A Tribute to Donald Macdonald
Chaill a’ Gàidhealtachd gaisgeach mòr am mìos seo chaidh. Mo chridhe trom, ‘s duilich leam.
Gaeldom lost a champion this past month. My heart is heavy and I am sad.
And so, Donald Macdonald passed away: husband, father, friend, teacher, and as well, frequent contributor to the pages of Celtic Heritage. It was in his role as teacher and tutor that I first met him. And as deagh charaid—a dear friend—that I grew to know him.
His obituary appeared not long ago in the Montreal Gazette:
Donald Macdonald Donald passed away on November 16 at St. Mary's Hospital. He is survived by beloved wife Cynthia. He leaves behind beloved sons Iain and Roderick, their mother Leona King, and grandson Matthew. He was the brother of Alex and Angus, and uncle of nephews and nieces in Scotland. He was predeceased by his parents, John and Katie, and brothers, Finlay J. and Norman. … A legend in the Gaelic world, Donald will be sorely missed.
My own acquaintance with Donald came about ten years ago, when I was scouring the Internet for a way to expand my knowledge of Gaelic—I’d taken a couple short courses but was still most definitely a beginning learner—and I came across his webpage on which he had written of his philosophy that every speaker of Gaelic should also be a teacher of the language. It was a little ambiguous whether he himself was actually a teacher, but I contacted him and enquired, and after a little ‘feeling out,’ he took me on as a student.
In the time I was able to share with him, which developed into three or four hours a week sometimes, before his final illness, we discussed many things—mostly Gaelic things, but ranging out into the personal, family, world events, and sometimes, as such conversations go, silly things.
I found in him a lively, curious mind and a love for and fascination with language. Sometimes, our còmhradh—always in Gaelic, though sometimes he would make slight allowances for my own feeble abilities—would venture back to his boyhood in Harris or range over the meaning, implications, or usage of a particular Gaelic word.
Of his youth, he was full of stories to illustrate not only the usage of the language but the culture that is our heritage. One that comes to me now concerns one summer when as a boy he was visiting his grandparents. Of course, in that time, the Sabbath was strictly observed. No work whatsoever was allowed. And since his grandfather was a minister, the rules were doubly enforced. Well, it so happened that little Donald had forgotten to polish his shoes for Sunday service (and of course, it wouldn’t do to go to church with scuffed shoes). So, in a panic, he hid himself away in a closet and was frantically scrubbing the shoes when his grandmother—Granaidh Mhòr or “Big Granny,” as she was known—opened the door, revealing the little boy doing the forbidden. Oh, he thought he was in for it then! He pictured her grabbing him up by the ears and dragging him off to his Minister Grandfather … but all she did was look at him sternly and render her decision: Nas fheàrr an latha, nas fheàrr an gnothaich—“The better the day, the better the deed”—and quietly close the door and leave him to finish polishing his shoes for church.
Donald possessed—or was possessed by—a love of poetry, both in English and in his mother tongue, Gaelic. Many’s the time we would be talking and something would strike his imagination and he would launch into a lengthy rendition of song or poem, a piece he had committed to memory decades before. His repertoire included Shakespeare and the great English Romantics—Wordsworth, Keats, Byron—and a wealth of Gaelic poetry and song, which he delighted in reeling off—though he would say he had to be careful not to sing, for, he would aver, that was one thing he could not do.
We shared that—a delight in the literary arts; an interest in how language worked, how it meant.
He was a stern taskmaster, equally ready with praise and admonition, as the occasion warranted, and although he always expressed respect for me and our shared profession, he never stinted in his correction of my writing or speaking. In fact, it is comical to think of now how I would often sit in tense anxiousness about what Donald would say about how I phrased an idea.
As he used to joke, would the teacher give me a “gold star,” or would he “rap my knuckles with a yardstick”?
Even though we shared teaching as a profession—with my more formal training I would sometimes drive him to irritation wanting to know the grammatical rules of a particular form: Think in the language! he would scold me. The “rules” don’t matter.
Speak! he would say, and he was always a sympathetic listener—at least when it came in Gaelic (though I’m sure he was, as well, in English—although the “rules” of our ‘game’ were that I was to struggle to formulate my ideas, experiences, trials and tribulations in the language of our mutual heritage).
One delightful summer a few years ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting him for a week for an “immersion” experience. There with another student of his, we submerged ourselves in a little Gaelic world, discussed birds, squirrels, a van that made strange sounds, and the fate and future of the Gaelic language; we ran errands, ate our meals, and told each other our stories, all in Gaelic.
From that short time we had together, I will never forget the bright, cheerful, welcoming face of Dòmhnall Mòr—or, Big Donald, as he said he was called on the Isle of Harris where he grew up (there being many Donald Macdonalds in the Outer Isles).
