The sudden passing of Norman MacLeod at the age of 74 shortly before Christmas 2021 deprives the London (Scottish) Gaelic community of one of its leading figures and much of its institutional memory. For decades Norman ran the quarterly London (presbyterian) Gaelic Services held at Crown Court church, serving as Chairman and precenting the unaccompanied psalms in powerful and unforgettable style. He fully deserves a lengthy and elaborate marbhrann (memorial elegy) and we hope that such a tribute will follow in due course.
Norman was an unrivalled authority on the history of both religious and secular Gaelic institutions in London and of the genealogy of the individuals associated with the various societies and associations. His encyclopaedic knowledge of those matters derived from conversations with London Gaels over the course of more than fifty years (gathering memories going back to the nineteenth century) and from years spent in the British Library poring over old newspapers and other esoteric documents. Over the decades he accumulated a huge mass of photographs and papers relating to London Gaels and hopefully all the precious material he gathered will be properly preserved, catalogued and deposited in a suitable archive so that it is not lost to posterity.
The eldest of three siblings in a Gaelic-speaking crofting family in Swordale (Suardail) in Point, Isle of Lewis, Norman would sometimes contrast the life of hard physical work interspersed with strict Sunday observance that he knew as he was growing up with all the complications of modern metropolitan life in the digital age. After working for a time for Harris Tweed in Stornoway, he settled in London in the 1960s and worked for many years for the Royal Scottish Corporation (now known as Scotscare) in Fetter Lane. He threw himself into London’s Gaelic world, at a time when Gaelic services and meetings of Commun Gaidhlig Lunnainn, the London Gaelic Society, regularly drew packed attendances of a hundred or more, in contrast to the much lower attendances of today.
A singer of extraordinary talent with a remarkable tenor voice, Norman took over the precenting task for the London Gaelic services with some reluctance. But it was always a joy to hear him, and luckily there are some precious recordings of him precenting (including ‘Stroudwater’ and ‘Moravia’ at a special service in Edinburgh some years ago), to remind us of the rare quality of his performance.
Norman was a man of the keenest intelligence, steeped in knowledge of Gaelic history and culture going back to childhood, and an exacting critic of anything that was sloppy, inauthentic or second-rate. He was sometimes ‘contrarian’ in his views, and in many respects was an unapologetic traditionalist. He particularly disliked the modern online way of life and continued to communicate through landline phone calls and handwritten letters sent by post, even at considerable inconvenience to himself. But he took a close interest in the London Gaelic choir and encouraged it to contribute to special services or events that he organised (for example a ceilidh for Angus Morrison, the first Gaelic-speaking Moderator of the Church of Scotland for some years, on a visit to London in 2015). At the time of his death he was hoping to encourage the choir to record a selection of Gaelic hymns and also of Burns’ songs translated into Gaelic by his close friend, the Reverend Roddy MacDonald (his own favourite Burns song was ‘Ae Fond Kiss’). He was always welcoming to new attendees at the London Gaelic Services – and always eager to know about their genealogy if they had any highland connections!
Norman’s way of life was particularly hard-hit by the restrictions associated with the Covid pandemic. He was hoping to re-start the London Gaelic Services in December and was also planning a re-furbishment of a gravestone in All Saints churchyard in Fulham commemorating the founder of the London Gaelic Chapel in 1809 (Duncan Robertson), to be followed by a special Gaelic service in that church. Alas, he did not live to see those plans to fruition, and it will now be for others to take them forward.
Norman MacLeod is survived by his sister Dolina, his brother Donald Angus, his nephew Murdo Samuel MacLeod and his niece Sara Elizabeth MacLeod. His funeral service and burial will take place in Lewis on 24 January.
‘Aig fois’ (at rest) – the words Tormod directed to be cut on his gravestone.