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Thursday, 14 August 2014

Duncan MacDonald: A Summary of His Life Story

Of the many hundreds of storytellers recorded by Calum Maclean, Duncan MacDonald of South Uist, better known as Donnnchadh mac Dhòmhnaill ’ic Dhonnchaidh, was reckoned by him to have been the best in either Gaelic Scotland or Ireland. Just as he had done with Angus MacMillan, Calum Maclean recorded an autobiography of Duncan MacDonald. MacDonald began reciting his story on the 6th of November 1949 and over the ensuing days and nights poured out his life story on wax cylinders which Maclean then transcribed.

Duncan MacDonalds antecedents came from North Uist. This is where his grandfather, Iain MacDhòmhnaill ic Tharmaid (‘John son of Donald son of Norman’) was born. He was a tailor by profession. He had brothers as well. Due to his work he moved around a lot and eventually landed in South Uist. He was tailoring for Fear a Ghearraidh Fhliuch (‘The Tacksman of Gearraidh Fhliuch’) when he fell in love with this mans daughter, Catrìona. Although he was initially against the marriage he was eventually won over once he had found out about the tailors ancestry. After they married they brought up a family of three boys, one of them was Duncan, another Tarmad (‘Norman’) and also another Donald. There were also two daughters.
Duncan went to Ireland where he married a daughter of James Flanagan. Duncan, the informants grandfather, married in Gearradh Fhliuch. Norman was also married but there are no sign of his descendents. Regarding the informants own grandfather, Duncan, who married very young and had three sons. He also had two daughters from his first wife, a daughter of Ludovick from Benbecula. A little while after Duncan was married for a second time to a daughter of Dòmhnall Ruadh Mac an t-Saoir (‘Young Red-haired Donald MacIntyre’) from Baile Buidhe. Duncan was only thirty-five years old at the time of his second marriage. They had a further two daughters. Two Catrìonas and three sons, two called Iain, and the other Donald, the informants father. Donald rented Gerinish long after the death of the Tacksman of Gearradh Fliuch which was now owned by a Chisholm who sold it to a Gordon. One of the agreements was that anyone who rented from Gordon had to work half a week for this landowner. John, Duncans son, did this type of work when he had reached maturity. He worked so hard that he died at just the age of twenty-one. Duncan looked after the younger ones, and the other John worked for the miller at Howmore. A deal was struck that Duncan got half a croft in Snishival and he was willing to move away from Gerinish. But the land was difficult to work and far away from the shore. The informant’s father was only ten years of age at this time in 1844. There is where the informant grew up. The two daughters worked away from home and one of them married Alasdair mac Dhòmnaill ’ic Dhòmhnaill ’ic Iain (‘Alasdair son of Donald, son of Donald, son of John’) who were closely related to the Tacksman of Bornish, that was Mary (Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh) who knew a lot of songs and stories and who is now over eighty years of age. John also married when he came of age and he built a house in Boisdale and whose son still has it. They had a large family in Daliburgh; they are called Clann Dhòmhnaill ’ic Iain ’ic Dhonnchaidh (‘The Children of Donald, son of John, son of Duncan’). The informant’s father also married when he came of age and he married Nighean Niall ’ic Iain Bhàin (‘Daughter of Neill son of Fair-haired John’), who belonged to the MacEachens of Snishival. All this family were brought up in Snishival.
As there was not much land there they eventually got a croft in Peninerine when the tack was broken up and new crofts established. They were willing to take a new croft. The informant’s grandfather died in 1866. The informant’s grandfather was a stonemason and likewise the informant’s father. The informant states that his grandfather was an extremely able storyteller and he had an enormous repertoire, many of which the informants father did not learn. He also had a great many songs. The informants grandfather learnt every single word from his own father and all these songs and stories had been transmitted down the generations to the informant’s own day.
