Donald Mackinnon, M.A., Emeritus-Professor of Celtic, University of Edinburgh
by Donald Maclean (The Celtic Review 10/37 (Dec. 1914) 63–68)
THE wind-swept and wave-washed island of Colonsay, on the west of Argyll, like many other isolated spots in the Highlands, gave birth to not a few men of eminence who served their country with distinction. It was at Colonsay, seventy-five years ago, that Professor Donald Mackinnon was born. Sprung of the native stock, and inheriting its best qualities, his first outlook on the world of knowledge in which he was destined to leave his mark was through a rude and unpretentious parish schoolhouse typical of the times, and of which the Professor has given us a vivid account in Gaelic. A rough pile of unhewn stones that were separated from the heavens by a thick layer of thatch, which was not always water-tight, had in its portal for a door and protector from the rain-laden western gale a column of wood wound round with ropes of straw, which served its gallant purpose only as long as hungry cattle ceased to be passers-by. The dank and gloomy interior of a school, whose lattices were as primitive as its doorway, was relieved only by the glowing fire to which each pupil contributed his peat. In the heart of many a Highland lad burned with corresponding glow a zeal for knowledge. To this flame the schoolmaster brought a steady and unstinted supply of fuel from his store of knowledge. The parish schools of the time were, as a rule, in charge of men of culture and educational efficiency who were not unfrequently distinguished products of the Scottish Universities. At the age of eighteen he left his island school, and entered the Church of Scotland Training College. At the Normal College, which was then a popular avenue to the University, he had a distinguished record. His University career was equally brilliant. In 1868 he gained the Macpherson Bursary, and the Hamilton Fellowship in Mental
Philosophy in the following year. His excellent mental equipment found early recognition and scope for administration. In the capacity of Clerk to the Church of Scotland's Educational Scheme (1869) and Endowed Schools and Hospitals (1872), he proved to be eminently capable. After the passing of the Education Act, and on the formation of the School Board of Edinburgh, he was appointed its first Clerk and Treasurer. This was an office not only of responsibility, but of considerable difficulty. For in the transition stage of Scottish Education from the control of the Churches to that of popularly elected bodies, there was at times an acrid atmosphere created by the prejudices of opposing ecclesiastical organisations. These were largely clarified by his equable and genial temper, his remarkable tact, and his unobtrusive firmness. During a three-years' teaching engagement in Lochinver, Sutherlandshire, he had made a close study of the dialects and literature of the North. This first-hand acquaintance with northern Highlanders served him well, not merely in the class-room afterwards, but in civil capacity as a member of Lord Napier's Commission, where, by his knowledge of Rob Donn, he proved by literary quotations, that the condition of the Highland crofters during the latter half of the nineteenth century was in many respects inferior to that of his forebears of the eighteenth century. His contribution to the Commission's Report was sufficiently impressive to accelerate the subsequent legislation for the amelioration of the lot of the crofters. While still a student, his qualifications as a Gaelic scholar and enthusiast won for him the pre-eminent distinction of being associated with such distinguished men as Sir Alexander Grant, Sheriff Alexander Nicolson, and later Professor James Macgregor of the New College, Edinburgh, and Professor Blackie, in their effort to found a Celtic Chair in the University of Edinburgh. The full fruition of their labours was the establishing of the Chair—the only Chair of its kind in Scotland-with the substantial endowment
of £14,000. To this Chair he was called to be its first occupant in 1882. Scotland could boast of a splendid array of Gaelic scholars who brought to the study of this ancient speech the resources of excellent intellectual equipment. Students and patriots have been heavily indebted to them. Among these were Drs. Alexander Stewart, Ewen MacLachlan, Mackintosh Mackay, Thos. MacLauchlan, Clarke of Kilmallie, to mention only a few. As these disappeared, prophets of a new school emerged in the persons of Dr. Alexander Cameron of Brodick, Professor Mackinnon of Edinburgh, and Dr. Alexander MacBain of Inverness. Greatly stimulated by the researches of Continental scholars, these three pioneers applied themselves to a scientific study of the language. As a student of meticulous care in the region of linguistic analysis, Cameron stood on a high platform. He had, however, the defect of a too severe dogmatism which plunged him into many sharp controversies. It is only fair to the memory of this great man to state that most of the positions for which he fought so fiercely have been proved unassailable by the latest Celtic researches. MacBain, who specialised in philology, was, like Cameron, a native of Badenoch. He had all the mental strength and weakness of his countryman. His Dictionary is a splendid tribute to his industry. Professor Mackinnon has a more profound and comprehensive knowledge of Gaelic language, literature, and antiquities than either of his contemporaries. He has better literary and linguistic balance, and accordingly a much saner judgment. He sees a vast difference between the hypothetical and the axiomatic. He moves with deliberate caution—not the caution of ignorance, but of knowledge. He knows too well the ramifications, the intertwining of the roots of a speech that penetrates into the remotest antiquity, to hurry to the limelight with mere show of knowledge. Travelling through the manifold windings of a speech, during its long history of development and deterioration,
