Alasdair H Campbell spoke to Dòmhnall Angaidh MacLennan, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig’s new Commercial Director, last week, whose new role includes key responsibilities for the success of the new resources centre Fàs which is to open early in the new year…

One thing is clear when speaking to Dòmhnall Angaidh MacLennan from Cheesebay in North Uist, the community is important to him: although he has wide experience of the business sector and Gaelic development through various roles, the community remains his anchor and compass no matter where he is and what he does.

Dòmhnall Angaidh has just returned to Skye after spending three and a half years in Islay as the Director of Ionad Chaluim Chille Ìle, and he now assumes the role of Commercial Director at Sabhal Mòr. And although this likeable Uibhisteach has been involved in industry and Gaelic development since 1991, it is obvious that he has not forgotten his strong islands roots.

“My people are from Harris originally,” Dòmhnall Angaidh explains, “Scalpay and the Bays. Just as a substantial number of folk from Harris went to Port nan Long in Skye, so a similar number left Harris for Loch Portan, Cheesebay and Hoebeg. They had a lot of hard work to do when they first arrived in order to make the land suitable for crofting.

“They were looking for a place near to the sea with some land to croft. Most of the people in the area are, like me, descended from Hearrachs and many of them are MacLennans. It is close to Harris, you can see the mountains of Harris from Cheesebay. My grandparents moved to Uist near the time of the Second World War. It is a small village and unfortunately there aren’t that many people left, especially people originally from the area.”

Dòmhnall Angaidh remembers helping to work the croft and going out to fish with his father, and now, as is true of many families in the islands, Dòmhnall Angaidh and his brother and sisters have left the island in search of work and an education: “There are four in the family, I’m the second oldest. My brother is in Auckland, New Zealand, just newly married, one of my sisters is in Edinburgh, she has a little daughter, and my older sister is in Ayrshire with her four children.”

Dòmhnall Angaidh remembers well growing up in a small, picturesque village beside the sea, surrounded by other children: “I recall helping out on the croft and on the boat, but when you are a teenager you might not be so willing to help out as you should. Then when you are older you understand how lucky you were to grow up where you did. More than 30 people went to the high school from the three villages then, there is no one now from the three villages who attends the high school. It was good to be among other young people, and none of us thought for a second then that it would change, but sadly the loss of young people is a common complaint throughout the islands.”


Unlike many other islanders of his generation Dòmhnall Angaidh was willing to return to the islands to work. He says: “Sometimes when islanders are older they are more likely to return, when they are married and thinking of raising a family. People themselves must want to return and the authorities and agencies must ensure there are opportunities for them to return. That is what is so attractive about Sabhal Mòr, but there are other difficulties which can arise from good employment opportunities: a lack of housing for example.”

Despite Dòmhnall Angaidh’s strong island and Gaelic roots, he did not start his working life in the most Highland of places, although his father thought he had found work very close to home when Dòmhnall Angaidh phoned home with the news that he had been given a job with international company Ross Youngs, as they were then known: “I got a job down in Grimsby, though my dad thought I said Grimsay in North Uist when I first called home! That job was very useful as I acquired experience working for a huge company which employed thousands of people in their factories.

“But I couldn’t have found a place which was less like my home island. Humberside is very flat in comparison to the mountains of Harris and Uist. The experience was very useful, when you are young you should try new things, in that way you learn a lot about yourself and the world around you. After a year and a half in Grimsby, I wanted to come back to the islands, and I was fortunate that I got a job with Sir Iain.”

Dòmhnall Angaidh came to Sleat in 1993 to work for Sir Iain Noble’s whisky company, Praban na Linne, where he worked in an office full of Gaelic. “I learned at Praban how a small company works, and how Gaelic, and the culture and way of life in the islands can be incorporated into business,” Dòmhnall Angaidh says. “And Sir Iain, as people well know, has given us many examples of how that can be achieved. I was with Praban na Linne for two years and then I moved to Cànan in 1995, running a Gaelic campaign to raise awareness of Gaelic among people.”

In 1997 the peace process in Northern Ireland was making great strides with the Good Friday Agreement, and around that time the then Minister for State for Scotland Brian Wilson was pushing for more co-operation between Scottish and Irish Gaels. As a result of the work of Mr Wilson and others a new initiative, The Columba Initiative, was established with a new officer appointed to progress the new project.

As Dòmhnall Angaidh recalls: “A new initiative was announced between Scotland and Ireland – involving the north and south. They were looking for a development officer, and I was fortunate to be appointed as the new officer.