When the informants grandfather died his father then looked after the croft and his other brother John was married in Lochboisdale when the informant was around twenty-one years of age. There was a family of five: the informant himself, Duncan, Neil, then John (who died), another called Donald John (who became a joiner and was married in Uist but who was subsequently killed during WW1 at Loos) and the youngest, also called John who died during WWII. When the informant’s father put in for the croft in Peninerine there were many others who had also forwarded their names and so his father didn’t get one at first and it instead went to Duncan Johnston (who had second sight). He thought he had seen two coffins in the ruins of croft-house and thought that it was his own family so he refused to take it. The bailiff was so annoyed about this that he offered the croft to the informant’s father. They took the croft and they completed finishing the building and they also built another house. The informant thought that because his brother Donald John was a joiner then this was the reason why the other man had seen the two coffins as two were made and left in the ruins of the croft-house.
They were now at the croft in Peninerine and a house was built in 1910 and all the family was there. The informant, Duncan MacDonald, was born in 1882 in Snishival. At the age of five he was sent to school at Stoneybridge, situated two miles away over the moor. Every afternoon the informant’s father would meet him coming back from school to make sure that he didn’t drown in the Geadarry burn. The teacher at the time was Miss MacColl, from Perthshire, who had plenty Gaelic. She used to speak to all the children in Gaelic. And although she was a Protestant a day did not pass when she did not make the children say their prayers in English. After she retired, a MacPherson woman from Benbecula then taught at the school. She was only there a while before a new Irish teacher arrived, Miss Mulcahay. She could only speak English. The informant stayed at school until he was fourteen years of age. The informant states that he was good at religious education as well as reading and writing English. He also learnt to read and write Gaelic. They also had to buy all their stationary at the school. They all had to take their own food to school as well as fuel for the fire. They never wore shoes or socks apart from during the winter time. The Informant also remarks upon the type of clothing worn by the scholars, kilts and jackets which were usually hand-me-downs from their parents. Not many had either hats or shoes. Those who stayed close to the school went home for lunch. The informant never went home for lunch as Snishival was too far away. They would then have their dinner at night. The informant then gives brief details of the kind of activities the children would get up to during playtime such as cutting peats, playing shinty and team games. They would also have fights with peat sods against the boys from Ormaclete and their schoolmistress would get very annoyed at how muddy they all were. During playtime they would also go to neighbouring houses to warm themselves at the fire. There was one old woman called Peinidh Mhòr (‘Big Penny’) who was married to Alasdair mac Dhòmhnaill ’ic Aonghais Ruaidh (‘Alasdair son of Donald, son of Red-haired Angus’) who had lots and lots of old stories which the informant heard and which he could still remember some of them.
As soon as the informant left school he began to work harvesting seaweed. The shore was only three miles away and he had to walk there everyday. The first winter and spring the informant managed to do two tons for which he received £1 for each ton. A schilling from each pound was paid for drying the seaweed. Informant’s father did not have a cart so it was arranged for a cart to take the seaweed to Loch Eynort and this cost four schillings to do so per ton. The informant worked at this for a year and continued with it for one more but the price kept on going down. It was like this for many years. When the informant was eighteen years of age he then got employment with the miller in Snishival.
The informant, Duncan MacDonald, then tells another story about his father-in-law, Niall mac Nìll ’ic Dhòmhnaill (‘Neil son of Neil son of Donald’), another of the MacIntyres. He was an excellent poacher. As a young lad he was always fishing. He lived very close to the gamekeeper and he let the young lad carry on with his fishing. However, the gamekeeper’s wife was quite against the young lad fishing in the burn. The gamekeeper defended him by saying that the young lad just had a hook at the end of a string and that he wasnt doing any harm. But he tricked the gamekeeper for as soon as he left the young lad took out a good rod, with a hook and bait and caught many fish.
