05.08.21

Getting closer to home, from a journey away

Kirsty MacDonald, a native Gaelic speaker originally from North Uist, has over 25 years experience of working in traditional arts and minority language development in Scotland and has recently returned to freelance consultancy. Here she talks about how her exposure to recordings from the School of Scottish Studies Archive, now available on Tobar an Dualchais, has deepened her connection to her own cultural heritage.

Picture this: an 18-year-old recently escaped from the islands arrives in Edinburgh and sighs with relief at the prospect of anonymity for the first time in her life.

She has deliberately chosen Edinburgh as most Uibhistich (Uist folk) go to Glasgow or Aberdeen and she fancies starting a new existence without the emotional baggage of home and school. This was me, 25 years ago.

Cue my first tutorial; the tutor going round the class asking everyone their name and where they are from. I answer ‘Kirsty MacDonald, from North Uist in the Western Isles’. The response was ‘whereabouts in North Uist?’ and thus began my introduction to the School of Scottish Studies.

It turned out that Ian Fraser, onomastics expert, had stayed at my Granny’s B&B at Cnoc-na-Lùib while he carried out his fieldwork recording for the place-names survey in the 70s. The whole class was then told the story about how mortified my granny had been when Ian, confused at finding a bullet in his fish at breakfast, had left said bullet on the side of his plate. She thought she’d got all the bullets out, she said. Ian was very amused at the fact my dad and uncle Donald had gone down to the ford next to the house and shot the fish for granny to cook!

So much for anonymity, but that soon didn’t matter.

Because what I learned at the School of Scottish Studies was to be proud of my heritage, to love these stories and to realise that the value of community and the way I’d been brought up was a very rare and special thing indeed. As well as Ian Fraser, my teachers included Maggie Mackay, John Shaw, Morag MacLeod and Gary West, who have all since left the University.

Kirsty's granny, Morag MacDonald, at the gate of her B&B at Cnoc-na-luib
Kirsty's granny, Morag MacDonald, at the gate of her B&B at Cnoc-na-luib / Kirsty MacDonald

Morag, in particular, spent countless hours one-to-one with me correcting my transcriptions of Gaelic songs. She had the patience of a saint, as my knowledge of even the most basic songs up to that point was next to nothing.

But week after week she would set me a task, I would come and sit in the archive room to transcribe the reel-to-reel tapes, and she would then correct it all for me while I cringed with embarrassment at my mistakes!

As the only student in her Honours class for Gaelic Song, I received a personal education for which I will be forever grateful. Likewise, from John Shaw, who taught me all about Oral Tradition and supervised me as I wrote my thesis on Gaelic storytelling. I realised that my uncle Angus John had been a fieldworker while he did his PhD and there were hundreds of his recordings in the archives.

I had left behind a community in Uist, but soon felt part of a new one in the School. 

Several years later, having moved back to Uist, I was lucky enough to be appointed as the catalogue coordinator for Tobar an Dualchais. This role gave me the opportunity to work with folklore experts throughout Scotland and allowed me to gain a wider perspective of the archive in the School of Scottish Studies than I’d had as a student.

Being part of the team from the very beginning was a special thing indeed, and I discovered new recordings from all over Scotland every day that delighted me and filled my soul. Contributing to this new website, which meant that these recordings could be heard by descendants of the contributors, often for the first time, was exciting.

Nevertheless, my favourite tracks to listen to always brought me back to home. There’s something about the feeling of belonging to the land that will never change for me. Thinking I could escape it as an 18 year old was futile. It’s as though it’s part of my DNA. It’s not just the language, stories and the people, but a deep feeling of peace and grounding. In Gaelic this is called ‘dùthchas’ and is a word I remember discussing many times with the late Professor John MacInnes. Although he had retired by the time I arrived at the School of Scottish Studies he continued to share his wisdom in the folk pubs of Edinburgh.

I’ve recently been taking down our ‘sloinntearachd’ from my Dad (as well as recording other stories), and his family history goes back to the 16th century in Uist on almost every side.

Is mise Curstaidh, nighean Alasdair Chroismoraig, or Alasdair Ailein Dhòmhnaill ic Ailein Heisgeir, ic Ghilleasbuig ic Ailein ic Dhomhnaill ic Iain ic Ailein. That’s 10 generations of patronymics right there, and I’m grateful to be able to sit with my Dad and delve deeper into these connections. I should add that I’m making a point to add the matronymics into the picture too!

It does feel sad and scary in equal measures when I think about how fragile the Gaelic language and culture has become in just a few generations.

I don’t have the ability to remember all the things I’m told by Dad – I have to record them and I still get mixed up between who is who and who did what. The breadth of my Gaelic vocabulary and my cultural knowledge is a fraction of my father’s. Although my children have Gaelic, their experience is even more diluted. But I try to remember my own naivety when I arrived at the school aged 18, what I’ve learned since then, and hope that sometime far in the future they might want to sit beside me and listen to a cailleach telling them what little she knows. 

This recording of my Papa Cnoc-na-Lùib (TAD ID: 94090), Alan MacDonald, being interviewed by Ian Fraser about local place-names seems like the obvious track to share here. Aside from shooting fish, it evokes memories of my grandparents, of meeting Ian at my first University tutorial, and finally of being part of the team that made these recordings available to the public. Modern day maps only name a fraction of landscapes where once every stone and ditch had their own story.

Modern life in Gaelic likewise only has a fraction of the indigenous knowledge our forebearers had. I would encourage everyone to listen to their elders (in any language) and record them if you can.

If we want to really value our intangible heritage then we can follow the example of the passionate School of Scottish Studies fieldworkers of the 20th century. If we try, we can keep our traditions alive so that the concept of ‘dùthchas’ doesn’t become a thing of the past.