Obituary

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
Donald Roderick MacDonald, who has died aged 73, was a champion of the Gaelic language movement and of shinty.

Donald Roderick MacDonald, who has died aged 73, was a champion of the Gaelic language movement and of shinty. That Gaelic is still spoken by so many on Skye, and the game is played at all on the island, is due in no little part to him.

Known as DR, he spent his teaching career in the Gaelic department of Portree High. He joined his friend and mentor, the late John Steele, in 1966, and succeeded him as principal teacher. His efforts over nearly four decades to promote the language within the old Scottish Office, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the Scottish Examination Board and the Educational Institute of Scotland were Olympian.

But he always held that the most important work was in the classroom, where generations of islanders embraced their heritage with his encouragement. Among those who passed through his department were the founding members of rock band Runrig. He took quiet pride in their creativity and attachment to the language.

His own extraordinary commitment to Gaelic education was recognised in 1993 with the award of an MBE.

It was the same year that DR suffered the cruellest of blows with the death of his wife, Catriona, aged just 41. The daughter of the celebrated poet Sorley MacLean, she herself had been a tireless worker for Gaelic, particularly in the development of pre-school playgroups. He made the bringing up of his three young sons his life's work. One is following in his footsteps as a Gaelic teacher and all three are stalwarts of Skye Camanachd, the shinty team which owes its modern existence to Mr MacDonald.

A native of North Uist, he was born in Tigharry. During his three years at Bayhead Junior Secondary, the head had taken them for shinty just twice. He went to Portree High in 1954 where the game was hardly played. It was while at Glasgow University, after national service in Germany, that he got involved in Scotland's ancient sport.

Shinty was all but dead when he returned to Portree, so he began coaching it. Cup-winning school sides followed, which were to grow into a revitalised Skye Camanachd.

But there was much more to the man than sport. A bibliophile, he built up a matchless library of books in Gaelic and English, particularly about the Highlands and Islands. He was immersed in the area's folklore and personified the Gael's closeness to his environment, being particularly knowledgeable about birdlife.

His natural reserve sometimes disguised his wonderful sense of mischief and grasp of the ridiculous, which he kept right to the end as he tried hard to put people at their ease and lighten their sadness over what he, and they, knew was to come.

David Ross, Highland correspondent of The Herald, where this obituary first appeared.

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