One truth about language—not just Gaelic, but also, language in general—he continually emphasized is the impossibility of translation. When I pressed him for the English meaning of a word, he would warn that what he was giving me was at best a feeble shadow of the meaning of the original, there being no exact equivalence between the two languages.
For example, he would caution us about the translation of the passage that I offered for the opening sentence of this essay: in particular, the words gaisgeach, trom, and duilich—for there are no words in English that exactly equivalate to these.
First, gaisgeach although it is often glossed as “hero” in dictionaries, encompasses so much more and so much else than in English, for unlike in English, in Gaelic the word is not separated from the history—it calls up images and memories of warriors and “heroes” who have given their lives in battle for the family, the clan, the nation, perhaps, most notably the gaisgeach Cù Chulainn—a word in which is embedded concepts of bravery, self-sacrifice and lack of self-regard, and prowess, all wrapped together: the history and the culture of the Gael is imbedded in the word. But it can also refer to those who have dedicated their lives in less dramatic ways to the common good. And so, my application of it to Donald: Gaisgeach nan Gàidheil. Hero of the Gaels.
Whereas in English—especially in American English—the word “hero” very often refers to either those who might be thought of as “action heroes” of the kind we see in the movies, or people who have done something brave, to be sure, but in a much more narrow sense.
So, also, the words trom and duilich—which along with words like bronn and mulad and trom-inntinneach—convey levels of “sadness” that do not exist in English, especially American English with its “Don’t worry, be happy!” philosophy, a concept that seems strange in Gaelic.
I can imagine Donald musing (as I have heard him often proclaim), You can’t really say that in Gaelic.
As the Leòdhasach (from the Isle of Lewis, Scotland) writer Kevin MacNeil remarks, the passage I cited at the beginning of this essay is “from a beautiful Gaelic song and therefore typically difficult to translate … Loses everything in translation.”
Not that Gaels go around being sad all the time, but in the language there is the realization that sometimes something strikes us so much to the core that there is no ‘getting over it.’
And sure, we can have a dram and dance and listen to the pipes, but even in the happiest of dance tunes, there sounds the drone of melancholy.
Along with this is the idea that Donald continually iterated and reiterated, namely that language is more than just a code; it contains values inherent in a culture, which was one of the reasons he remained so passionate about Gaelic, for there is no such thing as Gaelic culture without Gaelic language, and no such thing as Gaelic language without the culture.
One example that occurs to me about ideas (and behavior) coming quiet easily in one language but being impossible in another is this: when he was young and naughty (oh, he’d confide with a chuckle, even though he grew up to be a policeman, he could be quite naughty when he was a little boy), and his mother was stretched past all forbearance and finally decided it was time for a spanking, she’d command in her limited English, “Down trousers!”
It being impossible, you see, to whip a child in Gaelic, but quite easy in English.
In Donald’s last years, when his final illness began taking its toll on him, he had to curtail his teaching activities, which heretofore had encompassed sometimes six or seven sessions a day with students. I was one of those fortunate enough to ‘make the cut’ and continued to work with him.
As a teacher myself, I know that the success of one’s students in some ways gives a measure of satisfaction as one’s own achievement, and so I think my winning gold medal in written poetry at the Scottish Mòd in 2013 gave him some pride as that prize had been achieved under his tutelage.
To which I owe so much.
As enwrapped in words as he was and as I continue to be, no words of mine can assuage the loss of this gaisgeach of Gaelic although as a feeble effort, for a book of poetry I am now completing, I am planning to his memory a dedication, which will read:
Tha an leabhar seo air a choisreagadh gu Dòmhnaill Mòr Dhòmhnallach, às na Hearadh—òide agam ‘s mo dheagh chàraid—‘s a dh’fhuireach a mhòrchuid a bheò ann an Canada, ach nach dh’fhàg riamh ma-tà gu dearbh a dhùthaich no a dhualchas, ach a chum iad an còmhnaidh ann an a smuaintean ‘s air a theanga, ‘s a chaidh romhainn gu Tìr nan Òg, ‘s fear dha am b’ e am moladh a bu as àirde ri ràdh ‘s mu dheidhinn faodaidh sinn ri ràdh: ‘S e fìor Ghàidheil a bh’ann. Mar am b’ àbhaist dha ràdh gach turas nuair a dh’fhalbh mi còmhradh ris,
“Chi mi thu ag dh’aithghearr, a bhallaich.”
Or, in English:
This book is dedicated to “Big Donald” Macdonald, from Harris—my tutor and dear friend—who lived the greater part of his life in Canada, but who never really left his homeland nor his heritage, but kept them always in his thoughts and on his lips, and who has gone before us to the Land of the Ever Young, and a man for whom the highest praise was and about whom we might say: He was a true Gael. As he used to say each time I left our conversation together,
“I’ll see you soon, my friend.”
I can only hope that from where he is now, he is satisfied with my writing here, and wouldn’t make too many corrections, nor rap me too hard with his yardstick.
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