Review: Alex O Henley’s Lost Star: Rionnag Chaillte: the untold story of former Celtic, Kilmarnock, Brentford and Scotland great Malcolm MacDonald

James Beaton, National Piping Centre

I am a graduate of Edinburgh University, with a degree in Celtic Studies. I also hold postgraduate qualifications in Librarianship. I am currently Librarian and Module Co-Ordinator for the BA Scottish Music (Piping) degree at the National Piping Centre.

Review: O Henley, Alex. Lost Star: Rionnag Chaillte: the untold story of former Celtic, Kilmarnock, Brentford and Scotland great Malcolm MacDonald. Islands Book Trust, 2013 (ISBN 9781907443541, £25.00)

In this book, written in both English and Gaelic, the South Uist born sports commentator Alex O Henley tells the story of the one of the great Celts, Malcolm (Malky, Calum) MacDonald. The book appears in the year of the centenary of MacDonald’s birth and is a celebration of the man, who, in his obituary, was described by the legendary Scottish football writer, Bob Crampsey, as ‘a synonym for grace…blessed – or perhaps cursed – with almost an excess of talent…above all the purist’s footballer’.

Perhaps less well remembered by current football fans than he should be, on account of his skill, MacDonald was the son of a Gaelic speaking couple from South Uist. As had many before them, MacDonald’s parents had moved to Glasgow in search of work, settling in the Garngad. This tough neighbourhood is evoked in O’ Henley’s Gaelic and English prose, and gives a sense of the hardness of MacDonald’s upbringing. It also focuses on the perceived social and linguistic disadvantage at which he was in danger of being place because of his parents’ native language. Like so many in Gaelic-speaking Glasgow, as a child, when spoken to in Gaelic, he replied in English.

O’Henley’s interest in his fellow Uibhisteach (a native of the Uists) came about through his background on the island. The idea for the book came from the 2011 Scottish Communities League Cup Final, which was contested by two clubs that MacDonald had played for, one of which he had managed on two occasions, Celtic and Kilmarnock respectively. Initially O’ Henley produced a documentary for Radio nan Gaidheal on the subject, and the positive reception he had for this, prompted his further researches for this book.

The book is set out in chronological order, and deals with MacDonald’s early days at Celtic, during which time he was part of the team which won the Empire Exhibition Trophy. After World War 2 he returned o top class football with Celtic, before going to Kilmarnock, and then Brentford. He went into management with Brentford, and then Kilmarnock, a team he managed twice. During his time as manager, he took Kilmarnock into European football. Indeed the great Ferenç Puškas of Real Madrid made his final appearance at Rugby Park, during a 2-2 draw between Kilmarnock and Real Madrid. He was also caretaker manager of Scotland, and his working life ended as a chiropodist and physiotherapist and football scout.

Is mithich do dh’ Ailig an leabhar seo a sgrìobhadh an dà chuid anns a’ Bheurla is anns a’ Ghàidhlig. Tha na freumhan aig Calum stèidhichte ann an eilean a theaghlaich. Chithear seo as fhearr anns na dealbhan. Bidh cuid de na dealbhan a’ nochdadh muinntir Chaluim aig an dachaigh ann an Uibhist, agus bidh ceann-sgrìobhaidhean nan dealbhan anns a’ Ghàidhig cuideachd, agus iad air an eadar-theangachadh do Bheurla fòdhpa. Bidh aireamh nan dealbhan bho Uibhist a’ dèanamh soilleir dè cho cudromach ‘s a bha an t-eilean an teaghlaich dha anns an dreuchd thrang a bh’aige ann an saoghal na ball-coise fada bhon àite as an d’tàinig a shinnsear.

(Translation – It is fitting for Alec to write this book in both English and Gaelic. Calum’s roots are grounded in his family’s island. This is best seen in the illustrations. Some of the illustrations show Calum’s family at their home in Uist, and the captions for the illustrations in Gaelic also, with the English translations below. The number of illustrations from Uist show how important his family was in the busy job he had in the world of football far from the home of his ancestors.)

The bilingual format of the book is very positive from a Gaelic point of view. The book’s Gaelic is straightforward, and it is appropriate that Malcolm’s roots are recognised through the use of the language he was familiar with in his childhood to recount his outstanding footballing career. The only quibble to be found as far as Gaelic is concerned is the use of the loan word ‘stòiridh’ in the book and particularly on the dust jacket as part of the title. Story telling is a well established tradition in Gaelic, and the language has a rich vocabulary related to this art. Indeed, the author uses the word ‘sgeul’, a native word for a tale, practically next to ‘stòiridh’ in his introduction, which personally jarred, as indeed did the use of the loan word on the dust jacket.

The main drawback to having the work in two halves however, is that the illustrations are not found throughout the text. The work is well illustrated, drawing on family photographs, and the photographs, well reproduced, are an outstanding feature of the book. However, they are sandwiched between the Gaelic and the English texts, and despite their value, having them in the relevant section would have added to the pleasure of reading the book.

This is a book which shows the author’s fondness for his subject. The reader is left in no doubt about Malcolm MacDonald’s skills as a footballer, and as a manager. It certainly will enhance, not only the shelves of Celtic fans, but fans of Scottish football in general, as MacDonald’s contribution extended beyond Celtic. For those for whom Gaelic is important, this book will allow them to read about a rarity, a Gael who achieved great things in football, in Gaelic which is straightforward, flowing Gaelic.


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