Fr John MacMillan

This is Fr John MacMillan pictured by the standing stone on the island of Canna. He is well known through the popular 2/4 March Fr John MacMillan of Barra.

He was born in Craigston, Barra, in 1880. I’ll give you one or two of his ‘connections’. (‘Connections’ matter in our world!) His mother was a niece of Fr John MacDonald (1821-1890) from South Uist, who was parish priest of Barra from 1867-1883. He it was who led the protests against the actions of Lady Cathcart’s factor especially in relation to the anti-Catholic discrimination in the ‘non-appointment’ of Catholic teachers to the schools when the vast majority of the population was Catholic. He presented evidence before the Napier Commission in 1883 and his letters are included in Appendix XXVIII. Needless to say, he didn’t last long in Barra. In 1883 he was appointed to Ardrishaig where he remained until 1896. He retired to Dunoon and died there in 1899. He is buried in Hallan:…

Fr John MacMillan’s nephew was the renowned piper and composer, Duncan Johnstone (Fr John’s sister was his mother). Amongst his many memorable tunes are: Farewell to Nigg: Lament for Alan my son; James Maclellan’s Favourite (named after my father’s first cousin who was a long term and great friend); 12 Torlum (named after the place where the Johnstone family lived in Benbecula). He also composed a number of tunes in honour of priests including the strathspey, ‘Fr Colin’s Dedication’ named in honour of Fr Colin MacInnes.

Fr John did his training for the priesthood at Blairs and France and was ordained in Oban in 1903. Our main picture may be of those clergy present for the ordination because Fr John MacNeil, pictured beside him, was ordained on the same day.

Fr John MacMillan seated in the back-garden at Ballachullish but I think long before he became parish priest there.

He served in Oban (1903-1905); Eigg (1905-1908); Benbecula (1908-1919); Glenfinnan (1919-1920). He then went to Glasgow and volunteered to go as chaplain and first parish priest of the new catholic community which was to be founded in Clandonald, Alberta. Previous emigrations to Canada had taken place, of course, but it is hard for us today to imagine to what extent emigration fever gripped the Highlands and Islands after the end of the first World War. One of these expeditions, organised and promoted by Fr Andrew MacDonnell OSB, set sail on the Marnoch from Lochboisda

le in 1924. On arrival at their destination in winter on the plains of Alberta, they discovered that the promised houses had not been built and provisions had not been stored to get them through the first winter. John MacMillan became the vociferous and courageous spokesperson of the emigrants, castigating the Canadian government and those responsible for the disaster that had befallen these people from the Highlands and Islands. This is a story ‘still to be written’! I had heard a number of years ago that John MacMillan was put under house arrest and, finally, was expelled from the country. He composed ‘Seòlaidh Mise A-null gu Dùthaich Chaomh Mo Rùin’ to mark his return to Barra after the Canadian ‘fiasco’.


He was appointed to Ballachulish (Glencoe (1926-1929); Northbay (1929-1936); Craigston (1936-1943) He retired in 1943 and died in 1951.

Fr John MacMillan was an outstanding cultural figure – a bard, a compo

Fr John pictured with a nephew and two nieces, members of the Johnstone family This is possibly a pre-emigration picture. Often emigrants had portrait pictures taken before embarkation which would be given to the family remaining at home because it was highly unlikely they would ever see each other again.

ser of songs, a repository of tradition. I had heard that he had translated Aesop’s fables into Gaelic but, feeling inadequate and depressed, he threw all his work in the fire. He was, though, the model for Fr MacAllister in Compton MacKenzie’s ‘Whisky Galore- – something which, I understand he took great pride in. He was popular and witty, urbane and very learned and a champion of his people.

For further information on him, follow this link:…/Fr-Joh…

I wonder if anyone knows what may have happened to the recordings referred to in this paper. Are they in Ireland? Have they been digitised? Are copies available to the public?

Article by Fr. Michael J. MacDonald

Fr John in retirement at Allasdale. He cuts a ‘kenspeckled’ figure with the hat, the waistcoat, one hand in the pocket and the other holding a cigaret