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Friday 23 August 2013

Hugh MacKinnon of Eigg

One of the last great tradition bearers from the isle of Eigg was undoubtedly Hugh MacKinnon (1894–1972), a crofter and postman, who could trace his lineage back several generations to families such as the MacQuarries and MacCormicks. MacKinnon married Mary MacDonald and had issue, two sons called Angus and Archibald, and two daughters called Christina and Peggy. All of them were brought up on the croft, situated in Cleadale to the north of the island, which had been in the possession of the family since the mid-nineteenth century. 
Calum Maclean (1915–1960) visited the Small Isles in 1946 and still found a great deal of songs and stories to record and transcribe, especially on the isle of Eigg. His initial regret though was that he arrived too late to take anything down from old Duncan MacLellan, a renowned tradition bearer who had scores and scores of songs and stories but who had, unfortunately, passed on a year before. What Maclean may have lost with the passing of this storyteller was probably more than made up by Hugh MacKinnon. 
In Eigg I stayed with my writer friend, George Scott-Moncrieff. Our nearest neighbour was Hugh MacKinnon, postman of the island, and one of the most charming characters I have met on this sojourn in the Isles. With him I spent most of my time in Eigg. Every evening for a month I carried my Ediphone on my shoulders across the fields to his house and set it down on his table. Every story he knew, every scrap of local and historical tradition, every song he remembered was sung or spoken into that machine. 
Maclean even wrote a three-page account of his collecting in Eigg for an Irish periodical Comhar which appeared in the December issue of 1946. Elsewhere, Maclean was clearly impressed with MacKinnon’s poetic ability and also with his linguistic skills:
He himself was the bard of the island. He could compose songs almost extempore, and every event of local interest occasioned a new song. Hugh MacKinnon was a very facile speaker both in Gaelic and English. For a man who did not have more than a primary school education he had a surprising command of English. He could name every field, stream, rock, and hillock, on the island.
During his stay on Eigg, Maclean found that the weather was rather inclement but when the sun decided to show herself then who better to show him round the island as a guide than MacKinnon:
It rained incessantly during my stay in Eigg. One weekend the sun did show itself. With Hugh MacKinnon I climbed the cliffs that overlook the township of Cleadale. From there I could see Skye and the Cuillins to the north-east. That was the first time I had seen the Cuillins from that direction. In my boyhood I had been used to looking at them from the east. Away to the west was Barra. On fine evenings the islands of Barra could be seen looming on the western horizon. Sometimes one island only was visible, at other times several. But they begun to intrigue me. I decided to go to Barra.
Fr. Anthony Ross, who also had the pleasure of knowing MacKinnon, writes a fitting tribute to the storyteller’s diction and style:
He was an eloquent man. His words were carefully chosen for accuracy of meaning and for beauty of rhythm and sound, pondered and uttered without haste. Not only was his voice eloquent. All who knew him will remember an astonishing mobility of facial and bodily gesture, the movement of his eyes, the lift of an eyebrow or shoulder which gave emphasis to his words. The whole man communicated, alert always to the response of his listeners.
MacKinnon had an intimate knowledge of the island’s tradition, such as genealogy, place-names, historical lore as well as songs:
He loved Eigg and its traditions passionately, but jealously guarding his community against scorn or disrespect from the outside world. He had to be sure of those he was speaking to before opening the treasure-house.
In conversation with the late Donald Archie MacDonald, MacKinnon said that he got most of his lore from his maternal uncle, Angus MacCormick, styled Aonghas Fhionnlaigh, who died in 1927 when Hugh himself would have been in his mid-twenties. Perhaps Fr. Ross put it best when he wrote of MacKinnon’s deep knowledge of his native island and the many traditions which had come down to him from his maternal uncle as well as others who had told him of Eigg’s history and people:
His mind moved freely in time, in a way that was disconcerting at first to those who did not know him. It was as though he lived in the whole tradition of the community as his immediate experience, referring to three hundred years ago as easily as to the events of the previous year, talking about people from the past with the warmth given to personal friends or acquaintances, and often with well-phrased humour.
Hugh passed not a few of his traditions onto his son Angus, styled Aonghas a’ Charaidh, who, after retiring as an army engineer, returned to the family croft in Eigg. With the passing of Hugh in 1972 and Angus, at the age of seventy-three in 2000, a long line of Eigg tradition bearers came to an end and their lore would have gone to their graves if it were not for dedication and effort of a number of fieldworkers from the Irish Folklore Commission and the School of Scottish Studies.
Tocher, vol. 10 (1973) [volume dedicated to Hugh MacKinnon]
The photograph of Hugh MacKinnon weeding potatoes in June 1963 was taken by Edinburgh-born author Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (1899–1970)

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