Earlier this week, one of the last great tradition bearers of Gaelic culture in Wester Ross died. Donnchadh 'Stalker' MacMhathain - Duncan Matheson - was many things. A thatcher, stonemason, craftsman and font of knowledge on the old way of life - including illicit whisky distilling. He was reputed to be an excellent poacher too. Stories on all of these subjects were often regaled in the idiomatic local Gaelic of Kintail to film crews, academics, Gaelic students and most importantly of all, local schoolkids such as the tale of local outlaw and illicit distiller Ailidh Mal.
A man of the soil certainly, but I doubt if he had time for the well-bred poshos of the Countryside Alliance, a group of people whose accents, if not politics, hark back to the lairds who drove our people from the land, replaced them with sheep and left their houses to fall into ruin.
Aye, death is natural. We all go the way of Duncan Stalker. But can natural death in old age be equated to institutionalised repression or official neglect that sees native indigenous languages beaten out of school-kids, local people unable to live in their own community and rich lairds dictating to local communities on matters that affect their lives and livelihoods?
Whatever conservatives and revisionists may say, people did not 'choose' to leave the Highlands during the clearances, unless escaping famine and forced 'relocation' constitutes freedom of choice. Equally, can it be argued that Gaelic simply 'died' when most native Gaels over the age of 50 are likely to have been punished or rebuked somewhere in their educational life for speaking their mother tongue?
Anyone can just go with the flow. Others don't. Some people form bands and produce challenging music. Some learn and use minority languages. Some bring up their children bilingual. Some people get involved with credit unions or charities. Some people learn their grandparents' language and design houses of the kind their grandparents may have lived in.
While searching for info on the late Duncan Stalker, I came across an interesting article written by one of the architects involved in Skye-based company Dualchas. If you ever thought that architecture could not be revolutionary, read it:
On Skye we met homeless and dispossessed people who were living in conditions worse than what had probably been endured for over a hundred years. An old shepherd who kept his clothes in a plastic bag to stop them getting damp in his dilapidated caravan. He had been kicked out of his tied cottage when he retired from the estate where he had worked most of his life. There was a young woman whose child was in care but who would not get her child back until she got decent accommodation. She too lived in a caravan. In Skye there was a feeling of a community on the slide. By contrast in Ireland the pubs were packed, the communities thriving. But even then, back in the early 90s, the beautiful landscape was being despoiled by inappropriate housing – alien to the landscape. However, at least Donegal had people. It was obvious that poorly designed kit houses was not the issue facing rural Scotland and Ireland as many architects seemed to think. It was the economy, the land, the people, the culture. Politics.The full article can be read here:
Donnchadh MacMhathain - clach air a chàrn