Saturday, February 10, 2018

Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (1898-1970)

He is much maligned. And over the past 40 years it has seemed incorrect to say anything positive about him. But I will.

Alasdair Alpin Macgregor was an author I discovered in 1989, when I was obsessed with finding books about the Hebrides. There was an old book shop in downtown Seattle called Shoreys, and while perusing their section on Britain I noticed a tiny book with a purple dust jacket. Its title was written in an intriguing font, and incorporated an exclamation point: It was Behold the Hebrides!

After 1989 I slowly collected all of Macgregor's books long before I learned of the controversy stirred up by The Western Isles, and how his writing style had been satirized after that. So I’m saddened by how some people see his works today. Summer Days Among the Western Isles, The Haunted Isles, Searching the Hebrides with a Camera, and A Last Voyage to St Kilda are works I will always treasure.

Macgregor's books are profusely illustrated with his beautiful photos. Martin Padget, in his book Photographers of the Western Isles (2010), has a chapter on Macgregor in which you'll find more biographical information on him than anywhere else. Macgregor's photos are brilliant, and they first captivated me in his book Searching the Hebrides with a Camera (1933). It is a book whose title built upon two earlier works on the islands that focused on exploration with a camera: Richard and Cherry Keaton's With Nature and a Camera (1898), and Erskine Beveridge's Wanderings with a Camera (1922).

Macgregor wrote many more books, all with titles guaranteed to make an island addict drool: Islands by the Score, The Enchanted Isles, An Island Here and There, and The Farthest Hebrides. Macgregor's best book - in my opinion - is The Goat-Wife (1939), which tells the story of his Aunt Dorothy, and her house Cnocnamoine (Hill of the Peats) near Ardgay. It is a beautiful book that describes his childhood stays there with his aunt.

In the epilogue of the book Macgregor describes how he returned to Cnocnamoine in 1937, fourteen years after his aunt died. He finds the property derelict, but the house is still standing, barely. Inside he finds his aunt's rusting iron beadstead, in which she died in 1923. Most of the rest of the furnishings had been taken.

His aunt's house in 1937: Photo AA Macgregor
The Goat-Wife is so good that, over the years I've read it several times, and in June of 1995 I paid a visit to Cnocnamoine. I do not know about today, but in '95 you could drive within a quarter-mile of the site of his Aunt Dorothy's house (NH 5921 8988). It was an easy hike in, and what I found was sadder than what Macgregor saw in 1937. One gable end of the house stood, but most of the rest was rubble. In amongst the ruin were rusting bits of a broken-up iron bedstead, perhaps the one in which his aunt had died.

As maligned as much of Macgregor's writing is, I found it intriguing, and addictive. Especially to someone who'd just 'discovered' the Hebrides on a typically hurried American tourist's first visit. A visit that whetted my thirst for more. But due to the expense of travelling I had to slake this thirst by reading books during the 50 weeks between visits. During those 50 weeks I was delighted to read Macgregors books over and over, even if they colorfully viewed the isles through rose-tinted glasses, or via 'purple-prose'. A parodied prose that in some instances seems to me to be direct English translations of Gaelic terminology.

Alasdair Alpin MacGregor passed away in 1970. His (and his father's) memorial stone can be found in Balquhidder burial ground in Perthshire. But Alasdair is not buried there. He became part of the isles when his ashes were scattered in the Hebrides. 

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