Recalling a road-mender and scholar
THOSE who travelled along the highways and byways of Sunart on the Ardnamurchan peninsula 60-odd years ago may recall seeing a man at the roadside with a wheelbarrow and accompanied by a blackand-white collie dog.
His name was Alastair Cameron and he was a road-section man employed by Argyll County Council to clean the drains and cut the verges of the eight-mile stretch of road between Strontian and Salen, Loch Sunart.
Alastair, or ‘Sandy’ as he was known locally, was a scholar, a tradition-bearer and a gifted historian, as much at home around the ceilidh fires of his native Sunart, as he was alone with his books and papers.
He was a member of the Royal Celtic Society, an honorary fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, writer and the holder of the honorary degree of Master of Arts of Edinburgh University. He was a fluent Gaelic speaker and a perfect example of Highland tradition and of a generation that overcame all difficulties in achieving an intellectual goal.
I remember the first time I saw him. I was accompanying my father from Glenhurich to the Salen cattle sale sometime in the late 1950s. We came upon Alastair cleaning a ditch by the roadside and stopped. He and my father had a long conversation about the price of cows and sheep, white deer and local place names, but then their talk turned to history and poetry and of his many publications.
I was amazed at what I was hearing. Here was this man, peering short-sightedly in our car window, through thick, rain-misted spectacles, dressed in a Maxproof coat, a black oilskin hat, wellington boots and leggings, having just risen out of wet ditch, engaged in a profoundly interesting and lucid discussion, albeit with a slight trace of a stammer, on the poetry of Alasdair Mac Mhaighstear Alasdair and tracing some of the families who had descended from him and others who had been involved in the ’45.
It was absolutely marvellous and yet, so perfectly natural too.
I have often thought that, as he talked, he was far better educated in the things which really matter, than most university men I have met. The young students of today, with grants and every encouragement in their careers, could learn from this erudite gentleman.
I only wish, now, that I had paid more attention to what was being discussed.
Alastair Cameron was born of crofting stock at Bunalteachan, between Strontian and Acharacle, in June 1896. From the age of seven until he was 14, he went to school in Salen, which meant a walk of about eight miles every day. He always said he was lucky there was no bus for he might have missed the important things such as puddles on a half-made road, a cuckoo on a fence, the restless tapestry of words and Sunart’s blue fjord beside him. At Salen, he read with avidity the 300 volumes of books donated by the Coates family to the school library.
When Alistair left school it was his ambition to emigrate to Canada but, instead, he went to work on the nearby farm of Resipole until 1918, when he was called up for the final period of the First World War, when the Allies launched a series of offensives against the central powers on the Western Front, beginning with the Battle of Amiens.
When the war ended, he went back to Resipole before getting part- and later full-time employment, with the county council local road squad.
From his O’Henley relations in Uist, others in Kintail and a grand uncle, Donald MacPhie, who had a vast store of information about the history of Moidart, Sunart, Ardnamurchan and Morvern, young Alastair inherited his interest in Gaelic and local folklore.
He wrote five books, contributed to An Comunn Gàidhealach’s magazine, The Gael and the Gaelic supplement of the Church of Scotland’s magazine, Life and Work, and recorded many hours of Gaelic poetry and Highland history for the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh.
Of all the newspapers, journals and publications to which Alastair contributed, there was none he was drawn more closer to than The Oban Times. His first letter was published in these columns in 1916 and signed ‘A Cameron’. Two years later, he began using, ‘North Argyll’ – a pen-name under which he became known to countless readers throughout the world wherever The Oban Times circulated among Highlanders far from home.
Encouraged by the late Alan Cameron (1910-2001), the newspaper’s owner and editor, Alastair’s output was prodigious which, all in all, amounted to 880 letters and articles – some often appearing at the rate of two or three a week.
Under Alan Cameron’s longterm leadership, The Oban Times was as highly regarded in its area as the London Times was in its metropolitan setting.
The doings of the various clan and Highland societies in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London were as meticulously reported week by week as the village hall whist drives from Kilchoan to Campbeltown.
In North Argyll’s own area, the paper was a bible. If an event was not reported, there would be real doubts as to whether it had occurred at all.
Many people bought The Oban Times solely to read his contributions. Never contented with guesswork, and never pretending to knowledge he did not possess, Alastair Cameron made his mark through his own natural intelligence, good sense, steering clear of religion and politics, and a scrupulous regard for truth.
As road-section man, the quality of his day job was as meticulous as his learning, and his canine partner, Eachern, was as much a character as his master.
Reading and writing after work with no light source other than candles and a paraffin lamp, his eyesight began to fail and the last seven years of his life were spent in care in Oban where he died in 1973. He was buried below the east gable of the Strontian parish church.
Presenting Alastair Cameron, who was by now blind, to the principal and vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University for the degree of Master of Arts on July 1969, the Dean of the Faculty said that the ‘lad o’ pairts’ who, despite initial adverse circumstances, was a well-known figure in Scottish life.
He was a ‘man of the people’ whom circumstances had never greatly favoured and who, though lacking opportunities and advantages, achieved esteem and authority through his native talent, his scholarly industry and the intellectual ardour that had so often been fostered in the humble country schools of our land.
Addressing the principal, the dean concluded: ‘The brotherhood of scholarship, sir, as all those know well who have engaged in research or had any contact with the intellectual life of local communities, is fortunately very much broader than the frontiers of the university. In a man like Alastair Cameron, we greet one whom only chance has kept from our midst, and I would now invite you, sir, to make him in name what he already is in reality – one of ourselves.’
Alastair Cameron (North Argyll), JP, FSA Scot and MA, was a man of many talents and he used them well.
We greet one whom only chance has kept from out midst”
Main picture, Alastair Cameron receiving the honorary degree of MA from the Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh University, July 3, 1969 addressing the 1956 Clan Cameron rally at Achnacarry and Bunalteachan, Loch Sunart-side, where Alastair was born in 1896