chur gu ruige Ceap Breatainn ’s bha mi ann an sin agus thug mi ann an samhradh agus thug mi ann am foghar. Agus chuir mi romham gun rachainn gu ruige Eilean a’ Phrionnsa airson gum faicinn mo dhaoine, mo chàirdean agus mo chuideachd. Bha fios agam gun robh na h-uireid de mo dhlùth chàirdean thall ann an Eilean a’ Phrionnsa a dh’fhàg an taobh sear eadhon anns na làithean sin air an robh cuimhne glè mhath aig mo sheanmhair. Chaidh mi ann an sin. Agus bha e anabarrach freagarrach dhomh…sgrìobh mi an toiseach gu ministear a bha ann an Eilean a’ Phrionnsa agus dh’fhoighneachd mi dheth an robh sgìr’ ann a bha bàn a bha e ag iarraidh fear-teagaisg airson beagan mhìosan agus le tionndadh a’ phuist nach ann a fhuair mi litir bhuaithe ag ràidhtinn tha mi glè thoilichte airson do litir fhaotainn. Tha mi fhìn dìreach a’ dol a-null gu ruige Sasann, mi fhìn agus mo bhean, airson mìosan a’ gheamhraidh agus mi a’ gabhail gu math airson duine a ghabhas m’ àite. Agus bidh mi ro-thoilichte ma thig thu agus gu gabhaibh thu m’ àite. ’S e seo an rud a rinn mi. Dh’fhag mi Eilean Cheap Breatainn agus rinn mi air Pictou, sin agaibh am baile-puirt ann an Alba Nuadh airson Eilean a’ Phrionnsa. Bha e glè iomraiteach ann an làithean nan eilthireach cha chluinnte guth ach Pictou…Bha Pictou an uair ud cho iomraiteach ’s tha Montréal an-diugh na Quebec―baile-puirt ainmeil. Ghabh mi air a’ bhàta a-nall an sin, ’s e Hochelaga a theireadh iad rithe, ainm Innseanach. ’S ràine mi Charlottetown, ceanna-bhaile an t-àite. Ach feumaidh mi a ràidhtinn nar a chadh mi air bòrd cò a bha cuide rium air bòrd ach ministearan Eilean a’ Phrionnsa, bha iad aig coinneamh dhe an t-Ionad [Synod] ann am Pictou. ’S bha iad a’ tilleadh chun gu ruige an t-àite, fhuair mi eòlas orm ann an seasamh nam bonn. Cò bha nam measg ach ministear na sgìre a dh’ionnsaidh air an robh mi dol. Co-dhiù, cha tug sinn fada ruigheachd ceanna-bhaile an t-àite. Agus bha càr aige fhèin ann an sin. Cha robh sìon ann ach leum na bhroinn dèanamh air Mountague. Nuair a ràine mise Montague bha e dìreach mar gu’ ruiginn tu an Taobh an Sear bha Gàidhlig aig gach duine agus bha mi ann an sin air mo chuairteachadh le càirdean feadhainn a thàinig às a h-uile baile air clàr an taobh sear agus An Gleann Mòr, Ùige, Cille Mhoire agus Cille Mo Luag agus Rathairsear agus Rònaigh. Agus dh’fhuirich mi cuide riutha fad an…deireadh an fhoghair, ’s fad an t-samhraidh ’s fad an earraich. Agus nar a thàinig toiseach an t-samhraidh, thill am ministear air ais à Sasann agus dh’fhàg mi an uair sin Eilean a’ Phrionnsa. Agus chaidh mi gu mòr-roinn Ontario, fhuair mi an sin àite dhomh fhìn…gairm dhomh fhìn. Agus ghabh mi mo chiad sgìreachd oir gun robh mi faireachadh an uair sin gun an tide agam àite a ghabhail dhomh fhìn.

Ach feumaidh mi nise a’ tilleadh air n-ais beagan. Anns a’ bhliadhna 1931, bha mi dèanamh beagan às leth…às leth na Gàidhlig a’ toirt corra òraid seachad mu dheidhinn beul-aithris agus saobh-chràbhadh brèagha nan Gàidheal. Anns a’ bhliadhna 1932, mar a dh’ainmich mi, chaidh mi gu ruige gu Ceap Breatainn. Agus bha mi latha ann an sin a-staigh ann am bùth leabhraichean agus sheall mi…chunnaic mi na uireid de na mìosachan ann an sin, mìosachan Beurla air a’ bhòrd air mo bheulaibh bha e lùma-lan dhiubh ach thug mi sùil agus gu dè bha air mo bheulaibh ach mìosachan ann an Gàidhlig Teachdaire nan Gàidheal. ’S mi a rinn mi an sòlas ris agus sheall mi suas cò am fear a bha ga chur a-mach. Agus fhuair mi an t-ainm aige, fear Seumas MacNèill ann am Baile Shudnaidh. Anns a’ mhionaid, chaidh mi far an robh agus dh’òrduich mi a tha...am pàipear airson bliadhna. Agus ’s ann a dh’iarr e orm an uair sin beagan a thoirt dha ann an rosg, na bàrdachd na rud sam bith. Rinn mi seo ’s e saobh-chràbhadh a thug mi dha agus ’s e chiad òraid a thug mi seachad anns ’se ‘Eòin Shealbhach Agus Mì-Shealbhach ann an Saobh-Chràbhadh nan Gàidheal’ a bh’ ann. Tha sin dìreach anns an t-samhradh ann an 1932 [nineteen-thirty-two]. Agus chan fhaigheadh e gu lèor bhuam an dèidh sin cha robh mi ach a’ cur òraid air muin òraid agus bàrdachd ga ionnsaidh ’s bha sinn a’ faighinn air adhart mar sin. Agus sinn le chèile…tha…a’ sgrìobhadh na Gàidhlig anns a’ phàipear a bh’ ann an seo am mìosachan. ’S e duine gasda air leth a bh’ ann ’s bha e anabarrach eudmhor airson na Gàidhlig a chumail suas ’s bha e glè mhath aige fhèin thoireadh ’s ann à Barraigh a dh’fhalbh a shinnsearachd. Agus bha mise tuilleadh a’ sìor sgrìobhadh saobh-chràbhadh, ga sgrìobhadh airson a’ mhìosachan a bha ann an seo. Agus mar sin tha mi a’ cumail suas an t-adhbhair. Agus ’s ann an uair sin a thòisich daoine air gabhail suim ann an saobh-chràbhadh…’s a’ cur meas air agus tha mi glè thoilichte gum bheil a leithid an-diugh ga dhèanamh airson a’ chuspair a tha ann an sin, obair mhòr agus obair ro-luachmhor an-diugh ga dheànamh saobh-chràbhabh ’s am beul-aithris an-diugh ga thrusadh agus ga chruinneachadh man tèid am bàs buileach mun dùin an uaighe aig an duine mu deireadh aig a bheil e.

Tha mi air a leithid a’ sgrìobhadh mu dheidhinn agus nar a chruinnich mi a h-uile càil a chuir mi ann an clò ’s ann a thug mi fainear gu mòr an cnap leabhar a dhèanadh dheth. ’S e seo a rinn mi. Chuir mi a h-uile h-òraid cuideachd, agus a h-uile sgeulachd. Agus an uair sin rinn mi eadar-theangachadh air na th’ agam ann an Gàidhlig gu ruige ’Bheurla. Agus tha mi a-nise leabhar agam a tha deis airson a’ chlò-bhualadh agus tha an dàrna duilleig dheth anns a’ chiad chainnt anns an deach a sgrìobhadh agus an duilleag eile mu choinneamh ann am Beurla. Tha mi an dòchas gum faigh mi uaireigineach a chlò-bhualadh.

Thàinig mi an uair sin a-nall gu ruige an dùthaich seo anns an t-fhoghar anns a’ 1939 [ninteeten-thirty-nine]. Bha mi greiseag anns na h-Eileanan ga ùrachadh m’ eòlas agus a’ faighinn beagan a bharrachd air na bh’ agam agus fhuair mi an uair sin gairm gu ruige sgìre Ghlinn Eilge far a bheil mi fhathast. Tha mi air a’ dol ann nise…tha mi ann airson naodh bliadhna mar mhinistear ann an Gleann Eilge.

