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A Stone on his Cairn: Murdo Macdonald
A Stone on his Cairn: Murdo Macdonald
On the life of Murdo Macdonald, Crola, by the Rev John Macdonald, Duns.
In the history of the world, there was, and there is, a man who was marked out, notable, and well-known in his own village or district, but of whom the big wide world never heard a word or mention. When an English poet was considering life and death, origin and termination, he had this man in view when he wrote verses as follows:
Many a dew-covered rose is growing, and not one eye has seen its glory, and there is many a jewel in the depths of the ocean which a living soul has never seen. (Gray's Elegy)
Towards the end of the last century the population of the island of Scarp grew too numerous to earn their living from the earth and from the sea. Some of them left the place, and they were installed at the head of every loch and bay in the west territory of Lewis and Harris. One of them, I believe went as a shepherd to the parish of Uig and made his home at Kinlochresort in a lonely place commonly known as Cro-leatha about half a mile distant from the dividing line between Lewis and Harris.
It was there that Murdo, the son of Calum of Cro-leatha was born, on the thirteenth day of the first month of the year, which was called New Year's Day according to the old way of counting. There were only five families altogether in Kinlochresort and by the time Murdo attained the age to enter school, everybody else was past school age, and the school, which was also a reading-room, had closed. He had one sister, and she attended school in Scarp, but he was never a day in a school as the distance was too far for him - but that did not leave him without schooling and knowledge. His only sister, Kate, imparted to him the teaching which she herself had received, and he himself did the rest. Once he drank a drink from the well of education he achieved a thirst and craving which he was always striving to satisfy all the days of his life.
Very early on, he made known that he was bestowed with unusual talents. As I mentioned before, his home was in the parish of Uig, and although the Uigen minister had only one family in Kiniochresort, he came once a year to hold a service in the place. At that time the minister in Uig was one of the most educated that ever was in the Islands -- the Rev. James MacNiven. When he was in Glasgow University he won the highest awards in philosophy and in languages. In every subject which he studied, there was none other in the University to equal him. Therefore, one can understand that in his preaching there was intelligence, width, and depth. Murdo was only about seven years old when he went along with the others to the service to hear this educated man, on the far-away field in the park belonging to Kenneth, son of Neil. They used to come from every corner of the parish of Uig and from Harris to hear MacNiven.
Murdo's aunt remained in the house preparing food for the strangers. When the congregation dispersed, and the people came to the village she asked, "What was the minister's text today?" The seven-year old stood on a stool in the middle of the floor, he gave out the text and started the service, and when he finished, he said: "That was exactly how he delivered the sermon," and nobody who was present denied it.
A good memory, no matter how good it is will not accomplish everything. There are some people and they will retain at the forefront of their memories, everything they see and hear, like a notice-board; but they cannot search, scrutinize or interpret, any more than a child can. But that was not the case with Murdo! He would take each fold and knot, each twist and winding in everything he heard or read, apart, as well as the best inspector I have ever known. And on the other hand he would weave, cast, and knit, every comb and thread after his own image and form. The question is; How was a man who was never a day in school, able to do this?
Cro-leatha's home was a house beside a path on the way between the western villages of Lewis and Harris. In that way, every kind of person called there, going and coming. Since Murdo was naturally bestowed with unusual talents he sharpened his mind and his tongue in argument and in conversation with the travellers whom he got friendly with. Fishermen who traversed the oceans of the world, and the four comers of the earth, would cone to the fresh-water loch in Loch Resort. They opened his eyes to see a world which was not hemmed in by the mountains of Uig and Harris. Also, ships with an English crew, which were taking shelter from the fierce waves and the shrieking Atlantic winds, were often in the harbour of the loch. Readers with their own books would be among each crew, and they would leave these books with Murdo until they would return again, for well they knew that he would read them, and that he would make use of them, and that they were in safe hands. Apart from that, he grew friendly with mainlanders and lowlanders who would come to hunt and fish on the freeland of Morsgail and Uig, and North Harris, and because they paid attention to him, and thought a great deal of this Special man, they would send him bulky books from far away corners of the country about every subject under the sun. Thus, he was not without knowledge or education - he was tutored by experience, the best mother there is
There were two special subjects in literature in which he had great pleasure; these were philosophy and poetry. He knew in detail the crevices in which the thoughts and the mind of the man were directed. He read, learnt, and understood the books of Kant, Descorte, Hume, Macdougall, and Stuart Mills, and he had great partiality to the German Freude
Among the poets to which he gave top priority were Shakespeare, Milton, and Robert Burns. I expect that he knew off by heart everything that these three wrote. It was surprising, and food for thought, the able way in which he understood the people whom the English poet pictured. When I talked to him, I would often hear him say about people in plays, "Isn't he like Roderick, the son of young Angus," or, "that is exactly like red-haired Finlay." But, according to him, the Scottish poet was the crux of the matter. I never heard anyone to equal him as a reciter of Burn's poetry. By the riversides, in the lonliness of the moor, on the sowing or reaping fields, he would recite Robert Burn's verses with such elegance and beauty, melody and humour, that I never heard his equal. He had a strong melodious voice, and indeed his recitation of poetry was very unlike what is usually heard from people, who (in their own way) mock and imitate Scottish poets.
