– Keith William Willis (Bill)
3rd April 1929 - 20th December 2015
Bill Willis, Royal Navy diver, anarchist, miner, electrician, farrier, fisherman, shepherd, boatbuilder, bee-keeper, welter-weight boxer, computer geek and the nearest Lismore has ever had to Renaissance Man, must still be laughing about his funeral last month. Too bad the weather wasn’t as dry as his humour. He would have enjoyed watching his two sets of mourners, diehards and Dionysians, waiting at Port Appin for a break in the weather. Gale force eight gusts made the ferry crossing impossible.
The diehards – battered, drenched, and despondent – huddled on the jetty to make sure of a place when Ferryman Fats gave the go ahead. The 10 o’clock managed to get across but failed to land in the heaving Loch Linnhe swell and eventually brought its ashen-faced cargo back to the mainland.
Meanwhile, the Dionysians did what Bill would have advised. They converged on the Pier House bar and drank Cragganmore and Old Pulteney – his favourite tipples – and toasted his memory.
‘Well, maybe just a top up, I’m the designated driver,’ said a man slowly collapsing against the wall.
That so many people should brave flooding, rockslides, gales and hourly red weather alerts to come to Bill’s funeral is no surprise. He was a seriously special person. Big, tough, practical, hard-drinking, and laconic (until you passed muster – not everyone did), he was made of the metal of Hemingway heroes.
The grizzled photograph of him on the front of the Order of Funeral Service could have illustrated the jacket of Hemingway’s The Old Man
And The Sea.
It wasn’t a church service. Two weeks before he died Bill asked the new Lismore minister to drop in. He wasn’t only an anarchist, he informed the Reverend Dr Iain Barclay, he was also a heathen. He wanted to be buried in St Moluag’s churchyard next to his beloved wife Doranne (nee Brown), but he definitely did not want a religious ceremony. The mourners should simply gather outside the church for the interment of his willow-plaited coffin accompanied by a piper. And when we all finally got across to Ballygarve in biblical rainfall, even by West Highland standards, that is just what we did.
It was Doranne who introduced Bill to Lismore. He grew up in Devon, left school at 13 to become, first a stable lad, then a jockey – the youngest ever over the sticks at Doncaster. Then Royal Navy service in Hong Kong (he learned Cantonese), a stint as a miner in Wales, and off to London. At the Anarchists Club in Highgate he met and immediately fell for tiny, feisty Glasgow University graduate Doranne. They married in 1956 and spent their honeymoon on Lismore in a cottage belonging to life-long friends Chris and Margaret Small. When in 1958 Doranne became the Lismore schoolteacher, the Willis’s moved permanently to the island. At a stroke the two passions of his life Doranne and Lismore were realised.
From someone who could stow his worldly goods into a rucksack and hit the road at a minute’s notice, Bill became the quintessential family man. He rarely left the island. Why would he? Everything he wanted was here – his wife, three children, four grandchildren, his dogs, his boat, his bees, his latest quirky interest – at 81 he found an interesting DIY website and started building his own electric guitar. Bill had a large diverse circle of friends reflecting his own talent for multi tasking and eclectic interests. He liked people who did things, not people who talked about doing things.
The big comfortable front room of Taobar nan Iasgair, The Fisherman’s Well – the house he built overlooking Achnacroish pier when Doranne retired in 1987 – was where you stopped for a chat on your way to or from the Oban ferry. Jim and Vic his sheepdogs announced your arrival. ‘You’ll have a dram,’ he’d say, emerging from the kitchen. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. You didn’t always make it to the ferry. Bill’s drams were never wee. Besides, you were too busy talking to another visitor, an old diving mate from Hong Kong maybe, or the young fisherman from down the lane with a live crab the size of a sombrero that he’d just caught for Bill’s supper. Or a Canadian academic interested in pharology who’d heard Mr Willis often fished near the Lismore lighthouse. Any chance of a lift?
Bill’s curiosity was boundless, his questions narrow, his interest genuine. He was a good listener and great company. When I used to phone to say we were coming up to Lismore and ask, was it still raining? I always got the same grave reply: ‘You know it never rains on Lismore, Sue.’
Of course it doesn’t Bill. We’ll miss you.