And the translation may be given as follows:

I was born in the little township of Valtos―a Norse place-name located on the eastern side of the Isle of Skye or as I should say now Totternish―another very Norse name―in the year 1904. And today I consider myself very fortunate indeed that the old Highland ways were kept going as they have always been in the first part of my life in Valtos. I began attending school when I was around six years of age and I would spend all day there but the best education after the school-day had ended in the late afternoon I should say was the ceilidh [house visit] and very often such social gatherings were held in our own home. The old men would gather―those of the good old kind―and they’d hold a ceilidh there and I got much of what I know from my early days from these old folk who were nearly eighty years of age. Many of them couldn’t speak English; none of the women could speak a word of English. That meant they could speak Gaelic well and indeed very well. And I received a wide knowledge of superstations and the old Highland ways from bygone generations. It had a great effect upon me and if memory serves I’ve maintained a great interest in such things as in stories, songs, and in superstition and everything else of that kind…I received, as I said, a wide knowledge of superstitions, magic, songs and oral tradition from those who had it in plenty and indeed had more than enough. And I can still recall that when I was only eight years of age that I used think that when I was herding that I’d be happy when the time came that I’d be able to put all that I had heard collected into one book. For I had not at all expected that the time would come when I’d be able to do such a thing. I recalled that I was exceptionally zealous to the cause of Gaelic and I tried my very best to be able to read Gaelic. I used to carry a Gaelic book when I was herding and with the help of a songbook I was eventually able to read difficult Gaelic. And from then on I focussed on yet more difficult and far deeper Gaelic. I got the writings of Caraid nan Gàidheal [The Rev. Norman MacLeod] and I got on well if not even better with my learning. Once I left the local school in Valtos, I then went to Portree school. I was then sixteen years of age and everyone today thinks this is quite old and, yes, it was quite old. But in those days it was not considered so and many were fourteen years of age when they went to Portree school. Some of them were even older. I was there and for the first few years I was learning different languages such as French, Latin and English. But in the final year I was very thankful that a schoolmaster came to give us lessons in Gaelic. I only attended Portree school for three years and then I left and went to Glasgow. When I was there I was preparing to enter university and I spent a winter there being taught by a minster who was an exceptional Gaelic scholar in Glasgow. And he prepared me to enter university. It was not that my head wasn’t full of Gaelic but after all I had to gain a bit more knowledge of how to write Gaelic as well as Irish. I attended the University of Glasgow and, as we know, the Rev. Dr Calder taught there. I was under his tutelage. And there I got a truly good knowledge of Scottish as well as Irish Gaelic. And then when I entered Divinity Hall I became a lay-preacher in St Columba’s in Glasgow and that was a great boon to me. I was able to use my Gaelic and to delver sermons every Sunday where the Rev. Dr would listen to me and many a nervous day I spent there teaching. It wasn’t that I was afraid that I was going to make a mistake with regard to theology but I was very concerned that I’d make even the smallest mistakes in literary terms. He had such sharp hearing and he lent an ear to the pulpit. And if anyone should make a mistake in literary terms that would annoy him. You’d see that. But I spoke with him again and I’m very thankful that he never spotted any mistakes in my teaching. And I had a great wish to go over to Canada. I spent the first winter in Quebec among the Gaels there in the very heart of Quebec Province. I then received word to go to Cape Breton in the spring of 1931. I went to Sydney, the capital of Cape Breton. When I got there I found out that it was just as Highland as the country which I left after me and in a many ways it was more zealous of the Gaelic cause than then they were back in the Highlands of Scotland and were far more careful speakers of Gaelic so that they didn’t use English words and that they didn’t use an English word with a Gaelic ending. I was among the Gaels of Cape Breton for the spring, all that summer and good part of the autumn. I then returned to Montréal and I spent a bit of witter in the college at the University connected with McGill and then the next summer…I went back to Cape Breton. I spent a summer and an autumn there. And I then decided that I’d go to Prince Edward Island so that I could visit my people, mo friends, and my relations. I knew fine well that there were quite an amount of my near relations over in Prince Edward Island that had left the eastern side [of the Isle of Skye] which my grandmother remembered well. I went over there. It was extremely favourable for me to write to a minister in Prince Edward Island that I asked if there were any vacant parishes and if they wanted a preacher for a few months and by the return of post I received a letter saying that he was very please to have got my letter. I’m just about to depart to England, myself and my wife, for the winter months and I take it well to have someone to take my place. And I’d be very pleased if you came to replace me. That’s what I did. I left Cape Breton and made for Pictou, a port in Nova Scotia for Prince Edward Island. It was very famous at the time of the emigrants and all you’d hear was Pictou…Pictou was as famous as Montreal and Quebec are these days. I arrived in Charlottetown, the island’s capital. But I must say that when I went on board who was in my company on board but the ministers from Prince Edward Island who had been attending a meeting of the Synod in Pictou. And they were on their way back and they got to know me there and then. Who was among them but the very minister of the parish to where I was headed. We didn’t take long on reaching the main town. And he had had car with him so there was nothing but to jump in and to head for Montague. When I arrived in Montague it was just as if I had landed on the eastern side [of the Isle of Skye] as everyone spoke Gaelic and I was surrounded by my relations a few of whom had arrived from the eastern side such as Glenmore, Uig, Kilmuir, Kilmoluag, Raasay and Rona. And I stayed with them until the end of autumn….all summer and all spring. When at the outset of winter the minister returned from England and so I then left Prince Edward Island and I went to Morine in Ontario where I got a place of my own…I was called there. I was settled into my first place for I then felt that it was high time to have a place of my own.

But I must now go back a bit. In 1931 I was doing a bit for the Gaelic cause and was presenting lectures about traditions and those fine superstitions of the Gaels. In 1932, as I said before, I went over to Cape Breton. And I was on day in a bookshop and I saw so many periodicals there, those in English right in front of me on the table and it was just full of them but I took another look and what was there in front of me but the Gaelic periodical Teachdaire nan Gàidheal. I was very glad indeed to see it and so I looked up to see who published it. And I found out his name, a man called James MacNeil from Sydney. At once I went to see him and paid for an annual subscription. And he then asked me for something to give him whether in prose or poetry or anything like that. I did so and it the first lecture I gave him was about superstation and it was entitled ‘Eòin Shealbhach Agus Mhi-Shealbhach ann an Saobh-Chràbhadh nan Gàidheal / [Lucky and Unlucky Birds in the Superstition of the Gael].’ That was in the summer of 1932. And he couldn’t get enough from me after that as I was sending lecture after lecture as well as poetry to him and we were getting on like that. And we were both writing Gaelic for this paper, this periodical. He was an exceptional individual and he was extremely zealous to keep up the Gaelic cause and he spoke excellent Gaelic for his ancestors hailed from the Isle of Barra. And I was from then on always writing about superstations, writing it for this periodical. And so I was keeping up the cause. And it was then that folk began to take an interest in superstations…and beginning to appreciate it and I’m very happy indeed that today that much is being doing for this topic, great and worthy work it being done for superstitions and oral traditions to gather and collect them before they entirely die out and before the grave closes on the last person to have it.

I have written such an amount about it and when I gathered everything together to put into print it was then that I realised that I could put a big book together. That’s what I’ve done. I put together all the lectures and every single story. And then I translated all that had in Gaelic into English. And now my book is ready for publishing and the opposite page is in the language in which it was written and the opposite page is in English. I hope that I’ll be able to get it into print at some point.

I then returned to this country in 1939. I spent a while over in the Western Isles renewing as well as gaining a bit more knowledge of what I had and then I got the call to go to Glenelg where I still am. I’ve been here as minister in Glenelg for nine years,

The Rev. Norman MacDonald was minister at Catalone, Cape Breton, and in Prince Edward Island as well as at Priceville, Ontatrio, between 1933 and 1942. In 1942 he was minister at the United Free Church on Berneray between 1942 and 1944. Whilst living on Berneray he lodged at Trealigarry in Ruisgarry. He transferred to Glenelg, also serving at Islay, Glenelg, Stratherrick and Boleskine. He was minister at Carinish between 1966 and 1972. After a long and distinguished career as a minister and perhaps more important as a writer, MacDonald passed away in 1978. An obituary notice appeared in the West Highland Free Press which neatly sums up all that was best about the man and his character:

The following tribute was paid to the late Rev Norman MacDonald―who died recently―by Rev R M MacKinnon, clerk to the presbytery of Uist.

The death occurred at hospital in Kirkcaldy earlier this month of the Rev Norman MacDonald, lately minister of Carinish, North Uist. Mr MacDonald had been admitted to hospital three weeks previously and although he had been in indifferent health his death was unexpected.

Mr MacDonald was born in Valtos, Staffin, Skye, on August 15, 1904. He was educated at Valtos Public School, Portree Higher Grade School and the University of Glasgow. While a student at Glasgow, he assisted at Glasgow St Columba Gaelic Church.

He was licensed to preach the Gospel by the Presbytery of Cape Breton, Canada, on September 22, 1932. He was ordained and inducted to the pastoral charge of Princeville, Ontario, by the Presbytery of Orangeville, Ontario, on December 26, 1933. He subsequently served in the congregation of Appin and Melbourne, Ontario, from January 1937 until he returned to Scotland and was inducted by the Presbytery of Uist to the charge of Berneray and Lochportan on March 3, 1942.

Mr MacDonald was inducted by the Presbytery of Lochcarron to the charge of Glenelg on December 27, 1944. He was inducted to the charge of Killarrow by the Presbytery of Isla; on September 2, 1953, and by the Presbytery of Inverness to the congregation of Stratherrick and Boleskine on January 13, 1960. His last charge was at Carinish, North Uist, where he was inducted on December 22, 1966. He began and ended his service in the Church of Scotland in the Presbytery of Uist. He retired from Carinish on April 30, 1972, and made his home in Glenrothes.

