Hushinish_slipway_view_of_Scarp_in_distance: Photo James Morrison CC BY 2.0

S coma uair no a`it’ ar n-eug dhuinn

’S greadhnachas gun fheum ar to`rraidh*


Few of us like to contemplate our own deaths and the first thing anyone noticed about Donald MacInnes was how full of life he was. It was impossible to be down in his company.

But if he had been able to choose the place of his departure, it would have been to end his life on Harris in sight of the tiny island of Scarp, where he was born. He described himself as an ‘urban crofter’ and mostly lived in Glasgow, but he kept a foot in the Hebrides. According to the report in the Press & Journal:

Fellow crofters raised the alarm when Mr MacInnes failed to return to his home at Cravadale, near Huisinish on the Isle of Harris, after going to gather sheep. After a search involving around 20 coastguards from the Scalpay, Stornoway and Tarbert, the 72-year-old was found by a local group in a difficult location. He was airlifted to Western Isles Hospital at Stornoway where he died.

After school in Inverness and university in Glasgow Donald’s first job was in a building society – no-one was less suited to life approving mortgage applications and he looked back with incredulity. He switched to economic development and in 1991 was appointed chief executive of Dumbartonshire Enterprise. I first met him in 1998 when he became chief executive of Scotland Europa, the Scottish ’embassy’ in Brussels. Much later I became chair and the picture below was taken on the day I took over from the late Campbell Christie. Donald is on the left, Campbell in the middle.

Donald MacInness

It was a job ideally suited to his talents for making instant friendships, putting together unlikely participants to make things happen and projecting an image of Scotland which was warm and fun, quite unlike the Presbyterian reputation of the northern Hebrides. Donald knew everyone in Brussels – he was fluent only in English and Gaelic, but he could make himself understood to anyone anywhere. He had friends in many countries and of every political persuasion.

The technical detail of EU directives and protocols did not interest him, but he was served by an able and devoted staff, to whom he was fiercely loyal.

There was always a party when Donald was around. After a day of meetings and a working dinner, Donald took Fay Young and me to a Cuban bar where he said there would be salsa dancing. After two hours of Cuba Libres there was still no dancing and, exhausted after our trip from Scotland and a day’s work, we announced we were going to bed: Donald was disapproving: ‘But nothing in Brussels starts until after midnight!’

Later, when I wrote The Man Who Gave Away His Island, Donald was encouraging and enthusiastic and acted as one of my guides to Gaelic, a language of which I know very little – a drawback when writing about a noted celtic scholar and collector. While researching the book I came across a phrase in John Lorne Campbell’s notebook which I needed translated. I called Donald and attempted to read it to him. After many faltering tries he finally realised what it meant – a quote from Abraham Lincoln. I apologised: ‘my Gaelic is appalling.’ ‘Yes,’ he agreed, ‘your Gaelic is appalling – but it is better than a Lewisman’s Gaelic.’

I am not alone in missing him.

* The time or place of our death doesn’t matter, Since happiness doesn’t need a funeral. From Ba`rdachd Mhgr. Ailein. The Gaelic Poems of Fr Allan MacDonald. Transcribed, translated and published by John Lorne Campbell, 1965.


Featured image shows Huisinish slipway with a distant view of Scarp, Photo by James Morrison CC BY 2.0