WITH The death of Joe Neil MacNeil the Gaidhealtachd has lost one of our most endearing tradition-bearers. He was 71 before he made his first visit to Scotland in 1978. Few on either side of the Atlantic brought into the last years of the twentieth century the extraordinary wealth of story, music, and song that he carried as his birthright.

In an age when it has become all too common to say Gaelic culture has survived stronger, and longer, in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, than in Scotland, MacNeil embodied the vitality of western Canadian Gaeldom in his own youth. Its subsequent eclipse hurt him at every turn.

As a teenager, and still never having had any need to use a language other than Gaelic in his own home, he grew up with a powerful sense of the Gaelic identity. That Gaelic remained his best and most used language attests to the unbroken way in which Nova Scotia's communities remained as Gaelic entities. Long before the esteem and celebrity status which came his way in his later years, MacNeil was a practised master in the art of storytelling; it was, to him, a form of entertainment, indeed the primary form of entertainment in his home community and in the wider Gaelic society of Cape Breton.

It was on Hogmanay 1978 that I persuaded him to accompany me into the Canadian Broadcasting Station's studio in Sydney to come live, on air, to talk to Scotland. He told tales of A' Challuinn live via satellite to Stornoway and the Scottish press stories the following day told of him with due reverence and more with a trace of disbelief.

An invitation to the National Mod followed the next year. The 1978 Mod may have gone down in history as Mod nan eilean, the first to be held in the Hebrides, but it was MacNeil's Mod.

MacNeil spent his life working at many trades in Cape Breton. Carpentry he particularly enjoyed and he valued his craft skills which he was never slow to share. Yet he is in my old address book as Electrical Joe, from another skill, the name which I was first told to use when looking for him among the other MacNeils in the rural community adjacent to Middle Cape some 30 miles from Cape Breton's capital city of Sydney, where he had grown up and where, save for an itinerant phase, he had spent all but his last few years.

He deserves his place as the only Gaelic tradition-bearer to be the subject of a PhD dissertation from Harvard University's renowned School of Celtic Studies. Dr John Shaw's thesis was published as Sgeul gu Latha/Tales until Dawn in 1987.

Of the generation that retained, however fragmentedly, tales of the Fenian Cycle, early Celtic folklore, MacNeil was the last remaining giant. I will think of him as a man for all seasons. In the summertime ``front stage and centre'' as oft he said with his famous chuckle, at the huge outdoor concerts. All winter long, he followed the Milling (Waulking) Frolics throughout Cape Breton. When the season did not permit of these activities, MacNeil was to be found in the ceilidh house, quietly entertaining and regaling. A regal presence, Joe Neil

MacNeil was buried in St

Mary's cemetery, East Bay, Cape Breton Island.