Nat­u­ral in­tel­li­gence of the Gael

The Oban Times - - HER­ITAGE - MORVERN LINES IAIN THORN­BER ed­i­tor@oban­ Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­

A FEW weeks ago I wrote in these col­umns of an ex­tra­or­di­nary man called Alas­tair Cameron (North Ar­gyll) from Loch Su­nart-side, whose for­mal ed­u­ca­tion was lim­ited to seven years in his lo­cal primary school.

No heated class­room, no school trans­port, no in­ter­net, no all-weather pitch or fit­ness room, and no meals for this pupil, yet, when he grew up, he re­ceived an hon­orary de­gree from Ed­in­burgh Univer­sity – the sixth old­est ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion in the English-speak­ing world.

How did he do it? First, lo­cal and High­land his­tory was taught in primary schools en­gen­der­ing a sense of pride and be­long­ing which, sadly, is miss­ing to­day and, se­condly, there ex­isted in Alistair’s gen­er­a­tion, na­tive peo­ple with a great nat­u­ral shrewd­ness, cu­rios­ity and in­tel­li­gence who, to some ex­tent, have also gone.

A reader writes: ‘I have found, par­tic­u­larly, many of the Camerons, MacGil­livrays and oth­ers in the Su­nart, Morvern and Moidart area, to be very clever, able peo­ple, who would be good at any­thing.’

Praise in­deed for the in­di­vid­ual, and for 88-year-old Miss Su­san MacNaughto­n who taught Alas­tair and was present to see her pupil of 60-odd years be­fore he was ‘capped’ in Ed­in­burgh by prin­ci­pal and vice-chan­cel­lor Pro­fes­sor Swann.

Space in my ini­tial ar­ti­cle about Alas­tair Cameron pre­vented me from say­ing more of his lit­er­ary achieve­ments or pro­vid­ing a sam­ple of his writ­ing. On top of his ex­cep­tional con­tri­bu­tion to The Oban Times, Alas­tair had four pa­pers printed in English be­tween 1937 and 1941 in the Trans­ac­tions of the pres­ti­gious Gaelic So­ci­ety of In­ver­ness.

There were many con­tri­bu­tions to the de­funct Stron­tian Magazine and The Speak­ing Chip, An Gaid­heal, Gairm, the Glas­gow Her­ald, the Weekly Scots­man and nine ma­jor ar­ti­cles in the Scots Magazine be­tween 1938 and 64.

Alas­tair’s stand­alone books, all printed and il­lus­trated by The Oban Times, were: Loch Su­nart­side Mem­o­ries; An­nals and Rec­ol­lec­tions of Su­nart; St Fi­nan’s Isle – Its Story; The Float­ing Church of Stron­tian; and The Lochaber Drover – Cor­rychoille.

He was of­fi­cial sean­nachie to Clan Cameron – an hon­our be­stowed on him by the late Don­ald Hamish Cameron of Lochiel – through which he was able to pro­vide Camerons all over the world with in­for­ma­tion on their fam­ily roots long be­fore the days of the ge­nealog­i­cal search en­gines which we now take for granted.

He took part in a BBC ra­dio pro­gramme called In­ter­ested in the Uni­verse, which was broad­cast on July 10, 1969. In this lively broad­cast, Alas­tair gave his opin­ion on croft­ing and its fu­ture, forestry, ed­u­ca­tion, tourism and his own phi­los­o­phy on life.

In 1961, he was sin­gled out by the ed­i­tors of the na­tion­ally im­por­tant Third Sta­tis­ti­cal Ac­count of Scot­land, to write the chap­ter on Stron­tian for the County of Ar­gyll.

Alas­tair’s in­ter­ests were not con­fined to the past. In 1962, when it be­came ob­vi­ous that many jobs were go­ing to be cre­ated with the open­ing of the pulp mill and pa­per fac­tory at Cor­pach, he penned a let­ter to the ed­i­tor of The Oban Times ask­ing if Ard­na­mur­chan would be bet­ter off in In­ver­ness-shire to share in this new de­vel­op­ment. Alas­tair ar­gued that the county bound­aries of Ard­na­mur­chan should be con­sti­tuted on what was the best eco­nomic propo­si­tion for the area. Join­ing In­ver­ness, he claimed, would bring greater em­ploy­ment and com­mer­cial ben­e­fits if the ad­min­is­tra­tive, postal and health ser­vices came from the north and not from Oban.

