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Sunday 23 March 2014

Meeting the Coddie

Many visitors to Barra during the 1930s and 1940s came to the island for the draw of Compton Mackenzie. For a dozen years Mackenzie stayed on the island initially in Northbay before eventually building Suidheachan, his residence sitting adjacent to the scenic Tràigh Mhòr, a cockle strand that also doubles as the island’s airport. Mackenzie, inspired by the foundering of the SS Politician would later go on to publish his most famous novel Whisky Galore! (1946), subsequently made into a highly successful Ealing comedy. Filming took place exclusively on Barra during the rather wet and windy summer of 1948. One of the inspirations for Mackenzie’s farcical comedy was none other than John MacPherson, who plied the novelist with many anecdotes and stories of what had actually happened. Mackenzie in one of his many volumes of autobiography would later describe MacPherson as: “The outstanding character of Northbay.” Obviously MacPherson’s reputation preceded him for John Marshall, a writer, came to visit him in 1951 and the result was published in The Scots Magazine. Marshall’s observations, here reproduced in full, give a marvellous insight into the Coddie’s personality as well as his ability at spinning yarns:

I had hear tell of the “uncrowned King of Barra” long before I met him. And I had often wondered that there was about this John MacPherson, by-named “The Coddie”, that made so many people in such diverse walks of life eager to claim his acquaintanceship and friendship.  For among the friends of Coddie are Scotsmen, Irishmen, Englishmen and Americans; nobles, knights and commoners; clergymen, scientists, business tycoons; actors; authors, bureaucrats; old and young, men and women.
I found the reason when I met Coddie: sheer personality. For in the days when people are more and more conforming to standard; it’s refreshing to meet a character who cannot be dismissed as mere “type.”
The outline of his life-story can be told quite simply—as he tells himself: “I’ve tried a great variety of jobs in my day. I’ve been to sea. I’ve followed the herring—and the white fish, too—most places around our coasts. I started a wee shop on this island. Not long after, the gales scattered it—shop and all it contained—to the four winds and the sea. That night I near wept my eyes out; but I started up again—and this time I got on; later I got the Post Office. After a while they sent me to the District Council, then I went to Inverness as a County Councillor, but I gave up the public committees after we lost the boy in the Air Force. And here I am to-day.”
The highlights of his public life have been two. The first was when, as Barra’s representative on the County Council, he saw success crown his campaign to obtain a new landing-stage for the island at Castlebay. The second was but two years ago, when the people form studio-land came to Barra to film his friend Compton Mackenzie’s “Whisky Galore.”
Then Coddie found himself in the role of diplomat and (honorary) adviser to the “feelums” (as Barra called them). He served as mediator and moderator between the “feelums” and the island population. His advice was sought on local colour and local customs; on terrain for shots in the story. He helped towards the smooth working of local arrangements, of local participation. He was all but an actor himself! He was briefed for a part, but—“when I heard I was to make belief that I was a sick man, failing for the want of whisky, I wasn’t very happy about doing it; and then when I was asked to be acting a dead man—oh, no! that was the end of that.”
Despite the fact that he thus spurned the scene, the producer, director and stars of “Whisky Galore” have set it on record that although the film would have been produced even without many of themselves, had it not been for the Coddie there would have been no “Whisky Galore.”
Indeed, to take the matter a stage further, one wonders if the book, “Whisky Galore,” would have been written at all, had not the Coddie been the Coddie! For the friends of Coddie, far and wide, hold it as an axiom that one of the great characters of the novel bears a very strong resemblance—purely coincidentally, it may be, of course!—to the author’s friend, Coddie.
Coddie’s success in the public side of his life may well derive, I suspect, from the very strength of his private appreciation of life. Like all “characters”, he is an individualist. (It’s noteworthy that most of the really sociable people have the deepest feeling for individual privacy!) Coddie has the secret of balancing the public with the private side of living. Many of this film-star friends must have longed for the courage to try his recipe for a “world too much with us”: “When you feel that the world can’t get on without you, and you are bowed down with the things that need doing or worrying over—then it’s time you were off to lie all by yourself in your bed for a couple of days and let the big world roll by for a space.”
Coddie is a small man, a well-built man. His face is strong face: aristocratic Highland nose, expressive and sensitive mouth, clear blue eyes, gesticulatory white eyebrows, a patriarchal white moustache. His thick head of hair is almost ever covered with the peaked cap of the sort we once called a “deep sea bunnet.”
