(Many of you will already have an audio and/or transcribed copy of THE GREAT CONVERSATION, as I have named it. I am indebted to Dr Alistair MacCormick for giving me the cd and transcribed versions. You may wonder why I have not earlier included this major piece. I can only say that every time I read it, I had the strange sensation that I was somehow intruding on Neil and Donald, some Celtic shadow – or more probably Donald’s interviewing skill and Neil’s undoubted capacity to convey information )
THE GREAT CONVERSATION took place in Edinburgh sometime in September, 2008, just seven months before the untimely death of one of the two participants, Professor Sir Donald Neil MacCormick. It was only fitting that the other was the highly regarded BBC Newsnight anchor, his cousin, Donald MacCormick. It is a remarkable document. I have been told that Neil had notes for the creation of a family history. This piece can only give you the tiniest insight into the breadth of his knowledge.
Donald opens the discussion.
CHAPTER ONE of a conversation between Neil and his cousin Donald recorded in Edinburgh in September 2008.
Q: OK, Neil, the first MacCormicks in the Ross of Mull, who were they and where did they come from?
A: The first ancestor of whom we have a written record is Dugald MacCormick, who is in Iona in 1792 if I remember rightly – one of the earliest of the records of the post-Campbell establishment in Iona after the MacLeans of Duart had been thoroughly rooted out not long after the ’45, and Dugald MacCormick is at the West End of Iona. In those days, Iona was divided into two farms, two collective farms, and the MacCormicks were among the families on the West End farm –I think with MacInneses, Campbells and MacDonalds, that’s certainly the legends I have heard. And so the Mac Inneses, Campbells and MacDonalds and MacCormicks between them shared Culbhuirg, Cul an-t saimh (pronounced “Culdaff”), Machair and Sithean.started off on Iona itself, they didn’t come from somewhere else?
A: That’s what we don’t know, where did they turn up from?…Mairi MacArthur, who wrote a (major) book on Iona, has a theory that just possibly – MacCormick being a Mid-Argyll name as well as a Mull name – that branch of the MacCormicks came in with Campbell tenants…Campbell loyalists…at that period. We don’t know, but it’s certain that at that same time there were already other MacCormicks (or the same MacCormicks, it’s anyone’s guess) on the Ross of Mull itself. And some of the oldest Mull records in the Argyll papers record people like Murdoch MacCormick testifying to a boundary dispute away back in the mid 18th Century as well. (The theory of MacCormicks having come in from Mid-Argyll is perhaps contradicted by Gordon MacCormick, a kinsman of ours on Iona. He has a large and growing website of the MacCormicks, which suggests an ancestor – perhaps Dugald’s father – residing at Saorpheighinn (“Saorphin”) just above Bunessan earlier in the Eighteenth Century.) So there’s no certainty beyond that…Uncle Dugald claimed that…
Q: Just to interrupt for a moment, you’ve already talked about “at some time after the ’45” – Does that mean we’re not sure what part the family played in that matter?
A: I think we can be confident the MacCormick family played no part on either side of it, it was just not involved…Whereas the Glenurquhart MacDonalds were deeply involved, which we’ll come to…I think that Lochbuie kept himself and his people out of the ’45 and the MacCormicks of the Ross of Mull were certainly Lochbuie people…as we know (from the slogan) “Meat and drink to the MacCormicks”. So even if there was a second clan of MacCormicks moving in (from outside), we’ll never know – we just know that they start in Iona in 1792, maybe transported over from the Mull family. Interestingly, one of the MacCormicks at Bogilee (a croft on the Ross of Mull) was known to our fathers as “Uncle James” — though Uncle James was “not a relation”. So did that mean that in the modern sense they were not very close relations, or did that mean that in the most negative sense they were not any relations at all? (At any rate, they were great friends, and very good neighbours.) Wherever that goes, in your line the genealogy goes: Hamish, son of Donald, son of Donald, son of Donald, son of Donald, son of Neil, son of Iain (or John), son of Dugald…and that’s back to Dugald. So that’s, if I was counting rightly on my fingers, seven or eight generations. And of course in Gaelic it’s all (as follows)…s tu Seumas MacDhomnaill ’ic Dhomnaill ’ic Dhomnaill ’ic Dhomnaill ’ic Neill ’ic Iain ’ic Dhughaill.
Uncle Dugald specifically claimed that there were thirty-three generations in which the triplet Dugald, Iain and Neil was repeated. But of course his line was the only one in which it was repeated even twice in recorded history, because Uncle Dugald was son of Neil, son of John, son of Dugald – and his own son was Iain, and Iain’s own son was Neil, whom we’ve met; and I don’t know if they’ve got any further progeny down that line, or not.
Q: Is that the Neil from Canada?
A: No, that’s not the Neil from Canada, that’s the Neil from London, youngish Neil from London, Uncle Dugald’s grandson, who attended the family gathering in Glasgow in 1993. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, it was a big family, there were more than seven sons…eight, I think…and two daughters, in great grandfather Neil’s family. And Neil, great grandfather, is the person about whom we know most. His father, John, was born in Iona and lived for a while as a cottar and shoemaker on Iona – but then came across to the Ross of Mull, and not long after that became the Free Church schoolmaster, which suggests a remarkable level of educational attainment…although he can’t have had any high degree of scholarly training – though my father said that he he could read Homer in Greek while going about work on the croft. But a lot of the books about Mull, including Jo Currie’s recent one, say that the Ross is a bit of a separate territory, because it was never under MacLaine of Lochbuie – or Duart – ownership in the recent past, so that the papers to which the archivists have had access don’t include the Ross. Maybe the Dukes of Argyll directly supplanted the Abbots of Iona at the time of the Reformation. But, according to Currie, there were some interesting families in the Ross, and there was a particularly clever family of MacCormicks. I think the source of the reputation for cleverness is great grandfather Neil, who was the manager of the quarries, whose gravestone we all know on Iona. After all, he worked his way up from being a quarry labourer to become manager – a not very promising prospect, you would think, in the Mull of the mid-Nineteenth Century. He is depicted in one family picture which I’ve never seen, sitting on a wall in a group of young quarry-workers – which is essentially a photograph of Robert Louis Stevenson, who was visiting the quarries with his father in the course of the construction of Dubh Heartach light(house). But he rose to become the manager of the Mull quarries, and did some remarkable things in that capacity – including devising a safety grate for getting heavy loads of granite down nearly vertical inclines, practically cliff-faces. When you think of that in terms of the danger to the men working for him, it was an enormous…
Q: Engineering feat?
A: And piece of safety engineering of an extremely important kind. And he was involved in the good fortune to have very attractive stone that was used in monumental sculpture all round the world.
Q: So what relation was he to the schoolmaster?
A: Son of, yes; and grandson of the Dugald who turns up in Iona in 1792. And all the others are recorded in censuses, we’ve got census records from the whole of the Nineteenth Century, so none of these names have been lost and none of them depend on the Shennachies, or tradition-bearers, passing them down. And of course the great event in Neil MacCormick’s life was when he was asked to go out and visit the porphyry quarries in Egypt, and check if they were workable still – which he reported they were not. They had been worked out, in his opinion. But he was taken into the interior of the Egyptian desert to report on that, and this was a quite considerable thing for someone who’d not actually been outside Scotland before, and I think had not even been on the mainland of Scotland before! Though probably they would have gone to Ayr and places on marketing trips at some time or other. And this was still before the steamships had a regular service – (which wasn’t) until quite near the end of old Neil’s life. He lived to a prodigious age, he was ninety when he died, and his wife was nearly ninety-nine. I think two of the sons, Willie, uncle Willie, and uncle John were Bards of the Mod. Uncle John wrote the first ever Gaelic novel, Dun Allain, he was a very considerable amateur antiquarian, wrote lots of antiquarian literature, a lot of it is not really very long shelf-life stuff; but his book on the Island of Mull, published by MacLaren of Glasgow, is interesting and important. And I think Dun Allain will always be remembered as the first successful attempt to write a prose novel in Gaelic. It was originally reviewed quite unfavourably among the sort of smart, lefty reviewers of the 1960s, when it was re-discovered as part of the Gaelic revival of the 1970s.
Q: I thought you were going to say the smart lefty reviewers of the Oban Times!
A: Not they! But recently a lady whose name I forget has done a new review and discussion of his work and the novel, and gives a much more favourable treatment of it…It’s a book about the Clearances in Mull, in which he evinces really rather an antiquarian rather than a radical mindset – namely, as it were, “If only the good old chiefs would come back”, rather than “If only we got rid of the old system altogether”, which was the sort of Marxist line of Jim Hunter and people like that in the Sixties or Seventies, when this controversy first got under way with the new wave of highland historiography at that time, then quite Marx-influenced.
Our grandfather was a Ship’s Captain, a very good one as far as we’re aware, who ended his life as Marine Superintendent for the Robertson Line of the coastal trade out of Glasgow – freight tramp ships, really.
Q: These were the ones that all had jewels as their names?
A: That’s right, Topaz, Amethyst and all that…I once visited a site in Bilbao that reminded me of a story I was told by Uncle Dugald. My grandfather, he said, had once had a ship there loading iron ore, and the iron ore was being loaded through an automatic hopper, and when the ship was nearly full, the mate would blow one blast on the funnel and when it was to stop loading, he would blow the second blast. But for some reason no one above was paying any attention, so they hopelessly overloaded the ship, and they just had to clear as much of the ore off the deck and out of the hold as they could…And then they just set sail directly over the Bay of Biscay, hit a storm and were very severely damaged but made it, by the grace of God, into the Clyde, where naturally and correctly, grandfather was prosecuted for sailing an overloaded ship. That’s an offence of strict liability, so he was rightly convicted. But he was also congratulated by the Court on having got his ship home safely at all, in the circumstances in which the accident had happened. “Found guilty, without a stain on his character”, you might say.
But they were people of ability, certainly we were always led to believe that…And I suppose in our parents’ generation, the family at Stepps – a doctor, a musician and a teacher, a lawyer and politician – all involved in Scottish politics in one way or another – all able people. You know, it’s a not untypical West Highland family, making good…
Q: At what stage, just to remind us all, did the family move to Glasgow happen?
A: Our grandfather and Uncle John, moved to go to study first of all around 1880, then there was a period of turmoil in the quarrying industry and the quarry went into a period of non-production, and they abandoned night sailing (?)…Uncle John went on training to be a teacher, and did for a time teach in the Outer Hebrides, but I don’t think worked for any length of time as a teacher, and Grandfather went to sea. Then our grandparents got married in 1897 or 98, and Auntie Allie was born in 1900, yes, and your father was 1902 and my father was 1904…and Auntie Anna was 1907. I suppose our grandfather never had a permanent habitation in Glasgow until he got married. But he got married to Grandmother MacDonald after she’d been nursing for some years in the Ross of Mull, so just how long that courtship went on, I’ve never been sure. It must have been fifteen to twenty years!
Q: And presumably it was pursued from afar, to some extent?
A: Yes, at a distance, Grandfather would be home every so often when he got shore leave, I don’t quite know how that worked. But I have heard he would take the steamer to Salen then walk theough Glen Forsa and round the shoulder of Ben More, and so via Kinloch to Fionnphort. And of course Grandma was Queen’s Nurse in the Ross of Mull, at the beginning of that scheme for trying to improve medical facilities in the Highlands and Islands. So if we knew the date when the Queen’s Nursing Service started there, we’ve more or less got the date when she started there…She became very friendly with the old couple at Fionnphort House, and subsequently Achaban, when they moved to Achaban when the quarry finally closed.
Q: Is it true that she owned the first bicycle on Mull?
A: I believe so, well a bicycle was supplied with the job…and nobody could figure out how to get the tyres to inflate, and the Minister was called. Eventually, somebody discovered the bit about the wee tube that joined on the end of the pump to the tyres, and in due course all was well…Probably the doctor helped, though whether there was a resident doctor, I’m not quite certain. But it must have been a lonely and difficult life being a nurse out there.
Q: (Going back to what you said earlier about the Scottish politics side to the family), in your father’s book (Flag in the Wind) our grandmother is quoted as saying, “You should forget all that stuff …(about Home Rule)…that was all finished at Culloden”…
A: What I didn’t realise, when I first read that, was that she had a direct ancestor at Culloden…remarkable family…Do you remember we had a yacht? Dad made a red-painted yacht that he called the “Red Cavalier”…And the “Red Cavalier” was named after Alexander MacDonald, the Red Cavalier, who I believe – according to legend and history – took part in (the battle at) the Pass of Killicrankie, and he was a junior member of the Clanranald family from Castle Tioram in Moidart, who fell out with his family and, as they say, set off over the Strathglass Hills and settled in Glenurquhart, or thereabouts, where he became a cadet, or associate, of the Grant clan, the Grants of Glenmoriston, particularly the branch which was the Grants of Corrymony…And indeed, you can still visit Alexander MacDonald’s grave in Corrymony graveyard, quite close to the grave of the last of the Grants of Corrymony – a line that died out in the late Nineteenth Century, which has some significance for our family. Anyway the Alexander MacDonald of whom I speak was a descendant of the Red Cavalier. The Red Cavalier had two sons, at least, and a daughter, and I believe the Red Cavalier was one of those people who was young enough to have fought at Killiecrankie, and not too old to have fought at Sheriffmuir…His sons, or it may be his grandsons, I can’t just remember, Somerled and Iain, were recruited into Glengarry’s regiment in the ’45 and my brother Iain has a book I once gave him as a present which has a muster roll of Prince Charles’s army – and you’ll find the names of Iain MacDonald and Somerled MacDonald in that muster roll. They are just ordinary soldiers in the Glengarry Regiment. So either as sons or grandsons, these are direct descendants of the Red Cavalier, who himself was of Clanranald in a junior line. This is why both you and my brother Iain have Somerled in your names, because unquestionably if you have a descent from Clanranald you have a descent from Somerled the Great; that’s just one of these clear facts of West Highland genealogy.
Q: Somerled the Great being The Lord of the Isles?
A: The First Lord of the Isles, yes…or the progenitor of the First Lord of the Isles, actually. Yes, that’s of whom we speak…Now, Somerled and Iain MacDonald had a sister who married a man – I can’t remember his first name – a Grant who was also a great Jacobite, and a baby,Charles Grant, was born on the eve of the Forty-five who was baptised under the crossed swords of his uncles and was fed salt into his mouth to spit out the names of the Hanoverians at the time of his baptism, and then all went off to war. After Culloden, Iain and Somerled MacDonald succeeded apparently in making their way back into Glenurquhart, where they learned that the Duke of Cumberland had offered an amnesty to all those who would surrender, and would spare their lives. And Iain decided, according to the historical record which I’ve read, that he would take the Duke at his word and was sent as an indentured servant, in effect a kind of lifetime slave, to the West Indies. Whether this means that Trevor McDonald is a relation of ours, I don’t know! But Somerled decided he would not trust the Duke, and remained in hiding in the woods of Glenurquhart, and didn’t come out of the woods for about fifteen/twenty years, until the general amnesty was finally declared – I suppose around the time of the American War of Independence, when they were recruiting in the Highlands again. Then he came out of hiding and got married and had a family – and his grandson, I think, it might be his great-grandson , was our great grandfather Alexander: father of our grandmother, Marion MacDonald. So it is literally true that when she said something died at Culloden, she was not just thinking of something strange and alien, and that was because of the curious length of families. Her father was very old when he became her father, because it was a second marriage. He was first of all married to a Grant, and then to a Kennedy from Lochaber – Mary Kennedy, who is our great grandmother and a kinswoman of Charlie Kennedy of the Liberal Democrats.
Q: So the man who lived in the forest for fifteen years and then came out and got married, he must have been quite an age by then…
A: Yes, you’ve got long generations…Auntie Allie had, and it’s in my house somewhere, a MacDonald family tree which traced some of the generations – but there’s also a very interesting book called “The Life of the Reverend Kenneth MacDonald”… . He was a Free Church of Scotland missionary in India, who founded the Free Church of India College in Calcutta, which was a going concern in the days when we could afford to have two Presbyterian churches from Scotland conducting overseas missions. And there’s some good family history in that…There’s some also to be found in the life of Sir Charles Grant, who was the boy who was made to spit out the name of Hanover; he eventually became the MP for Inverness and Secretary of the East India Company.
Q: The salt-spitting didn’t really work, then?
A: Well, maybe it did – anyway, it was not a permanent prophylactic! After the death of Charles Edward Stuart, his brother, Henry Stuart, Cardinal of York, acknowledged the legitimacy of the Hanoverian line. This released the traditional Jacobite from what had become a pointless loyalty.
But the MacDonalds produced some pretty bright people in successive generations, and we do have quite a good family tree available somewhere, with all these names on it. And there’s my Mother’s family tree, involving Millers and Grieves and Watsons and Baillies – they were an interesting bunch as well…But for the MacCormicks we only have what is in the parish records and partly in my and other memories, and this is our line of it…and I thought it was all we had. But this turns out to be false, owing to very substantial work by our kinsman Gordon MacCormick of Sithean on Iona.
Of course there are all the other important people, and two were particularly important to me: namely Uncle Neil and Uncle Dugald. Because when I was learning to play the pipes I would go to visit them in Uncle Neil’s house in Elmbank Crescent in Glasgow and that was a kind of curious introduction to an imaginary landscape, because the tunes I was playing , quite a lot of them, were from my grandfather’s book of tunes and were tunes about places on Mull I’d never seen – though of course Neil and Dougie knew them intimately. No sooner would they read the name of the tune than they would start talking about the place, and then tell me some of the stories of the place as well. They were never done telling stories , the way old people do: they tell you more than once, many more than once – which means you remember it, to some extent. So I grew up in my teens with this imaginary landscape, which was only partly imaginary, because we’d been on holiday three times to Bunessan (Ross of Mull) and you knew the lie of the land in a broad sort of way, but little boys have a distorted vision of distance and landscape and so when I was a student in 1960 and working in the summer at the St Columba Hotel on Iona, and was allowed my Wednesday afternoons off to re-explore the Ross of Mull, it was a remarkable sort of re-visiting of a hitherto imaginary landscape and cladding it with thoughts, and people, and..
Q: “A local habitation and a name…”
A: Exactly, well said…So how are we doing, making progress?
Having listened to a playback of Chapter One, Neil felt some things should be added, most of them to do with the distaff side of the family. He observed that families tend to run in the male line because of the way we use surnames in our culture…
A: But both my great grandmother Annabel MacLachlan and my grandmother Marion MacDonald were enormously forceful people in the families they ran. And in the case of Annabel MacLachlan well, her significance is discoverable from the number of Annabels among her descent; she was clearly a very forceful, matriarchal figure in the family. Her family were an interesting family, they descended from the hereditary armourers of the MacLachlans of Strathlachlan in Argyll, and they’re yet another displaced aristocratic family from after the Forty-five. And what happened to the armourer of the MacLachlans after the dispossession of the MacLachlans from Strathlachlan, and the general disruption of the clan system in that part of the world, was that he took to being a smith, instead of being a sword-maker, for domestic equipment. And via smithing, he moved into quarrying and spent a period at least in the quarries round Ballachulish, which is how we created a clan connection with a family of Gillieses, who were also in that area and turned up subsequently in Tayvallich, in Argyll… But who were second or third cousins of ours through the MacLachlan line, just as a matter of chance. And as a further matter of chance it happened that these Gillieses intermarried with MacKellars, who were great friends of ours: John MacKellar and his father Jimmy. And Jimmy’s mother had been a MacCormick, but not a Mull MacCormick, a mid-Argyll MacCormick, and I just thought we would mention that not merely was it the case that, as Mairi MacArthur conjectured (see Chapter One), there were MacCormicks in mid-Argyll in the late Eighteenth Century, there had been MacCormicks there for a very long time. The best source of proof for that is the old churchyard at Kilmory Knap, where there are a lot of MacCormick graves, which are associated with the Campbells of Taynish, interestingly. And of course the church on the opposite point across Loch Sween from Kilmory Knap is the church of Kilcarmaig – i.e. St Cormac’s Church, so Cormac was a cult name in mid-Argyll and it wouldn’t be surprising if people used Cormac as a forename, and then in the way that families got named, and then cadet branches of families would take a sub-name, so that MacCormick would be an obvious and common name in that part of the world, too. Anyway, that was the MacLachlans.
Q: But Cormac being a cult name originally from an Irish input…?
A: Well, Irish, Scottish…it was one language…Yes, St Cormac and the MacCormick Islands (at the mouth of Loch Sween) are all part of the same package. Eilean Mor Mac Ui Charmaig is the Gaelic name of Eilean Mhor, and the MacCormick Islands is the given name in the Ordnance Survey of the little islands at the foot of Loch Sween. And Kilcarmaig (or Cille Mhic Ui Charmaig), or Church of MacCormick, or Cormac’s Church, is Keills Church, or Old Keills Church (on the North side of Loch Sween). So there we are, that’s a digression into the MacCormicks in Mid-Argyll, via the MacLachlans.
But in the days of the granite quarrying, the “Red Smith”, Donald MacLachlan the Red Smith, moved into the Ross of Mull and set up a smithy there and did work with quarrying. And that’s how the connection between great grandfather Neil and Annabel MacLachlan came about, that’s how there was an Annabel MacLachlan for Neil MacCormick to fall in love with and marry – which they did around 1853, I think, and all our ancestors come from that union…but an important line of people, and interesting people, and had a great family binding influence. Incidentally, for a while in her young days Annabel MacLachlan acted as I suppose a kind of housemaid and companion to old Colin MacLiver, who was the father of General Sir Colin Campbell, Lord Clyde, and was a kinsman, in some degree, of the MacLachlans. So there was a kindred between old General Campbell, who adopted the name Campbell on joining the Army, whose name was MacLiver, and when you think of it, the name MacLiver, which came from Islay, is actually the same name as Gulliver, mispronounced as “son of Ivar” (in Gaelic)…However these are little by-notes of history…
The second by-note I wanted to put in is about our own grandmother (Marion MacDonald), which is a particularly sad chapter of Scottish history…As we said, her father, Alexander MacDonald, was a tenant of the Grants of Corrimony and had a big croft or a small farm, I’m not sure, above the village of Balnain in Glenurquhart, which is where our grandmother went to school. The Grants of Corrimony died out, the last of the line died a bachelor and childless, and senior member of the faculty of advocates in Edinburgh – after which the estate fell into distant hands and was taken over by an agricultural improver, whereupon the MacDonalds were evicted from their croft, which, as was then done, was burnt on their leaving it, because in these fairly sparsely wooded parts of the world, not so much Glenurquhart as farther north, if you could take the roof tree off a house and burn it, there was no serious prospect of its being resumed as a habitation. ..Whereupon the MacDonalds moved down to Milton, in Glencoe, and worked at wool-milling – though the old man must have been very very old by this time. And eventually he died, and later, about the age of eight my grandmother and her mother, and some of the siblings of the second family, set off to emigrate to Canada. But they never got that far: the great port of migration at that time for that part of the Highlands was Campbeltown, because you could access it via the Caledonian Canal and the Crinan Canal – so small boats took people from Temple Pier on Loch Ness down through the canal and down into Campbeltown. However , in Campbeltown they found relations who were of the first family, who possibly had made the same trip at some earlier time, and the Watsons and other families who were relations in the half-blood, and still living in Campbeltown. So old Mary Kennedy/ MacDonald and Marion and others of the family set up in Campbeltown, and Grandmother attended secondary school there, from which she went to study as a nurse in Leith; why she went to Leith General Hospital I have no idea, but that is what she did. Well there are two stories about that…she was bilingual by this time in Gaelic and English – or Gaelic and broad Scots, because of course Campbeltown was much more broad Scots-spoken than standard-English-spoken – so when she was studying to be a nurse in an important place like Edinburgh, she had to try to forget her Gaelic and her Scots, and apparently on one occasion, or rather the great occasion when she left, she got on to the train to go up to Glasgow and then on to Edinburgh, and the gentleman sitting opposite her said, “Excuse me, miss, do you mind if I close the window?”. To which she is said to have replied, “No, I don’t remember”. There’s another story which my father told me which I think must be well grounded in truth, which is that when she was training to be a nurse the surgeon in the hospital decided he wanted to perform an appendistomy – which was a new operation at the time, and the first one he had performed. And he was actually a Gaelic-speaking Highlander himself, although well-masked. But in the course of the operation he became agitato and started requesting implements and things in Gaelic, and the only other person in the room who could help – who was the most junior person present – was my Grandmother, and instead of being congratulated afterwards she was subsequently treated as something of a black sheep, for knowing this rather impossible, barbarous language. Anyway, however that turned out, she turned out as a nurse and we pick up her story again as the first Queen’s Nurse in the Ross of Mull.
Q: Just to interrupt briefly, what sort of position was that of Queen’s Nurse…just a facet of the system at that time?
A: Yes, I don’t exactly know – it was Queen Victoria who was the patron of this scheme. I think it was a general scheme, for what became District Nurses country-wide. I believe there was a period in which the conditions of health and well-being in the Highlands and Islands became such a matter of concern that special schemes were set up to improve medical recruitment; but I think that probably came later, I think it was just a general…I don’t exactly know the detail, I just know she was the first (Queen’s) Nurse there – whether they started there or somewhere else, I don’t know. I think that covers all that early period of family history where I have anything special to impart. There is, as I said, a book about the history of Glenurquhart and Glenmoriston which has some little bits about the MacDonald history. And there’s the Life of Charles Grant, and the Life of the Rev Kenneth MacDonald. The other important document to put on the record at this point is the journal that my great-grandfather kept when he went to Egypt – it was transcribed and typed up by Uncle John. His daughter Annabel has the original typescript, she gave me copies of it and I copied it on to numbers of people, I’m not sure all to whom. I still have a copy myself, in the house in 19 Pentland Terrace somewhere, but I’m afraid my papers are not very well ordered at the moment, I hope I’ll still have time to order them a bit. But I think if that could be rescued and published, for example through Birlinn Books, it’s the kind of historical record that’s now of interest to people, about the Highlands of that period. It’s a travelogue, really, by an old man of totally Highland background going to Egypt in the late Nineteenth Century – not the most usual eventuality. I also wrote a little note at one point for a talk in Oban called “Memories of the Ross of Mull: Tales My Great-uncles Told Me”, so if I can ever put my hands on that manuscript, that would add a little bit to this, perhaps in itself not very important – but a wee bit of the imaginary landscape re-discovered.
CHAPTER THREE As Neil prepared to move forward and explore the modern history of the clan, it seemed appropriate to ask him first about the former family home of Achaban in the Ross of Mull. He has already referred to it in Chapter One, but more importantly, for present generations of MacCormicks taking the road from Bunessan to Fionnphort, Achaban is perhaps the first and most recognisable sign that you are in home territory…
A: Achaban is from the point of view of our family visiting Mull a very significant landmark, partly because when we were young our Great Aunt Bella – Annabel Harper-Nelson – was there, and her remarkable family of interesting people, too… But more because it was the retirement home to which Neil and Annabel MacCormick moved when they left the quarry-house – the old Fionnphort House, in actual Fionnphort village. So it’s a kind of landmark of arrival in our part of the Ross of Mull, and that leads over to Iona. There’s an interesting story which you probably know, or may have forgotten, that after the quarries closed Fionnphort House was taken over as the ferryman’s house. Then sometime in the mid-1950s, it burned down and became a ruin, just at the time when they were making rapid progress in restoring Iona Abbey. And the stones were in fact collected from the old Fionnphort House and taken over to be built into the Abbey buildings in Iona – whereupon various people, including Uncle Dugald, and I think Johnny Ruanaich, remarked that the old man had always predicted that he would be buried in Iona, and that the stones of his house would follow him there. So there we are…
Q: It came to pass!
A: Yes it came to pass…Anyway, that was the story of the moving of the stones to Iona. But everyone who goes to the Ross should, if they can possibly manage it, go and visit Old Tormor Pier down on the Bull Hole, and walk down that cliffway staircase, which was the old route of the quarry railway that transported the pink huge blocks of granite, which are no longer there to be seen but were until recently quite a landmark in themselves.
Q: And that was the cliff where Neil designed that system…(See Chapter One.)
A: Yes, that’s important…Of all the things that are monuments to the times the MacCormicks worked the quarries I think Tormor Pier is the most moving and impressive. The other interesting thing about that family is its musical prowess. Old Neil, Neil himself, was the choirmaster of a choir which combined – in an astonishingly ecumenical way for the period – a choir of the Established Church, the Free Church and the Baptist Church, each of which flourished in the Ross of Mull at the time. And he was presented at the end of it all with a clock, which is still in the possession, I think, of Fiona Eden-Bushell, because it went down through that line of the family. But I was given by Annabel this past summer – Annabel Macinnes Culbhuirg, Annabel MacCormick Macinnes Culbhuirg – our clan chief, I suppose! – a psalter which was owned by Neil MacCormick, which has got the old, you know, divided pages, with the sheet music on the top leaf and the words on the bottom, so you could combine different tunes with different words. So this was obviously a valued possession of his, and he was clearly a musician of some prowess, you know, he managed a choir, and of his sons at least four were more than competent pipers, very good pipers. Our Grandfather never played the full pipes, he only played the chanter, but he also played the fiddle with great accomplishment, I’m told, and you may remember there was a fiddle in the garden shed at Stepps when we were little which had been his fiddle, which we made various ineffectual attempts to make music with…
Q: Stockhausen-like noises!
