Within the manuscript collections held in Special Collections are a number of letters and note-books relating to Father Allan McDonald of Eriskay (1859-1905), described by his biographer John Lorne Campbell (1906-1996) as “priest, poet and folklorist”. As a lifelong devotee of Gaelic language and culture, it seems fitting to remember him on Gaelic Language Day.
Born in 1859 in Fort William, Father Allan had a sense of his vocation whilst still in his teens and he attended Blairs College, the Catholic seminary near Aberdeen, from 1871. Here he showed an early interest in and considerable aptitude for languages and philology which he retained throughout his life, and began his lifelong study of the Gaelic language, literature and folklore. After Blairs he completed his education and training for the priesthood at the Scots College in Valladolid, Spain, before being ordained at Glasgow Cathedral. Although Father Allan was offered a teaching post at Blairs, he chose the role of parish priest in Oban and district, where he gained ample opportunity to develop and practise his knowledge of Gaelic. It was while here that he befriended one Donald McLeod from the Isle of Eigg, and from him learned traditional Gaelic hymns which were later published.
This marked the start of Father Allan’s enthusiasm for the oral tradition of the Highlands and Islands to which he devoted his spare time for the next twenty years or so, recording Gaelic folklore and traditions, prayers, hymns, songs, stories, place names, customs and history.
In 1884 he moved to Dalibrog on South Uist, where the population were struggling to eke out a living in a subsistence economy. Within living memory many had been evicted to make way for sheep farms and those who remained struggled to make ends meet by crofting, fishing and harvesting kelp. Food was often scarce, and fever epidemics further ravaged the population. The owner of the island, Lady Gordon Cathcart, apparently only visited it once in her lifetime and was of the opinion that the best thing the islanders could do was leave! Consequently, she was unprepared to try to improve conditions on the island.
Throughout his years on South Uist Fr Allan worked tirelessly with the Crofters’ Commission and the School and Parochial Boards to improve the lot of the islanders and to provide a teacher who spoke Gaelic. He was also played an important role in the foundation of Dalibrog Hospital, built by the Marquess of Bute.
Working conditions for Fr Allan were often very difficult. His parishioners were widely scattered: three hundred of them lived on the nearby island of Eriskay which he could only reach after a 6 mile walk by crossing half a mile of rocky sea in a small boat.
Despite the arduous conditions and many challenges, Fr Allan found time to master the local Gaelic dialect and in a series of note-books record unusual words, customs and points of history. Unusually for the times, he recognised the value of the Gaelic poetry, hymns and songs which he encountered and which were largely ignored and even despised by the mainstream Anglophone culture of the time. He was determined to record as much as possible before it was too late and the material was lost forever. He also experimented with incorporating the traditional religious material into contemporary devotional worship and literature.
Sadly, as a result of the heavy work load and responsibilities he faced on South Uist, Fr Allan’s health broke down. After a short period of rest, he was transferred to Eriskay, where he spent the final 12 years of his life. Here his duties were less demanding, although the poverty and privations remained the same. He was able to give more time to his literary and folklore studies, publishing several volumes himself and sharing his knowledge generously with other researchers, notably Ada Goodrich-Freer (1857-1931), Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912) and George Henderson (d.1912), lecturer in Gaelic at Glasgow University, 1906-1912, who became a good friend.
Fr Allan was very happy on Eriskay, and his best known and first published poem was in praise of the island. He worked tirelessly for the good of the inhabitants, as he had done previously on South Uist, helping them to build a new church, a new road and to have the telegraph service brought to the island.
Father Allan died in 1905 of pneumonia when only 46 years old, and was greatly mourned by the people of Uist, Barra and Eriskay who returned the affection he had held for them. In his short life he had achieved much: as a hard-working and inspiring priest, a tireless improver of social and health conditions, a poet and hymn writer, and a pioneering Hebridean ethnologist. He was also remembered for his compassion, self-giving and warm and gently humorous personality.
Most of his folklore collections were never published, and after his death his note-books seem to have passed into the hands of various friends, including George Henderson.
During the 1950’s, whilst researching Fr Allan’s life and work, John Lorne Campbell (1906-1996) traced the surviving papers and these are now held in the Special Collections departments at the University of Edinburgh and also here at the University of Glasgow, amongst the papers of George Henderson. These legacies of Fr. Allan’s efforts are available for consultation on Level 12 of the Main Library. Who knows what treasures of knowledge await discovery within them?
Items of interest:
McDonald, Allan: Bàrdachd Mhgr Ailein.Edinburgh, 1965: Celtic JNM970 1965-C
McDonald, Allan: Gaelic words and expressions from South Uist Oxford, 1972: Celtic JB1640.U4 MACDO2
Hutchinson, Roger: Father Allan: the life and legacy of a Hebridean priest Edinburgh 2010 Theology MH740.M2 HUT
Campbell, John Lorne: Father Allan McDonald of Eriskay Edinburgh 1954 Sp Coll Farmer q229
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online edition – article on Father Allan McDonald [page accessed on 8/3/2016]
Pennell, Joseph and Elizabeth: Our journey to the Hebrides London 1890 Sp Coll Mu Add. q47