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John MacPherson (1882–1951)
Styled The Coddie


John MacPherson (1882–1951), styled The Coddie (sometimes The Coddy), and described by Compton Mackenzie as “the outstanding character in Northbay.” Owing to the 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 Nčill ’ic Iain ’ic Aonghais ’ic Chaluim ’ic Iain but, to many an outsider, he was simply known as the “Uncrowned King of Barra.” The Coddie was a son of Niall MacPherson and Ann MacLachlan. In his fine introduction to MacPherson’s Tales from Barra (MacPherson 1992: get page nos), John Lorne Campbell 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 conversation with another writer, John Marshall, the Coddie summed up his life thus far in 1951:

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. 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:

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. 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.

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.

From the Coddie, Maclean recorded and transcribed thirteen items, mainly short anecdotes and tales, some historical, as well as a few proverbs (NFC 1028, 451–78; NFC 1029, 84a–111; NFC 1030, 27a–50, 197–98). A representative selection of MacPherson’s repertoire, as well as a fine biographical introduction, are available in Tales of Barra (MacPherson, 1992).

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