During the winter months the informant would work on the seaweed. During the winter the seaweed would blossom and by springtime the stalks had fully matured and were full of juice. Around May time, with the first big wind, the stalks would separate from the seaweed and they would come in with the tide to the shore in great heaps. This bragaire or oarweed was then taken to the shore and spread around. Once it had been lying for three days in the sun it was then ready to be turned over so the other side could be sunned. When this oarweed had been thoroughly dried it was then gathered and put into a stack and then left for a number of days until it turned grey and tough from which the best kelp could then be manufactured. If the kelp was burnt then it was be a dry coal with black ash but when it had grown grey and thin as if it were porridge then it would be best for burning in the kiln. The kiln was around a foot and a half in height and six to seven feet in length. When kelp was being burnt a bundle of heather or a sack of shavings were put in the middle of the kiln. The seaweed furthest away was spread over the kiln. The flame was then kept going using a light bush until it had taken. As the fire went on any openings were filled with a bush put into them. This had to be used correctly. There used to be four or five, even six with six kilns alight. Once the evening came they would let down each of the kilns and all the kelp would then be collected. The informant then details the process by which the kelp was prepared when they would beat the weed into a mass using ‘kelp irons’ (long-handled iron mallets or hooks). This process was then repeated for all the other kilns. After one, two or even three days the kelp was then beaten up using a mallet and put into heaps. Then the kelp heaps were covered with turf to protect it against moisture and left to cool overnight. Over time more and more kelp was manufactured until a vessel came to take away the kelp. The kelp then had to be taken to the harbour in a cart and horse. No-one had any idea as to how much money they would get until the bailiff told them around Martinmas after the accounts had been calculated. Out of each ton of seaweed a royalty of a shilling was kept but this was not the case with the manufactured kelp.
By 1904 or 1905 the seaweed was still burnt on the shore and then sent away in sacks. This was the ash left after burning the seaweed. The price for this was £5 per ton, then £4, £3, then down to a schilling for a ton. There was no standard price. However, a crown in royalties had to be paid for anyone burning seaweed. The ash had then to be sent to Loch Eynort but the steamer never came into this bay at all – instead it was kept at anchor at a good distance away. They used to take the kelp out in boats at full-tide. They all helped in loading either the ash or the kelp and they were not paid for this work. After which the accounts were calculated and they all went over to Loch Skipport or Lochboisdale to get paid. Once the informant tried to get away with paying for the carting of bags by carrying it himself but he notes that he never managed to get away with this.
It was then discovered that seaweed did not have to be kelped at all but that once they seaweed had been burnt was to just leave it in the kiln and to let it lie there.  Many of the old people didn’t believe in this method. The old way was to put a wall around but then to burn the seaweed on a mound. However, once the old people started do die off the young people never took to kelping as they could make kelp without using the old kelping process. The informant notes that he has seen both processes used and they produce kelp just as well as one another. Kelp work finished in 1932 but in 1941 Cefoil started.
When the informant was young there used to be weddings and balls. There was also waulkings and after them balls and dances. They also used to play shinty games at special times of the year, especially around Christmas time and also around St Andrew’s day. Every young lad who took part in the shinty match received a schilling. Then a couple of lads were chosen who would then go and get some whisky. On the night there would be a ball in one of the school-houses and there would be plenty of whisky and fun until the morning.
With regard to waulking houses the young women would be very keen to go if they knew that a dance or ball would be held after the waulking. The boys would gather with a piper after the waulking and then food would be served and afterwards the dance would start. They used to dance until one or two oclock in the morning before everyone went home.
A lot of drink would be taken at engagement parties and weddings. The informant heard that there was not enough drink at his own father’s engagement party. A man at the party left the after midnight and fell down a well. The next man who came out got the other man out of the well.