A: Yes, the only musical talent the four of us revealed at that period of our lives was at the mouth organ…with that very interesting mouth organ band! Also, music then descended into the next generation, particularly though not only through Auntie Anna, and all our Sundays and all our family gatherings included recitations on the piano of Kishmul’s Galley and other Kennedy Fraser tunes, together with Chopin’s preludes and nocturnes and so on…So we lived in a musical environ, and other branches of Neil’s family were very much similar, I mean Uncle Neil’s family were hugely musical and Uncle Neil himself wrote many books of pipe music, and was a fine piper himself in his day. Uncle Lachie was a pipe-major in the First World War, Johnny Ruanaich was a pipe-corporal in the First World War, Neil – alias “Fili” – who is the father of Big Neil who lives in New York, conducted a church choir and was very engaged with music in his life, and was a piper in the First World War for a while, too. So there’s a great deal of piping and music and the old traditional music of the islands there. Uncle Dugald has got some of it recorded at the School of Scottish Studies, and I have a tape of some of the things he recorded in the house. I know that myself – and I think I’m probably the last person to have sung any of them – and I will try and make some of the written record of things…Our grandfather left three very good books of pipe tunes; unfortunately Auntie Anna lent two of them to a band in Helensburgh, which proceeded to lose them, which was a terrible shame and not Auntie Anna’s fault at all, but we’ve just got one of the books left, which contains all his best tunes – except the great tune, “The Lads that Will Return No More”, which was the tune played at the opening of the Glasgow Cenotaph. I think there was a competition to submit a tune for that and according to my Father, and I see no reason to doubt it, “The Lads that Will Return No More” was the, or one of the, tunes played to open that Cenotaph. It’s a very beautiful tune, I think, and if I don’t write it down soon, it will not exist in written form anywhere because it was lost; but I remember it, and only I can. (Since then, Neil has written the tune down, and in due course a copy will be made available.)
Q: And where did you first hear it, that particular tune?
A: Well I heard it by playing it off the sheet music, then played it to Uncle Neil and Uncle Dugald, who could then say, “Well this is how it really sounds…”, you know they would sing it back to me. It’s a very interactive thing, learning a pipe tune. And of course when we had Uncle Dugald staying with us for four years at Park Quadrant in Glasgow, often two or three nights a week I would go in with the chanter and we would play tunes and talk, so I learned an awful lot…It’s from there that all the notes from the imaginary landscape descend quite a bit.
Q: And now your nephew Kyle is shaping up as a possible piper…?
A: He, attending Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, will have a very good opportunity to learn them, if he can – if he chooses – which would be very nice. Otherwise I would be the last of the line, in the piping way. But people can be musical in all sorts of other ways. So I think that one of the things about our family, looking back at it, was that it was a family very much engaged with music and taken up in interesting ways with the traditional music, but not only the traditional music – also classical music: Auntie Anna and the other MacCormick girls at Elmbank Crescent.
And of course the other thing we were all inured to, and educated to, during these many family summer holidays, was the sea, was being competent boat people, which I think was terribly important. And we weren’t yachtsmen, we weren’t sailors of “Dragon” yachts (except when I crewed for Billy Mann and things like that) but we were handy people in a rowing boat, all of us, and we knew how to conduct ourselves well. And that was part of our inheritance from our grandfather, I suppose. And your father and my father…there are lots of pictures of them at Crinan and places rowing away…
They were also very busy in the National Party – I discovered some letters of father to my mother, when Marion and I were tidying papers… you have said you don’t have many personal memories of your father, but he was very involved in the SNP in its early days, the National Party of Scotland, and was convener of a thing called, I think, the Nationalist Graduates Association and sort of organised the ex-Glasgow and ex-Edinburgh University graduates who were in it. So they were very involved and worked together as a family…It was a shame that Uncle Donny, your father, died so young that we all have relatively slim memories of him, whereas my father was a very dominant figure, particularly in his high period in the late 1940s and early 50s, when the (Scottish) Covenant was at its full swing and he was the man in the news all over Scotland. But he was always also quite a family man and I remember enjoyable evenings – especially at Tayvallich in the evenings – sitting chatting, and he would be making jokes and keeping us thinking about the way the world was going. Also it must be remembered…
Q: I remember that he used to sit in that cottage in Tayvallich which your family used to occupy, and he was writing his book, The Flag in the Wind, in jotters – and in pencil!
A: Yes, I still have the pencil drafts, that’s right…and then he wrote it in ink, in other jotters, and we still have all these jotters with the original manuscript in them. But we were a matriarchal family, really. Your mother, and my mother, I now realise looking back, were women of extraordinary fortitude and intelligence, and wisdom, and they were backed up by our joint two aunts, Auntie Anna and Auntie Allie, who was the financial power-house of that family, I mean she kept us all going with subsidies that none of us really knew of until long after…
Q: A sort of Marshall Aid for the family…
A: Yes, here was this maiden lady, working a quite lonely life in an infectious diseases hospital in Derby, near Derby, Derwent Hospital, and living a very frugal personal life, making I suppose a consultant’s salary on the National Health and spending it, effectively, maintaining her nephews and nieces with their education and other help that she gave us all. Meanwhile Auntie Anna was a guide, philosopher and friend and permanent backup, because your mother and my mother were often in demand and busy for other reasons with their own work and things – and Auntie Anna was always somehow available to come and hold the fort or have us out to stay at the old family home in Stepps. And in our family Aunt Elizabeth, my mother’s sister, after she stopped running the huge garden at Westwood – which was my grandmother’s house in Bothwell, where we could all run wild, as the four of Iain, Marion and Elspeth and me spent Augusts there entirely, and you and Alistair came to visit us occasionally and we would smoke Woodbines up the trees furtively, and…
Q: With very little pleasure!
A: With no pleasure whatever – and we would pick plums and raspberries and strawberries and just lived the life of wild children, it was wonderful. And Auntie Libby maintained that garden until my grandmother died, and then she moved on and had several smallholdings of various kinds, ending up as schoolteacher in Kippen with a very big garden adjacent to Kippen School, which Iain and Marion and Elspeth and I used sometimes. I did my swotting for my Finals there, or part of it, and then my own daughters used to visit when they were little – although by that time Aunt Libby was getting old, and a bit wandered. So we lived a life which was very surrounded by very caring and devoted aunts, you know whom it’s easy to write out of scripts; somehow men are more glamorous figures in family history, but without these aunts our lives would have been totally different than they were, and they were enormously important figures. So I was very glad that we were able last year to put up a little memorial at the family grave at Bedlay, at Moodiesburn just outside a Stepps, where grandfather, grandmother and your father are all buried, and my Dad is there and my mother is now there also…her ashes…and there’s a plaque commemorating Auntie Anna and Auntie Allie, which is how it should be. We’ve still to do something for Aunt Elizabeth, but Marion has that in hand. So there we are, we think this was a family in which music was very significant, and in which the sea played a role in our collective legend – but of course above all it was also a terribly Scottish family, tied up with concern in Scottish history and Scottish politics, and I suppose we all had, in different forms, a kind of bias which runs through our whole way of looking at the world – which is not, I think, a merely parochial, narrow, little-Scotlandist view, but it’s a view of the world as a world that starts from, and as it were flows in concentric lines from Scotland, and that our engagement with the world is an engagement as very incurably Scottish people, and hence intensely interested in things like this family history and the more general history of our country…These would be the important features of it, and certainly ones that were transmitted very strongly by all the people we’ve mentioned – in particular by my father and by Auntie Anna but also, to an increasing extent, by my own mother; particularly in her retirement years, she took lots of courses in history and got more and more engaged with it. Also your mother did her very important, unsung work with educationally challenged children, in what were then called Special Schools; and my mother, before and after her marriage, spent about thirty years in all working with disadvantaged adults through the City of Glasgow Society of Social Service, and then finally in the Gorbals at the Guild of Aid – of which she was finally Warden, in the years between 1970 and 1974, when she retired, and there she did a lot of work with old people in the Gorbals at a time when the Gorbals was being taken to pieces, and the old way of life was difficult for elderly people to sustain…So I think she did much good there, but, again, these are unsung heroes who deserve a mention in any discussion of this kind.
