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.