The informant married in 1913 and his bride came from the same township as he was himself. Both were born and brought up in the same village. They (at the time of recording) are still married. Duncan MacDonald’s wife is called Mairead Aonghais Ruaidh Mhic an t-Saoir (‘Margaret daughter of Red-haired Angus Macintyre’). The first son they had died. He was an excellent scholar. Those who stay in the household are the informants own brother, another son and his two daughters. They have three crofts all together and so have plenty land. The informant has one, his bother Neil another and also his own son owns a croft. The also have plenty stock. They have four cattle but used to have more. They have three or four horses but used to have four or five. They usually plant an acre of potatoes, six or seven acres of rye, and four or five acres of oats. In winter they keep three haystacks. They also have around thirty sheep, three or four calves. Sometimes they have more than this. They use the Highland plough and use horses to pull it.
In 1909 the informant’s uncle, William Deering, came from Glasgow. His wife had recently died and he had two children which he expected to leave with the MacDonalds. But as the MacDonalds had just moved to Peninerine they did not have enough room. But the informant promised that he would go out to visit him in Glasgow. Shortly afterwards the informant left from Lochboisdale on the boat to Glasgow. By the time the informant left he had no way of sending a telegram to his uncle to tell him to meet him when he got off the boat in Glasgow. The boat went at first to Barra where the informant met a man called Ronald Johnston who arranged for a telegram to be sent. However, when the boat reached Glasgow there was no one to meet the informant. So by asking a young lad the informant got a tram to Bryers Road in Glasgow. The informant then briefly describes his trip on the tram. The informant thought that 229 Bryers Road was his destination. Eventually the informant found the place and then the flat inside. After the informant knocked on the door his uncle’s daughter answered the door and was surprised to find the informant standing there. The informant went in and found William Deering lying in bed taking a rest and the informant asked if he had received the telegram that he had sent. He said that he had not but had been expecting one. In any case the informant made it all the way without any fuss. The informant spent fifteen days in Glasgow. The informant describes Glasgow as full of noise with all the shipyards. The informant also attended football matches as well as going to the pictures. After his fortnight’s stay the informant then went back to Uist but the weather was worse. The boat visited many places and because the weather was far worse it took far longer to reach Uist.
After the informant married in 1913 he took wife to his mothers house as she had grown weak and was now aged over sixty. The informant’s mother was very pleased to have a strong, young woman around the house. She had known the informant’s wife since she was born and they got on well with one another. The informant, nevertheless, expected to get themselves a place of their own. But then the Great War broke out the year after the informant married. The informant’s two brothers, Neil and Donald John, the former stayed with the informant while the latter was married in Howbeg and was a joiner to trade, were both enlisted. The informant was left by himself as his youngest brother went to Lamber Asylum in 1915. Donald John was killed in action at Loos on 25 September 1915. The informant’s youngest brother took this news so badly that he too enlisted in search of revenge. He was trained and then sent over to France where he served until Armistice Day.
The informant took over another croft before the war ended and until his brother returned from the war. The informant, however, decided to stay on the croft that he father once had. The informant’s family was growing up and his eldest son won a bursary and went to school at Fort William but he was home sick and died at early age on 3 August 1934 at only twenty years of age. The informant’s son died in Invergarry and the informant went there to take him home.
The informant’s father died on 1 August 1919 and who had never suffered any type of illness before. He took a stroke after breakfast and lasted two days in bed before he passed away. He never recovered his power of speech before he died. He was eighty-five and a half years of age when he died. The only thing that he had suffered from was rheumatism. He had been a stonemason and was exceptionally strong. He could lift 200 pounds of kelp without any trouble. The informant’s father could also lift a locally-known stone that was very heavy. He was reckoned to be one of the strongest men on the island. He was 5 foot ten inches tall and had a 48 inches in the chest but did not look overweight. He used to sing all the time while he was working.  He never seemed to rest and if people came to visit they would talk and he would tell stories. The people used to like listening to these stories. The informant himself was a young child and remembers every word he said. The informant’s father used to reward them by telling his children stories. The informant believes that his own father did not have even half of the stories of his own father. He also had old songs. He always used to sing the old songs.
