MacPhail: the finest opening games speech I have heard

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The Glenfinnan Highland Gathering is now long past for the year so this article is nearly a month out of date.

However, a phone call last Friday night from none other than Fergie MacDonald reminded of the day and spurred me to write about it. The phone call was on a totally different subject, but it brought back thoughts on Fergie’s memorable opening speech as chieftain of the games.

I’ve been to many Highland games over the years, mainly as a spectator, sometimes to sell CDs and occasionally as a competitor, and I’ve heard many a speech delivered to open these events. Never have I enjoyed one as much as Fergie’s on August 17 this year.

It was classic ‘Fergie’ and cut straight through the customary pomp and ceremony of most speeches at such occasions. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a bit of pomp and ceremony at this type of event and in many ways they are vital ingredients, but it was nonetheless highly refreshing to see Fergie standing on the platform in his own relaxed manner and to hear him deliver the speech with his unique confidence, energy and style.

On August 17, 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie raised the Jacobite standard at Glenfinnan, beginning a military campaign that ended in failure at the battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746. There were many strands and complexities that led to the Jacobite Rebellion but, regardless of the complicated political and social context of it, there is no doubt that its occurrence and subsequent failure led to the destruction of Highland society and culture in the years that followed.

The effects of the brutal ethnic cleansing that came after the battle of Culloden are clear to see to this day and the population of Gaeldom has not recovered from it.

Fergie succinctly covered the history and the many issues surrounding it with clarity and without the misty-eyed romanticism that often accompanies any reference to this subject. He even managed a good portion of humour throughout!

A particular highlight was when Fergie quoted his direct ancestor, Ronald MacDonald, Raoghnall Iain, as he was known, who, according to Clan Ranald lore, said to Prince Charles on that day: ‘A Thearlaich, tha mi ’n dòchas gu bheil na buill agad airson a gnothaich seo fhaicinn troimhe!’ (Charlie, I hope you have the courage to see this through!)

I can well imagine that if Fergie MacDonald himself were at Glenfinnan on August 17, 1745, he would be similarly direct in his approach to the Prince. He would probably have written him a tune, given him a haunch of venison and sold him a box of CDs as well.

Fergie’s speech was the perfect foundation for the rest of the gathering and it reminded me once again why I have held him as a hero since first I heard his music when I was nine years old. With the energy and vigour Fergie still has at the age of 82, he will be playing music and making speeches for many years to come.