Q: Just a further question about one of the “sung” heroes – your father, when his political career came to an end, he was actually a Liberal. So how did that come about, what does that say about his wider fame, still, now, as a Scottish Nationalist?
A: I tried to answer this in a way, though slightly obliquely, in the introduction I’ve just written to The Flag in the Wind (Second Edition) – which now contains a fascinating new appendix which includes something Marion and I discovered – a thesis written to Miss Margaret Isobel Miller in, it must be, 1928. In it, my father says why he thinks that the National Party of Scotland is the necessary vehicle for progress in Scotland. It’s very passionate, and he’s coming out of the Labour Party at the time, he’s coming out of the ILP, and he’s saying that although Labour believe good things, he doesn’t think they can actually achieve them – because parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster will always mean that when they’re in a position to do something (about Home Rule), they won’t do it because they would lose their UK majority through the removal of Scottish Labour MPs to a separate Scottish Parliament. And when they’re not in a position to do something, they’ll just say they’ll do it. This was really quite prescient, I think: it shows how the National Party was founded, but Dad was always a man with a sense of being in a hurry to get places. Another group of a more establishment kind, called the Scottish Party, formed in 1932, and some of the figures in it, were rather leading figures in Scottish Society, such as the Duke of Montrose and people. Dad thought it was very important to get back on track with people of that kind, who’d been involved in early discussions about the National Party; so the Scottish National Party was formed in 1934, in circumstances of some controversy because some of the “ultras” – the old NPS – refused to go along with it and were expelled in the process. So it was quite hard work, harsh work, establishing the SNP in 1934. And then they soldiered through the desperately difficult 1930s – including the 1935 General Election – and came to the beginning of the War. Partly because of the “War to end Wars” sentiment, and partly for constitutionalist reasons which I’ve never understood – in spite of being a constitutionalist myself – there was a body of opinion, led by Douglas Young, which said that the Westminster Parliament under the Treaty of Union had no power to conscript Scots to serve abroad, and Douglas Young went to jail rather than be enlisted for the War. And he was then elected Chairman of the SNP, which Father took to be a repudiation of all the efforts he had been making in a more moderate direction, which had seemed to bear fruit in the 1940 by-election in Argyll, where William Power came a very close second to the Government candidate. He might well have won, but the Phoney War had just come to an end. Interestingly, the next person to contest Argyll for the SNP was my brother Iain MacCormick, which he did in 1970. He was not elected but in 1974 he was elected twice, so the promise of 1940 in Argyll was finally redeemed thirty-four years later, at the beginning of the first big upswing in SNP fortunes…A very big upswing, though there had been the earlier moments at Hamilton and in the Western Isles with Winnie Ewing and Donald Stewart.
But the upshot of the split of 1942 over the War issue was that Father and his more moderate faction, if you would call it that, set up a thing called the Scottish Convention and proceeded to try to get going an idea which had already been mooted within the SNP before – namely a Covenant, an umbrella appeal to all Scots to commit themselves to the idea of a Parliament on the basis that the Covenant was an all-party and no-party organisation; it was not in the pocket of any party, but (in elections to Westminster) its members were free to support whichever party they thought was most appropriate to the purposes to which they were committed. So in that context my Father became a Liberal and fought the 1945 General Election as a Liberal in Inverness, which he had previously fought as an SNP candidate. Then he fought a by-election in Paisley in 1947 under the label “National Candidate”, which was a kind of all-party support other than Labour. So it was a kind of direct challenge to Labour in Paisley; he came quite a close second, but didn’t win. Then finally, in 1959, he had one last throw and fought Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles as Liberal candidate and came a good second – teeing up the ball for the young David Steel, who won a by-election there in the next succeeding Parliament. So he had an unsuccessful electoral political career and you could argue that he made a mistake in having left the SNP, founded the Covenant, had huge success in gathering signatures, and not himself remaining aloof from all parties, but he didn’t ever win a parliamentary election. However, I argue this, that in the end of the day both the strategies he pursued turned out to be complementary and necessary: without the Covenant tendency, as you might call it, there would not have been the Scottish Constitutional Convention – that whole bringing together of different parties to put up a scheme for devolution – which in point of fact replicated very much the same scheme for devolution which the Covenant had unveiled in the 1940s…Of course it improved it and made it more governmentally workable and all that, but essentially, that was history repeating itself.
However that would not itself have worked, I don’t think, if there hadn’t been pressure from the other side – and pressure from the other side was constantly coming from the SNP. And undoubtedly the Referendum in 1997 would not have achieved the massive majority that it effectively required, and actually got, but for the coming together of the SNP under Alex Salmond, the Liberal Democrats and Labour and all the civic organisations. So I think you can say that both the initiatives that he took in the end bore fruit, although of course they bore fruit through different hands than his, and I think it remains true that if you ask how Scotland has changed over the last half of the Twentieth Century, you couldn’t say it all changed because of what John MacCormick did – but you could say many of the changes would be less intelligible but for what John MacCormick did, and how that fed into subsequent developments. So he was a great man of his time and made a real impact on our country.