The sub­ject reached the front page of The Oban Times, cre­at­ing a flurry of com­ments from lo­cal politi­cians and oth­ers. Mr John Fraser, the district coun­cil­lor for Stron­tian, thought the pro­posal was a good one be­cause, in the past 25 years, Ar­gyll County Coun­cil had built only three miles of new road in Ard­na­mur­chan which the lo­cal peo­ple felt was not good enough. There was some huff­ing and puff­ing from Ar­gyll but the seeds were sown and even­tu­ally they lost to what is now High­land Coun­cil.

Be­ing an able man with a pen and fa­mil­iar with croft­ing law, Alas­tair was of­ten called on by his friends and neigh­bours to deal with of­fi­cial­dom, usu­ally the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, which owned more land around Stron­tian and Morvern than it does to­day.

One of his let­ters to The Oban Times on the sale of Fi­u­nary Farm in Morvern, dated March 1955, was so well crafted and hard-hit­ting it is worth read­ing in its en­tirety not only for its style but be­cause it stopped the sale dead in its tracks.

‘Sir, Re­cently the arable por­tion and a small area of hill graz­ings of Fi­u­nary Farm, Morvern, which the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture for Scot­land took over from the Forestry Com­mis­sion some years ago, was ad­ver­tised for sale.

‘Is this ac­qui­si­tion of land by the Sec­re­tary of State for Scot­land, as recog­nised head of the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture for Scot­land, and then of­fer­ing of for sale to the high­est bid­der, not some­what con­trary to the pur­pose for which the Depart­ment was cre­ated? Was it not one of the primary pur­poses to ac­quire land and carry out schemes of land sup­ple­ment whereby the aspir­ing landholder of small cap­i­tal could be­come one? Of course so lit­tle has been done by the Depart­ment is this re­spect since 1939 that one is in­clined to for­get about it.

‘The in­di­ca­tions for the fu­ture do not ap­pear very hope­ful, and mat­ters in the opin­ion of the Sec­re­tary of State may have changed, yet it hardly jus­ti­fies a pol­icy of cater­ing for the cap­i­tal­ist. The new Crofters’ Com­mis­sion Bill will prob­a­bly get its fi­nal read­ing be­fore the Easter re­cess. Likely the mem­bers of the Com­mis­sion will be more con­cerned in main­tain­ing a crofter pop­u­la­tion among the boggy, rocky patches to which their an­ces­tors were sent by land­lords’ fac­tors, and an ac­qui­esc­ing Gov­ern­ment ready enough to take their ser­vices to pre­vent a Napoleonic in­va­sion, but in­dif­fer­ent to their po­si­tion when driven from their homes, than in restor­ing to their de­scen­dants some of the land of which they were de­prived.

‘I am etc North Ar­gyll.’ When Alas­tair re­alised he was go­ing to lose his sight al­to­gether, he asked some friends in Oban to take him by car round his beloved Su­nart on a last nos­tal­gic jour­ney. He may not have been able to see all of his favourite haunts phys­i­cally, but the places were real enough in his mind’s eye and, what he re­called later, formed the ba­sis of one of his fi­nal ar­ti­cles which was taken down by an Oban Times reporter.

At Stron­tian, he re­mem­bered a story about one of the vil­lage store­keep­ers, who got a telling off from the un­pop­u­lar es­tate fac­tor. After he had re­leased his bile on Don­ald, the store­keeper said to him: ‘Do you know who you are speak­ing to?’

‘Yes, well enough,’ replied the fac­tor.

‘Well,’ said Don­ald, ‘if you did, you would not have been speak­ing in such a man­ner.’

‘How’s that?’ in­quired the other.

‘Do you know,’ came the an­swer, ‘that in ad­di­tion to be­ing post­mas­ter and store­keeper, I am also a ship-owner and have a mas­ter mariner’s cer­tifi­cate for for­eign ser­vice? Can you name another in Ar­gyll with all these qual­i­fi­ca­tions?’

Pho­to­graphs: Iain Thorn­ber

Alas­tair Cameron (North Ar­gyll) and his dog Each­ern, and, right, his grave­stone be­side Stron­tian Par­ish Church.

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