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Friday 14 December 2012

Roadman and Songmaker: John MacDonald of Highbridge

John MacDonald of Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, c. 1950s.
Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives.
A twin brother, Roderick, first saw the light of day only a few minutes earlier when John MacGillvantic MacDonald, Highbridge, Lochaber was born at Aonachan on the 15th of October 1876. He died, almost blind, there at the age of eighty-eight in 1964. He was one of a large family of ten, and was survived by his sister Ellen who was also recorded by Dr John MacInnes in 1969. MacDonald was sometime crofter, sometime roadman as well as a songmaker. From the age of thirteen he had worked as a railwayman until his semi-retirement at the age of sixty-five. Thereafter he was employed as a road-mender by Inverness-shire County Council.

In 1951 Maclean’s first fieldwork trip for the newly-established School took him to the heart of the West Highlands to “Lochaber, the wildest and most beautiful part of Scotland. I arrived there in the dead of winter and Lochaber lay white and deep in snow.”

There amid ‘the wild Lochaber snows’ I met little John MacDonald, the Bard…This remarkable man is now seventy-eight years of age…has composed scores of songs. His memory is simply astounding. He seems to know everything that ever took place in Lochaber.

John MacDonald, styled the Bard as well as Iain Beag, belonged to Highbridge, Brae Lochaber, famous for the first skirmish of the ’Forty-five. In a bit more detail in his book The Highlands (1959), Maclean later recalled his first meeting with the Bard:

It was on a cold Sunday morning in January 1951 that I first met little John Macdonald of Highbridge or John the Bard, as he is called. He had just come from Mass in the church at Roy Bridge. That morning he had cycled over eight miles to church through showers of sleet and hail. That was not bad for a man of seventy-five years of age. He wore no overcoat. John Macdonald is a sturdy man somewhat under medium height, but very alert and active. His little grey eyes seemed to pierce right through me as I approached him. I greeted him in Gaelic. On hearing his own language, he immediately shed his reserve and smiled. He was John the bard. He could not remember how many songs he had composed, perhaps a hundred or two…We crouched down behind a wall and he sang the song. It was full of vigour and fire…Of course, he would tell me stories. His father knew everything that ever happened in Lochaber. He would meet me every afternoon…I knew I had met a real character.

Over the next few months, Maclean would record over five hundred separate items of oral material from MacDonald’s recitation alone and with each session the unwritten history of Lochaber would pour out of him. “Everything that ever took place there seems to have left some imprint on his memory.”

Clearly Maclean was greatly impressed with his first ever meeting with John MacDonald. He goes on to describe a typical recording session:

That afternoon John MacDonald did come to see me. It was the first of many afternoons and evenings together. We continued to meet once weekly for a whole five months. Day after day he came and poured out the unwritten history of Lochaber. Everything that ever took place there seems to have left some imprint on his memory. Figures like St. Columba, Robert Bruce, the Red Comyn, Donald Ballach son of the Lord of the Isles, the Earl of Mar vanquished at the first battle of Inverlochy, Montrose and Alasdair, the son of Colla Ciotach, Charles Edward Stuart¾no pretender but the rightful heir to the throne¾and the patriot Dr. Archibald Cameron, brother of Locheil, flitted across the stage with which John the Bard was so familiar.

Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
────, Hebridean Traditions’, Gwerin: Journal of Folk Life, vol. 1, no. 1 (1956), pp. 21–33

John MacDonald of Highbridge, c. 1950s. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives

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