Mr MacDonald was a quiet man who carried out his duties faithfully. He was a gentleman who had a kindly word to say to all he met. He was a man of whimsical humour which was reinforced by the large fund of anecdotes which he drew out of his well stored mind.

He had a great love for all things Highland and Gaelic and did much research into the byways of Highland literature both sacred and secular in English and Gaelic. He was a lover of books ancient and modern and had before his retirement amassed a considerable library. He not only loved books, he wrote books. He h[a]d the pen of a ready writer, and we are all indebted to him for his monograph on the late Rev D T MacKay at Tiree. a native of Plockton who was a much respected and popular evangelist in the Highlands In the inter-war years. Mr MacDonald also wrote a booklet on Trinity Temple, Carinish, which was well received when published in 1972. He was a regular contributor to the Gaelic Supplement or Life and Work, writing on such varied topics as the early Celtic church in Europe and the lives of St Columba and St Patrick. His work on Gaelic words and allied topics is well-known by readers of Gairm and Sruth and of the now-defunct Gaidheal.

Mr MacDonald’s enquiring mind went beyond the study of what was visible and tangible to the twilight world of the occult. He was a corresponding member of the Royal Gustavus Adolphus Academy, and had work on the occult published in Upsalla, Sweden. Among his many publications on the occult are such titles as “The Occult Elements Common to Celtic and Oriental Folklore” and “The After Life in Celtic and Oriental Folklore”. He had an abiding interest in all kinds of folklore, but that did not hinder him from writing on more mundane subjects such as “The History of the Parish of Glenelg”.

From what I have written, it can be seen that Mr MacDonald was a man of wide interests. He had within his life combined, in a unique way, a warm affection for the evangelical pieties of his childhood upbringing with an acquaintance with an interest in the most radical of modem theology.

His congregation will remember him with affection, for he was warmhearted by nature, wide in his sympathies, kindly in his judgements, generous and charming as host in his own home.

Mr MacDonald, despite or because of his wide reading, could enthuse over tales of rustic piety and muscular faith. He had heard most of the famous preachers of the twenties, and his judgement of them was perceptive and generous. He could discourse eloquently on the superstitions and credulities of simple folk of a bygone age and could view with interest the reappearance of these superstitions in the so-called sophisticated society of our generation, while remaining unshakeable in his conviction of the authenticity of the faith he had to proclaim.

References:
Alan Bruford & Donald A. MacDonald, Scottish Traditional Tales (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1994), pp. 205–07, 457
Norman Macdonald and Cailean Maclean, The Great Book of Skye, vol. 1 (Portree: Great Book Publishing, 2014)
Rev. R. M. MacKinnon, ‘The Rev. Norman MacDonald,’ West Highland Free Press, no. 334 (1 Dec., 1978), p. 7
Eachdraidh-beatha an Urramaich Tormod Dòmhnallach

Acknowledgement:
Many thanks to Dr Tiber Falzett in assisting with the transcription.

Image:
Valtos, Staffin, Isle of Skye

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Reminscenses of ‘The Coddie’: John MacPherson of Northbay, Barra


In his book of 1967, focusing yet again upon the Western Isles, Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (1899–1970) devotes two chapters to the “Uncrowned King of Barra.” These are vignettes collected by the author over many visits and over several years when on various trips to the Isle of Barra. The following vignettes and anecdotes recited by ‘The Coddie’, and noted down by the author, reflect the storyteller’s art of which he had in great abundance and also his personality shines through. It does little to dispel the fact that ‘The Coddie’ when the mood would take him could hold on to any audience in the palm of his hand:

NEVER THROUGHOUT the length and breadth of the Hebrides was there anybody more widely known than was the Coddie. For everyone who could distinguish him as John MacPherson (the name one was obliged to use when referring to him officially), hundreds recognised him only by his nickname. Indeed, his baptismal name would have conveyed nothing to most people. As the Coddie, however, or simply as Coddie, he was renowned far beyond the confines even of Scotland. All his days, except for the few he spent each year somewhere or other on the Scottish mainland, were lived at Northbay, in the Isle of Barra.

Of his nickname the Coddie was proud. He once told me how he came by it. “I got that title in school when, one day―I remember the day well―I was seen sitting forlorn, with my mouth gaping like a cod-fish. A lot of us received by-names the day I got mine; and every one of them has stuck. I soon recognised the aptness of my own, and that, if ever I went into business, it would stand me in good stead. And, indeed, it has! You can see that for yourself!”

It was the Coddie’s appreciation of this, quite early in life, that gave him his unbounded self-confidence, his imperturbable self-assurance. He sometimes confided to the more intimate of his friends just where and how he acquired these qualities. The historic spot―assuredly a historic one in the Coddie’s crowded life―lies by a burn bisecting the road between Northbay and Castlebay, rather than between Castlebay and Northbay, as might seem the more usual. The Coddie was travelling on foot from Northbay to Castlebay the day he made the first serious resolution of his life. “Says I to myself, ‘Coddie, you can sell fish as good as anyone. There’s no reason whatever why you should be shy about it’. So I went on my way to Castlebay on my bare feet with my fish, feeling that I was as good as any body else on the island, and a bittie better than many a one I knew. I never felt awkward with my fish-basket after that, nor about anything else for that matter. Nowadays, when I go to Castlebay, it’s not on my bare feet, but in my cash―in my two cars. And, when I come to the historic burn, I says to myself, ‘Coddie, do you mind the day you sat there with your fish, awful worried, wondering if anybody in Castlebay would be wanting to buy them? Well, Coddie, you’ve never looked back since that day. You’ve gone from strength to strength, Coddie; and now you’re crossing the burn on rubber cushions with the best o’ them.’”

*           *           *

It was indicative of the Coddie’s importance to society that nobody ever needed to memorise his telephone number. This he found very gratifying. Anyone picking up a receiver anywhere in the Hebrides, and asking the exchange for the Coddie, was put through in a gliff. To this day, several years after his death, every telephonist in the Isles, and possibly also in centres like Oban and Mallaig, Inverness and Fort William, has his number by heart―his numbers, I ought to say, since Coddie indulged in JUST one little extravagance: he had two telephone numbers. When one of these was not immediately available, the telephonist rang the other. These numbers his son, Angus, has inherited. Angus Coddie now reigns prosperously at Northbay in his father’s stead.

“Telegraphic or telephonic address the very soul of brevity!” the Coddie used to declare. “Two words―Coddie/Barra―will find me from any part of the world!”

The extent to which this interesting and unusual mortal put his nickname to capital account may be judged from the sheet of his headed notepaper lying before me. On this sheet he penned for me, shortly before his death in 1955, at the age of 79, some fragments of Hebridean lore, a field in which he was well versed. It is headed:

TIGH A’ CHODDIE
NORTHBAY
ISLE OF BARRA

The top line signifies House of the Coddie. The last word of that line is duly aspirated in accordance with Gaelic orthographical requirements to denote the genitive or possessive case.

*           *           *

Who was the Coddie? you may ask. What did he do? What office or offices did he fill? What functions did he perform? The answers to these questions necessitate a catalogue of at least a dozen of his interests and activities. Among much else a little difficult to tabulate, he was―

(1)  Merchant
(2)  Postmaster at Northbay, in his native Isle of Barra
(3)  General Storekeeper there
(4)  Member of lnverness-shire County Council
(5)  Boarding-housekeeper
(6)  Life and Soul of the northern half of his native Isle, where he reigned omnipotent and omniscient for more than fifty years
(7)  Unrivalled raconteur
(8)  Repository of ancient legends and traditions
(9)  Deplorer of the way in which the printed word and wireless had displaced the seannachie’s oral art of storytelling
(10)               Staunch upholder of the Roman Catholic Church in the more southerly of the Outer Hebrides (the remaining population being almost exclusively Protestant―Presbyterian)
(11)               Sweet Singer of traditional Gaelic Songs
(12)               Perfervid Jacobite who believed he had a special mission to acclaim the excellence of the Old and the Young Chevalier, and to foster an interest in all that pertained to them.

Let us make a baker’s dozen by recalling how resourceful he was as representative in Barra of British European Airways. With the Coddie you could have booked your flight “from Barra’s Cockle Shore to America―-or to Australia―if you like,” as he himself was swift to impress upon any who appeared to be dubious as to how important a personage he was in the sphere of civil aviation, particularly in its pioneering days under the auspices of the original Scottish Airways. His car, usually driven by his son, Angus, awaited all aircraft alighting on the sands of the famed Cockle Shore, ready to transport passengers to any corner of his native isle served by a road or even a cart-track. In response to a telephone call, and in payment of twenty good shillings, Angus will still pick you up at Castlebay, motor you past his late father’s doorstep at Northbay, and deposit you a few minutes later on the fringe of the Great Cockle Shore as the drone of the approaching plane is heard in the heavens. Angus times his transport to a nicety.