Murdo himself had the knack of composing poetry as we can see from this section he composed when he heard a causeway was going to be built between Bernera and the mainland of Lewis:
"When Bernera was seen at the beginning of Time, on the fresh morning of Creation, there was a small strait right round it, and round each promontory of it, putting a division between it and Uig, Crulivig, and Callanish, and to Carloway the way was barred by a doubly stormy strait. And generation after generation arose up as the waves came to their shores, and a device reared itself in their heads, which would make depth seem quite thin to them; that where nets used to be set since our ancestors can remember, a lovely causeway which waves could not shift should be built there."
In his height, Murdo was smaller than the average man, and he was never strong in body - a small minute man - but what he lacked in body was made up for in the accomplishments of his mind. Often is seen, as it were, people who fast the body so as to liven up the mind. His day's work, by earning it was being a postman between Kinresort and Ardbeg, To begin with, he had this work only one day a week, afterwards he had it every second day, and latterly six days a week.
He professed on the side of the Lord very early in his life, and he attended the communions in Lewis and Harris as long as he was able to. He was sought after in every place as an earnest prayer man who would express himself in a knowledgable, unusual, and -understanding manner. He was one of the first people that the minister would call to speak on Question Day, and indeed, how he could speak! He took a great interest in the preaching of the Gospel.
A year or two, before the last war, he decided to become a minister. Not everybody who was never a day in school would undergo an examination which would open to him the doors of the University. But Murdo succeeded at the first attempt. Unfortunately his health broke down and he was under the care of the doctors in the Stornoway hospital. What a heavy and sad blow all his friends received - for they were many - when they heard that he died at the hospital on the 8th day of August, 1940, having attained only thirty three years of age. Everyone who knew him considered his passing an unspeakable loss, before he reached the height of his capability, and the fullness of .his strength; that he was a man, if he had been spared who would have made a steadfast mark in the history and literature of his people. Some people maintained that he had the gift of second-sight, but I am of the opinion that he was not similar to others who have the real spirit and marrow of poetry. He would see what happened yesterday in the light of what happened today, and therefore he had a good idea of what might happen the following day. He was far-seeing and observant in his mind, and it could be said of him, that the man who has not got second-sight has no sight at all.
He was a faithful friend, a cheerful companion, - a welcoming, kind, good humoured, happy, joyous man - witty and full of fun in his speech, merry and musical in voice, and there was an air of friendliness and pleasure in his speech and his talents. He was sympathetic towards people despite their position and their lot in life. He.sided with the state and the rights of the labourer because he understood that the Lord desired that a man should be wholly, saved, wordly and spiritually, and that his lot in life could not be separated from the spiritual knowledge of his soul, as he revealed in these portions of the hymn which he wrote on the twenty-third psalm:
This strong rod and staff is so valuable and prepared. The kindness of our God gave it to us, answering our prayers from Heaven to save us from danger. Christ made it for His Cross with His trouble and His long-suffering, and over the tree of life that branch is to us as a strong staff which he prepared for us This strong rod and staff will not give in when it is tested, it is the sword of God's Spirit which gave it a sharp edge which makes no mistake; and though your enemy would surround you like an army with his temptations, you will break: through to victory, and you will win the prize of trusting. When your sun sets, at the time when your last days are closing in on you, and in the faint light you cannot make out the far side of the way in that darkness; you are in the valley and the shades are closing in, the threads of your life are deserting you, when you are weak, strength will come quickly, so let the heavy burden of your salvation rest on Him.
I am glad that I got this opportunity of placing a stone on his cairn, and the best one, and the one worthy of mention is the one which lives on his memory, and that building which was not built by man's hands, and which is eternally in heaven.