Hugh MacDonald

MY father loved a story. He starred in many, a cluster celebrating his lack of punctuality. It was fitting, therefore, that he was almost late for his own funeral. An accident delayed his final trip to Islay. It was why bemused drivers on the road to Kennacraig ferry terminal witnessed a hearse going so fast it should have been fitted with a siren and flashing lights.

Time and tide would not wait for Uisdean (Hugh) MacDonald so it was with some relief that an emergency stop on the last ferry of the day was followed immediately by the klaxon signalling the closing of the doors and the subsequent gentle slide towards Islay. There were three audible sighs of relief in the hearse, emanating from Brian and Bobby, the estimable undertakers, and from me, a son relieved that the funeral the next day would not be deprived of a somewhat necessary guest. The frantic, even febrile area of my brain also divined a mutter from the casket that said: “Never in doubt.”

The question that did occur to me on that chilly night in December 2013 and has gently haunted me thereafter is: why it was imperative for a man born and bred in Possil, of Irish and Cromarty stock, to be buried on island he first visited in middle age?

The answer lies in the profound depths of personality and the mysterious, powerful hold of culture and identity. My dad was an electrician from Possil who became an advertising executive from Busby. But he was always a Gael. When his father went to watch Celtic, he as a teenager studied Gaelic at night school. When his contemporaries played football, he strode out from Killearn Street to the Trossachs and beyond, burdened by a rucksack but buoyed by an innate sense of purpose. He was discovering Scotland. Is it too indulgent to suggest he was discovering himself?

As a businessman he travelled the world, spending some time as an executive in Iran, but when he retired early through ill health he retreated to Islay. He was to spend 30 years as an Ileach, flitting occasionally back across the water to a flat in Busby. But wherever he was he retained the air of a Gael. “I am descended from Somerled, Lord of the Isles,” he would tell me. “Aye, Somerled of High Possil, Lord of the Co-op aisles,” I would reply, evoking the family mantra of ‘’if you can’t be funny at least be wounding”.

He was vindicated dramatically after his death. On the day my brother sent me a photograph of his newly erected gravestone, I was called to the editor’s office. I had been selected for a DNA test to discover my heritage. The results were in. ‘Interesting on your mother’s side,” said the organiser of the test. “There is Slav, Russian and Jewish lines. But your dad’s side is pretty boring.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It is 100% Celt,” he replied.

“So I am a son of Somerled?”


FIVE years on, in the summer of last year, I returned to Islay for the first time since the funeral. It was planned as a break at my sister’s holiday home with my partner, Alison. There was no conscious desire to find a trace of my father. But he was everywhere. There was no stated purpose to discover why he was seduced by Islay. But its charms were almost gaudily presented in a week the island was gilded by sunshine and by that peculiar, pure light that seems only to alight on Hebridean islands or Highland scenes that God in his generosity created for personal, spiritual uplift and the postcard industry. This was the first time I had been on the island without my father. It was, of course, impossible to avoid him. The proprietor of the Celtic House, a gift shop in Bowmore with a splendid selection of books, immediately recognised me as both a son of Somerled and of Uisdean.

Hugh MacDonald on football and fatherhood

His presence was recalled in pub, restaurant and even the Museum of Islay Life where some of his artefacts have found a resting place. I felt his presence on the walk from Port Ellen along the Three Distilleries Walk. Its eight miles return journey encompasses the Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries. The crash of the waves on the walk and the warming wind of an extraordinary summer carried more than a whisper of my dad. It was in the Gaelic names, it was in the smell of the malts he consumed mostly sensibly and quietly, sometimes as fuel for raucous, invigorating singing.

He was there, too, when I embarked on a walk along the Big Strand. This is a stretch of shore that once witnessed Uisdean as official beachcomber. He would stride into the face of ineffable beauty while retaining an eye for inconsequential rubbish. My long-delayed maturity as an adult can be measured by my increasing hesitation at acquiescing to his instructions to pick up something “interesting” to return to his home. These “interesting” objects included metal buoys, discarded rope and, once, a length of wood that I now believe was his crowning glory in his career of winding up No.1 son. I carried it for five miles, believing he had spotted something of aesthetic, even historic interest. On return to his house, it was promptly cut up and thrown on the fire.

