Fred Macaulay

Broadcaster who promoted Gaelic

Born: 1 January, 1925, in Sollas, North Uist

Died: 15 February, 2003, in Inverness, aged 78

FRED Macaulay was one of the most distinguished Gaels of his generation, making a lasting contribution to Gaelic culture.

Born Fred Ewen Gillies Macaulay, he was a pupil of Inverness Royal Academy. He graduated MA in Celtic Studies at Edinburgh University, where he worked part-time on the university staff while studying for a diploma in phonetics.

After serving for a year in the Royal Corps of Signals, in 1945 he was commissioned with the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

In 1954 he joined the BBC in Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow, where he started out as assistant to Hugh MacPhee in the tiny, two-man Gaelic radio department which was later to become a big and important element in Gaelic broadcasting. Succeeding MacPhee as chief producer there in 1964, he made the most of a tight budget, introducing singers of the calibre of Flora MacNeill, unusually in those days, accompanied by the BBC Orchestra.

He was always a man of the islands. He could recite his patronymic in Gaelic back to the 1600s - his grandfather told him they came from "Na H-Eileannan A Tarsuinng" - from Coll and Tiree. For 100 years the family lived in Heisgeir - a now uninhabited island off the shores of North Uist. We went there after hiring a boat some years ago on a lovely sunny spring day; and as we walked past the ruins of his grandfather’s house, you could tell that this man, now retired after a long career at the BBC, still sniffed the island air. We went later together on a tour of South Uist, Eriskay and Barra: and it was the same - this was an islander come home despite years of life in Glasgow and latterly Inverness.

We met first when, in the early Sixties, he was sent to me in London to recuperate after heart trouble. We were doing a daily programme five nights a week, so it was no rest centre - somehow, he survived that experience.

I took over the running of BBC Scotland in 1968 and we came to work closely together. His was a small operation then: but he was doing something in which he passionately believed, and from that time on till the end of his life, we were close friends.

The language and its culture were everything to him and he was a famous perfectionist, sloppy grammar and bad pronunciation drawing terrible wrath. He put his toe into the water of television, in 1965 starting a light-entertainment series with the MacDonald sisters and others called Se Ur Beatha: he talked me into producing the first-ever television play in Gaelic.

He was a radio man by upbringing, but willing to have a go at anything. When I arrived in Scotland, he was producing a radio series called Piobaireachd with the two leading pipers of that time - John MacFadyen and Seamus MacNeill. He was not a player but he had such empathy with the music that you might have thought he had played himself.

Reflecting on the success of Se Ur Beatha, he once admitted in a newspaper interview that the timing of the TV show, just after tea-time but before people went out, was probably crucial in securing it a bigger audience - 750,000 on occasion - than there were Gaelic speakers at the time. But he also thought its success reflected an upsurge of interest among non-Gaels to learn the language: "Gaelic music has always been popular and television has provided the right vehicle much more than sound."

Though he faced protests by listeners dismayed to find Gaelic dropped from medium-wave transmission, he had the vision to see VHF as the way forward for the language.

A gentle man, he could be stirred to great anger. Though he proclaimed himself a radical I always thought he was a constitutionalist. He picked young and fiery men who gave him a hard time; he seemed to relish that, and he loved stirring things but always watched his back.

He selected the first woman - Jo MacDonald - to work for the Gaelic department - a bold move indeed, bearing in mind the puritanical views held at that time in the outer islands.

In later life, this son of Sollas, after years of BBC life in Glasgow, became manager of Radio Highland in Inverness in 1979 and he and his Edinburgh-born wife, Sybil, settled happily there.

He wrote poetry under the name Eoghan Gilios, his middle names in Gaelic, and after his retirement in 1984 he became an important figure in the Gaelic Society of Inverness and as a member of the Balnain House Trust, played a leading part in raising funds for the restoration of the Georgian building.

I doubt if he would disagree with me if I said he was not the greatest manager ever seen, but he was a great talent-spotter. He certainly put around himself in the late Sixties three of the brightest young Gaels whose names resound to this day. It is a tribute to him - and them - that Gaelic broadcasting thrives today in a very hard commercial broadcasting world.

He is survived by Sybil and their son, two daughters and three grandchildren.