*           *           *

I mentioned the Coddie’s having been, inter alia, a boarding-housekeeper. His enterprise in this capacity seen gained favour with guests from the mainland, who, accustomed to laid-on water, hot and cold, were attracted to accommodation in the Hebrides where even a modicum of it might be guaranteed. In this connection the Coddie was, indeed, far-seeing. This brings to mind the hostility generated in my own very conservative Hebridean cousins when, some years ago, I suggested our installing a bath in the family home, situated within a couple of miles of Stornoway―a home to which I had hoped to return each summer. “Your grandfather never had a bath in his life!” said Mairi MacDonald, scornfully, before proceeding to extol our MacDonald and MacGregor lineages with a view to showing how contemporary and pre-contemporary relatives had lived to great ages without any nonsense of that kind! A bath, forsooth! What next? I could not have suggested anything less necessary, anything more effeminate.

*           *           *

The Coddie was the person every traveller in those parts realised he must meet sooner or later―the man to whom every author and journalist encountering him, if for but the matter of a few seconds, felt constrained to assign some space. No writer ever met the Coddie without making something of him. He was “copy” at all times, proof whereof is seen in the number of books and magazine articles written during the last forty years or so, containing references to him. Barra and the Coddie were as inseparable as Hamlet and the Prince of Denmark. So integral a part of his native isle did he become that one had―and, in fact, still has―difficulty in visualising it without him. By the same token one finds it hard to imagine the Coddie divorced from Barra, for so seldom did he leave it for any length of time during his eight decades of earthly existence that things seemed to be completely in abeyance there when he was absent even for a day or two.

The Coddie never had any desire to quit his native isle. He was all too satisfactorily and remuneratively engrossed there to be attracted to pastures new. “Barra is my Paradise until I attain the Heavenly One,” was his reply to the suggestion made to him more than once that he should transfer himself and his family to the mainland, where material prospects were so much greater for anyone of his shrewdness and intelligence. ‘As provider of accommodation for visitors at Northbay in his small boarding-house, the Coddie brought himself into amiable contact with all manner of travellers among the Isles. In his capacity as merchant, he dealt in every marketable commodity under the sun. “Everything from a handful o’ haddies to a ton o’ coal. Anything from a needle to a haystack,” were his own picturesque ways of describing the range of things in which he specialised. When you saw a puffer unloading coal by the jetty at Northbay, you knew that such a cargo had come all the way from some Firth of Clyde port, consigned to the Coddie. “Coal galore for Barra, to the Coddie’s orders!” as he himself might have been heard saying when the puffer’s siren announced her arrival in Northbay waters.

*           *           *

In all the Isle of Barra there existed not a pie in which the Coddie did not have a finger or two. He had an eye to the very minutest of pics, and could make his finger feel at home in any one of them. There never was a pie too small and unpromising in its beginnings to be unworthy of his detailed direction and supervision, until at length he became the whole, big pie himself. The Coddie’s performances in the field of local transport were always matters of satisfaction to him. He was the first person in Barra to avail himself of the thrilling advantages of internal combustion. When it came to the hiring of his cars, it was all the same to him whether he placed them at the disposal of those arriving at Castlebay by the mail-boat, or of those descending from the skies upon the Cockle Strand. Given a few minutes in which to turn situations over in his mind, he could arrange water transport too. Anyone desirous of crossing the Sound of Barra to Eriskay or to South Uist were wise to apply to him in the first instance. Likewise with geologists, botanists, zoologists, ornithologists, and archaeologists bent on exploring Fuday or Fiary, Gighay or Hellisay, Fuiary or Flodday, or any of the other fifty uninhabited isles and islets lying off Northbay. All persons intent upon setting foot on any of these knew how necessary it was to enlist the help of the resourceful Coddie. Otherwise, the prospect of their achieving any such objective remained slender.

“There’s on the island, too, an old Norse fort called the Dunan Ruadh,” he once remarked as we discussed Fuday, one of the more interesting of the lesser isles off the north-east of Barra. “I ferried a―What do you call you chaps who go about the country looking at old ruins and the like?”

“Archaeologists?” I asked.

“Yes! Archaeologists! Well, I ferried a famous archaeologist from Edinburgh to Fuday in 1914. He made a bee-line for the Dunan Ruadh with a small shovel; and he counted himself very fortunate, for he struck the midden of the dun; and after a whilie he came back to myself with two bone needles of which he was very proud. He remarked that he would have got more, only for the hurried orders I gave him to return quickly to the boat to catch the tide. A rowing-boat we had. No motor-boats in the Isles in those days, my boy! I was on my way to Pollachar at the time, and sailed by way of Fuday to please him. He was very keen to land there. At Pollachar he became very interested in the standing-stone yonder, a few yards from the beach. And this is what he said to myself: ‘Admiral Jellicoe,’ says he, ‘and Admiral Beatty are famous men today in the British Navy; but below this stone lies the remain [sic] of a more famous man in his day than either of them.’ That’s what he said to myself, whatever.”

“Who was he?” I enquired.

“That he didn’t tell me. But, by the way he spoke, he seemed to know that he was a great seaman of long ago. I think he knew his name too, though he didn’t divulge it to myself.”

*           *           *

When pedalling quietly past the post-office door at Northbay one autumn day some years ago, I observed the Coddie seated on a box well inside, but not so far removed as to render him unable to see whomsoever went by, and to catch any snatch of conversation in which passers-by might be engaged. Hardly anyone fared this way who hadn’t business of some kind or other to transact with the Coddie at one time or other; and no one travelled through Northbay unnoticed by this lynx-eyed islander.

“Will you be looking for myself?” he asked from his doorstep, having by this time quitted his perch to come into the daylight as would a sentry charged with seeing that no unauthorised person slipped unchallenged through Northbay. Alighting from my bicycle, I retreated but a few steps in order to satisfy his ardent curiosity, as well as to amplify my own.

“Have I seen you here before? Yes, I think I must have! Let me see now! You’ll be Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, searching the islands the way you were doing when last I saw you here at Northbay, twenty year ago. You were staying with old William MacGillivray at the time, over at Eoligarry yonder. I heard you were in the place right enough. You were seen crossing the Cockle Strand on a bicycle the other day there, going over to see Donald Campbell, the schoolmaster. And did Donald make music for you?”

I replied, in the brief moment allowed me, that Donald did.

“Man! but Donald’s the boy for the music! The Barramen have a lot of music in them, as yourself knows; but Donald, och! he’s full o’ music. Ay, full to overflowing. They tell me that, when he was teaching in Eriskay over, they never heard such fine singing. No, not even in Father Allan’s time.

“Yes,” proceeded the Coddie in a change of vein, “I see you’re eyeing the casks.”

By his doorstep stood three casks of cured herrings―three full half-casks, I should say. From their lids I saw that they had come from Fraserburgh.

“Ay, I know fine what’s in your mind,” Coddie continued.

“Twenty year ago, as yourself will remember, Castlebay was still a centre of the herring-fishing industry; and we did much curing ourselves. Och, ay! We were sending our barrelled herrings away by the ten-thousand every year, all over the world, even to the great New York. And now devil a herring gets cured in our midst. We have to import them now, just like yourself in London, even for our own consumption. The fishermen and their boats is all gone from Castlebay, and from Northbay too. But the rings is in the rocks yet, and will be there for many a day. A sad reminder of more prosperous times.”

In the Coddie’s view the decay of Castlebay as a fishing-port was due to mismanagement and―But here intervened another theme, as he cocked his ear to the heavens. I thought at first he had detected the drone of a plane about to land on the Great Cockle Shore. But it wasn’t a plane. I was thinking that I was hearing the first of the barnacles―the barnacle geese-on their way to winter with us,” he remarked. “But no! It’s a bittie early for them yet. They don’t arrive usually in these parts until October; and they will be staying among us until April or May. Then a fine day comes, and all the barnacles assemble on Fuday over. At a given signal from their commandos, up they rise in the sky in one tremendous flock, and off they go, Arctic-wards, in wedge-shaped formation, their commandos leading them. Man! but it’s a grand sight. Surely, a grand sight. Well, now, we’ll be expecting the barnacles back before long? Will yourself be with us when they come? You’ve seen them before. I know that fine. But stay a whilie longer with us in Barra this time; and maybe myself and Alasdair Alpin MacGregor will be doing a trip to Fuday when the barnacles are congregating there.”

Here the Coddie interrupted his discourse to offer me a pinch of snuff from his mull. “I know you don’t touch it [alcohol] yourself in any shape or form; and I know you don’t smoke either. But a wee grain or two of the Coddie’s snuff never did a man like yourself any harm

In October the barnacle geese come to all the uninhabited isles lying to the north and northeast of Barra―to Hellisay and Gighay, to Flodday, Fuiary, and Fuday, particularly to the last mentioned because of the richness of its pasture. “There’s splendid grazing for the barnacles on Fuday,” the Coddie added. “It carries eighty to ninety head o’ cattle all the year round; and they don’t get one straw of wintering, for so good is the grass there.”

