Obituary: Murdo Macleod, academic and educationalist

Murdo Macleod
Murdo Macleod
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Born: 10 August, 1929, in Gress, Isle of Lewis. Died: 10 March, 2013, in Inverness, aged 83

Murdo Macleod was a Gaelic scholar and educationalist whose life’s journey took him from a croft in rural Lewis to the halls of academia and back to his beloved Highlands, where he devoted his professional life to the nurture of the language in schools.

Murdo was born in the village of Gress, eight miles north of Stornoway. The third of five siblings, he showed early academic promise, which took him to the island’s main school, the Nicolson Institute; there he became dux at the age of 16.

In 1946, he left the island for university on the mainland – the first in his family to do so, and one of only a few of his generation. In Aberdeen, he took to student life, thriving on study but making lifelong friends, among them the poet and novelist Iain Crichton Smith, a contemporary from Lewis with whom he shared lodgings.

His endeavours led to first class Honours in Celtic and Latin and – a rarity for someone from his background in those days – a place at Cambridge University’s Emmanuel College. He left there with another First – in Celtic, Old English Literature and Old Norse.

As with all young men at the time, a spell in National Service awaited. Murdo was persuaded to apply for a commission and duly attended an Admiralty interview board. His academic achievements impressed his inquisitors and all was going well until, near the end, he was asked what line of business his father was in.

Never ashamed of where he came from, he answered truthfully: “Crofter and general labourer.” The next thing he knew, he was scrubbing the flight deck on an aircraft carrier. In truth, he was almost certainly happier below decks than he would ever have been in the ward-room.

A post at Queen’s University in Belfast marked Murdo’s return to civilian life. Academia was not really to his liking, 
however. He hankered after teaching of a more fundamental kind, and in 1955 he arrived on Barra to teach Gaelic and Latin.

It was only a short step geographically from his native Lewis, but culturally it was a world away. He took to the island and its people, though, and they took to him; friendships were formed that lasted a lifetime. By the end of the 1950s, something was changing as far as Gaelic was concerned – in some official circles at least. 
Inverness County Council took the far-sighted step of creating a post to oversee the use of the language in its schools.

The search for a Gaelic supervisor (later adviser) took them to the young teacher in the farthest corner of the county, and Murdo was seconded from his adopted home to headquarters in Inverness. It was there that he met his constant companion for the next 50 years; he and Catherine Fraser were married in 1963 and set up home in the Highland capital.

In 1970, Murdo joined the Scottish Education Department as Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools – Gaelic across the whole of Scotland would be his responsibility for the next 20 years. It wasn’t always an easy path; attitudes towards the language were often not positive at the heart of the establishment, and many battles were fought.

Over time, though, hearts and minds were won and good work was done. And it wasn’t without its compensations; a week begun deep in the corridors of New St Andrew’s House might end by the fireside of a corrugated iron-roofed schoolhouse in a distant corner of the Gàidhealtachd, drinking tea and putting the world to rights.

A generation of children (and their teachers) remember waiting in trepidation for the visit of “the Inspector” and then finding themselves charmed by Murdo’s easy manner and obvious passion for their work. One who encountered him, first as pupil then, later as teacher, recalls that he was the first adult she ever heard laugh out loud in a classroom. By the time he retired in 1989, the seeds had been sown for the reinvigoration of Gaelic education, not just in the islands, but across Scotland.

His days in retirement were as busy as ever, though; the Gaelic Society of Inverness and the International Celtic Congress were among the organisations which benefited from his efforts.

There was plenty of time too for his growing clan of grandchildren. The hundreds who attended his funeral in Inverness included family, friends and many who had been inspired by Murdo and his achievements over the years – but for most, their principal memories of the man were his modesty and his ready smile.

Murdo is survived by Catherine, his sons Alasdair and Angus, his daughters-in-law and five grandchildren.