Historian and farmer; Born August 13, 1932; Died October 8, 2008.
DR John W M Bannerman, the twentieth century's foremost historian of Gaelic Scotland, has died following a lengthy illness.
It was entirely fitting that he should die at home at the Old Manse Farm, Balmaha, a great constant of his life. He was born there in 1932, the son of John Bannerman - Lord Bannerman of Kildonan, the renowned Gaelic activist, Liberal politician and Scottish rugby internationalist - and Ray Mundell, a farmer's daughter from Sutherland, to whom he owed his lifelong interest in farming.
Loading article content
They had four children: one of John's sisters was the late Ray Michie, Baroness Michie of Gallanach, Liberal Democrat MP for Argyll and Bute from 1987 until 2001. On his father's death in 1968 Bannerman took over the farm, running a flock of blackface sheep and a fold of Highland cattle. A hobby farmer he was not. He was very conscious that what he had inherited others had created, and that he was only its custodian for generations yet to come. His wish was for a thriving rural community and not a wilderness.
Gaelic was another constant, and at the root of Bannerman's other profession. Between school and university he spent an enjoyable year with Ian and Annag MacKinnon in Daliburgh, South Uist, improving his Gaelic and learning from Bean Eardsaidh Raghnaill and others part of the store of traditional songs which he would sing in his fine tenor voice.
He was one of the first honours students in Celtic at Glasgow University under the first professor of Celtic, Angus Matheson. He continued his studies at Cambridge in what is now the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, completing his doctoral dissertation there under Kathleen Hughes.
Teaching Gaelic in schools beckoned as a possible career, but following a year in the Celtic department at Aberdeen, he was appointed as a lecturer in Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh in 1965. From 1968 he divided his week between farming and academe until his retiral as senior lecturer in 1997 allowed him to devote himself full-time to the farm.
As a scholar, Bannerman's natural home was the era between the Romans and the twelfth century, when the Scottish kingdom first began to take shape. The period had no place in the history departments of Scottish universities until his appointment in 1965. Up to this point, early Scottish history was taught by professors of Celtic, if it was taught at all, and it was under that aegis that Bannerman first developed as a scholar.
Over 30 years, by dint of the quality of his scholarship and his influence upon the next generation, it was his achievement to raise the profile of the Gaelic dimension within Scottish history, and to see his students embed early Scottish history and the history of medieval Gaelic Scotland in the teaching and research of history departments.
For Bannerman, early Scottish history had an unambiguously Gaelic focus, and the Gaels were the original "Scots". His thesis was the first edition to modern scholarly standards of an extraordinarily complex text relating to the early Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata (roughly equivalent to Argyll) which he dated to the mid-seventh century.
This was followed by a brilliant demonstration that surviving late-medieval Irish chronicles are all derived from a lost Chronicle of Iona of the seventh and early eighth centuries, stopping abruptly in 740 with the "crushing of Dal Riata" by the Picts. The fruits of this first research phase were brought together in Studies in the History of Dalriada (1974).
Bannerman also articulated a powerful vision of the continuity of Gaelic history from Dal Riata forward to the late-medieval MacDonald Lordship of the Isles. The Lordship was central to the second phase of his research, which resulted in his outstanding contributions to Late Medieval Monumental Sculpture in the West Highlands (1977), and a groundbreaking study of the premier medical kindred of late medieval Scotland, The Beatons (1986). In the third and last phase, he concentrated on the central middle ages, the high watermark for Gaelic in Scotland, when it was spoken in nearly every quarter of what is now the Scottish mainland.
It was clear to all who knew Bannerman that family and Balmaha came first. Naturally reticent and unassuming, he eschewed many aspects of academic life. Yet his quiet authority made him a very sympathetic and influential teacher, perhaps especially of postgraduates, who regarded him with enormous respect and affection. Not far beneath the reticence were a very convivial nature and passionately-held beliefs, especially where Gaelic and Scottish nationalism were concerned He married Chrissie Dick in 1959, and together they made their home in Balmaha a true haven of Highland hospitality. His relaxation was his annual holiday in Chrissie's native North Uist with no telephone and no mail, fishing for mackerel from his beloved boat, Eilidh, hauling them in just as the tide turned between Aird a' Mhorrain and Boighreigh.
The one great regret in Bannerman's life was the early death of two of his daughters, Annag in infancy and Mary who, after agricultural college, joined him for all too short a time working on the farm. His five grandchildren were a great joy to him in his later years, and it was a proud day when the two youngest, Christina and Jackie, enrolled in Glasgow's Gaelic-medium school, Sgoil Ghaidhlig Ghlaschu.
He is survived by Chrissie and their three children, Kate, Seonaidh and Gilbert. Gus am bris an latha.
Dauvit Broun and Martin MacGregor