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Tuesday 2 July 2013

Death of a Nonagerarian: James MacKinnon of Northbay

Amongst the papers collated by John Lorne Campbell in Canna House is a fascinating scrapbook of diverse material such as newspaper clippings about tradition bearers. Reproduced in full is an obituary notice that appeared in the Stornoway Gazette: 
The death of Mr James Mackinnon (Sheamus Iain Ghunnairidh), Northbay, on 18th September removed one of the island’s best known inhabitants.
Born in Earsary (Barra) on 23rd December 1866, he spent the early part of his married life there till he got a croft at Northbay at the beginning of the century when the Northbay Estate was broken up. Here he worked hard, like other crofter fishermen with a young family to make a home and improve his bit of land, neither of which was easy in those days.
But Sheamus Iain Ghunnairidh was ambitious and industrious, and had the advantage of being a real handyman – able to turn his hand to everything about the croft.
He built his own house and made an excellent stone walled garden to it. He was his own blacksmith, and made panniers, lobster creels, harness etc., besides being able to mend boats and carts.
As a young man he followed the herring fishing round the British coats, and for a time, worked at the construction of the Fort William – Mallaig railway. After the first World War he concentrated more on his croft work and the local fishing. He was never idle unless on a Sunday, which day of the week he felt most wearisome, especially after his cronies passed on as he could neither read nor write, and fire-side ceilidhs had gone out of fashion.
He was, however, very sensible and intelligent and could converse in English fairly well. He has a wonderful memory even to the last and was well known as a story-teller. Authors from many parts came to him for folklore and “sgeulachdan” of which he had a great store. Tall, handsome and with a genial personality, he was a respected figure in the community.
It was he who was chosen to light the island’s bonfire on “V” Day and he was invited to be presented to the Queen during the Royal Visit last year, but in view of the distance and the long wait involved, he was advised to stay at home.
The last years of his long life were spent quietly about his croft, and even the week before his illness he was out helping with the hay. His leisure hours were spent in the garden or in walks to see his stock. Often he might be seen resting in the sunshine and puffing at his pipe. He didn’t feel the cold and despised sitting round the fire. He never knew a day’s illness until weakness overtook him ten days before his death, which came peacefully in his own home.
He was predeceased by his wife, only son and eldest daughter and is survived by two married daughters, one of whom lived with him. He was laid to rest in Eoligarry cemetery after Requiem Mass offered by Rev. Calum Macneil in Northbay Church in the absence of the Parish Priest.
MacKinnon was the first storyteller that Calum Maclean met in Scotland who had a repertoire of stories akin to those collected by John Francis Campbell and his team of collectors a century before. A year before his death, Maclean visited MacKinnon in March 1956, where he found him “resting after a hard day’s work planting potatoes.”
Anon., ‘Death of a Nonagerarian’, Stornoway Gazette & West Coast Advertiser (1 October 1957)
James MacKinnon of Northbay, styled Seumas Iain Ghunnairigh, by George Scott-Moncrieff, May, 1943. Courtesy of Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann, Coláiste Ollscoile Baile Átha Cliath / National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

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