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Canadian History
Alec McDonald


From the Toronto Star Saturday, December 1, 2001.

Alec McDonald, who died last month at age 96, was a rare breed in Ontario
By Rod McDonald

Alec McDonaldALEXANDRIA, Ont. — In the quintessentially Celtic county called Glengarry, the death of people in their 90s often brings the same refrain, whispered gently at the funeral parlour: "There goes another of the old guard. There’s hardly any of ’em left."

Another characteristic of this region is the extensive nomenclature of nicknames. McDonalds are so common that colourful names are necessary in order to figure out just whom people are talking about, especially at weddings, highland games and funerals. My dad, for example, was called Red Hughie. Other names that come to mind are John the Bighead, Johnny Two-thumbs, Slippery Alex, Alex and a Half, Alex the Old Woman, Foghorn McDonald and Protestant Duncan.

Alec McDonald, an inveterate bachelor, was known as Alec From The Sixth or Turkey Alec.

It is well accepted in these ports that Alec— born Dec. 9, 1904; died Nov. 7, 2001 —was the last true Gaelic speaker around here and that people would even be hard-pressed to find another like him in all of Ontario, if not Canada. Nobody seems to use Gaelic as a mother tongue any more. Even back in the ‘50s, Alec was one of a very few.

I was a pallbearer at his funeral. We walked through the mud and driving rain in a rural graveyard in Lochiel, with the wind whistling through the 100-year-old graves. As the piper played "Amazing Grace," I looked down beside the coffin, and there, as if by magic, was a wind-beaten, dried-up old Scottish thistle. lt was fitting.

On his deathbed, Alec had leaned over to me and said: "Roddy, all I ask is that someone talk to me in the Gaelic before I go. Then I’ll be ready."

His was the one home in Kenyon Township, north of Alexandria, where Gaelic was the only language spoken in the house for five generations. It was considered close to treason to speak English in the McDonald home. However, the local school board had seen fit to forbid Gaelic, especially at the Kenyon School. where Alec and his brother Donaldie went. Thus, they become bilingual at an early age.

But emotionally, Alec had chosen Gaelic over English. In Ontario in the 20th century, while the language fought for its survival, Alec spoke it with Donaldie (who died 15 years ago) and with anyone else he could: teen tourists from Scotland, local enthusiasts (who had book-learned the language but were far from fluent) and my father (who was fluent and who died in 1987).

I still recall Alec arriving at our front door in town, hollering at his beloved team of homes, bolting out of a sleigh, ruddy cheeks glowing like apples, and saying, "Ciamara How?" (How are you?), and my father answering something like "Mianach Ma" (I’m fine, thanks). They shook hands, shuffled into the front room, closed the door behind them and proceeded to have a long conversation in Gaelic. I would snuggle up to the keyhole and eavesdrop on the guttural, musical notes of the Gaelic, and their soft laughter. As the afternoon wore on, I often noticed the odour of gin wafting under the old pine door, and lhe voices grew louder.

On one occasion in 1992, the BBC Gaelic Service stopped in Alexandria and asked if there were any Gaelic speakers. They motored out to Alec’s boarding house, where they conversed with him in Gaelic all afternoon. BBC Radio later broadcast the tape they had made of Alec speaking to them on the Sixth Concession of Kenyon, Glengarry County.

Alec’s English was riddled with vestiges of Gaelic — what with the rhythm to his speech and expressions he used. He said "Archiebishop" instead of "Archbishop." His strangest oath, "Land a gotian," was really "Atlantic Ocean," a reference to the rugged times the Scots had spent on ships when immigrating to Canada.

Toward the end, I visited Alec at an institution for the elderly. As he sat in his chair, humped over from years of milking cows in a dark, dank stable, he spoke to me in a deep brogue that betrayed his years of speaking "the Gaelic." He said he and Donaldie used to speak Gaelic in the stable when they stumbled around with coal oil lanterns in the dead of winter. And they relied on it when they gathered the fields of hay with nothing more than a team of horses, some hay forks and the sweat of their brows.

It had formed a great part of his culture and his soul, his sensibilities and his poetry, and his desire to occupy the land with character and determination, as so many of his Scottish forbears had done.

Perhaps Alec’s conflict with a society that did not recognize his language and his innate need for continuity is symbolic of every Canadian who Iabours to speak and safeguard a language that is precious to him or her. Even if he were just 1 in 30 million and was forced to speak his beloved Gaelic only in his dreams.

Alec is survived by many cousins in Glengarry County, all of whom wished they, too, had learned the secretive, musical language that he held so close to his heart. And they say, haltingly: "Beannachd-leat, Ellic." (Farewell, Alec)

Rod McDonald, who lives in Alexandria, Ont., is a first cousin once removed. A headstone for Alec is being planned, with the words "last Gaelic speaker in Glengarry" carved into it. Next spring, there will be a ceremony with Gaelic singing and readings at the gravesite in Lochiel.

Thanks to PK Murphy for sending this in


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