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Friday 15 March 2013

Father John MacMillan of Barra

If it was not for one of the most catchy 2/4 marches ever to have been composed for the pipes then it is rather doubtful that Father John MacMillan of Barra, styled Maighstir Iain Dhonnchaidh, would be so well remembered. Duncan Johnstone, a famous piper and nephew of Father John, himself told the tune’s background to Neil Angus MacDonald, a fellow piper and schoolmaster from Eoligarry in Barra. Johnstone’s mother stayed in Glasgow and her next door neighbour was Norman MacDonald from Broadford in Skye, the piper who composed this well-known march. It so happened that MacMillan was down in Glasgow visiting Duncan Johnstone’s mother and MacDonald, who was a regular visitor, called in. MacDonald had just composed the tune and played it for Father John who was so taken by it that MacDonald decided to name the tune in his honour.
Born at Craigston, in the northern part of Barra, in 1880, MacMillan was admitted to Blairs College, near Aberdeen, in 1894 and spent the next five years there training for the priesthood. From there he proceeded to Issy and St Sulpice and was ordained by Bishop George Smith in the pro-Cathedral at Oban in 1903. After a period as an assistant at Oban, he was appointed to the charge of Eigg and the Small Isles, and later, in 1908, was appointed to Benbecula.
During the period of his missionary work in that island the people regarded him with deep affection. He had a special interest in every member of his flock. Always travelling on foot he visited every family, and in later years the memory of his tall stately figure was often recalled. It was there he had spent the most fruitful years of his life.
Following the First World War, a great many families from the Southern Hebrides emigrated to Canada on the Marloch in 1923 and were settled at Red Deer in the province of Alberta. MacMillan volunteered to emigrate along with them and remained in Canada for two years ministering to their spiritual needs. “There,” according to Compton Mackenzie, “he had a great fight with the Canadian authorities, who he felt had not kept their side of the bargain and were inflicting unnecessary hardship upon the immigrants. In the end … they managed to get rid of a ‘turbulent’ priest.”
On his return he was placed in charge of Ballachuilish, but after a few years he was then appointed to Northbay, Barra, and later on, in 1926, to his native Craigston, from which charge he retired through ill-health in 1943. MacMillan was remembered for his congenial personality and his almost childlike disposition:
His house was open to all visitors, and there were many who came from near and far. Year after year the young and old, of various creeds and callings, sought him in his island home. From him they learned much. None ever left his presence without feeling in some measure the benefit of converse with him. He had a keen sense of humour; his laughter was infectious. Rarely or never was there a biting word.
At the Mod in Inverness, MacMillan befriended the famous writer Sir Compton Mackenzie (1883–1972), perhaps best remembered today for his novel Whisky Galore, subsequently made into a critically acclaimed Ealing comedy. In 1933 Mackenzie moved to Barra and eventually set up home at Suidheachan in Eoligarry just beside the airport on Tràigh Mhòr. Over the years both men would enjoy each other’s company. Mackenzie based the character of Fr James Macalister who appears in Keep the Home Guard Turning (1943) and Whisky Galore (1947) on MacMillan. The Barra priest was very proud to have a fictionalised version of himself to appear in print.
Of the many people who visited him one person in particular was the folklorist Calum Maclean who took a lively interest in the priest who was known for his store of oral traditions. In January 1947 Maclean visited MacMillan then living in retirement in Allasdale and recorded a great deal of songs from his recitation. On another occasion in the company of Séamus Ennis (1919–1982), a renowned musicologist and expert uillean piper, Maclean visited MacMillan who was greatly pleased by the virtuosity of the Irishman’s performance. Maclean later recalled his visit to MacMillan in the following words:
I did return again to Barra, for one rarely fails to do that. I came at the request of Father John MacMillan … He is now almost seventy, but he still sings well and is also a veritable mine of traditional lore. It was a short visit, but in one day alone I recorded over thirty songs from Father MacMillan. One was a very beautiful song addressed to Prince Charlie, a song which tradition ascribes to Flora MacDonald. Many of Father MacMillan’s songs are now known to him alone. He heard them in Barra, Uist, Benbecula, and in Eigg over forty years ago from people who have longs since returned slowly to dust. Barra has many people of whom it can feel justly proud. Father John MacMillan is certainly one of them.
Due to his great interest in his own native culture, MacMillan was not slow in lending his hand to support the various organisations that were founded in order to stem the decline of the Gaelic language and heritage:
He took a lively interest in all movements organised for the preservation of Gaelic or of Gaelic lore. He was a bard of no mean repute, and some of his compositions continue to be sung wherever Gaels foregather the world over.
MacMillan composed a eulogy to Fr William MacKenzie and perhaps his most famous song is Fàilte do Bharraigh (‘Welcome to Barra’). He also wrote Mo Shoraidh le Eige (My Farewell to Eigg) and Seòlaidh Mise A-null gu Dùthaich Chaomh Mo Rùin (‘I’ll Sail Over to the Country of My Love’), another song in praise of Barra that was composed to mark his return from his sojourn in Canada. The love for the island of his birth is perhaps best seen in a piece that he composed during his autumnal years where MacMillan draws inspiration from the scenery of Barra’s western coastline in sight of his last resting place:           

                                When I draw my very last breath
                                    And throw off this mortal coil,
                                    Gathered among those who are no longer
                                    I will gain the far shore of virtues. 
Finally succumbing to a series of heart-attacks in 1951, MacMillan passed away in his seventy-second year, and nearly fifty years of his priesthood. Such was the affection and esteem that he held among the islanders that twelve hundred mourners attended his funeral. They came from the neighbouring islands of Eriskay, South Uist and Benbecula, and they took part in the procession led by Neil Angus MacDonald and five other pipers which wended its way through the townships of Craigston and Borve to St Brendan’s churchyard on the outer fringe of the western shore of his native island where he was laid to rest beside his ‘spiritual father’ the Rev. William MacKenzie.
Compton Mackenzie was much grieved by his passing and, though he could not attend the funeral because of work commitments, he wrote a fitting inscription for his dear friend:
Here rest all that is mortal of John MacMillan who for many years was the parish priest of Craigston. He loved alike the language of his forefathers and the conversation of his fellowmen. Out of the abundance or his vitality he gave so much to life. Priest, poet, and humanist, of all the sons of Barra none was better loved. He was born on May 11th 1880 and died on June 1st 1951. He lies at last where he wished to lie beside the ocean, and may Almighty God grant him eternal peace.
Calum I. Maclean, ‘In Search of Folklore in the Western Isles’, Scotland’s S.M.T. Magazine, vol. 40, no. 6 (1947), pp. 40–44
Fr John MacMillan of Barra, c. 1940s

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