As befits a diplomat, he has a fine feeling for language. Not only for his native Gaelic, but even for our English, which he speaks like a king. If anyone in the conversation chanced to coin a particularly apt phrase, Coddie was always the first to catch it up, savour it with his own tongue and nod approval. But, better still, to catch Coddie himself in mood for ceilidh—at his own fireside or in the westering summer sunlight at the long bench outside the garden gate. Then you meet Coddie the Story-teller. His favourite tales are from the folk-lore of his island. Some of the tales are of witchcraft and magic. All his tales, when he tells them, have his element of magic—the compelling magic of the born story-teller and wizard with words. Not that he tells the tales with words alone; for they are punctuated with nods and sideways movements of the head, now and then and elevation of the mobile eyebrows, a pursing of the lips, a portentous downward roll—or a mischievous sideways flick—of the eyes.
I mentioned the bench where Coddie holds his court in summer. It is placed athwart the path of all who enter the Post Office; it faces the hills in the west, looks over the head of the North Bay and the road that branches off to the northern peninsula of the island where the air-landing place is; and it is just across the road from the church, and but a stone’s throw from the little jetty which the Coddie built for the coal-puffer to unload at, and near which his own boat lies moored.
Coddie is an artist of the spoken word, a story-teller, philosopher and sage. Let it not be thought that all that adds up to a poetic, mystic dreamer, out of touch with the hard realities of everyday life. Far from it. Coddie is namely for throughout the Isles for his business acumen and his organising powers. Even in the little details, Coddie is never sleeping. One day when we were out in the boat, one of us noticed a distant tanned sail off the coast near Eoligarry; mentioned it casually to Coddie. That evening, Coddie with triumphant wink displayed a great platter of prime, red-spotted flounders. He had put two and two together, jaloused that the flounder season was started, and got in for a share of the first catch.
Coddie—always the perfect host—puts his organising talents at the service of his guests at Northbay. You’ve never seen an annual sheep-shearing on a small isle in the Oitir Mhor? Well, Coddie will see that you do, if you’re about at the right time of year. And if the wind and weather is set fair, even the worst sailor in the world, after a chat with Coddie about the beauties of the Isles, blazes into enthusiasm for a sea-trip to Eriskay, Fuday, South Uist or Mingulay; and—of course—the Coddie can arrange it, if they like
Coddie has a taste for irony, enjoys a gently-humorous situation. His own humour is of a fine pastel short. One evening a trio of kilted Lowlanders arrived to join the circle round Coddie’s garden bench. Decent lads they were, but somewhat baldly and abruptly—without the customary ceremonious preliminaries and “leading up”—they asked to hear a fairy story, maybe about a water kelpie.
For a moment some of us expected the Coddie to “dry up”, or hang back. But, no, he started the tale of the last kelpie that was seen in Barra, who appeared to an island maiden in the form of a beautiful young man. “Yes, a very beautiful young man,” went on the story-teller, interpolating a new thought to the established text of his tale, “but, unfortunately, tradeetion does not relate to us whether the beautiful young man was dressed in a kilt.” The he looked up in bland surprise at the gust of laughter—led by the three newcomers—which greeted these words.
But if one were asked for the truly central characteristic of Coddie, one would probably say—genuine feeling for his own native corner. For many of us in Northbay, Barra, is synonymous with “Coddie’s home.” Coddie’s friends from all over the world have instinctively recognised and esteemed that enthusiastic local patriotism which finds expression in so many forms: pride in the language of Barra, interest in its history and customs past and present, his telling of the tales that stem from its folk-lore, hospitality to the island’s visitors—and infectious enthusiasm to let them see the places he loves to look on himself.
And Coddie is blessed in having such a lovely native place to inspire him: where heather hills enwrapping flower-decked lochs rise up behind him: where before him and to east of him are the involutions of long creeks (such as the Outer Islander calls “bays”), forming a puzzle key-pattern of land and water; seaward of the creeks the crystal-clear green and blue shoal waters of the Oitir Mhor, bejewelled with other islands, big and small, between Barra and South Uist; and where but a short distance to west of him are the incredibly white beaches, unmarked by footprints for the most part, where Atlantic billows break; and everywhere the wild flowers. That is the land Coddie has lived with—and for which he is to many a sort of focal point of human loyalty, in fact, “the uncrowned king.”

John MacPherson, Tales of Barra: Told by the Coddy, ed. by John Lorne Campbell (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1992)
John Marshall, ‘Meeting the Coddie’, The Scots Magazine, vol. LIV, no. 6 (1951), pp. 473–77

John MacPherson, ‘The Coddie’, Northbay, Barra, early 1950s.

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