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Thursday 4 July 2013

Duncan of the Stories: A South Uist Seanchaidh

On the passing of Duncan MacDonald (1882–1954), styled Donnachadh mac Dhòmhnaill ’ic Dhonncaidh, at the age of seventy-one, John Lorne Campbell, one of the many folklorists who recorded him including Calum Maclean, gave the following impressions of him. MacDonald was undoubtedly the best storyteller to have been recorded by Campbell or Maclean. On more than once occasion Maclean said that he had never met a better storyteller in either Gaelic Ireland or Scotland. That in itself is very high praise indeed for Maclean recorded from some hundreds of folk throughout his short but prolific collecting career:
My first meeting with Duncan MacDonald (Dunnchadh mac Dhòmhnaill ’ic Dhunnchaidh ’ic Iain ’ic Dhòmhnaill ’ic Thormaid) was at Lochboisdale in 1950. In those days I was making wire recordings of Gaelic folksongs and folklore in Uist and Barra with the aid of a Leverhulme Foundation expense grant, and Duncan, whose house had no electricity, had come to Lochboisdale to be recorded there.
By 1950 Duncan’s reputation had spread amongst students of folklore, and I was anxious to meet him. He arrived, a short, cheerful, vivacious, strongly-built man in his late sixties. One was immediately conscious of being in the presence of a personality; an artist, a man who knew both his own subject and his own mind. Duncan was a member of the fast diminishing band of the Gaelic story-tellers, the last traditional story-tellers of Western Europe. All these men are personalities and comparison would be invidious; but there was something about Duncan that marked him out: the excellence of his Gaelic (I have never heard a better speaker), the artistic perfection with which he told the heroic tales “The Story of Manus,” “The Man of the Habit,” “The Story of the Son of the King of Norway,” “Conall Gulbann, Son of the King of Ireland,” “The Great Tuaraisgeil,” “The Man who got his Wife from Turkey” (the last a story of the Crusades). Some of these stories are known in other versions, but Duncan’s telling of them approached perfection. Luckily, besides having been recorded more than once, the texts of these stories have been published by K. C. Craig in “Sgialachdan Dhunnchaidh” and in the Irish periodical Béal-oideas (there is, unfortunately, no journal of Scottish folklore).
My purpose was primarily to record songs and ballads for the preservation of the tunes, which, before the invention of modern recording gear, had been far more difficult to take down than the words and were often in danger of being lost; but I was glad to let Duncan record whatever he liked, so as to have the pleasure of hearing his stories and playing them to others. Apart from these heroic tales, Duncan’s fund of anecdote, song and local history was inexhaustible; he seemed to know everything that had happened in South Uist for the last three hundred and fifty years. He knew scores of songs, too, and although his voice was not particularly good it is likely that some fine tunes have been preserved through him alone.
All these things Duncan carried in his memory, as is the custom of the unlettered tradition-bearers of Gaeldom, men who carry in their heads what would fill many books, and who still understand and practice the art of conversation as it was used before the minds of people were cluttered up with the clichés and half-truths of modern education. Their type has been vividly described in the writings of Alexander Carmichael, J. F. Campbell of Islay, and Robin Flower.
One of the most interesting things Duncan recorded for me was detailed accounts of the eleven different handicrafts, using all the technical Gaelic terms involved. Such words have been forgotten by nearly everyone nowadays. These crafts, such as building a “black house” (which had been Duncan’s own craft—he remembered when you could get a house made for £12) had been an immemorial background to Scottish rural life but were now passing into oblivion.
I can only hope that someone had the time and the means to question Duncan exhaustively about these things, and record the answers. No country has been more indifferent, generally and officially, to the loss of its native oral traditions than Scotland; the day may well come when this prodigality will be bitterly regretted. Amateurs likes Alexander Carmichael, J. F. Campbell of Islay, Fr. Allan McDonald (who, incidentally, noted form others a number of the anecdotes Duncan used to tell), and Frances Tolmie have reduced the balance, but an enormous amount has been lost, and we have still no national Folklore Commission or national Scottish Folklore Archive.
Fortunately Duncan MacDonald was discovered just in time by the Irish Folklore Commission and the School of Scottish Studies as well as by Mr K. C. Craig and by the writer. (One shudders to think of what would have been lost had he died ten years earlier.) Duncan’s great day came at the International Folklore Conference at Stornoway in October 1953, when, before a gathering of international scholars, he recited in Gaelic the heroic tale, “The Man of the Habit”—which takes about an hour to tell—while his audience followed an English translation.  His performance made an enormous impression, and ended with an ovation.
From Stornoway Duncan went to the Mod at Oban to meet with further well-deserved admiration. So vivid was his personality, so evocative his conversation, that it is difficult to believe that he has gone. South Uist will not be the same without him. Fortunately, beside the recordings he made, part of this knowledge and skill lives on amongst the members of his gifted family. But those of us who knew him realise that something irreplaceable has gone with him and his cheerful greetings and inexhaustible flow of conversation, anecdote and repartee—something, indeed, belonging much more to the 17th century and the great ages of Gaeldom than to the present day.
Likewise, Calum Maclean left his own impressions of both Angus MacMillan and Duncan MacDonald who both died within three weeks of one another in an article which appeared in the Gaelic periodical Gairm in 1954.
John Lorne Campbell, ‘Duncan of the Stories’, The Scots Magazine, vol. 61, no 6 (September, 1954), pp. 473–74
Duncan MacDonald rope-making by Werner Kissling, 1953. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives

1 comment:

  1. This blog would be a superb resource for Gaelic readers if it was written in the language. As it is, it is enjoyable to read in English too.