Re­call­ing a road-mender and scholar

The Oban Times - - HERITAGE - MORVERN LINES IAIN THORN­BER edi­tor@oban­times.co.uk Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

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”

(Pho­to­graph: The Scot­tish Daily Ex­press); (Pho­to­graph: The Weekly Scots­man); (Pho­to­graph: Iain Thorn­ber).

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

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