Fittingly, it was Finlaggan where the growing idea of a present Uisdean became a reality that first jarred then soothed. Finlaggan was the seat of the Lord of the Isles and of Clan Donald from the 13th to 15th century. They were sons of Somerled too. The Finlaggan Trust runs a site that holds more than memory for me. A visit there was mandatory on any stay at my father’s house. He sniffed about the site with the energy of a bloodhound following the scent of a particularly odorous herd of deer.

There was always something to attract his attention. He would peer towards the islands that were once the administrative centre for the Clan Donald. He would prowl about the ruins of the chapel with an enthusiasm that suggested that he believed the poor box was lying unopened in the debris.

Hugh MacDonald on football and fatherhood

It remains a MacDonald stronghold. His granddaughter was married there in 2016. The visitor centre also displays a selection of the legacy he left, from swords to shields. One of his chairs sits in the centre, overlooking the High House of the Lord of the Isles. It was the easiest decision to give these items to the centre on his death.

“This where we are from,” he would say as he strode back to the car, lifted by another visit to the Donald den. “We choose who we are in some ways and many of them are important,” he once told me. “But we are linked to a past too and that is as important as you feel it to be.” He felt it deeply in terms of a love of Celtic culture, an attachment to Caledonian landscape and in the sentiment and significance of being a Gael. “You have to know who you are,” he once advised me. He was a great-grandfather, grandfather, father, brother, politician, businessman, singer and poet. He was, too, a son of Somerled.

IT lies just off the road, beyond a fence and down a lane. The Nerabus cemetery has other names. It is called the Donegal monks cemetery by some. It is signposted as the ancient burial grounds of the MacDonalds. It is the resting place of Uisdean within walking distance of his last home on the road to Portnahaven from Port Charlotte. It is not only fitting site but one that will always give signs to who he was and why he believed it mattered.

On a glorious day in June, I abandoned the car at roadside and walked down to his grave from the first time since Friday, December 13, 2013. I gave his gravestone a wipe and looked down Loch Indaal towards Northern Ireland whence sprung the McDonnels, McDonalds and MacDonalds who perch on one side of a family tree. They were mainly stonemasons, mostly from Antrim or Donegal. They pitched up with regularity on the west coast of Scotland and in Glasgow.

My dad had originally bought a plot at the beautiful round church in Bowmore. He was a character who was aware of death but never seemed frightened of it. He designed his own gravestone, left precise instructions for his funeral and who should give the eulogy and, ultimately, switched his grave to Nerabus.


There were hints at the funeral. The splendour of the setting was oddly enhanced rather than disguised by the sort of December day that sent rain spitting spitefully through the air in the trajectory favoured by demonic machine gunners. But Northern Ireland was visible. It seemed close enough for Charon to ferry Uisdean to a place beyond life. He died with the same silver coin in his hand that his late father, Hugh, held when he died in 1968. The instruction to my brother, Roddy, was to press it into his hand when death beckoned so that the spiritual ferryman could be paid his due.

The connection was to the past was strengthened with a quiet word from one of the islanders who told me that Nerabus was the final destination for many of the Lords of the Isles. But it was the journey back to the purvey by bus that roared a message about who my father was and what he believed. The driver of the hired coach muttered to me that he had to stop briefly in Bowmore before he could take us to the hotel in Port Ellen where haufs, sausage rolls and words of comfort awaited.

Consolation, though, came early and powerfully. With my head pressed against the window of the bus, the flecks of rain obscuring the outside world, I was momentarily startled by the swoosh of the bus doors opening in Bowmore and stunned by the childish chatter and laughs that swirled through a bus half-filled by mourners. The truth dawned quickly: the driver, with the funeral running late, had doubled up on the school bus run.

One of my dad’s mates, who like so many others had left home at 4am to make the funeral and would not be back home until the next day, looked across at me. There was only one way to react. I burst out laughing. He joined in enthusiastically. The bus enveloped grinning mourners and pupils excited, as only teenagers can be, by the possibilities of a weekend.

My response was subsequently considered. The laughter was provoked by three realisations. First, the driver’s duty was to the tradition of island life and children could not be left in the rain no matter who had died. Second, my father would have appreciated this and would have applauded the general sentiment that life must go on. He was a Gael and that had its emotional hold but he was also a character who knew that death could be sore but it must be overcome.

But, most of all, he would have exulted in the wonderful spectacle of babbling, happy schoolchildren banishing the mournful looks from those he loved and who loved him. It may have been his last gift. It was a profoundly appropriate one. His funeral bequeathed an anecdote. I still tell it. My dad, after all, loved a story.