My Tribute to Iain MacAonghuis (Dr. John MacInnes)

Iain MacAonghuis (left) and Michael Newton (right) in December 2016.

No one seriously interested in the culture, heritage and history of the Scottish Highlands can avoid engaging with the scholarship of Iain Aonghuis (“Dr. John MacInnes”, as he was known in English), who passed away into the Otherworld yesterday (10 May 2019).

A great deal has been said about Iain as a scholar, public intellectual, ethnographer, broadcaster, and activist in the Scottish Gaelic world. I was fortunate to act as editor of a substantial collection of Iain’s essays in the book Dùthchas nan Gàidheal: Selected Essays of John MacInnes (2006), which the Saltire Society Literary awards gave the “Scottish Research Book of the Year” that year.  Besides uniquely pioneering essays, this volume contains a biographical sketch, a list of his many publications, and an index of the recordings he did for the School of Scottish Studies by year and place, demonstrating (if demonstration was needed) the breadth and depth of his work amongst living informants across the Highlands.

And, if the influence of his scholarship on others was needed, the journal of the School of Scottish Studies produced a volume in 2014 (edited by Virginia Blankenhorn) dedicated to Iain. This opens with a further extensive biographical section outlining his early life, education, and work on behalf of Gaeldom.

These publications no doubt helped to expand his reputation beyond a small circle of cultural insiders, and we were all delighted when he was recognised with the Services to Gaelic Award in 2015 by the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2015.

William Matheson remarked that Iain was “the last of our native scholars” and Virginia Blankenhorn noted that “MacInnes derived his scholarly authority not from years of formal study of the Celtic languages and of Gaelic literature, but from what he had learned before he entered university at all.”

Rather than comment further on his extensive scholarship, I’d like instead to focus on my friendship with the man I refer to as m’ oide gaolach “my beloved foster-father / mentor.”

I can’t quite remember when I first met him, but it was probably in 1994, the third year I was living in Scotland and just starting a PhD in Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh. I sought him out intentionally because his scholarly writing was so insightful, imaginative, and powerful. He had recently retired from the School of Scottish Studies, or was in the process of doing so.

Here was a scholar who not only had a unique breadth and depth of knowledge about Scottish Gaeldom, but could also frame it within the larger issues of the world, such as imperialism and social justice. Very few scholars previously had the guts or clarity of vision to describe the way that the dominant anglophone world treated Gaeldom as “ethnocide” or attempted to write accessible and incisive articles for the mainstream that argued for the richness and legitimacy of Gaelic literature and culture.

Iain came from a long line of tradition bearers and was conscious of the marginalisation of Gaelic from an early age, as is implicit in many anecdotes he relates about his childhood and schooling. When making a new friend in the pub, he regularly referred to himself as an “Abo” (aboriginal) – not a common sentiment in the 1990s. He regularly expressed his solidarity with Palestine and his disapproval for the British occupation of Ireland. Unlike so many others, he did not absorb an inferiority complex about the Gaelic language or culture, although he clearly felt overwhelmed and disheartened at times by the steep decline of Gaeldom at the anglocentric forces working against it. He was an unabashed Scottish nationalist who anticipated the day when Scotland could regain its sovereignty for the good of its people, although he also did not dismiss or trivialise the long-standing and unresolved tensions between Lowlands and Highlands.

Iain was encouraging and supportive of me from the start, even though my Gaelic was still in an early stage of development. I loved that he had such wide-ranging interests and knowledge that we could talk about virtually anything. We might start by talking human ecology, turn to speaking about traditional gender roles, spend a while speculating on the development of musical and dance genres, and then talk about particularities of Gaelic words and idioms. I’ve got many scattered notes about words and phrases he wanted me to know and memories of him teaching me things he valued. He wanted to pass these things on to people who cared and that was a strong element of our bond. He had a seemingly inexhaustible well of knowledge waiting to be shared. Iain was endowed with enviable powers of memory (“a phonographic memory”) which reached far back to his childhood, and he could recall verbatim conversations and sentences that he heard decades previously from Gaels speaking dialects now essentially extinct, apart from scattered recordings.

Iain enjoyed cooking us omelettes when I came to visit him at home. He sometimes joked that he wanted to have a business card that read: “John MacInnes: Dancer and Omelette Maker” (a subtle expression of his self-effacing modesty). Once, after he had returned from the family croft in Uist, he had some carrageen and was keen to use it to make me the traditional dessert, and I can still relish the texture and flavour in my memory.

He had a great interest in the history of dance in the Highlands, and would occasionally dance to a port-á-beul or a fiddle tune, though what he did was not what the “orthodox” form of institutional Highland Dancing but a more vernacular style of movement. Although Iain did not play an instrument, he was a great singer and had an incredibly vast knowledge of songs, lyrics and singers. He was, in many ways, shy and hesitant to be recorded, and I regret that I was not able to coax him into doing more recording with me … I need to eventually edit what I do have.

Some of our best talks happened when we went out walking. Iain loved to walk, and his home on the outskirts of Edinburgh, near the Braid Hills, gave us many long paths to explore. We often remarked on the fact that this placename is a Gaelic one, and many names of Gaelic origin can be found along higher grounds in the Lowlands. Knowledge of Gaelic gives a person a set of lenses which can completely transform the way that they see and experience Scotland.

Talking while walking allowed us to share and unpack some of our personal challenges and emotional experiences. Iain was one of the most affectionate and emotionally introspective Gaels I’ve ever known, not reticent about meeting and greeting me with a kiss and hug. I asked him about Gaelic norms of expressions of affection, especially since I had noticed that contemporary norms are much more cool and restrained than those described in the 18th-century sources. Iain was a beautiful relic of the old Gàidhealtachd in so many ways.

I shared a great many of Iain’s interests and beliefs, and I took many cues from him in my research, especially in its early stages. He was kind enough to write the forewords (in Gaelic) to my first two books, which was a great endorsement for my fledgling efforts, but Iain believed in me and the cause to which we both devoted so much of our energy: the restoration of the ancient Scottish language and culture.

Coinnichidh sinn a-rithist anns an t-sìdhean, m’ oide.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. sinejeannie says:

    Another great Gaelic mind has left us. Such a beautiful tribute, Michael, to a man, who was an inspiration and a treasure. When I meet with some kindred spirits tomorrow, we will sing a lament for John, as he makes his way home.
    Iain choir:
    Is biodh Naomh Micheal, righ nan aingeal,
    Tighinn an codhail an anama,
    Is ga threorachadh dachaidh
    Gu flathas Mhic De.
    Naomh Micheal, ard righ nan aingeal,
    Tighinn an codhail an anama,
    Is ga threorachadh dachaidh
    Gu flathas Mhic De.

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