“Brian was heavily involved in setting up the initiative on the Scottish side of things. He could see the fantastic opportunities there were for cooperation with our friends in Ireland to work across different sectors such as: the arts, education, broadcasting to name but a few. It was great vision at the time, and it took a lot of hard work and persuasion at a political level to secure agreement for the project to proceed. It took a while to achieve that, but Brian, Donnie Munro and Sabhal Mòr succeeded. When the Irish, and especially the government Minister Eamon O Cuiv, saw the enthusiasm and commitment of the Scots they did not have to think twice before committing themselves to the initiative. People saw ICC as something new that captured the imagination, and they wanted to find out how it would work. It is still going today and I was very fortunate that I was involved at the begninng.”

Again, although the Columba Initiative was very much an international venture with a distinct political dimension, the community was equally important to Dòmhnall Angaidh: “That was one of the things which I enjoyed at ICC, that we were helping and encouraging communities. We were not thrusting projects and other people’s ideas upon them. I would suggest that is the biggest reason behind its success, not only because of the political goodwill and support, and the funding, but the support and assistance we received from the communities.”

After six years at ICC, Dòmhnall Angaidh grasped the opportunity to become involved in another exciting, new project: the Columba Centre in Islay. As he explains he went to Islay as Director of the education and cultural centre to build on the fine work of Dr Michelle MacLeod and De Murray Watson who had helped establish the centre.

“I was given the chance with that post to build on my knowledge and skills once more, and in a way every career move I have made has given me similar chances to develop my skills,” Dòmhnall Angaidh says. “I was used to working with communities, but this time I was to be managing a facility which was at the heart of the community. I enjoyed it immensely, going to Islay to try and develop further a facility of which the community was very proud. It was not difficult work to be amongst the community, speaking to them and listening to their opinions on the centre and how it could be used, in addition to the things myself and the staff were putting forward. And we also tried to ensure that we were seen as people who were open to different ideas.”

As Dòmhnall Angaidh explains they are still looking for his replacement: “We are still looking for someone as it is a number of skills that are required, not just Gaelic or being skilled at running and maintaining a commercial venture. Although the centre is small it needs private and public funding, and the most fundamental skill required is that of being used to working as part of a community and to understand the effect the centre’s image has on the island.”

And what of his new job as Commercial Director of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig? “We know there is more competition for students now than there has ever been, and that traditional ways of teaching Gaelic are being challenged,” Dòmhnall Angaidh answers. “The college is aware that we need more than merely traditional means of teaching and an academic syllabus in a college today. It is for that reason that we are establishing the new resource centre, Fàs, which will be a tremendously exciting addition to the SMO campus. Uist Builders are working on the centre as we speak and we hope it will be finished early next year.

“There will be several strands to the new building, but they all are connected to the heritage and way of life of Gaelic speakers, for example the childcare centre Fàs Mòr will be based in the new building, and in a way that is as important as anything we will do, as it encourages parents and children to support Gaelic medium education. We hope that some of the wee ones there just now will become students at the college when they are older. There will also be a studio with all the appropriate facilities. It is apparent now that to be successful in the media industry you do not have to be based in Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen. And with the new channel, the communities will be asked I am sure to contribute to the output, something that we at Sabhal Mòr will be able to facilitate. The studio will also provide training opportunities for young people.”

According to Dòmhnall Angaidh the new Fàs centre is a sign of Sabhal Mòr’s success as there is not enough office space currently in the college at the moment: “One of my primary responsibilities at the moment is to ensure that new building will be fully utilised and that it will provide an appropriate income stream. The new building will effectively double the office space that the college has. It will be a challenge for the college to make sure it works, and I am very much looking forward to its completion as it is a marvellous new resource. We all know how much the community and people visiting the college are inspired by its success and vibrance, and I am happy to be part of this new development.”

There is no danger that Dòmhnall Angaidh is likely to forget the one thing that drives any industry or initiative: communities. As he says: “I don’t’ think it is healthy at all if a person is locked away in an office all the time, you must be out and about if the language is to continue to thrive, and if it going to mean something to communities. That was very apparent to me in Islay, and at Sabhal Mòr where there is a community already in place at the college. It is important that people like me go out and meet members of the community to find out more about the workings of the community. I would also say, however, that the community has a responsibility to support events and other ventures which we organise. It is difficult sometimes to recognise the worth of a language as it something natural and so it is not always apparent to people. I recall several times people saying to me that they could not understand how people could create job opportunities from Gaelic, but those opportunities exist. And there will be more and more in the years to come, and it is important that the communities take part in the developments and that they make the Gaelic bodies aware of their needs and opinions. If Gaelic is going to succeed as a language and culture, it must work both ways – with contributions from the people and the organisations.”

There is every chance with Dòmhnall Angaidh involved that it will work, and that both aspects of Fàs will be apparent in Sleat in the coming years.