Q: And just a last word, maybe, for the time being, about your good self…the internationally eminent level of scholarship and distinction to which you have risen in your career…Where did all that come from? How did it come about? Who do you thank for all that?
A: When I went to university and started studying philosophy I realised this was what fascinated me most of all. Why did it fascinate me? Well Dad was always interested in philosophy and the talk round our fireplace was, in a kind of a way philosophical, and my mother was of course also very clever and although she didn’t go in for as much speculation as Dad did, the atmosphere in our house was clearly fertile for philosophical ideas, and also there was an interest in law, obviously…
Q: And disputation?
A: Disputation, yes…perpetual disputation…there was always an argument going on of some kind round the fireplace. Also I think my father always thought that to any question there was a reasonable answer, if you just worked away hard enough you would find out what it was. So it was an anti-dogmatic household, in which it was good to try out ideas…and of course Iain tried them to the limit by becoming a Catholic…And did, and was accepted, and was encouraged to pursue his line of belief if that was what it was…So I think that was very important – and then just the education I got at Glasgow University, and, following it, at Balliol, and then the good luck of being elected a Fellow at Balliol when I was twenty-seven – set me on a course which was both enormously enjoyable and, as all these things are at the time, sort of accidental…You know, one invitation leads to another, one task that you do leads on to another; and I gradually became involved in an international circus of legal philosophers which made me so many friendships – I’ve got friends in every continent and former students in every continent who keep in touch. That was a wonderfully lucky set of breaks in life, and yet I was also able to maintain my Scottish political involvement at the same time, and in a curious way it all came together when by a rather odd chapter of accidents I was elected to the European Parliament and turned up in Europe as already a sort of reputed expert – namely, a philosopher of law and a student of European constitutionalism – and then here I am in the Parliament and then at the Constitutional Convention. I must be one of the few people who have taken part in writing two constitutions which were not in force: the European Constitution and the Scottish Constitution. Maybe both will be; actually, the European Constitution is going to come into force under the main Treaty of Lisbon, which is just a fix…And as for the Scottish Constitution, well, there’s a lot of work going on via the “National Conversation”. But, actually, all the big ideas we had in 1977 (at the Scottish National Party Conference where Neil and Dr Robert McIntyre won acceptance for constitutional principles which have been the bedrock of SNP policy ever since) are already incorporated in the Scotland Act of 1998: proportional representation, an elected Cabinet, elected First Minister, and a Bill of Rights based on the European Convention. All these aspects of more democratic government that I think we have via Holyrood than we get via Westminster, are ideas that we put forward in 1977 and were gradually absorbed into the mainstream of general ideas about constitutionalism in Scotland.
So it was an exciting life – and curiously the bits of it fitted together better than you’d think they might have…
Q: Yes the story as it emerged was greater than the sum of its parts…But, stop me if this is wrong, you talked of the original Neil with his music and his skills, and how his father became a teacher apparently on the back of nothing, but is it right that your mother was more from the scientific side of the alleged “Two Cultures” in her own background? And if so, is it possible that that input blasted you off in a way that wouldn’t have happened if your background had been purely on the humanities side?
A: Yes, very interesting…My mother was one of these omni-competent people, her actual degree is M.A., BSc.(an MA and a BSc), and you were supposed to take five years if you wanted to do that, but for one reason or another she managed to get all the exams passed in four years, so she went and said, “I want to graduate now”, but they said, “No, you can’t, you must be matriculated for five years before you can graduate with two degrees”. So at that point she took a diploma in what we would now call Social Work, it was a Certificate of Social Administration, that’s what it was called, which took her on to social work in the East End of Glasgow at a very hard time. And she worked in the Calton district of Glasgow between 1931 and 1938, helping families in what must have been extreme states of destitution…So, yes, she had both science and maths and languages in her portfolio – but I think you’re right, I think that the major bent of her undergraduate education was into the life sciences and the natural sciences, so, yes , that kind of essential rigour must have made its own very particular contribution to us all.
Q: Just lastly, you’ve talked a lot about your academic career in terms of luck and having been in the right place at the right time, but underlying that must be the reality, surely, that you were very proud of you own accomplishments, and bloody competitive, too? Discuss!
A: Competitive in the sense that…if you think something is not true, or not deep, or not accurate, or not the whole story, what you read other people writing – that’s a challenge to write better, you know, to correct the record. But of course all philosophical work of that kind is therefore very dialectical, because presumably when I think I’ve said the last word on something, one of my colleagues says: “Aha!, MacCormick has left something else out!”, and so it goes on and on. There’s a big dialectic that takes place from generation to generation and of course…
Q: And competition is part of that?
A: Yes, but it’s not…sometimes academics deal with each other in a very bitter and vitriolic way, but I’ve never done that. I think I’ve always been an emollient person, you know seeing the good in other people’s writing rather than the bad in it, but casting it in a different light somewhat…But towards the end of my working career, I got the chance of this Leverhulme Fellowship and decided I would write four books that brought it all together – and I’ve just finished the fourth, which I think is quite good – so that I have had the chance, which not many people get, to put down the whole testament of my views, and on others which I focused on during my working life. But what’s still probably my most famous book is the first one I wrote, “Legal Reasoning and Legal Theory”, which was a young man’s book, brash and in a hurry, here’s how it really is, folks, and it made quite a stir in its time and it’s still in print. But I hope that my mature work will be remembered; one has to remember that in any generation very, very few of the books that get written survive beyond that generation. They’re read, they’re discussed, they’re looked at by students, and then they recede into the musty back areas of libraries – eventually to be rediscovered by historians of ideas, sometimes – so what will become of my work, I don’t know, nobody knows what will become of anybody’s work, but I would like to think that…In this latest book, I make a bold attempt to reconcile the thought of Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, in a way that abolishes a famous differentiation in moral philosophy between Sentimentalism and Rationalism – what stands to reason against what we feel about things – and I think there is a middle way – I always look for middle ways in my work – and I think I’ve found it in this book; so if that is received, it might be quite a landmark book. But if it’s not received, it will just be regarded as another interesting by-way – and we just have to wait and see…
Q: A middle by-way…
A: A middle by-way, a by-middle-way, yes…Nice!