Fuday is remarkable for the variety of its wild flowers as well as for its barnacles. The Coddie seldom missed an opportunity of reminding one of the professor of botany, in whose company he once landed on this island. As they reclined on the grass, “the professor says to myself, says he, that, ‘though I’ve been round and round the world, I’ve never seen such a variety of wild flowers in so small a space as that lying about us this day”.

At this juncture he paused to inform me in muted tones that his box wasn’t working too well. “Sometimes my box works better than at other times,” he proceeded, indicating his head as being his box. “You’ll be knowing that yourself, I’m sure. So let me think a minute What else I should be telling you.’”

It soon became apparent that his mind was still on Fuday. “Well, I’ll tell you another one about Fuday. About seventy year ago―roughly about that time, anyway―a great gale came which swept some of the sand-dunes on the island, and exposed five stone chambers, and the skeleton of a corpse in each of them. He was a herd on the island, the man who made the discovery. Using a spade, he filled in the sand, and closed the graves, the same as what they were before the storm. He told me all this, the man himself-the man who saw them in their stone-lined tombs. Seventy years ago, boy, since that happened!

This by no means exhausted all the Coddie had to say about Fuday. He was always anxious to include in any survey of this island his account of how, in the olden time, the MacNeil of Barra and the Norsemen came to blows there, and fought until the latter were vanquished―indeed, until they became extinct, as the Coddie put it with some emphasis. The heads of the vanquished were cast into the well on Fuday, which to this day is known as the Tobar nan Ceann, the Well of the Heads.

*           *           *

Fuday, according to the omniscient Coddie, has its ghost. A few years ago, while some crofters were arranging in bundles the rushes they had cut on the island, this ghost made himself known to one of them, and in so doing passed on to him a traditional secret concerning the family to which they both belonged. The person to whom the ghost communicated this secret was one of the Coddie’s schoolmates.

There are others in Barra, the Coddie assured me, who know all about this strange visitation; and among them is Miss Annie Johnstone, the folklorist and collector of Gaelic folk-music, who lives at Castlebay. To Annie, whom I have known throughout the greater part of my life, Marjory Kennedy-Fraser acknowledged much material that went into The Songs of the Hebrides.

While Fuday has its ghost, the neighbouring isle of Fuiary has its faery washerwoman, the only one of her kind to have been seen in this locality in recent years. When last she made her appearance, according to the Coddie, she was wringing somebody’s death-shroud in the burn descending to the shore from the island’s highest part.

“There now!” the Coddie observed with a degree of self-animation. “That’s a ghost and a faery washerwoman for you! Both on Iand, my boy! Both on land! You must make a note of that now. And there’s another one I could mention while we’re ashore meanwhile―the each-uisge, the dreaded water-horse. But yourself will be knowing all about him, as myself saw in one of your books. So we’ll leave the each-uisge in the loch, and proceed to sea. Let me get my box to work about a terrific creature in the sea that my father saw when fishing for lobsters on the west side of Barra. The men that was in the boat with him saw it too. It was a sea-monster; and they were all greatly troubled. They were saying their prayers all right that day, my boy!

“Well, my father―he was a young man at the time―was fishing lobsters off Borve Point, with three other men. Lo and behold! What did they see coming near the boat but a very strange thing? ‘Och,’ they said to themselves, ‘that’s nothing but a heap of herring nets drifting with the tide.’ They could tell, the way they were lying in the water, with the glass floats keeping them from sinking out of sight. So they waited to see. Maybe, they would be able to take them aboard when they got close.

“Then they saw two humps going up and down, like the Loch Ness monster. And they said to themselves, ‘We must make our own conclusions about this, and the dangerous situation we’re in, if it turns out to be a sea-monster’.

“To be sure, a sea-monster it was for certain! Not nets and bobbing boats at all. A real monster it was, of tremendous dimensions! They couldn’t wait to take his measurements in the small boat they were in; and so they rowed for the shore before he would be capsizing hem into the sea.

“There they were, rowing for dear life, muttering their prayers for Holy Mother Mary to intercede for them, afraid all the time to look up in case it would tell them how short a space of time they had on this earth before being devoured. As they got to land, they had a look; and all they could see was a bit of the monster. Down he went to the bottom while they were looking at him. And that’s the last time a sea-monster put fear and trembling on the lobster-men of Barra.”

When the Coddie had finished, I noticed that he had been through some little inward disturbance. Beads of perspiration covered his cheeks and forehead. These had been generated by his reciting all this rather too subjectively. One felt that the monster of his story, like that described by Virgil in The Aeneid, was fearful and hideous, vast and ageless.

*           *           *

“What can you tell me, Coddie, about any of the other islands out there, in the Sound of Barra, between us and South Uist?” I asked him some years ago, after we had discussed Fuday and the barnacles.

“As much as you can find time to listen to,” came the prompt reply. “I can tell you about a ghost over at Hellisay too, if you like. I got it from a schoolmate of my own. So I know it’s in every respect reliable. You were yourself in Hellisay; and I should have told you to look for the ghost when you were there. She’s a fine specimen of a lady, the ghost. Only my schoolmate ever saw her―him and an Eriskay woman long dead. But I’ll tell you about that the next time you visit the Coddie. You’ll be staying a whilie on the island yet, I’m sure. The one I’ll mention to you now was also in Hellisay. Another ghost, my boy! The Devil Himself it was! And he terrifying the people that landed there and wanted to remove a plank to make a coffin. You would be wondering what took the Devil to Hellisay when there wasn’t a living soul staying any more on the island.”

The faeries dwelling on Hellisay were yet another of the Coddie’s interests. He first came to hear of them from a man born in 1840 on that isle. “It was at the time of the Potato Famine, as Angus MacNeil would be telling.”

Hellisay, according to the Coddie, was infested with faeries in olden days. So much was this the case that the crofters then residing there had to be very careful not to offend them in any way. They therefore made a habit of placing on a particular stone a bowl of milk to propitiate them. Omission to do so, as the crofters implicitly believed, involved them in all kinds of awkward and irksome situations. They would find their livestock loose among the corn, for instance, or driven off to some corner of the island., from which it was sometimes difficult to retrieve them.

Angus MacNeil, the Coddie added, had actually witnessed a faery wedding on his native Hellisay. Standing at the gable-end of his cottage one evening, he observed a multitude of The Little People emerge in pairs from an adjacent knoll. So exquisitely attired were they that he hadn’t the slightest doubt about their being guests at a faery wedding. “And the music the faeries were playing, boy!” the Coddie added. "Angus himself told me that he never heard the likes of it all the years he remained on the late of this world, although, he said. the whole ceremony was over in the time it would take a passing whiff of wind to put a wave through the corn.”

*           *           *
The Coddie, when storytelling, liked to have in his hand the long, bamboo stick still occupying a place of prominence and privilege in his home at Northbay. Often he would interrupt his narration to fetch this magic wand, as he called it, believing that his holding it bestowed upon him clarity of mind and fluency of tongue. It mattered not whether he was delivering himself in English or in Gaelic, so long as he held in his hand this inspiring heirloom. It functioned equally well in either case, he declared. He used to tell one how eloquent it would be if ever it acquired the power of speech. In the days of the Highland Clearances it belonged to the landlord occupying Eoligarry and the lands impinging upon it, at the north end of Barra. The landlord, wheresoe’er he went, carried it as an emblem of his authority. To the Coddie, therefore, it was the emblem of past injustices. The photograph facing page 193 of my book, The Western Isles (one of the volumes I contributed to Robert Hale’s County Books Series) shows the Coddie with his magic wand, which he insisted should be photographed with him.



“Tell me something really intimate about yourself!” I said to him one day as we chatted by his doorstep. “Something you might like posterity to know about you.”

Wait a minute till I get my magic wand!” he responded. “The likes of the Coddie didn’t grow on every tree, Alasdair Alpin! You know that yourself! The likes of yourself, my boy, didn’t grow on every tree either.”

Such were the words with which he resumed conversation when, a few seconds later, he again took up a position by his doorstep with his wand, now inspired by it, as he declared, to discuss unreservedly his many unusual qualities. “I can spin a yarn or two about myself whenever my magic wand dictates,” he continued; “but I’m not fond of doing it. Anyhow, I’ve nothing in view concerning myself at the moment. But I know you’re very fond of Eoligarry; and so I must tell you a story about it before you go.” Here, then, follows that story, precisely as the Coddie related it with the aid of his magic wand:

“One time there was a village over at Kilbar, or Eoligarry, as it is today. It was the most prosperous township in all Barra. At the time of the Clearances, Colonel Gordon of Cluny, his factor, and his ground-officers made a clearance of it. After the poor crofters had gone, the ruins became an eyesore to the Colonel and his staff. So they decided to put all the stones of the old houses into the sea. There was a prophet who lived in Barra many years prior to this; and he predicted that the day would come when all the stones of the houses at Kilbar would be cast into the sea, and that years and years later they would be retrieved. At the time of the prophesying, that was a very unlikely thing to happen. He also predicted that the famous Kisimul Castle would become the home of the sea-otter and the sea-birds. For this prediction MacNeil of Barra banished him to the island of Muldoanich, supplying him solely with a creel and a spade to provide for himself. I’m sure, Alasdair Alpin, it would be a blunt spade too! That yourself can believe. To this very day, you can see a great patch on the west side of Muldoanich called the Goirtean mhic a’ Chreachadair [the Arable Patch of the Raider’s Son]. MacNeiI removed him from Muldoanich after a while, taking him ashore again because his father was MacNeil’s principal raider. MacNeil, you understand, couldn’t do without a good raider to be bringing him what he wanted. Kisimul Castle is a ruin, as yourself well knows; and it’s the home of the sea-otter and the sea-birds.

