SONG-COLLECTOR, singer, Gaelic psalm precentor, weaver, museum curator and hotelier, Jonathan MacDonald has done much not only to preserve and foster the Gaelic culture of his native Kilmuir area of Skye, but to sustain its economy as well.
He was awarded an MBE in 2000 in recognition of his services to crofting and to his community, while in 2011 Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college and cultural hub on Skye, presented him with its Sàr Ghàidheal fellowship award for his promoting of Gaelic language and culture in so many aspects of his life.
Born in 1932 in the parish of Kilmuir in the north of Skye, Jonathan was the son of a crofter. From an early age he took an interest in all that went on around him in this predominantly crofting and Gaelic-speaking area, but was particularly taken with the local “ceilidh house”, where the men would gather for songs, tales and news, particularly in the winter. “I spoke only Gaelic and the rules of the ceilidh house were ‘Gaelic only,” he recalls. “I listened and enjoyed every word spoken.
“There were some eloquent orators, sitting around the old black stove, who recited old Skye stories of many types. The fairy stories were never scarce and each contributor tried to surpass the previous speaker. Neither was there any scarcity of tales of war and peace and, of course, the man of the house often had news of atrocities brought to light by a copy of the Bulletin – a Glasgow paper which was popular at the time and sent to the old man by his nephew.”
Kilmuir School, to which he walked two miles there and back, didn’t hold the same appeal as the ceilidh house, and the teaching of Gaelic in primary was not recommended at the time, although many parents felt strongly that their everyday native language should be given its rightful place in the curriculum. Nevertheless, many children absorbed the Gaelic songs they were used to hearing at home and Jonathan was among several pupils from the school who competed each year in the local mòd.
Credit for his performances was due to a local lady, Katie Douglas, who kept an open door for anyone, adult or child, seeking advice with preparation for the mòd competitions, with the result that her pupils were in demand for local functions and some would go on to win prizes at the National Mòd.
Her capacity as local Pensions Officer, Katie was in contact with most of the older folk in the area. Jonathan remembers how, “After she had finished her business with them, he would have a cup of tea, over which they mused on which songs they preferred and before she had left she would have written in her notebook the words and tune.”
He left school at the age of 14, to train for four years as a weaver in a local factory. He went on to lead an industrious and innovative career, first establishing a crafts shop on his father’s croft in 1951, at a time when such things as rural craft shops were virtually unknown. His family became heavily involved in craftwork as well as crofting, trying to capitalise on the developing Highlands and islands tourism industry. He also started restoring cottages at Kilmuir for what would become the Skye Museum of Island Life, pioneering the concept of the open air museum in Scotland.
In 1970 he purchased the nearby Duntulm Hotel and ran it for 27 years before retiring. All this while, however, he maintained his lifelong interest in collecting Gaelic song and folklore from the area, among other things contributing to the BBC Gaelic department over a period of 60 years. His enthusiasm for Gaelic song was heightened with the advent in 1979 of BBC Radio nan Gàidheal (originally Radio nan Eilean), and he kept in touch with Katie for many years, comparing notes and exchanging songs.
A milestone, however, was when he bought his first tape recorder in the mid-Sixties. “What a pleasure it was to use,” he recalls. “During the first year of its life I had recorded upwards of 50 lesser-known songs, some of which had been recorded ten years earlier by staff of the School of Scottish Studies.”
Song collecting could require a degree of diplomacy. During one of his collecting visits to her family home, Peinora, Jonathan met Chirsty Munro, a native of Kilmuir home on holiday from Kilmarnock. The visit developed into a ceilidh, with Chirsty, who had a keen memory, singing songs she remembered from her younger days in Kilmuir.
One particular song, Mo Ghun Tomaidh, she maintained had not been heard by anyone else alive. When Jonathan asked her permission to copy it she refused. The following evening, however, he walked the couple of miles to her cottage and, after a lengthy conversation, she agreed to give him the words on condition that he wouldn’t sing it while she was still alive. He agreed, assuring her that any singer who used it in the future would acknowledge her and explain that the song was simply “on loan” from the Munro family.
“On another occasion,” he says, “I went to a house in north Skye to record from a crofter a specific song that went right back to the Flora MacDonald era. In the barn we sat on bales of hay and, while Donald sang, a small grey kitten climbed up on to his shoulder and began to purr and make noises which are not often heard on the wireless.”
Jonathan has also been for decades the session clerk and precentor – the person who “gives the line” in Gaelic psalm-singing – at Kilmuir and Staffin parish churches, thus helping to perpetuate the area’s rich tradition of Gaelic praise. He regards his church work as a vital element in maintaining the place of the culture and language.
His love for all things traditional is as strong today as it was when he went with his father to listen to the men of the ceilidh house, he says. “We owe a debt of gratitude to those who maintain such a high quality of singing today and to those who encourage the very fine work of preserving our precious heritage.”