They used to take the grain to the mill at Mingarry in order for it to be milled. Sometimes they used to go to the mill in Benbecula when the tide permitted. One time the informant went to Benbecula with four sacks of grain. There was no bridge over the ford in those days. The informant went over to Creagorry to find that there was an auction for Hugh Boyd going on. The informant saw John MacDonald from Stoneybridge who came over to talk with the informant. Afterwards the informant went over to the mill and got the grain grounded. The informant did not expect to go home until tomorrow when the tide was out at mid-day. But on his way to the hotel the informant met John MacDonald again and they talked for a while and then this man asked the informant if he was going back over. The informant was persuaded to go along with John MacDonald. They decided to meet at Mary Bells house. The informant went to get his horse and cart ready along with the sacks of grain. It was a dark night. The informant did not have a lantern or any kind of light. The informant reached Mary Bell’s house to find quite a crowd of people. The informant got hold of someone to look after the mare while he went inside the house to fetch John MacDonald to find him in bed and once he was awoken made an excuse not to go over that night. Instead he told the informant that Ronald the Doctor was willing to over and that he could accompany him instead. So Ronald the Doctor came and he and the informant left together. It was a terribly dark night which nearly led to their destruction. There was no light be seen in the direction of Carnan. If there had been then it would have been easier to cross over. They went over the ford at Creagorry and there was a south-westerly wind. The informant noted this well as they could follow direction of the wind by putting their faces towards it. When the reached half-way and were at Àth Ghobhlach (‘The Forked Ford’) the horse became skittish and turned round. The informant then thought that the wind direction had changed to a north-easterly. The other man just thought that it was because they had turned round. And the other man wished to carry on towards the Ford but the informant was against this course of action. The informant waited until the other man came back. They could not see the beach as it was so dark. The informant then thought that if the wind had indeed changed its course to a north-easterly then they could still reach a ruin over by. They followed this course and they eventually made it across to a place that the informant knew well. The informant tied the horse up and they then went to Big John’s house and his daughter got up and made them some tea and food. They also had a dram. The other man left for home and the informant stayed in the house until daybreak. The informant then rigged to horse and cart and safely arrived home. The informant would never again take the advice of someone else with regard to going over the ford or to cross it during the night.
The miller in Benbecula was called Am Muillear Ruadh (‘The Red-haired Miller’) and the informant knew him well before he moved out of Howbeg. This is where he had been a miller at first. The informant knew full well that this miller had the reputation of producing more mould than he should have done. The informant’s own miller in Mingarry was very honest. If two sacks of grain were given to him then you would have to take an extra sack for once the grain was ground it would fill more than the original two sacks. At one time the informant went to see the miller in Benbecula with seven bushels but only two were returned. This time the informant had two bushels in three sacks and another bushel in the fourth sack. The informant said to himself that the miller was not going to trick him this time around. But they had a dram on their way to the mill and so when the reached the mill the miller had a ploy by which he made the informant go to see the miller’s mother who had been asking for the informant. The informant did not wish to go out of sight of the grain being grounded. But every time the miller went out that his mother was complaining that the informant had not come to see her. The miller knew what the informant suspected. But the informant then asked the miller if he was going in as well. He said that he was and they both left together. The millers mother was there along with the miller’s wife and a child. The table was set with food and three cups. The informant sat round the table along with the others. They talked for a while and then the miller’s wife poured tea for the informant and the lad. The informant then asked if the miller was staying for tea but he replied that he had some earlier. The informant then knew that he had been outwitted once again for the miller would leave while he was drinking tea. The informant vowed there and then that it would never happen again. The informant was very far from being pleased but only for a little while. When the informant was lifting the grain from the chest there were only three sackfulls. The miller said that there was another sackfull on its way. They informant said that there was three sackfulls left in the chest and that he was going to take them. The miller didn’t say a word. The informant got back what he had been owed.