“Now, the old Board of Agriculture bought the farm and lands of Eoligarry, and divided the place into smallholdings. An energetic crofter―he would likely be about the first of the new settlers to build a proper house there―who knew nothing at all, at all, about the prophecy, started to carry the stones ashore and build a comfortable house for himself. Hence the prophecy of Mac a’ Chreachadair―the prophecy of the Raider’s Son―-came true.”

*           *           *

When settled with the Coddie round his ample peatfire at Northbay, one often had difficulty in keeping him to the matter in hand. On the flimsiest of pretexts he would turn the conversation in the direction of Bonnie Prince Charlie, or of Flora MacDonald, or of Malcolm MacNeil, the Prince’s pilot, a native of Gigha, in Argyll. It was Malcolm who brought La Doutelle into the bay at Eriskay, but a few miles from the Coddie’s own threshold, and got Charlie ashore at the Prince’s Strand.

“Let us now get on to the Prince!” was one of the Coddie’s welll-known opening gambits when his interest in the matter under discussion flagged. The Prince and his attendants, he proceeded to tell one, celebrated their landing at Eriskay with a big spread. 0n the very spot where they had their spread, the Drambuie, the famous drink of The Forty-five, was consumed for the first time on Scottish soil, while Malcolm MacNeil stood by, playing the pipes. The secret of the Drambuie, the Coddie declared, came with the Prince from France; and this secret was left in the Isle of Skye by one of his followers. According to the inexhaustible Coddie, the descendants of those to whom the secret was confided still carry on the Drambuie business in Edinburgh. The Coddie, a few years before his death, as he was proud to relate, wrote to tell them what they had not known hitherto about their historic Drambuie.

“Let me hear a little more about the Prince’s pilot, Malcolm MacNeil,” I interposed, remembering that the Coddie’s mother was a MacNeil, and that he himself bore a striking resemblance to old General MacNeil, “the second-best looking man on the battlefield of Waterloo,” as the Coddie seldom failed to add. The General, born in 1788, died in 1863. He was the last of the MacNeils of Barra to reside in the island of his ancestors. He lived in old Eoligarry House, set down amid rounded pastures at the northern end of Barra.

“Several years after the Prince landed in Eriskay,” the Coddie continued, “Malcolm MacNeil fought alongside MacNeil of Barra on the Heights of Abraham. Barra was wounded; and Malcolm stood by him for the long period of seven weeks, acting as piper and butler until he recovered. After the war was over, they both came home to Barra. Malcolm had seven sons, and decided to emigrate to Cape Breton Island. He settled down at a place called Beavers’ Cove, where his successors are today very numerous.”

If anywhere one could have learnt of Prince Charles Edward as though he had landed in the Hebrides but yesterday, it was assuredly round the Coddie’s peatfire of an evening, when he liked to lay aside the distractions of his manifold enterprises. One might have imagined, indeed, that the Prince, under cover of darkness, had knocked at the Coddie’s door the night before, seeking food and shelter, confidence and fidelity. The Coddie always spoke of Prince Charlie as though the two of them had been intimate contemporaries.

A second chapter devoted to ‘The Coddie’ emphasis his storyteller already alluded to in the previous chapter:

WE HAVE strayed a little from the Coddie, though not entirely irrelevantly. Here one should record that, even during his busiest moments, he permitted no consideration of cash and commerce to take precedence of the Jacobites’ claim to be remembered and revered. Little wonder, then, that old William MacGillivray, the last to farm Eoligarry before it was divided up into smallholdings in the nineteen-twenties, entrusted to him the solemn duty of conveying to safe custody, on the mainland of Scotland, that ancient set of bagpipes said to have been played at Culloden!

“William sent for myself when he decided to part with them,” the Coddie wrote me in response to my enquiring of him how these pipes found their way from Eoligarry to the West Highland Museum three years before the donor’s death. “‘I better send them, Coddie, to people who can look after them, though I admit that I very much will forever miss them.’”



The Coddie, acting upon William MacGillivray’s instruction, took the precious pipes across the Minch to Roy Bridge. There he handed them over to Mrs. Ryan, daughter of the late D. P. MacDonald, of Long John Whisky fame. At that time Mrs. Ryan was the sole survivor of those who had helped the late Victor Hodgson to found at Fort William, in 1926, the West Highland Museum. She had a unique knowledge of Celtic Scotland. Nobody had a greater store of Highland lore and tradition than she; and in matters of Highland history her memory was astonishing. It was seemly, therefore, that the donor should have wished that the pipes be handed over personally by her to the West Highland Museum.

On the last occasion upon which I had a ceilidh with the Coddie, I persuaded him to relate to me in detail just how it came about that he should have been instrumental in conveying the MacGillivray Pipes from Eoligarry to their new home―from the Hebrides to Lochaber. I realised, of course, that his own verbal account of the part he had played in this transaction would amplify in a picturesque manner what he already had written me.

“Well, as yourself knows,” he began, “William MacGillivray was the last of the MacGillivray boys; and he says to myself’ ‘Coddie, I am worried greatly what will happen to the pipes when myself fades away. I want you to take them to Mistress Ryan, for the West Highland Museum, the next time you’ll be going over to a county council meeting. I’m giving them to Mistress Ryan; and she will see that they get safe and sound to Fort William―to the West Highland Museum there. You’ll have to go to Glen Roy first, you understand,’ he says, ‘because Mistress Ryan lives there; and she will see that the old pipes gets proper care and attention, the way they got here, at Eoligarry, all these years.’

“And that’s the way myself was introduced into the picture. Well, the day before I next left for Inverness―that’s where the county council meets, as you know. Yourself went to school there once upon a time. So I went over to Eoligarry House. ‘There’s the pipes for you, Coddie! ’ William says. Man, you never set eyes on such a parcel. William had packed the pipes most beautiful, and sealed the strings all over. ‘Take them! ’ says he; and I could see the tears were falling from his eyes. ‘Take them, Coddie; and tell them, over, that they must cherish them the way myself and my family did for a good century and more.’

“Well, Alasdair Alpin, I did my best for the pipes, anyhow. I was afraid to leave them in my cabin in the mailboat the night I went over. So I took the parcel to Captain Robertson; and I said to him: ‘Captain Robertson, it’s myself that would like a favour of you. I’ve something here, in this fine parcel, that’s very precious and sacred. It mustn’t be left anywhere about the boat, even in my own cabin. It must spend the night in your cabin. I’ll come for it myself when we reach port in the morning.’ During the night I visited him in his cabin to make sure the pipes was all right.

“‘What’s in the grand parcel, Coddie?’ he says. ‘What’s making you so particular?’

“‘It’s not whisky, whatever, Captain Robertson!’ I said.

“‘Let us have a look at it, then!’ he said. By this time he had his knife out to cut the string.

“‘No, Captain! You mustn’t be doing such a thing!’ I told him. ‘That parcel contains something more sacred than all the whisky in Scotland.’

“And so I got to Roy Bridge; and I handed over the pipes to Mistress Ryan with tears in my own eyes the way William had when he handed me the parcel.”

Some time later, when the Coddie was on his way to attend another county council meeting he interrupted his journey at. Fort William to ascertain whether the MacGillivray Pipes were being shown the respect and prominence they deserved. “And there I met a namesake of your own―a Miss MacGregor―Miss Edith MacGregor. The famed pipes was hanging on the wall. I said to her: ‘It’s myself that brought those pipes to Lochaber, all the way from Barra, from the man who looked after them in his own house for a hundred years and more. What would he be thinking if he saw them disrespected like that in Lochaber? They are worthy of a better place than that! In a proper glass case they should be!’

“A whilie after―maybe a couple of months after―I called again and found them there, beautiful, in a glass case. But that’s nor yet the end of my story, Alasdair Alpin. I must be telling you a bittie more. When the Exhibition was on in Glasgow in 1938, William MacGillivray got word that the celebrated pipes was to be played on the wireless by a certain Angus Campbell on a certain day. William sent for myself; and I had to go to Eoligarry immediately, at William’s command, boy! so that I could be listening with him. Well, Angus was getting right into the soul of the pibroch he was playing; and I saw poor William’s eyes getting very wet with the tune Angus was playing. I knew myself what was going on inside William. He was leaning on his stick when Angus finished, his eyes full of moisture. But not a word came out of him for a whilie, not for quite a whilie. Then he said to myself: ‘Coddie, the old pipes was never in better hands than tonight; and we must send our heartfelt thanks in the morning to Angus Campbell by telegram.’”

