10 June 2013

Ivan MacDonald

I've said plenty of times in plenty of places that my interest in languages is about people, about the personal bond that comes from making the honest effort to speak to them in their own language, even if just sticking to English would be easier for both parties. It's something I've experienced in several languages, but none more so than Scottish Gaelic.

Scottish Gaelic is a language that comes with a real sense of community – although half the speakers now live in Scotland's major cities, they're all still only a step or two away from their extended families in one of the island or isolated mainland communities. Spend even a small amount of time in one of these communities and you can't fail to be impressed by the welcome and generosity you are shown, even if you don't speak Gaelic.
I've spent less than a month in Uist in total, yet there are people there who recognise me on sight and always greet me with a warm smile. A little over a year ago I walked into the local pub where I was living on Skye, and a guy came up and talked to me, addressing me by name. I didn't recognise him at first – we'd only met twice in our lives, two summers earlier and the one before that – but he was so happy to see me and catch up. I was blown away by it, I really was. I swore to myself that I'd never let myself forget his face, and he genuinely became someone I would recognise absolutely anywhere. When I caught up with him last summer, he was right at the heart of the community, sitting on the board of Ceòlas as they discussed some major changes to the organisation.
Mid-morning today, I switched on my computer to check my messages, and saw the following Facebook status a friend had posted last night:
    Well this is the end of a tragic day in uist! Many people in uist and beyond have been affected by today's news. We've lost a true gentleman character. Ivan you'll be sorely missed by everyone whose has the pleasure of being in your company. God rest your soul!! Xx


Even before I hovered over the name, I knew it was him, and not only because Ivan isn't a particularly common name there. In the islands, it's relatively rare for anyone to be commonly referred to by a single name, but Ivan was Ivan.
I met Ivan at a party during Ceòlas week where he turned up in a grubby boiler suit carrying a pipe case. Now this wasn't just any old session – we had more than a few of the “hot” young names on the Scottish traditional music scene, and they would be turning to Ivan for forgotten tunes and suggestions on what tunes to put together in a set.

I'd never heard of this guy, and I still know nothing about his past musical career, but that's beside the point – Ivan didn't need a CV to get respect, he naturally commanded it. Calm and unassuming, his confidence and ability on his instruments was something that is rarely equalled, even among full time professionals.

He was 33 and his loss will be sorely felt far beyond his island.  My grief seems disproportionate given how little I actually knew him, but that says more about Ivan than anything else could.

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