Thursday, 24 January 2013

Landscape and memory - for Donald Murdo MacDonald

There is something in the unnerving tingle of a phonecall from home at an unexpected hour. You know when the ringing stops bad tidings will begin

There could not have been a darker news at the start of last week than my brother’s call to say that Donald Murdo MacDonald, Mac Mhagan from Knock, had fallen to his death from the Swordale cliffs.

The bare facts of Monday 15th January were too shocking to absorb in just one phone call. Donald Murdo and his older brother had been on the Druim Mhor, the steep rising cliffs that you can see from the Braighe, looking for sheep on a wet afternoon when he slipped on the cliffside.

John Murdo, the elder brother on the cliff top, raised the alarm and in fading light the Coastguard helicopter and lifeboat crew lifted Donald Murdo to hospital. He lost the fight later that evening.

Donald Murdo was only 48, the first of my Knock School year to go before his natural span, death’s first breach into our classroom.

Undoubtedly it is our own mortality that confronts us on days like these, but the stab of anguish was all the stronger because of the messenger. My brother, Domhnall, was the last person these cliffs tried to claim. Monday night's call had a chilling resonance for us.

But the brother left grasping the shattered bond last week was John Murdo. From the loneliness of that barren clifftop a numb grief spread through the surrounding villages.

News of the catastrophe was foreshadowed by a tragedy that had long before touched the MacDonald family. Small communities bestow on us such an intimate history, even if there is little day-to-day connection.

Donald Murdo’s own father fell to his death, from the roof of their old home in Knock. I remember the house, it was a felt-roofed white cottage, now demolished, on the road in to the Post Office, but was too young to actually remember the event.

I do recall it happened on a Stornoway Carnival Saturday and that the three boys were due to go up town to the festival with their father. On carnival days we were sometimes reminded of their forever cancelled happiness.

For John Murdo and Malcolm Donald, the elder brothers, and their widowed mother Jessie Ann, these events will echo from either span of the bridge. Death must have etched the boys’ schooldays too but as children, if these things were ever noticed, they were never spoken.

At school Donald Murdo was quiet, industrious, and clever. He knew the rules of chess before they were patiently explained to the rest of us.

He had wild, straw-blond hair that would put a young Boris Johnson to shame, just as badly styled too, and he was pioneer of spectacles that would now be considered trendy. To adult eyes he would have been cute, to us he was simply Donald Murdo, the boy who somehow managed not to lose or break all the plastic geometry accessories in his neat pencilcase.

He worked for many years with Voluntary Action Lewis, an organisation representing community groups on the island. There he was a mainstay in the organisation and made a valuable contribution to the voluntary sector. Moving to Dundee, he worked in Community Education and came home barely two years ago to care for his mother.

Maybe, as returning exiles do, he went out that Monday with a child’s fearless memory of the cliffs, because they are a place adults rarely venture.

Regardless of their fearsome appearance we never, as youngsters, held these guardians of the Point coastline to be a danger.

Only half-named now, their Gaelic names are slipping from our tongues, the cliffs don’t actually have a great record for claiming lives considering the gauntlet we ran, literally ran, as we scrambled their flanks every summer.

In our own generation my brother - who quite spectacularly, and accidentally, rode his bike over the edge in 1983 - and Fiona MacAulay, Lightcliffe, who fractured her hip in a bad fall as a teenager in 1978, were the only victims.

Alasdair Finlayson, a regular summer visitor, was once trapped halfway up but my uncle, Domhnall a Bhuidsear, and Am Bice came to the rescue. We boys watched incredulously as the two men hauled him up on a looped rope, hand over hand, gripping the rocky knife edge of the promontory with their bare feet.

In their own pre-War generation Alasdair Sheumais, No 12 Swordale, fell out in Ard Chirc and was brought home on a wooden door, torn from its hinges to make a hasty stretcher. He survived and lived to an old age.

Despite the ministrations of helicopters and hospitals, it was not so for Donald Murdo. Gentle, kind Donald Murdo, who came home to care for his mother and lost his life on a winter's day, in a landscape with a memory that none of us can escape.

The funeral was on Friday. The weather could have been much worse they said, which is another way we have of saying we feel a deep pain of bereavement.

Another classmate of Donald Murdo’s, Rev Hugh Stewart from Seaview, led one of the prayers, which couldn't have been easy. 

The next day it was Hughie - the boy with the bow tie and the gap toothed smile in the Knock School class photo that was dusted down after the funeral - who gave the lesson of the week, that love will ultimately triumph over death.

Hughie, a year short of his 50th birthday, announced he is engaged to be married, and a little flame rekindled bruised hearts with a flicker of the continuing thread of life. Beanneachd leat, Donald Murdo.

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