The day the Coddie was entrusted with the transference of the MacGillivray Pipes was the proudest of his life. He had felt himself under sacred obligation, committed to discharge a duty he believed he had been chosen to perform in virtue of his lifelong devotion to all that concerned Bonnie Prince Charlie.

And how insistent he was that those pipes had been played at Culloden! I once had the temerity to hint in his hearing that experts thought them to be of a date more recent than 1746. The Coddie looked at me scornfully, as though I were giving currency to a dangerous heresy which might spread like an epidemic throughout the Isles if I were foolish enough―nay, disloyal enough―to repeat it.

*           *           *

During one of the evenings I spent on Eriskay in 1947 in company with Father Iain MacCarmaig, then the island’s priest, the conversation turned inevitably to the Coddie, of whom I had seen a good deal some days previously. “Did ever it occur to you,” asked Father Iain, “that there’s something very unusual―something very exceptional―about the Coddie? Have you ever noticed how interesting are his eyes? Nobody can be long in the Coddie’s presence without noticing those eyes of his, those very blue eyes. They have a quality I’ve never been able to account for. They look at you, and even through you, in a remarkable way, not in any unpleasant way, you must understand. There’s something truly remarkable about those eyes of his.”

Father lain, reaching for a book on Barra published some months earlier, turned to the reproduction from a well-known portrait of old General MacNeil of Barra. Covering with a sheet of notepaper the lower part of the General’s face, he handed me the volume, without comment. I must say I was instantly surprised, if not actually startled. The resemblance between the forehead, eyes, and nose of the General and those of the Coddie was quite astonishing.

On my return to London a few weeks later, I had occasion to write the Coddie for verification of a date I was certain he knew. To my letter I appended a postscript asking him, in a casual way (though not forgetting that his own maternal grandmother was a MacNeil), whether he had ever horn told how much he resembled old General MacNeil. My question was hardly one which the Coddie would fail to answer. “Regarding my resemblance to the good-looking General,” he replied, “often the remark has been passed that there is a striking likeness in features, though not in size. The famous General stood six feet three. The Coddie‘s only live feet and a bittie. He was five feet five when in his prime. The best looking man at Waterloo, as myself reminded you the other day there, was a Cameron.”

I see from my notebooks that I could go on writing indefinitely upon the scenes, themes, personages, and ordinary folk the Coddie and I discussed together. It was he who told me that, when Compton Mackenzie built at Vaslan, on the fringe of the Great Cockle Shore of Barra, that eyesore of a house which he named Suidheachan, by mason of the faery mounds at that very spot, he wanted to Christen it Vaslan. But he confided to the Coddie that he feared his English visitors might dub it Vaseline! It is now many a year since Compton Mackenzie shook from his sandals the sand-grains of the Cockle Shore, and listened, enthralled, to the Coddie’s intimate recollections of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

*           *           *

Coddie readily grasped any pretext whatsoever for reminding one of his own ancestral connections with Eoligarry in its spacious and splendorous days. Ann MacLachlan, his mother, “born on Armistice Day, just a hundred years after Prince Charles Edward arrived in Eriskay over,” as he liked to inform one, was the daughter of Robert MacLachlan. Robert, who had been a gardener at Aros Castle, in the Isle of Mull, came to Eoligarry to serve General MacNeil in that capacity. It was he―the Coddie’s maternal grandfather―who laid out at Eoligarry the garden which the MacGillivrays, in their heyday, were to improve so considerably, but which, today, is a woody and withered place, a place of sadness and neglect.

“When would that have been?” I asked the Coddie, anxious to get from him what chronology I could. “When did Robert MacLachlan come to Barra?”

“Man, but I cannot tell you that. Not precisely, anyhow,” he answered. “It would be some time after the defeat of Boney at Waterloo. Let me see now! That was in 1815. Robert was a Protestant when he reached Barra, of course. But he soon gave up that sort of thing when he married my Catholic granny, Flora MacPhee. That, my boy, was in 1834! A long, long time ago! They were married over there at Eoligarry.”

The Coddie was never slow to recite his family tree to anybody showing genuine interest in him and in his lineage. This he usually did from the generation of his great-great-grandfather, Iain MacPherson, who tenanted a holding at Vaslan, but a mile or two from the Coddie’s own doorstep at Northbay. His MacNeil affiliations, of which he was so proud, derived from his paternal grandfather’s marriage to Mary MacNeil, a native of the crofting township of Greian, situated near Barra’s western extremity.

“But that’s just four generations back I’ve given you. I can go back another ten or twelve, or maybe more, if you like,” the Coddie assured me, relying upon that branch of folk-memory in which the Hebrideans, certainly up to the time of his generation, specialised.

*           *           *

The Coddie’s inexhaustible fund of stories relating to the Hebrides, particularly to his own Isle of Barra and its numerous satellites, included several which had some bearing upon Robert MacLachlan, his maternal grandfather. That which he recited most frequently pertained to Robert’s early days as gardener at Eoligarry. “At that time, as myself heard my mother tell, the old General was keeping up a great style. He had a footman and a groom, beside [sic] a headgardener―my grandfather.” Bent on enjoying some of the General’s whisky unbeknown to him, during his absence from home, all three conspired to enter one night the old house by the cellar window. As this window looked out on to the garden, and the garden had to be kept locked at night, the gardener’s collusion was indispensable if anyone were to ‘taste’ at all. Robert therefore provided his accomplices with the garden key. He also supplied the ladder enabling them to reach down to the cellar window. Thrice up the ladder in the dead of night went the footman, carrying a bucket provided by the groom―a bucket brimful of The MacNeil’s whisky.

After the ensuing carousel, a great fear took possession of these evildoers lest their employer, on his return, sought an explanation for the depleted state of his cellar. But the fear wore off before the General got back. So footman and groom thought that another bucketful or two wouldn’t do them any harm. But the Coddie’s grandfather, truly repentant of his participation in the previous night’s raid upon the cellar, refused them the garden key.

The Coddie always concluded his account of this escapade by adding that his mother used to say that her father “was all his life ashamed of the dirty trick he played old General MacNeil that night”

*           *           *

Of the innumerable traditional tales the Coddie recounted over the years he assumed the role of seannachie or raconteur, be rendered with an especial zest those relating to the doughty MacNeils of Barra. Though he could relate tales of his own ancestors over a period of at least two and a half centuries, those appertaining to his great-grandfather, Neil MacNeil, were in a category quite by themselves, They always had a foreign flavour about them, since Neil, taken prisoner during the Napoleonic Wars, managed to escape from captivity in a manner the Coddie was never weary of describing.

“Well, it was this way, you see!” the Coddie would begin his narration of Neil’s exploits. Let me now quote from notes I took down some years ago from his own lips:

“In Napoleonic days men from Barra and Uist went to the wars, just as yourself did when you went young to the Trenches. That’s the way the Barramen and the Uisteachs got themselves taken prisoner in France―the way yourself might have got taken prisoner. Neil MacNeil, my great-grandfather, was one of them, along with his mate, Iain Campbell, from South Boisdale. I heard you were there yourself the other day at South Boisdale. While they were under lock and key in France, they were having a poor time. They wouldn’t be enjoying themselves at all, at all. The grub was terrible. Not enough to keep body and soul alive together. Many’s a time they would be discussing their escape―speaking to one another in the Gaelic, of course. Only themselves had the Gaelic in the prison-camp. So they could discuss what they liked in their mother-tongue. Not a soul among the other prisoners would be understanding a word they spoke; and so they could express their minds freely to one another. They were thinking that, whatever. Well, now, one day they were performing a task of some sort in the prison yard, and talking away as usual. This day they were saying uncomplimentary things about the grub the prisoners got. Believe it or not, the guard heard and understood every word they were saying. The ration that day was sawdust mixed with linseed oil. No wonder they would be complaining!

“Well, the guard went up to them; and says he to my great-grandfather and his mate, ‘Now, boys, I was hearing every word of your conversation about the bad grub. I have the Gaelic myself; and I must admit that what you were saying about it is true’.

“‘What’s your name?’ says the guard, turning to my great-grandfather.

“‘Neil MacNeil,’ says my great-grandfather.

“‘Agus co as a thainig sibh? And where do you come from?’

“‘The Island of Barra,’ says Neil.

“’It’s myself that should have known you were a Barraman, with a name like Neil MacNeil!’ says the guard.

“Then he turned round to ask my great-grandfather’s mate when he came from. ‘From Boisdale,’ says Iain Campbell.

