In tune

The Oban Times - - Front Page - DEREK MACADAM ed­i­tor@oban­times.co.uk

A MULL man in his 90s is prov­ing to be per­fectly in tune with is­land life as he builds a rep­u­ta­tion as a vi­olin maker.

I talk to every­body, telling sto­ries about Mull” Dun­can MacGilp So far as I re­call, only two have left the is­land Dun­can MacGilp

TOBERMORY is known for many things. A fa­mous car rally, a rous­ing mu­sic fes­ti­val, a busy har­bour full of yachts and vis­it­ing cruise ships, whale and dol­phin trips, a brightly painted main street with wel­com­ing bars and restau­rants and, of course, the Tobermory Cat.

What few peo­ple re­alise is it is also home to a tal­ented vi­olin maker.

For Dun­can MacGilp mak­ing vi­o­lins is a hobby – an all-ab­sorb­ing, time- con­sum­ing hobby, which can keep him in his tiny work­shop, tucked away in a cor­ner of his lovely gar­den with ex­pan­sive views across Tobermory Bay, Calve Is­land and Morvern.

Al­ways wel­com­ing, he points out the spi­der webs around the work­shop win­dows. ‘ Look at those,’ he says rather proudly. ‘They are so use­ful. Cut your­self and they are just the best thing to stop any bleed­ing.’

This is a real dan­ger as vi­olin mak­ing in­volves in­tri­cate work with many sharp tools. Yet the sheer num­ber of webs sug­gests he does not need to use them very of­ten.

The in­ter­est in build­ing these beau­ti­ful mu­si­cal in­stru­ments came late in life for Dun­can. Both he and his wife Morag turned 91 this year. It’s an age when few peo­ple are pur­su­ing hob­bies de­mand­ing high lev­els of con­cen­tra­tion, not to men­tion a keen cre­ative eye.

Dun­can is some­thing of an in­sti­tu­tion in Tobermory and, more widely, across Mull and the Gaelic-speak­ing world, a qui­etly-spo­ken gen­tle­man com­mand­ing re­spect with a mild man­ner.

For many vis­i­tors to the is­land, Dun­can was the man who owned the lo­cal garage by the dis­tillery. He might re­pair their car or serve them fuel or even hire them a car for a day or two.

What they wouldn’t know, quite apart from his un­usual hobby, is that he is one of just a few re­main­ing true Muileachs; born in the bank house on the Main Street, Tobermory, now known as Failte, where his fa­ther was the bank man­ager, and schooled on the is­land. Dun­can’s fa­ther was born at an­other fa­mous is­land lo­ca­tion, the Bel­lachroy Ho­tel, Der­vaig.

His mother was born in Camp­bel­town but brought up in Tobermory by the head­mas­ter of the lo­cal school and his wife, and later played the or­gan in the church for more than 30 years. As Dun­can is happy to ac­knowl­edge, his roots run deep into the very fab­ric of is­land life.

Although not a na­tive Gaelic speaker, un­like his wife Morag, who hails from Kil­choan on the Ard­na­mur­chan penin­sula, he has em­braced the Gaelic world for most of his life. Along with Janet Mac­Don­ald, he was a found­ing mem­ber of the Mull Gaelic Choir in 1978, reg­u­larly per­form­ing on the is­land, at Mòds around Scot­land and usu­ally at the Royal Na­tional Mòd.

He sings not just with the choir but also as a soloist and, in 1982, won the gold medal, hav­ing taken the sil­ver medal the pre­vi­ous year. ‘I shouldn’t re­ally have won it,’ says Dun­can. ‘ My Gaelic isn’t good enough.’

Dun­can’s fine bari­tone voice has been prom­i­nent in the church choir where he has en­riched the mu­sic each Sun­day for more years than most can re­mem­ber.

Olive Brown, a prom­i­nent mem­ber of the lo­cal com­mu­nity, says: ‘He has been an el­der of the church since 1977 and un­til re­cently was a cor­ner­stone of the choir. He doesn’t sing with the choir any more and it just does not seem the same with­out him. We miss his won­der­ful bass tones.

‘And few peo­ple re­mem­ber now that, to­gether with an­other fa­mous Mull mu­si­cian Cally Ma­cLean, he com­posed the lovely song

Dun­can is a great sto­ry­teller. In his soft burr, he tells how sig­nif­i­cant Novem­ber 4 has been to him over the years.

He said: ‘It was Novem­ber 4, 1943, when I was 17, I joined the army, the Royal Sig­nals, and then on Novem­ber 4 a year later be­came a mem­ber of the army Com­mando bri­gade and trained at Ach­nacarry close to the Com­mando Mon­u­ment near Fort Wil­liam.’

