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Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Dr Alasdair Maclean

As resident GP in South Uist for thirty-two years, Dr Alasdair Maclean (1918–1999) became a kenspeckled figure on the island and like his elder brother Calum was a prolific collector in his own right.
 
Like the rest of his family, Dr Alasdair received his early education in the local primary school in Raasay, and later at Portree High School. For there he proceeded to St Andrews University where he studied medicine and graduated in 1941 MB ChB. His brother Norman also graduated in medicine and the both saw active military service in India and Burma with the Royal Army Medical Core.
 
After an engagement lasting a year, Dr Alasdair married Rena MacAskill of Drynoch in 1947 and had a family of five sons. After demobilisation he took up his chosen career, and worked for a time in Dingwall, Dundee, Laggan, Broadford, and Perth, before taking up medical practice in South Uist in 1950. He remained a GP there for the next thirty-two years and was also a medical superintendent of the Sacred Heart Hospital in Daliburgh.
 
Calum had been collecting in the Southern Hebrides some three years before Dr Alasdair came out to South Uist. Here, for example, is a dairy entry from the summer of 1950:
 
Dimàirt, 15 Lùnasdal 1950
Dh’fhuirich mi a-raoir ann an taigh Alasdair an Dalabrog. Bha seann-duine a-muigh air taobh a deas Loch Baghasdail agus bha Alasdair ag ràdha gun robh naidheachdan aige. Bha e airson gu rachainn a-mach ga choimhead. Bha Alasdair fhèin a’ dol a-mach ann agus chaidh mi a-mach còmhla ris. ’S ann air taobh a deas Loch Baghasdail a tha an duine seo. ’S e Iain MacDhòmhnaill a chanar ris, no Iagan Theàrlaich. Tha an duine bochd dall a-niste. Chaill e aon t-sùil le sgiorrag e chionn fhada agus as t-samhradh seo a chaidh, chaill e fradharc na sùla eile. Tha an duine bochd gu math truagh dheth an-diugh agus chan iongnadh ged a dh’fhairicheadh e an ùine fada. Chan eil e ach mu thrì fichead bliadhna a dh’ aois agus tha e gu math làidir fhathast. Bha taigh-tughaidh beag laghach aige agus tha e glè ghlan eireachdail na bhroinn. Tha a bhean beò còmhla ris agus nighean leis agus i pòsda a-staigh. Tha aon leanbh aca. Bha naidheachdan beaga laghacha aig Iain MacDhòmhnaill, ach chan e sgeulaiche mòr a th’ ann idir. Bha stòiridhean beaga èibhinn aige agus an-diugh agus mi gun an Eidifión agam, ghabh mi beachd air grunn dhiubh. Bha mi còmhla ris mu uair an uaireadair agus sgrìobh mi sìos ainmean nan naidheachd a bh’ aige. Gheall mi dhà gun tiginn air ais a-rithist leis an Eidifión agus gun toirinn sìos iad. Mu chòig uairean as t-oidhche thill sinn air ais gu Dalabrog. Bha dùil againn a dhol suas gu Beinne na Faoghla a-nochd ach dh’fhuirich mi a-bhos còmhla ri Alasdair.
 
Tuesday, 15 August 1950
I stayed last night at Alasdair’s house in Daliburgh. There was on old man out in South Lochboisdale and Alasdair said he had stories. He wanted me to go out to see him. Alasdair was going out and I went with him. This man stays out in South Lochboisdale. He’s called John MacDonald, or John Charles. The poor man is blind now. He lost one eye by accident a long time ago and last summer he lost the sight in his other eye. The poor man isn’t well off today and it’s little wonder that he should feel the time slowly going by. He’s only sixty years of age and he’s still quite strong. He had a neat little thatched house and it’s very clean and tidy inside. His wife is still with him and a married daughter who stays with them. They’ve one child. John MacDonald has nice little anecdotes, but he’s not a great storyteller at all. He had funny, little stories today but I didn’t have the Ediphone so I took a note of a number of them. I was in his company for an hour and I wrote down the titles of his anecdotes. I promised him that I’d be back again with the Ediphone and that I’d take them down. Around five o’clock at night we returned to Daliburgh. We had expected that I’d go up to Benbecula tonight but I stayed here with Alasdair.
 
With so many exponents of history, folklore, Gaelic song, culture, genealogy surrounding him, and no doubt with the encouragement of Calum, Dr Alasdair was inspired to research and write on many of these subjects. In 1982 he wrote his first book, A MacDonald for a Prince, the fascinating story of Neil MacEachen of Howbeg, who shielded Bonnie Prince Charlie and whose son was later to become Napoleon’s Marshall MacDonald and Duke of Tarentum. Jacobite history fascinated him and after his retirement, in 1992, his second book appeared under the title Summer Hunting A Prince.
 
Another book followed in 1994 when Dr Alasdair, edited meticulously, prepared a new edition of History of Skye, the extremely detailed study of the social history of that island written by his uncle, Alexander Nicolson. In addition to these works, he edited and consolidated William MacKenzie’s books Iochdar Trotternish and Old Skye Tales. He also made a contribution to a book about the Nicolsons of Scorrybreac. Genealogy, particularly that of South Uist families, held a particular fascination for him and he contributed a very interesting paper on this very subject to the Gaelic Society of Inverness.
 
He made many other contributions to journals and periodicals, and often contributed to radio and TV programmes. He was also in much demand as a guest speaker.
 
Many of his recordings made by him, mainly Gaelic songs for which he had a great love, are available on the Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches website. Like his brother Norman, Dr Alasdair also had a great love of bagpipe music, and was a regular attender at the Silver Chanter, the Northern Meeting and Blair Castle competitions.
 
Dr Alasdair Maclean made a great contribution to collecting Gaelic folklore, especially songs, and if it had not been for his dedication in doing so then we would have a far poorer picture of the strength of Gaelic oral tradition in South Uist at that time.
 
References:
NFC 1301: 524–26
William MacKenzie; Alasdair Maclean (ed.), Old Skye Tales: Traditions, Reflections and Memories: With A Selection from Skye: Iochdar–Trotternish and District (Aird Bhearnasdail, Maclean Press, 1995)
Alasdair Maclean, A MacDonald for a Prince: The Story of Neil MacEachen (Stornoway: Acair, 1982)
–––––, ‘Notes on South Uist Families’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, vol. LIII (1984), pp. 491ff.
Alasdair Maclean; John S. Gibson, Summer Hunting A Prince: The Escape of Charles Edward Stuart (Stornoway: Acair, 1992)
W. David H. Sellar & Alasdair Maclean; C. B. Harman Nicholson (ed.), The Highland Clan MacNeacail (MacNicol): A History of the Nicolsons of Scorrybreac (Waternish: Maclean Press, 1999)
 
Image:
Mrs Kate MacDonald, styled Bean Eairdsidh Raghnaill, with Dr Alasdair Maclean. December 1975. The photograph belongs to Ishbel MacDonald. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives.

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