There are over 120 Gaelic recordings contributed by John ‘the Bard’ MacDonald on the Tobar an Dualchais website. They were recorded by Calum Iain Maclean for the School of Scottish Studies in the 1950s and by his colleague Dr John MacInnes in the early 1960s. The recordings 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 first recorded MacGillivantic was 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 who 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. In this recording from 1953, John talks about learning stories from some of the elderly men in the community. He also tells how people would come to listen to stories told by his father.
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. Brooster’s book ‘The Flight of the Heron’. There was also an article written about him in the Scottish Daily Express in May 1962.
In the 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 [hundred]. 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.”
Here's the song John composed about the Stone of Destiny, ‘Siud Na Daoine bha Aoigheil Aighearach’, as recorded by Calum Iain Maclean in May 1952.
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.”
In this recording from 1961, John gives information about Donald Donn, the son of the tacksman of Bohuntine (a settlement near Roybridge). He tells how Donald evaded capture on one occasion and he also recites a verse composed for Donald after he killed Iain Lom's son.
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 Iain Maclean tells of how one elderly 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! The lament is entitled ‘Marbhrann Dhòmhnaill Mhòir Òig’ and this rendition by John was recorded in 1952.
In addition to historical stories and songs, John was fond of telling supernatural stories. In this recording from 1952, John tells a story about a woman made a clay corpse of a boy who wouldn't marry her daughter.
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.”
John the Bard’s contribution can be fittingly summarised by reference to James Hunter’s sentiments in his book ‘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….”
References and Further Reading
James Hunter, ‘Scottish Highlanders: A People and Their Place’ (1992)
Stuart MacDonald, ‘The MacGillivantic MacDonalds and John, Bard of Highbridge’ (Lochaber Pamphlet No. 3)
Calum I Maclean, ‘The Highlands’ (1990)
The lament ‘Marbhrann Dhòmhnaill Mhòir Òig’ is reproduced bilingually in Tocher no. 39, published by the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh.