Dr John Bannerman

Gaelic historian

Born 13 August, 1932, in Balmaha.

Died: 8 October, 2008, in Balmaha, aged 76.

DR JOHN Bannerman was the 20th century's foremost historian of Gaelic Scotland.

It was entirely fitting that he should die at home at the Old Manse Farm, Balmaha, a great constant of his life. He was one of four children born to John Bannerman – Lord Bannerman of Kildonan, the Gaelic activist, Liberal politician and Scottish rugby internationalist – and Ray Mundell, a farmer's daughter from Sutherland, to whom he owed his lifelong interest in farming. One of John's sisters was the late Ray Michie, Baroness Michie of Gallanach, Liberal Democrat MP for Argyll and Bute from 1987 until 2001.

On his father's death in 1968 John took over the farm, running a flock of Blackface sheep and a fold of Highland cattle. He did his best to manage the farm in as natural a way as possible while being all too aware that it had to be financially viable. A hobby farmer he was not. He was very conscious that what he had inherited others had created, and that he was only its custodian. His wish was for a thriving rural community, not a wilderness.

Gaelic was another constant, and at the root of John's other profession. Between school and university he spent an enjoyable year with Ian and Annag MacKinnon in Daliburgh, South Uist, improving his Gaelic and learning from Bean Eardsaidh Raghnaill and others the store of traditional songs which he would sing in his fine tenor voice.

He was one of the first honours students in Celtic at Glasgow University under the first professor of Celtic, Angus Matheson. He continued his studies at Cambridge in what is now the department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, completing his doctoral dissertation there under Kathleen Hughes.

Teaching Gaelic in schools was a possible career, but following a year in the Celtic department at Aberdeen, he was appointed lecturer in Scottish history at the University of Edinburgh in 1965. From 1968 he divided his week between farming and academe until his retiral as senior lecturer in 1997 allowed him to devote himself full-time to the farm.

As a scholar, John found his natural home in the era between the Romans and the 12th century, when the Scottish kingdom began to take shape. The period had no place in the history departments of Scottish universities before his appointment in 1965. Until then early Scottish history was taught by professors of Celtic if it was taught at all, and it was under that aegis that John first developed as a scholar.

Over 30 years, by dint of the quality of his scholarship and his influence on the next generation, he raised the profile of the Gaelic dimension within Scottish history, and saw his students embed early Scottish history and the history of medieval Gaelic Scotland in the teaching and research of history departments.

For John, early Scottish history had an unambiguously Gaelic focus, and the Gaels were the original "Scots". His thesis was the first edition to modern scholarly standards of an extraordinarily complex text relating to the early Gaelic kingdom of Dl Riata (roughly equivalent to Argyll) which he dated to the mid-seventh century. This was followed by a brilliant demonstration that surviving late-medieval Irish chronicles were all derived from a "lost chronicle of Iona" of the seventh and early eighth centuries, stopping abruptly in 740 with the "crushing of Dl Riata" by the Picts. The fruits of this first research phase came together in Studies in the History of Dalriada (1974).

John also articulated a powerful vision of the continuity of Gaelic history from Dl Riata forward to the late-medieval MacDonald lordship of the Isles. The lordship was central to the second phase of his research, which resulted in his outstanding contributions to Late Medieval Monumental Sculpture in the West Highlands (1977), and a groundbreaking study of the premier medical kindred of late medieval Scotland, The Beatons (1986).

In the third and last phase he concentrated on the central middle ages, the high watermark for Gaelic in Scotland, when it was spoken in nearly every quarter of what is now the Scottish mainland.

Family and Balmaha always came first for John. Reticent and unassuming, he eschewed many aspects of academic life. Yet his quiet authority made him a sympathetic and influential teacher, perhaps especially of postgraduates. Just beneath his reticence lay a convivial nature and passionately held beliefs, especially on Gaelic and Scottish nationalism, and the university staff club was the scene of many happy nights with colleagues and students.

John married Chrissie Dick in 1959, and together they made their home in Balmaha a true haven of Highland hospitality. His relaxation was his annual holiday in Chrissie's native North Uist with no telephone and no mail, fishing for mackerel from his beloved boat Eilidh.

The one great regret in John's life was the early death of two of his daughters, Annag in infancy and Mary, who, after agricultural college, joined him for all too short a time working on the farm. His five grandchildren were a joy to him, and it was a proud day when the two youngest, Christina and Jackie, enrolled in Glasgow's Gaelic-medium school, Sgoil Ghidhlig Ghlaschu.

John is survived by Chrissie and their three children, Kate, Seonaidh and Gilbert. Clach air a chrn.


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