“‘Well, now, boys, isn’t that the remarkable thing?” says he, ‘My own ancestors came from the very same place. They left it during the Rising to put the Old Chevalier―Prince Charlie’s father―back on the throne. We keep up the Gaelic in the family, just the some old way; and that’s how I knew what you were saying about the food. It’s myself that’s very pleased, indeed, to meet you both. If you‘re wanting to escape, I’ll help you all I can. This very night you’ll get the prison gate open for you; and I’ll direct you to the shore myself. If you’re caught, you’re done, you will understand. If you‘re not, maybe you’ll manage to get back to the Isles in the long run. If you accept my offer, you’ll have to fend for yourself once you reach the shore. Get out of France somehow,‘ says he, ‘even if you have to swim the English Channel.’

“So MacNeil and Campbell went into a conference; and they decided to take the risk, even at the expense of death if they were recaptured. ‘Better to perish in the attempt,’ says Neil, ‘than die of our misery and starvation in the prisoner-of-war place we're in!’ And so they went to the guard and told him they would be pleased to accept his offer.

“That night, when all was quiet in the prison, my great-grandfather and his mate made their escape. The gate was left open for them right enough; and the guard himself met them outside in the dark, and took them a shortcut to the shore. There they hid themselves, not knowing how to proceed. At dawn they began creeping along the best way they could. But good fortune, my boy, was on their side. They saw a port ahead of them, and an English frigate lying alongside. I don’t mind for the moment the name of the port they were at, for the Coddie’s box isn’t always working as well as it should. But it’ll come back to me. Anyhow, they leapt aboard, and began to help the sailors to spread her sails to the wind, for they were so thankful to find her, and she preparing to sail away for England that very minute.

“Now, when the captain saw two strange men working with the sails, he called out to them. MacNeil and Campbell, you see, had to be questioned and cross-examined to his satisfaction, before he would allow them touch a thing on the frigate. So they told the captain just where and when they had been taken prisoner, and just where they were imprisoned, and for how long. And they told him about the bad grub too, and about their escape, without letting on a word about the guard that had the Gaelic like themselves.

“When General MacNeil got home to Barra in 1820, he soon heard all about my great-grandfather’s escapades. So he sent for him, because he wanted to tell him that himself had done his bit at the Battle of Waterloo. They had a dram together, and exchanged their view on the wars. The General was so pleased with my great-grandfather’s behaviour that he gave him a croft over at Greian―one of the best in Barra, it was. There he remained until the poor Chief had to sell the land to Colonel Gordon of Cluny. The new landlord wanted the croft for his sheep; and many a dispossessed islander had to emigrate as a dire consequence of that. But my great-grandfather stayed on in Barra throughout all this disturbance. He had a family of two sons and six daughters. One of them was Mary MacNeil, my own granny. She’s buried over at Eoligarry―at Kilbar, yonder, under one of the stones that came from Iona. I’m sure yourself saw it more than once when you would be looking at the old gravestones there.”

If space allowed, I would relate more of the Coddie’s traditional tales, none of them inferior to that which I have just related in his own words.

*           *           *

In 1948, at the age of 72, the Coddie, in a truly literal sense, was very much in the limelight. “From Ealing Studios,” as he wrote me in the autumn of that year, “we had lately in Barra 80 or 90, including film stars and actors. They were with us for twelve weeks, filming the world-famous Politician. See now that you don’t laugh too heartily when you see the Coddie in the film, himself distributing the whisky at the reiteach, standing by a big and brimming earthen-ware jar with a crate on it! Look up the issue of The Sphere, and Father MacMillan and myself in it.”

The reiteach, I should explain, is the name applied in Celtic Scotland to the espousals―to the conviviality preceding a wedding, often lasting for several consecutive days. Refreshments, particularly in the form of “whisky galore”, are always a prominent feature of any properly conducted reiteach!

The film to which the Coddie referred was, of course, Whisky Galore, based on Compton Mackenzie’s novel of the same name, founded upon what followed when, in 1944, the Politician, a British merchantman of some 12,000 tons, on her way to America with a cargo of the Best Scotch, went ashore on Calvay, an islet in the Sound of Eriskay, but a few sea-miles from the Coddie’s threshold.

Even when in his early seventies, the Coddie with his unusualities could have had Hollywood at his feet, had he sought the ephemeral and largely meretricious fame of the film star.

*           *           *

One of the things for which the Coddie will be remembered in his native isle was his devotion to the Church of St. Barr, at Northbay. He saw this place of Roman Catholic worship erected in the midst of the community he had served so vigorously and variously throughout his life. With St. Barr’s affairs be interested himself right up to the end, even though cardiac trouble confined him to the house during his last twelvemonth here on earth.

The summer of 1944 brought him his first truly deep sorrow. Neil, his second son (the little boy I had known in those halcyon days when I used to pass by his home on my way to the Great Cockle Shore, and to William MacGillivray’s, beyond), lost his life while serving with the Royal Air Force. Eleven years later, after Requiem Mass at St. Barr’s, the Coddie’s remains were conveyed to Eoligarry, and laid to rest there, in the ancient sepulchre of Kilbar.

St. Barr, according to legend, arrived in Barra to find its inhabitants not only pagans, but also cannibals. “They had just eaten the missionary who preceded him,” the Coddie once told me; “and they would have made a good meal of St. Barr too, but they didn’t! Maybe they thought he might be too tough! He was a disciple of Columba, as yourself will be knowing; and he walked the whole island, looking for a place to build a church, but found none till he got over as far a the Traigh Mhor [Great Shore]. Casting an eye over the cockle-beds, he saw the spot where the new Eoligarry school stands―a spot you yourself know, when you’ll be visiting the schoolmaster yonder. The day came when the saint’s work in Barra was completed, and he had to leave us. So be assembled all the inhabitants of the island, and all their beasts too; and he blessed every one of them separately. Everybody got a blessing that day. Every cow, every stirkie, every sheep and lamb. And he blessed the rocks-ay, and the sea too, so that it would always be giving plenty good fish. After he was away a whilie, they put a statue of him on the altar over at Kilbar’s chapel, with a white shirt on him. One day it disappeared; and no one ever knew where it went to.”

Just when this statue vanished, the Coddie wasn’t quite sure. “A great many centuries ago,” was the nearest he could say. This was not entirely accurate, of course, since he probably was referring to the object Martin Martin had hoped to see there at the close of the seventeenth century, and possibly remove. “The natives,” wrote Martin, “have St Barr’s wooden image standing on the altar, covered with linen in the form of a shirt; all their greatest asseverations are by this saint. I came very early in the morning with an intention to see this image, but was disappointed; for the natives prevented me from carrying it away, lest I might take occasion to ridicule their superstition, as some Protestants have done formerly; and when I was gone, it was again exposed on the altar.”

To this very day a native of Barra embarking on a long journey, or perhaps someone of this island’s lineage returning to a distance part of the world after a visit to his homeland, sometimes takes away with him a matchboxful of Kilbar’s consecrated soil. Observing the centuries-old custom of his ancestors, he will scatter this broadcast upon the ocean in order to allay any terrifying storm in which his ship may become involved. In time of danger St. Barr is believed to give, in this wise, the sort of protection St. Maolrubha affords those journeying from Applecross with a little quantity of sanctified earth from the precincts of his ancient chapel there. This they hide among their belongings, or sew into a corner of their apparel. During my Infancy at Applecross this was certainly a common practice; and I have known of instances of it even since the Second World War.

*           *           *

For his stories the Coddie long will be remembered. The manner of his telling was unique, due largely to his colourful choice of words and his literal application of them, and to his introduction here and there of a well-known Gaelic word when there existed no other capable of giving just that delicate flavour his narration required. His phrasing also was unique; and nobody ever excelled him in adjusting to his own purpose popular sayings and figures of speech. Moreover, he brought to his storytelling, and with an innate sense of its poetic value, “apt Alliteration’s artful aid”. Whether consciously or accidentally, one never quite knew.

The stories he related best, and best liked relating, were those he prefaced with an Il y avait une fois atmosphere. “Once upon a time,” he would begin. Thus he instantly evoked a nostalgia, sometimes almost unbearable, as when he took one into his confidence about Prince Charles Edward and his misfortunes. No storyteller ever endued his listeners with a deeper sense of reverence for things past than did the Coddie. In the oral and traditional fashion of his ancestors, he related, alike, the past and the present, as though the written or the printed word didn’t really count for very much. He may well have been the last of our Hebridean seannachies.

The last statement is open to conjecture as not only in Barra itself but also in neighbouring South Uist as well as beyond, there were still those who could and did recite many of the old tales and songs, many of whom were collected by Calum Maclean as well as his contemporaries.

References:
Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, The Enchanted Isles: Hebridean Portraits & Memories (London: Michael Joseph, 1967)
Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, The Western Isles (London: Robert Hale, 1949)
John MacPherson, Tales of Barra: Told by the Coddy, ed. by John Lorne Campbell (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1992)
John Marshall, ‘Meet the Coddie’, The Scots Magazine, vol. LIV, no. 6 (1951), pp. 73–77

Images:
Portrait of ‘The Coddie’ by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, 1950, seated on the foreshore by his premises at Northbay, Isle of Barra
Portrait of ‘The Coddy’, at Northbay, Isle of Barra, c. 1949
MacGillvray Pipes