Back in the Day - Putting Egon Kisch to the Gaelic test

editorial image

The next issue of our popular nostalgia magazine Back in the Day is due out mid-January.

If you would like to sumbit items or photographs for the publication, deadline for the next issue is January 9th.

Send your items via email to: melinda.gillen@stornowaygazette.co.uk or post to: Back in the Day, Unit 7 Harbour View, Cromwell Street Quay, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis HS1 2DF.

Here is a submission from Back in the Day reader Murdo Morrison, which describes an incident in the 1930s, where Gaelic was centre stage in a political intrigue.

In the early 1900s the Bragar Bard – Donald Morrison – included the song ‘Eilean Beag Donn a Chuan’, a warning about the possible rise of Germany being a fully armed and and aggressive country with world wide ambition and ruthless intend.

The First World War finished and despite agreements and understandings, Germany was once more preparing for war. Other European countries began to waken to the harsh reality that the peace gained through the sacrifice of millions in the carnage of war could be coming to an end.

In the 1930s there was one journalist with contacts at the highest Government levels who knew more than most – Egon Kisch – who recognised the imminent dangers from the rise in Nazism and especially a man who had bitter resentment for the defeat of Germany – Adolf Hitler.

On the other side of the world, Australian autorities had heard of the possible visit of Egon Kisch and they decided to put in place some method of controlling this visit.

They regarded Kisch as a potential troublemaker, and were determined to ban him from landing.

After much deliberation, they came to the conclusion that if this Egon Kisch was the multi-talented, multi-lingual expert, they would set him a test.

The decision was that Kisch would listen to a “European language in current use” and decided that the Scottish Gaelic would be the language which would satisfy them, meet the criteria of being a spoken language at that time and it would be unlikely that Kisch could translate whatever was read out to him.

Kisch was determined to get ashore at Melbourne and achieved that objective by jumping off the bows of the ship and breaking both his legs on the jetty forty feet below. He was given medical treatment and soon afterwards he was to sit the famous “test”.

Kisch demonstrated his fluency in a number of European languages, and he was then asked to write the Lord’s Prayer in Scottish Gaelic. He refused to participate and was deemed to have failed the test. He was then taken into custody, this time by the New South Wales police, who released him on AU£200 bail.

In 2016 there was a re-enactment of this occasion and a present day international journalist compiled a TV programme which included this escapade.

This took place in Melbourne and journalist Tony Robinson recruited Joan Willis born and brought up in Bragar to read the “Gaelic part”.

Tony himself sat in as Kisch and just the same as Kisch, he recognised only one word – the Amen of the Lord’s Prayer read out to him in Gaelic.

Joan Willis has a link back to the Bard Donald Morrison and the song ‘Eilean Beag Donn a Chuan’ – Domnhull ‘An Moireasdan was her uncle.