William Matheson, Gaelic scholar; born August 25, 1910, died November 30, 1995

WILLIAM MATHESON, who died in the small hours of Thursday morning was an exceptionally gifted Gaelic scholar and teacher whose influence on Gaelic studies has been profound and whose contribution to the rediscovery of the riches of traditional Gaelic song was unique.

Although his earliest memories were of Harris, he was born and brought up in Sollas, North Uist, the son of Malcolm Matheson and Mary Murray from Lewis.

Willie's father was missionary to the United Free Church, and a gifted precentor and preacher. He and his younger brother, the late Professor Angus Matheson, of the Chair of Celtic at Glasgow University, were sent for their secondary schooling to the mainland, and Willie spent two years at Boroughmuir High School in Edinburgh before transferring to Inverness Royal Academy in 1926. From there he proceeded to Edinburgh University in 1929, graduating with Honours in History in 1933.

Even before he completed his history degree he had been drawn into the circle of Gaelic scholarship led by Professor W J Watson, where he was a contemporary with Sorley MacLean, Kitty MacLeod, and James Carmichael Watson among others.

Now he assisted Professor Watson in his work on the Campbell of Islay manuscripts of Gaelic folktales, and began work on his magnificent edition of the poems of John MacCodrum which established his reputation as a scholarly editor of no ordinary powers. It was in that connection that he embarked on the series of field trips to the Outer Isles which laid the basis for his unrivalled understanding of the older Gaelic song-poetry.

By 1938 he had come to feel a strong religious vocation and enrolled at New College. He was ordained in the Church of Scotland in 1943 and served as minister in Tobermory from 1945 to 1952, when he was invited by the new Professor of Celtic, Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, to return to Edinburgh to take charge of Scottish Gaelic teaching there. A long and fruitful partnership ensued between the doyen of early Celtic studies and the learned scholar of Scottish Gaelic poetry and Highland history.

Willie became a senior lecturer in 1965 and, in recognition of his superb edition of the poems of Roderick Morrison, the Blind Harper, he became Reader in Celtic in 1972.

These were eventful years in university life and Willie's time at Edinburgh saw great changes in the status of Gaelic language and literature as subjects of study. The rise of interest in the language in the 1960s led to his becoming the first teacher of an intensive beginners' class in a modern language in the University of Edinburgh.

He brought memorable clarity and precision to his explanation of the details of grammar so that many ex-pupils can to this day quote his very words on vexed points of Gaelic grammar or syntax.

At the same time he embarked on a long-term project of recording, in the most authoritative and authentic way possible, the great collection of songs he had been amassing since his student days.

He had realised early on that the traditional versions of Gaelic songs could be set beside the texts and tunes collected in earlier centuries. They could offer a means to recapture or reconstruct the total performance of this precious but neglected heritage. This solitary task was to be with him until his retirement from the university in 1980 and remains, in the archives of the School of Scottish Studies, a monument as enduring as any of his published works.

He was also generous in imparting his songs to other singers, especially younger singers, and in that way he made a more powerful impact on the revival of traditional Gaelic singing than may at first sight appear.

He was in his latter years a genial and endearing companion, with original and sometimes unexpected views on almost any subject that offered intellectual challenge. He was clubbable and loved to hold the floor. He would challenge authority in debate, but was kind to people who showed forgivable ignorance. The fact that he had thought things through from first principles gave him a confidence which enabled him to assert the validity of an oral tradition against a written source.

At the time of his Readership, Professor David Greene of Dublin stated that: ``If there were such a post as a Professorship of Scottish Gaelic, I would say that William Matheson would not only be the outstanding candidate for it; I would go further and say that nobody in the past has been better equipped for it and that, alas, it is unlikely that anybody will be equally well equipped in the future.''

Sadly, Willie was not able to achieve in his retirement all that he had planned. But in the adversity of Parkinson's disease he found the strength to continue working on family history and on committing to paper the repertoire of unpublished Gaelic words and sayings which he had heard in his youth.

The poet Rob Donn said of his patron, John Mackay of Musal, words that would be equally applicable to Willie Matheson:

Cait an teid sinn a


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