John MacDonald, Lochaber Bard (1876-1964
There are a considerable number of Gaelic oral recordings contributed by John ‘the Bard’ MacDonald which will be available on the Tobar an Dualchais website. These were recorded by Calum Maclean for the School of Scottish Studies in the 1950s and give an indication of how prolific John was as a storyteller and poet.
John MacDonald was born in Highbridge, near Spean Bridge in the Highlands, the third eldest of 11 children. The family’s original name had been MacGillivantic, but they changed their name to MacDonald after the 1871 census. The MacGillivantics are thought to originally have come from the Isle of Barra and the name in Gaelic (Mac Gille Mhantaich) is believed to mean ‘Son of the Servant of the Stammerer’. The first recorded MacGillivantic is Dòmhnall Ruadh Beag Mac Gille Mhantaich who was present at the Battle of Leachdar in 1497. By that time the MacGillivantics had allied themselves to the MacDonalds.
John’s father, James (Seumas Ruadh) was a stone mason and crofter and had travelled throughout Lochaber with his work. On his travels he learned place names and stories relating to every part of the landscape, and passed this knowledge on to his son John.
After leaving school John worked as a railway surfaceman on the West Highland line. On his retiral, he worked for a further nineteen years as a roadman with Inverness-shire County Council until he lost his sight in his early eighties.
As a renowned local historian, John contributed information to several publications, including Bygone Lochaber written by Somerled MacMillan and D.K. Broster’s book The Flight of the Heron. There was also an article written about him in the Scottish Daily Express in May 1962.
In his book The Highlands Calum Maclean recalls his first encounter with John and that John ‘could not remember how many songs he had composed, perhaps a hundred or two. He had just composed a song in praise of the young Scots who had removed the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey. The Stone was then at large. We crouched down behind a wall and he sang the song. It was full of vigour and fire……...I knew I had met a real character.’
Please click below to listen to the song John composed about the Stone of Destiny, Òran na Cloiche. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no. SA1952.126.1)
After that first encounter John and Calum met once a week for five months and ‘day after day (John) came and poured out the unwritten history of Lochaber. Everything that ever took place there seems to have left an imprint in his memory. Figures like St Columba, Robert the Bruce, the Red Comyn, Donald Balloch, son of the Lord of the Isles,… Charles Edward Stuart…and the patriot Dr Archibald Cameron, brother of Lochiel, flitted across the stage with which John the Bard was so familiar. Please click below to listen to one of the stories John told about Robert the Bruce, Am Brusach agus na Cruidhean. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no. SA1952.125.A1)
John would also tell stories of one of Lochaber’s most famous local heroes, Dòmhnall Mòr Òg, who was factor to the Huntly and Gordon estates in Lochaber during the early 19th century. After his death a lament was composed, consisting of 16 verses and it became popular among singers in the area. Calum Maclean tells of how one old man came into possession of a copy of several verses of the song, written down in Cape Breton by a descendent of Lochaber. The man was very proud to have it in his possession and would show it to everyone he met. One day he met John the Bard and proceeded to read the verses to him. He asked John if he knew the song and on replying that he did, the man asked him to sing it. John went through the sixteen verses and when he had finished, the man crumpled up the piece of paper and threw it away! Please click below to listen to the lament, Marbhrann Dhòmhnaill Mhòir Òig, as sung by John. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no. SA1952.124.4b)
In addition to historical stories and songs, John was fond of telling stories about second sight. Please click below to listen to one such story told by him, Fear nach do thill às a’ chogadh. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no. SA1952.123.4)
Jim Burgess, grandson of John’s twin brother Roderick, has fond memories of visiting the house at Highbridge during the 1940s to 1970s where John was very much involved in day to day crofting activities. Jim recalls that John ‘had a great sense of humour and would write a song about anybody or anything, at the drop of a hat.’ While Jim would almost be driven to distraction by midges while cutting hay, John would remain unbitten. His theory was that if you didn’t touch the midges then they wouldn’t touch you!
John the Bard’s contribution can be fittingly summarised by reference to James Hunter’s sentiments in his book The Scottish Highlanders: A People and Their Place where he comments that ‘It was among the commonalty, among John MacDonald and his like, that there lingered the best features of the Gaelic civilisation….’
The lament Marbhrann Dhòmhnaill Mhòir Òig is reproduced bilingually in Tocher no. 39, published by the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh.
Many thanks to Jim Burgess for his contributions to this article and permission to use the photographs. We also gratefully acknowledge the following sources:-
James Hunter, Scottish Highlanders: A People and Their Place (1992)
Stuart MacDonald, The MacGillivantic MacDonalds and John, Bard of Highbridge (Extract from Lochaber Pamphlet No 3)
Calum Maclean, Sorley Maclean and Cailean Maclean, The Highlands (1990)
John MacDonald on the left with two of his brothers, Duncan and Angus
The family home at Highbridge
John's mother, Mary MacDonald (nee Mac Pherson)
John on the far left with his twin brother Roderick on the far right
Jim Burgess. John's great nephew