Obituary: Professor Ken MacKinnon, Londoner who became a leading Gaelic linguist and historian

Died: May 21, 2021.

IT says much for the pull of the Gaelic world that there is a place for everyone. The pages of Irish and Scottish history abound with many ‘born-again’ Gaels, who have taken to Celtic medium with a vigour defying all prejudice. Ken MacKinnon was a most distinguished convert.

He wasn’t quite the full stranger, in that his parents were of Scottish and Northern Irish roots, but his upbringing in London – as evidenced by his life-long Cockney accent – told its own story. Yet this same man forsook a promising career in 1960/1970s Liberal politics to embrace the Gaelic language that he had grown to love.

Given his research achievements over the ensuing 40 years, especially after he moved to Scotland in 1985, Ken’s passing has been mourned throughout Gaeldom.

His commitment to the language and culture was inspiring; his advocacy on a par with the ablest contemporaries, his intellectual mind so driven and productive; and yet all governed by the heartfelt principles of his Christian faith. Ken was called to a Lay Preacher ministry in the Methodist Church, a role that he practised vigorously all his life.

In 1939, at the outbreak of war, he was among the many thousands of children who were evacuated from east London to the countryside. He thus spent the war in scenic Cornwall, and this gave him a taste for country living that remained with him all his life.

After peace returned, this talented working-class boy grafted his way through the secondary school system to gain a place at the London School of Economics, where he attained joint honours in Economics and Sociology.

Thereafter, it was National Service with the Royal Artillery, and a two-year posting in Germany. Returning to a teaching career in Essex secondary schools, he was later appointed to head Social Sciences at Barking Technical College.

By now married to Rosalie, and with family on the way, they moved to Southend-on-Sea, where Ken’s Liberal affiliations saw him elected to the local council. He eventually became Mayor in 1965.

Notwithstanding a secure teaching career, and a political profile that promised further advance, somehow Ken – as he told me later – felt that his vocation lay in another direction.

Already he had learned Scottish Gaelic at night-school, but was drawn deeper. An M.A. in Sociology and Celtic Linguistics led to a Senior Fellowship with the Social Sciences Research Council, which in turn led to a language research venture on the isle of Harris, in 1972-1974.

From this point, his academic career was re-launched as a Gaelic linguist and historian. He also made the transition to Hatfield Polytechnic (later renamed the University of Hertfordshire), as a sociology and linguistics lecturer, a position that enabled him to pursue research interests more readily.

Over the next three decades, he researched and wrote prodigiously on all aspects of Gaelic in education and the communities. While his principal concern was the survival of Scottish Gaeldom, his scope extended to Scottish migrant Gaels in Nova Scotia, as well as Gaelic-Ulster, Isle of Man, Wales and Brittany.

So also did he pursue the theme of minority languages such as Scots/Lallans, Manx, Welsh, Cornish and Breton, lecturing and writing passionately, wearing his academic cap and others besides. He wrote The Lion’s Tongue (1974), followed by the acclaimed Gaelic: A Past & Future Prospect (1991), which became standard reading for all serious students of Scottish Gaelic.

His Harris study, published as Language, Education and Social Processes in a Gaelic Community (1977), marked the first searching analysis of Census data linked to Gaelic usage in recent times. It was eagerly welcomed by the Celtic Studies departments in three Scottish universities, as well as An Comunn Gàidhealach in Inverness.

In 1981 Ken headed a national survey for An Comunn exploring public attitudes towards Gaelic, while in 1994-95 he conducted the first major study into domestic treatment of Gaelic, leading to Gaelic in Family, Work and Community Domains; Euromosaic Project 1994/95 (1998).

As Professor Robert Dunbar of Edinburgh University commented, Ken’s research in the 1990s“… established benchmarks, and standards of excellence, which have underpinned essentially all subsequent work”.

Over those three decades Ken published 35 scholarly research papers on assorted aspects of Gaelic education, identity, family and communities, plus his major books.

His writing continued post-millennium, when in collaboration with two Ulster Gaelic academics, Dr Gordon McCoy and Maolcholaim Scott, he produced Neighbours in Persistence: Prospects for Gaelic Maintenance in a Globalising World (2000).

Academic recognition followed, with his appointment to a senior tutorship in the Open University and, later, Honorary Gaelic Fellowships conferred by Aberdeen and Edinburgh Universities.

His mercurial research and writing work was appreciated by the struggling Scottish Gaelic establishment. When Comunn na Gaidhlig was founded in 1984 as an institutional advisory body, he was appointed to it, and played a major role over the years ahead.

He was also a key figure in a Ministerial Advisory Group headed by Professor Donald Meek, which recommended the creation of a statutory Gaelic regulatory authority, Bord na Gaidhlig. It emerged from the 2005 Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act, with Ken appointed and re-appointed to it.

In his last years, though burdened by weakening health, Ken never gave up on his Gaelic interests. He read and wrote with customary passion, while nurturing the extra time spent with his loving wife, Rosalie, and family members: they had two children, Niall and Morag.

Typical of his kindness, he proved to be an encouraging mentor to younger researchers, including this author.

Dr Vincent McKee

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992