requires a firmer guide than some of the foreign and home scholars who have impressed their knowledge with much insistence on the unwary and uncritical. From the outset of his career in the Chair, Professor Mackinnon endeavoured to arouse enthusiasm and admiration for Scottish Gaelic and Gaelic literature. His task was a formidable one, as he had many foreign scholars, and some British and Irish, ranged against him. These regarded Scottish Gaelic as the uninteresting debris of a great speech, and concentrated attention on Irish as more worthy of study. Scottish Gaelic, like all branches of the Scottish speech, suffered by the corroding influences of time, when the decay of spoken speech was not arrested by any consistent orthography. This decay was only arrested by the literature that appeared after the middle of the eighteenth century, and notably by the translation of the Scriptures. In the various dialects of Scottish Gaelic, Professor Mackinnon, however, found such unmistakable evidence of its grandeur as to establish it in a place of equal honour with that of the other branches. To this mass of literature he drew the attention of his students, insisting on the need of careful and thorough study in order to appreciate the character and the soul of a people which were faithfully delineated by their chroniclers and poets. On resigning his Chair, he had the satisfaction of knowing that his efforts had created a school whose influence is manifest in a complete reversal of former historical estimates of the Scottish, and particularly the Highland, people. In the classroom he was an ideal professor. To his eminence as a scholar and teacher must be added the invaluable qualities of accessibility, prudence, sympathy, authority, and soundness of judgment. He made frequent use of good humour and pawky common sense, but never of that scorching sarcasm that is so disastrous to study and discipline. The stumbling disciple he gently led, and on stupidity he never brought down an intellectual bludgeon. His energy and enthusiasm were well directed to elicit a
hearty response from those under his tuition. In a marked degree he was held in respect and affection by the many students who passed from his hands. The attachment between Professor and students, added to the efficiency of the instruction imparted, resulted in a complete revolution, in their relation to Gaelic, of the professions that labour over the Highland area. The ministry, who, above all others, use the vernacular as a means of instruction, have been rescued from the stigma of illiteracy in regard to Gaelic, until they are now to a very large extent, not merely accurate speakers, but in many cases students and advocates of its scientific cultivation. This highly meritorious result is an eloquent and a valuable memorial to his term of office. As a writer, too, he has distinctly left his mark. His versatility can best be gauged by an examination of the periodic and daily press. In the Scotsman files alone can be found such a mass of material of varied interest on linguistic, social, antiquarian, genealogical, and ecclesiastical problems as would, if published, form a large volume of accurate information for students and the general public. His earliest contributions to Gaelic literature appeared in the columns of the Gaidheal, and these can still be studied profitably by students. As a writer of correct and idiomatic Gaelic he has hardly any equals. For his own class in the University he published selections of Gaelic extracts from MSS. and modern Gaelic authors showing the orthography and development of the speech. The Celtic Review is peculiarly indebted to him, for it was he who first suggested the establishing of such a magazine, and when asked to stand sponsor for it he at once and cordially agreed. His connection with the Review makes it impossible to speak at greater length here of his work for it. Everything Professor Mackinnon writes is valuable, and to the Celtic Review he has contributed numerous articles of great value, as well as the Glenmasan MS. and the Thebaid of Statius both annotated, compared with versions elsewhere and translated. Among his numerous contributions to Gaelic Societies, his
valuable paper on the Fernaig MS. in the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, has placed all students of Gaelic under heavy obligations. He also acted as one of the revisers of the Gaelic Bible, contributing chiefly to the translation of the New Testament. First, however, in order of importance among the literary works, is his recent book The Descriptive Catalogue of Gaelic Manuscripts in the Advocates' Library and elsewhere in Scotland. This is a work of rare illuminating scholarship and accurate research, which is invaluable to Celtic scholars and Scottish historians. No one else could have written this book. It has evoked the envy and admiration of Irish scholars, for notwithstanding the MS. treasures in Ireland and the progress of the Irish School, they have produced nothing comparable with it. But what is in many respects the greatest of his works still lies in MS. It is an amended, enlarged, and exhaustively revised edition of the Highland Society's Dictionary. If this labour of years were to see the light it would probably render further dictionaries of this kind unnecessary. But the publishing undertaking would require the purse of a syndicate. No account of the Professor would be complete which ignored his delightful personal qualities, which did not speak of the charming Highland lady who is his wife. In the bosom of his own hospitable family, during the winter months of the past number of years, he has gathered Edinburgh Celtic enthusiasts at Gaelic Readings, and the outflow of his winsome, generous nature made these meetings a real oasis in the lives of their frequenters. His friend, the late Donald Mackechnie, has told in his own humorous fashion of this ceilidh. May the Professor be long spared to continue his work in and for Gaelic and to encourage others by his example and counsel. Gu mu fad' a thig ceo as a thigh!