The little people who lived at the bottom of the garden


By Kenneth Roy

They have taken the National Mod this week back to the Western Isles, where it belongs, just as the Open belongs in St Andrews, and a bit of me wishes I was there and not sitting here in Liberator House writing this piece.

Now here is something – a fact – that you will not believe: I once adjudicated at the National Mod. I have not a word of Gaelic, but one year – Oban, mid to late 70s – they summoned me to adjudicate the drama final. There were many others better qualified for this unenviable task – my late friend Finlay J Macdonald for one – but the Gaelic-speaking drama specialists must have been otherwise engaged. I got the call.

I found myself – as one does with any luck – in a broad centre aisle of the Corran Hall, wearing the obligatory black tie of the drama adjudicator, so worn because he or she is often in mourning for the theatre, squeezed behind a small desk and surrounded by hundreds of people all of whom were conversing before the show in a language with which I was unfamiliar. In such a situation, a certain paranoia tends to creep in. The only person in the hall not speaking Gaelic starts to feel that they may be speaking about him.

For company, I had an English translation of each play and a kindly person called a ‘Gaelic assessor’, there to advise me on the quality of the spoken word. Rather to my surprise, it turned out that adjudicating a theatrical production in Gaelic was not dissimilar to adjudicating it in any other language. The best transcends language, drama being essentially a language in itself. The worst is bad in any language.

It was a long evening conducted in a relaxed fashion. The intervals were so extended that one inevitably concluded that, somewhere in the vicinity, drink was being taken. Though not by me. Not unadjacent to 11 o’clock, the adjudicator finally began his speech. No one had left the hall, which was as full close to midnight as it had been at 6.30.

At that stage in my life, I had not visited the Western Isles. I was to do so for the first time a year or two later with Donald N Macdonald of the BBC, who was returning home to record a series of radio documentaries called ‘Faces of Uist’. The BBC did things in style in those days; an interviewer was hired for the dog work, leaving the producer free to consider, often at leisure in the bar of the Lochmaddy Hotel, how he might weave the raw results into a beguiling tapestry.

When Donald was born in North Uist in 1938, his parents’ house was without electricity, running water or sanitation. A way of life was changing. A cash economy had recently been introduced, eliminating the system of barter which had governed the trades of the cobbler, the miller and the tailor. There are no words in Gaelic for credit, invoice, or hire purchase, although I am told there are dozens for ‘darling’ or ‘dear’. Donald’s language is bardic and poetic, not utilitarian and technical. As he was.

I found North Uist to be the strangest place; I had never encountered anything remotely like it. It was, above all, a place of the senses. There was barely a tissue between earth and water, sacred and secular, natural and supernatural. 

The Western Isles once produced more graduates per capita than anywhere else in Britain – and all from the state system. Donald wrote: ‘It was education for its intrinsic values’. By this he meant that it was not materialistic. When he won a speakers’ award in the Oxford Union, he said ‘a silent word of thanks for a system based on an egalitarian structure that offered the equality of opportunity which had taken me there’. It was, he believed, a system produced by the Protestant ethic.

Yet, although many of its ambitious young people left, as Donald did, to make their way in the world, he continued to feel that the wisest and most caring people were those who had never gone more than a few miles. An oral wisdom was passed down the generations through ceilidhs: not the sanitised variety organised for the tourists in Inverness or Edinburgh hotels; the real thing. Now all is changed. Everyone leaves the islands, if only on a holiday flight from outside this window.

I found North Uist to be the strangest place; I had never encountered anything remotely like it. It was, above all, a place of the senses. There was barely a tissue between earth and water, sacred and secular, natural and supernatural. It was place of second sight – ‘the unwanted gift’. My first subject was the district nurse, a cheery, practical woman in late middle age, universally respected, who told me in the most matter-of-fact way of the little people (fairies) who lived at the bottom of her garden. Neither was she joking.

Converted by Billy Graham, Donald abandoned his job as a reporter with the Scottish Daily Express to enter the parish ministry in Glasgow. He invited me to open his garden fete – I did that sort ot thing when I was not adjudicating drama festivals – and learned from his congregation how much they loved and valued him. He would have been a terrific preacher in the theologically conservative tradition. But then he made a fatal move and joined the BBC. It devoured him as it devoured so many other creative people.

At his memorial service in the chapel of Glasgow University, Bob Kernohan, the arch Tory, delivered a fine eulogy for a man who described himself as a Christian Marxist, a term I have never understood. The service began on the stroke of one hour, as a bell tolled, and ended on the stroke of the next, as the bell tolled once more. Donald was ever the master of the hour-long documentary.

Conveniently for his friends, he had died on Glasgow Fair Friday (at the age of 54), an easy day to remember. Often on that day I raise a silent toast to Donald N Macdonald. But in truth there are few weeks when that troubled soul does not enter my head for one reason or another. He represented something valuable and enduring in Scottish life, and it continues to be celebrated this week in the Western Isles.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review