Obituary: Seonaidh Ailig Mac A’Phearsain, Gaelic broadcaster and civil nuclear industry executive

Seonaidh Ailig Mac A'Phearsain
Seonaidh Ailig Mac A'Phearsain
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Seonaidh Ailig Mac A’Phearsain, John Alick MacPherson, who has died at the age of 79 in Cape Breton, was one of an outstanding group who developed Gaelic broadcasting from minimal provision in the 1960s to its current status, with a dedicated radio station and television channel firmly embedded within the output of the BBC.

He contributed to many other Gaelic initiatives and also pursued an entirely separate career within the Canadian civil nuclear industry. Following his return to Scotland, he was both a board member of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and author of a report which led to official status for the Gaelic language.

Seonaidh Ailig was born in Stornoway and spent the first five years of his life in Leverburgh, Harris, before the family moved to Goular in North Uist, the native village of his father, Archie, who was a merchant seaman and crofter. His mother, Chirsty (nee MacLennan), was a weaver from Scalpay whose family home was a place where youngsters came to learn weaving and song.

Secondary schooling was undertaken at Portree High, Inverness County Council making no senior secondary provision (right up until its abolition in the 1970s) within the southern Outer Isles. He graduated in Celtic Studies at Edinburgh University, trained as a teacher at Jordanhill College and taught in Paible School, North Uist, before joining the BBC in 1964.

He proved to be a popular broadcaster with consummate bilingual skills as well as great humour, and became an excellent collector of vital archive material, much of which, including his mother’s songs, can be found on the Tobair an Dualchas website. Working under Fred MacAulay, the team also included Martin MacDonald and Neil Fraser. They took Gaelic television into current affairs and created high journalistic and production standards. The output was small but the quality excellent.

Seonaidh Ailig was a poet of distinction and in 1961 was crowned Bàrd of An Comunn Gàidhealach at the Annual Mod in Stirling for a metaphor on Gaelic’s struggle called An t-Slàbhraidh (the chain from which pots were hung over the open fire). Without the pot, the chain became useless. His crowning proved to be an occasion of more hilarity than the intended solemnity. Short in stature, he declined to wear the kilt on the grounds it would make both An Comunn and himself look ridiculous, a point reinforced by the Bardic gown being shortened to fit him.

A second career began in 1972 when he accepted a job with Atomic Energy of Canada, a prestigious pioneer in the civil nuclear industry and was posted as information officer to Glace Bay in Cape Breton where the company was building a heavy water plant. Seonaidh Ailig stayed with AECL for more than 20 years working in Mississauga, Ottawa, Toronto and finally Chalk River and representing Canada in many international nuclear gatherings around the world.

He was never long out of touch with the Gaelic community at home and, on returning in 1997, became deputy director of Comataidh Craolaidh Gàidhlig (Gaelic Broadcasting Committee) at a crucial stage in its evolution as forerunner of a Gaelic channel. Maggie Cunningham, chair of MG Alba, said: “Seonaidh Ailig was very influential in shaping the channel, particularly by insisting that programmes commissioned had to meet high standards. He was great company, with a very rich knowledge of Gaelic, and an inspiration to the next generation of broadcasters”.

One project he took particular pride in was the introduction of Gaelic secondary school debates, which proved to be a valuable vehicle for developing language skills. The finals are now held in the Scottish Parliament. That initiative arose from a conversation involving Seonaidh Ailig, Alasdair Morrison and Councillor Donald MacLean, all sons of North Uist.

As the first Holyrood Minister of Gaelic, Alasdair Morrison asked him to chair a review of Gaelic policy. The MacPherson Report led to the establishment of Bord na Gaidhlig as a government agency charged with pursuing measures to stabilise, and then increase, the number of Gaelic speakers. This was eventually followed by the Gaelic Language Act of 2005 which gave Gaelic official status for the first time.

Among his other appointments, he served on the boards of Caledonian MacBrayne, the publishers Acair, the Celtic Media Festival, Comhairle nan Leabhraichean (Gaelic Books Council) and Assynt Film. He was appointed to the UKAEA board in 2002, During this period his home was in the isolated Harris village of Rhenigidal, facing Scalpay, which made every journey to fulfil these roles a logistical challenge, even for a man of his boundless energy.

After nine years, he returned to Cape Breton and a home on the Mira River, a district where many residents are descended from pioneers cleared from North Uist. He continued the commitment to his native language through board membership of the Gaelic College at St Anne’s, also taking a deep interest in the Beaton Archives at Cape Breton University which preserve the cultural heritage of the island. He sang in the Mira Gaelic Choir, taught Gaelic in the local church hall and was a hands-on president of Atlantic Gaelic Academy, which provides online courses to learners in many countries.

A great story-teller, his memoir, Steall A Iomadh Lòn (A Splash from Many Pools), is regarded as a classic of modern Gaelic writing. He collaborated with Professor Michael Linkletter of St Francis Xavier University to produce Fògradh, Fàisneachd, Filidheachd (Parting, Prophecy, Poetry), which received good reviews. His final work was a translation of Gaelic letters sent to the Cape Breton newspaper MacTalla by John Munro after he left Canada to live in Waipu, New Zealand, around the turn of the last century.

John Angus MacKay, formerly director of the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee, described Seonaidh Ailig as “a very talented bard, broadcaster, public speaker and professional executive; great witty company and above all a loyal colleague and friend”.

He is survived by three children, Alan, Kirsty and Iain, as well as Alan and Irene’s two children, Evan and Kailey, all of Toronto.

His first wife, Fiona (Grant) MacPherson lives in Toronto while his second wife Helen Campbell, of Mira, Cape Breton, also survives him.

Brian Wilson