Dun­can then saw ac­tion through­out Europe, mov­ing steadily north through France, Bel­gium, Hol­land and Ger­many and even­tu­ally to the U-boat pens at the Kiel Canal. There is not a word about the dan­ger and hor­ror of war but he does re­mem­ber the joy of be­ing posted to Italy when the war ended.

‘It was like a hol­i­day,’ he says. ‘The Ital­ians were just such lovely peo­ple and we all had a re­ally fine time there.’

At this time Novem­ber 4 be­came sig­nif­i­cant again, as Dun­can ex­plained: ‘The Com­man­dos were dis­banded on that date in 1945 and two years later on Novem­ber 4, 1947, I left the army.’

Then fol­lowed his only spell liv­ing off the is­land. He was awarded an ap­pren­tice­ship with Al­bion Mo­tors at their fa­mous Al­bion Works at Scot­stoun, Glas­gow, start­ing five years train­ing in me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing in 1948.

By 1953 and now a qual­i­fied en­gi­neer, he was back on his beloved is­land work­ing for Don­ald Ma­cLean of Langa­mull, in a garage be­hind Failte, where he was born. He wanted his own busi­ness and even­tu­ally moved to the premises by the Tobermory Dis­tillery where he opened MacGilp’s Garage. He re­mained here for more than 30 years un­til he re­tired in the late 1980s.

In his re­tire­ment, Dun­can be­came a driver for Bow­man’s Buses, tak­ing his pas­sen­gers ev­ery day from Craignure to Iona or Tobermory: ‘Just the best time,’ he re­mem­bers. ‘I used to talk to every­body, telling sto­ries about the is­land, rem­i­nisc­ing on its his­tory and even singing to them when it seemed they might en­joy it.’

His in­ter­est in vi­o­lins was kin­dled about this time. He en­thu­si­as­ti­cally joined the Mull Fid­dlers and played for the Scot­tish Na­tional Fid­dlers.

Over the years it had be­come a tra­di­tion for many fid­dlers to make their own in­stru­ments and he be­came keen to join this ex­clu­sive club of crafts­men.

He names two men who in­flu­enced him more than any oth­ers. Pat Mur­phy from Oban, a boxer and golfer, and James MacPher­son, of Bish­op­briggs, a tele­phone en­gi­neer work­ing reg­u­larly on the is­land.

‘They talked of the crafts­man­ship and art in­volved in mak­ing these fine in­stru­ments and the joy of the rich, var­ied tones which could be coaxed from inan­i­mate pieces of tim­ber,’ re­mem­bers Dun­can. ‘It ap­pealed to me im­me­di­ately and I made my first in 2001 and gave it to my daugh­ter Moira.’

Dun­can has since made a fur­ther eight vi­o­lins and is now work­ing on his 10th. All have been sold ex­cept for Moira’s and one other, but mostly they have stayed on the is­land.

Dun­can said: ‘So far as I can re­call only two ever left for own­ers off the is­land.’

Each of these beau­ti­ful in­stru­ments takes 35 hours of painstak­ing work over a 42week pe­riod. The frame­work of each vi­olin is con­structed from is­land sycamore while the front and back are care­fully fash­ioned from spruce. ‘I can­not use is­land spruce,’ says Dun­can. ‘It grows too fast here and the grain be­comes course. The best is alpine spruce where the slower growth pro­duces a fine tim­ber.’

The base bar is sycamore while the fin­ger board is carved from ebony.

Each piece of tim­ber is closely ex­am­ined for tex­ture and qual­ity be­fore Dun­can even thinks of lift­ing a tool.

‘I keep the vi­o­lins the same size al­ways. I find this size cre­ates lovely rich, low notes.’

One of his last­ing am­bi­tions to­day is for a mu­si­cian to play a MacGilp vi­olin in Fin­gal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa. ‘The orig­i­nal name for Fin­gal’s Cave is Uamh Bhinn which in the Gaelic means Cave of Melody. Isn’t that ap­pro­pri­ate?’ Hope­fully, this am­bi­tion will be re­alised be­fore too long.

Mean­while, Dun­can MacGilp’s beau­ti­ful vi­o­lins will bring mu­sic and hap­pi­ness for many years to come.

Dun­can MacGilp makes beau­ti­ful vi­o­lins in a tiny work­shop in his gar­den over­look­ing Tobermory, be­low, Dun­can play­ing one of his first vi­o­lins, which he made for his daugh­ter, with his 10th one in the mak­ing.

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