Tuesday, 25 February 2014
The Coddie: John MacPherson, Uncrowned King of Barra
Sir Compton Mackenzie, perhaps most famous for his comedic novel Whisky Galore (1947), described the Coddie (sometimes the Coddy) as “the outstanding character in Northbay.” Owing to recurrent surnames in the islands nicknames came in handy so John MacPherson was given his at a young age which stuck to him all his life. His patronymic was far longer, Iain mac Nèill ’ic Iain ’ic Aonghais ’ic Chaluim ’ic Iain but, to many an outsider, he was simply known as the “Uncrowned King of Barra.”
MacPherson first saw the light of day in the township of Northbay, Barra, in 1876 and was a son of Neil MacPherson and Ann MacLachlan. In his fine introduction to MacPherson’s Tales from Barra: Told by the Coddy (1960), John Lorne Campbell (1906–1996) described the Coddie as:
Rather short, thick-set and Napoleonic; he had an extremely fine-looking head and was quick of movement – and of speech, whether in English or Gaelic. His MacPherson forebears originally came from Benbecula…The MacPhersons or Curries or MacVuirichs are sharp on their tongues and apt scholars.
In 1951, in conversation with another writer, John Marshall, the Coddie summed up his life thus far:
I’ve tried a great variety of jobs in my day. I’ve been to sea. I’ve followed the herring—and the white fish, too—most places around our coasts. I started a wee shop on this island. Not long after, the gales scattered it—shop and all it contained—to the four winds and the sea. That night I near wept my eyes out; but I started up again—and this time I got on; later I got the Post Office. After a while they sent me to the District Council, then I went to Inverness as a County Councillor, but I gave up the public committees after we lost the boy in the Air Force. And here I am to-day.
MacPherson’s verbal virtuosity manifested itself as a skilled raconteur and wit and with his oftentimes witty stories together with his ability to hold an audience no matter what their cultural background, attracted a bewildering range of people who came knocking at the Post Office house in Northbay:
Coddy’s personality and talents as a host brought him before long a large number of visitors, some of them distinguished ones – peers, politicians, officials, descendants of Barra emigrants to Canada and the U.S.A., scholars from Scotland, Norway and Gaelic Ireland, archaeologists, ornithologists, sportsmen and holiday-makers … all made their way to the Coddy’s, attracted by his vigorous personality and the kindness and hospitality of his wife and family.
What attracted these various people was that the Coddie was not only a character but a very able storyteller who knew intimately the traditions of his native island and had such a way with words and with his storytelling style could charm a visiting audience as only he knew how:
As befits a diplomat, he has a fine feeling for language. Not only for his native Gaelic, but even for our English…If anyone in the conversation chanced to coin a particularly apt phrase, Coddie was always the first to catch it up, savour it with his own tongue and nod approval. But, better still, to catch Coddie himself in mood for ceilidh…Then you meet [the] Coddie the storyteller. His favourite tales are from the folk-lore of his island…his tales, when the tells them, have his element of magic—the compelling magic of the born storyteller and a wizard with words. Not that he tells the tales with words alone; for they are punctuated with nods and sideways movements of the head, now and then and elevation of the mobile eyebrows, a pursing of the lips, a portentous downward roll—or a mischievous sideways flick—of the eyes.
Outside the Post Office sitting on his bench, the Coddie was wont to hold court and would engage in conversation with all and sundry. This was when he was in his element and if the mood took hold—as oftentimes it did—he could be the consummate entertainer. An example of the Coddie’s repertoire about a method of divination, recorded and transcribed by Calum Maclean on the 23rd of January 1947, may be given in translation:
A' chiad Dia Luain dhe’n ràithe, nì thu frìth an latha sin, mas urra dhut a dhèanamh, ’n uair a bhios an latha a' bristeadh a-mach aig dealachadh nan tràth. Na daoine a nì frìth chì iad nichean a tha a' tachairst agus rud a tha a' dol a thachairst. Chì iad cuideachd daoine th' air chall, a bheil iad beò na marabh. Chunnaic mi fhin té an Uibhist agus dhèanadh i frìth; Catrìona Dhonnachaidh an t-ainim a bh' oirre.
And the translation is as follows:
The first Monday of the new season, you will make the frìth [augury], and if you can, first thing in the morning when the dawn breaks. People who perform this augury will see things happening and events that are about to happen. They also see people who have gone missing and whether they are dead or alive. I saw myself a woman in Uist performing this augury. Her name was Catrìona Dhonnchaidh.
Every story that he told was stamped with his warmth and personality that would always seem to shine through and his repertoire had a wonderfully eclectic mix of myth, tradition and anecdote.
Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (1899–1970), a prolific travelogue writer and frequent visitor to the Western Isles, visited the Coddie in 1948 and the ensuing conversation was recollected as follows:
…he spoke of Prince Charlie with an intimacy which would have made me reluctant to disbelieve him, and he mentioned that he was one of the Seven Men of Moidart, returned from the dead, and now dwelling in Barra, committed to the sacred duty of keeping green, in that locality, the memory of the luckless Jacobites. Indeed, nothing would have surprised me less than to have learnt from his own lips that he claimed to be the descendant of Cluny MacPherson, that valorous name-sake of his, better known to Scottish history as Cluny of ‘the Forty-five’.
“There’s a bit more I should be telling you about Fuday,” the Coddy interposed the other day, recalling a previous conversation he and I had concerning this grassy isle lying in the Sound of Barra, at no great distance, from his home at Northbay. “But wait a moment,” he added, “while I get the magic wand I like to have in my hand when storytelling to the likes of yourself.” Straightway he made for the sitting-room of his house, in order to take from its customary corner there, the bamboo stick which, he informs me, the harsh landlord occupying the north end of Barra after the Clearances used as a means of frightening anyone refusing to obey his commands.
Thereafter the Coddie, clutching his bamboo stick as a prop, continued his narrative:
“In the ‘Forty-five’, MacNeil of went over to Fuday to see a man, Donald MacInnes, who was then a prosperous crofter on the island. MacNeil explained to MacInnes that he came to Fuday to ask him for money to assist Bonnie Prince Charlie, who was about to land in Scotland to claim the throne of his ancestors. Without any delay, MacInnes put his hand on a mogan–he had it hidden away behind the rafters: that was the bank, you see–which contained three hundred pieces of gold; and he gave it all to MacNeil for the good cause. That’s worth recording, you’ll agree. You won’t collect the like of that one anywhere else than from myself…A good cause it was; and we all know what happened to it, without criticising it in any shape or form…We all know it was lost.
It is probably trite to say but there would have been no Whisky Galore (whether speaking of the book or the film adaption) without the Coddie’s involvement. Even though, according to Compton Mackenzie, MacPherson had the gall to mix whisky with lemonade! This perhaps does not befit the image of an islander imbibing the strong stuff but the Coddie may be forgiven as he had quite a few stories up his sleeve about the shenanigans that went on after the S.S. Politician foundered near Eriskay in 1941 with her cargo of whisky still intact.
The Coddie even made a cameo appearance in the subsequently highly successful Ealing comedy made in 1949 where he can be seen dispensing some ill-gained whisky from a jar during the rèiteach, or engagement, scene. The Coddie was given the role of honorary adviser to the film-makers and acted as a mediator between the production team and the locals. With regard to local customs and getting the local ‘feel’ as authentic as it could possibly be as well as, of course, film locations, his advice was sought and heeded.
Despite the very poor summer of 1949 subsequently causing many delays to shooting and thus the budget to go well over, the project was very nearly abandoned but for a last minute reprieve. The Coddie’s involvement made the smooth working of local arrangements less of a burden to the production crew than would have been otherwise.
In 1945, when Compton Mackenzie decided for health reasons to quit Suidheachan, his house in Eoligarry, the Coddie told him in a letter that he was rather distraught that he was leaving Barra after having stayed a dozen years there:
…I am very sorry to hear you are winding up at Suidheachan and unfortunately cutting out Barra from your map. The fact that you were staying on it attracted a big percentage of the visitors to the island. Let us stick together and hold the Fort. This was hit me hard, losing Neilie, the flower of my family, and the business very much gone downwards…
Due to the loss of his son during the Second World War and that his shop was not doing so well as he might have hoped, the Coddie’s thus far fulfilling life was blighted during his remaining years. The Coddie being the Coddie, of course, kept going and could reflect upon and be proud of a rather remarkable career. The highlights of his public life were twofold as Barra’s Country Councillor; he saw success crowning his campaign to obtain funding for a new pier at Castlebay, and his involvement with Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore. With his passing in 1955, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Barra had lost a real character the like of which will never be seen again.
Alasdair Alpin MacGregor, The Western Isles (London: Robert Hale, 1949)
John MacPherson, Tales of Barra: Told by the Coddy, ed. by John Lorne Campbell (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1992)
John Marshall, ‘Meeting the Coddie’, The Scots Magazine, vol. LIV, no. 6 (1951), pp. 73–77
NFC 1030: 197
John MacPherson, Northbay, Barra, c. 1947
John MacPherson, The Coddie, Calum I. Maclean, Gaelic oral traditions, Northbay, John Lorne Campbell, Tales of Barra, Barra