At the outbreak of WWI when the informants brothers had enlisted that was the time when stonemason work came to a stop and the informant turned his hand the working on the land. His father’s croft was far better than the one on which they had been raised. It was only half a croft. The informant then continued his work as a stonemason and he relates all the houses that he built around South Uist from around this time until around 1944. During WWI the informant’s son enlisted but was captured at St Valery [Donald John MacDonald later wrote an account of his time as a POW entitled Fo Sgàil a’ Swastika]. During this time the informant looked after the crofts.
            In 1949, the informant then relates another trip to Glasgow in order to take part in a broadcast which had been arranged by Calum Maclean and David Thompson. He stayed with his brother-in-law Donald MacIntyre in Paisley. The radio programme entitled ‘Black House Into White’ was broadcast on the 15th of March 1949 on the BBC’s 3rd Programme. The informant then describes the changes that he noted since last being in Glasgow in 1909.
            The informant began work on collecting seaweed again as Cefoil was established in 1944. In the meantime, the price of seaweed had gone up and the informant was happy with the work he was undertaking. He also notes that the seaweed was transported by lorry between South Uist and Benbecula. Informant here notes that his mother died in 1927.
            The informant then recollects that K. C. Craig came to visit him in order to collect stories from him in 1942 and came back again to visit in 1944. He notes (speaking in 1950) that the stories that he collected had yet to be published.
            The informant ends his narrative by saying that he is now more or less retired and has given up heavy work. He says that if it had not been for Calum Maclean whom he first met in March 1947 then he would not now be telling his life story. He finishes by saying that he is now aged sixty-six years of age on the second last day of the last month of Spring in 1950.

Duncan MacDonald died only four years later after recording his life story and Calum Maclean wrote a brief obituary for him which was printed in The Scotsman which is here reproduced in full:

The late Duncan MacDonald: An Appreciation

The death of Duncan MacDonald came as a shock to all whoever met this remarkable man. His passing robs us of the finest Gaelic storyteller in either Scotland or Ireland. He was the most authoritative tradition bearer in the Highlands, and with him a very great part of lore passes into oblivion, lore of which he alone was in proud possession. His name is, of course, known to leading folklorists in many European countries and his storytelling was the highlight of the International Conference on Folklore in Stornoway and Oban last October. For over a whole hour the leading folklorists of Europe listened spellbound to his telling of the heroic tales, Fear na h-Abaide, the Man of the Habit. His storytelling was a perfected art, an art that delighted not only learned audiences but also his humbler fellow-islanders at the firesides in South Uist. Duncan was a stonemason, whenever he came to work in any township the people gathered in to listen to his telling of tales. Duncan the son of Donald the son of Duncan son of Iain son of Donald the son of Norman, a descendant to the MacRury family of hereditary bards to the MacDonalds of Sleat will be long remembered. To Gaelic folklore his death is an irreparable loss. Seven of his tales were published in 1950 by Mr J. Kirkland Craig. The Irish Folklore Commission recorded 120 of his tales, the Folklore Institute also recorded several scores of songs, lays and tales from his dictation while his son, Donald John, recorded over 1,500 MS. pages of material from him during the past winter. Duncan’s stories were featured on The Third Programme in David Thomson’s Black House into White first broadcast in 1949.
In his own sphere Duncan MacDonald was a truly great man, a man whose name ought to be revered and honoured in any country with a sense of cultural value. His life was absolutely exemplary. His religious duties never forgotten. Even during his working hours he always found time to may down his tools and pray. Duncan is gone. Requiescat in Pace.

References:
Calum I. MacGilleathain, ‘Aonghus agus Donnchadh’, Gairm, air. 10 (An Geamhradh, 1954), pp: 170–74
Calum Maclean, ‘Uist Storyteller: Death of Duncan MacDonald’, The Scotsman, no. 34651 (18 June 1954), p. 8
NFC 1180, pp. 1111256 [Duncan MacDonalds autobiography]
 
Image:
Duncan MacDonald rope-making by Dr Werner Kissling, 1953. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives, University of Edinburgh

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