Thursday 3 September 2009

Child Prodigy

The term ‘seannachie’ conjures up images of an old man telling ancient stories heard and retold through generations. This week, to the team’s surprise, in one of Carmichael’s field notebooks we came across a young lad, Donald MacDonald, who at only 6 years of age was able to recite lengthy poems and songs, something you would usually expect from an aged seannachie.

Carmichael appears to have spent a few days in the spring of 1869 in Snishival in South Uist collecting songs and poems from Donald and his grandfather, Duncan MacDonald, described then as a ‘smart little man sorly inflicted with rheumatism. Has a clear blue eye and an intelligent face’. Donald told Carmichael that the tales he recited he learned from his grandfather, who in turn had learned them from his father. Amongst those which Donald recited are Laoidh Dhiarmaid, Laoidh Fhraoich and Taladh Iain Mhùideartaich – no mean feat, that’s for sure!

Donald was the son of Duncan’s daughter Catherine and Alexander MacDonald, a relation of the Duke of Tarentum (1765-1840). Sadly, by the time he was 13, in 1875, both of his parents had died and he is shown on census records as living with Duncan and his uncle, also called Donald.

Donald and Duncan were from a long line of seannachies in South Uist which includes Duncan MacDonald, or Donnchadh mac Dhòmhaill 'ic Dhonnchaidh (1882-1954), who is still remembered there. While we know that he worked as an agricultural labourer around Snishival until he was about 29, we don’t know what happened to him after that and whether he continued the family tradition as his cousin did.

CW 107/43 fols. 40r-43v
Image: Duncan MacDonald of South Uist (1883-1954), first cousin of Donald MacDonald, pictured at the Callanish Stones while attending an International Conference held in Stornoway, October, 1953.

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]