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Sunday 4 August 2013

Kate MacDonald: Bean Eairdsidh Raghnaill

Kate MacDonald (née Campbell) (1897–1977), styled Bean Eairdsidh Raghnaill (the wife of Archie, son of Ronald) as well as Ceit Nìll, was born and raised at Garryheillie (Gearraidh Sheilidh) in South Uist, the first child of a family of three to Neil Campbell (c. 1856–1951) and his wife Mòr (Marion) MacLellan (1868–1971), styled Mòr nighean Aonghais ’ic Eachainn. She was fortunate to have been born into a family where the rich seams of music, song, and storytelling were still strong and from whom she was to gain an extensive knowledge.
Her mother, Mòr Campbell was one of the most remarkable sources of traditional Gaelic song ever to have been recorded by the School of Scottish Studies. She was highly intelligent and had a wide-ranging knowledge in her traditional culture. Despite, or perhaps because of this, she only had a smattering of English and she is perhaps one of the last monoglot speakers of Gaelic from South Uist. Kate’s mother was the main source of her songs and, indeed, became known in the family as “The Dictionary” for she was the ultimate authority to be consulted on points of Gaelic words where there was matters of doubt or misunderstanding.
Kate’s maternal uncle was none other than Angus MacLellan (1869–1966), styled Aonghas Beag mac Aonghais ic Eachainn ic Dhòmhnaill ic Chaluim ic Dhòmhnaill, from Poll Torain, Loch Eynort. His autobiographical reminiscences entitled The Furrow Behind Me, translated from recordings made by Dr John Lorne Campbell of Canna, were published in 1962, and the original Gaelic text appeared under the title Saoghal an Treobhaiche in 1972. Selections of his vast repertoire of tales and stories, also recorded, transcribed, translated and edited by Campbell, were published in 1961 as Stories From South Uist. MacLellan had the distinction of being awarded the MBE in the 1965 New Year’s Honours List for his contribution to the preservation of Gaelic oral tradition. This feat has yet to be equalled.
Kate’s father, Neil Campbell, was well known throughout Uist as a piper. He passed away in 1951 in his mid-nineties. Pipe music was, indeed, an ever present factor in Kate’s upbringing and her younger brother Angus Campbell also became a fine exponent of both ceòl mòr and ceòl beag, having been for some time a pupil of the eminent Pipe-Major John MacDonald of Inverness.
On leaving school at the age of fourteen, Kate found employment in the household of Ronald MacKinnon, the piermaster at Castlebay in the neighbouring island of Barra. She stayed there for the next two years before finding a post at Askernish House in South Uist, the residence of John MacDonald, the resident factor to the South Uist Estates at that time. She worked there for two to three years before taking up her new job at the Lochboisdale Hotel where she worked for the next eight to nine years.
At the age of twenty-nine, Kate married Archibald MacDonald, styled Eairdsidh Raghnaill ’ic Ruairidh ’ic Raghnaill (Archie son of Ronald son of Roderick son of Ronald) in Garryheillie, who claimed descent from the MacDonald aristocracy of Clanranald. The couple settled down to the usual run of life on the croft in Garryheillie. Kate’s husband supplemented their income by working as a ghillie at the Lochboisdale Hotel. Archie MacDonald was a fine piper. He joined the pipe band of the Lovat Scouts before the first World War, in which he served throughout from 1914 to 1918 – and he was again involved from 1939 to 1945 though this time in a non-combatant capacity.
Kate and Archie had seven children – four boys and three girls. There were two sons Ronald who died – one while still a schoolboy and the other, tragically, in a car accident as a comparatively young man. The rest of the family were Morag, John Angus, Mary Flora, Neil and Rona. Rona Lightfoot, especially, has inherited the family talent for piping and is probably one of the finest female player that Scotland has ever produced. Her brother Neil was also a gifted player.
The first member of staff of the School of Scottish Studies to make contact with Kate MacDonald was Hamish Henderson – and this, in fact, happened several years before the School was founded in 1951. After his discharge from the army at the end of the Second World War, Henderson’s wanderings took him, among many other places, to the Hebrides in 1946, to follow up his already well-established interest in traditional song and to write poetry. Coincidentally, this was also the same year in which Calum Maclean first visited the Hebrides when he came to Barra in September of that year. Whilst staying at the Lochboisdale Hotel as the guest of the then owner Finlay MacKenzie (a piping aficionada if ever there was one), Henderson first met Archie MacDonald who was then working there at the time. Henderson was invited over to Garryheillie to meet his family and Kate sang a number of songs for him – though she did not yet have a reputation as a singer.
It was five years later in 1951 that Kate was first recorded. Dr Alasdair Maclean who arrived, along with his wife Rena, in South Uist to practice medicine as a GP. One night there was a gathering in their house in Daliburgh and Archie came along with Kate. Even though she was not known for her singing, Archie confided that Kate knew one song. Archie managed to persuade her to sing it which she did and she made quite an impact. Over the next few years, songs would stream for her and such was the quality of her texts that her repertoire of song compared favourably to those found in Òrain Luaidh Màiri Nighean Alasdair, published in 1949 by K. C. Craig from the singing of Mary MacCuish. Indeed, Kate knew virtually everything in Craig as well as much else besides. Her memory for Gaelic song was phenomenal. Dr Alasdair Maclean and his brother, Calum, began to record as much as they could of Kate’s singing. Nearly two hundred songs of all kinds, a good many which were extremely rare, were recorded from Kate’s recitation alone. She is perhaps best known for her knowledge of waulking songs of which she knew a considerable number.
Donald Archie MacDonald, ‘Kate MacDonald (Bean Eairdsidh Raghaill), Tocher, vol. 27 (Winter, 1977/78), pp. 129–35
Mrs Kate MacDonald, styled Bean Eairdsidh Raghnaill. The photograph was taken by Calum Maclean in April 1958. Courtesy of the School of Scottish Studies Archives.

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