The Scotsman

Duncan ‘Stalker’ Matheson

Crofter who embodied – and did much to promote – the Highland way of life

- ALISTAIR MUNRO

n duncan ‘Stalker’ Matheson, crofter, thatcher, carver, poacher. born: 22 January, 1929, in Camusluini­e, Kintail. died: 30 october, 2010, in Camusluini­e, Kintail, aged 81.

Duncan Matheson, a Highland crofter and thatcher known as “Stalker Duncan”, was a larger-than-life character in Wester Ross who helped prepare the set for the film Highlander in 1985 and carved walking sticks for the occasion of Prince charles marriage to Lady Diana.

His home in Kintail was also used as Mccrae’s house in the TV series Hamish MacBeth, starring Robert carlyle.

He also became nationally and internatio­nally known for his wide array of skills. In Scotland, he undertook several prestigiou­s commission­s as a thatcher. These included the complete rethatchin­g of Robert Burns’ cottage in alloway and Jeannie Macalpine’s Inn in aberfoyle – Rob Roy’s favourite drinking hole.

One of his proudest moments was constructi­ng the Scottish australian Bicentenni­al cairn in Sydney, incorporat­ing a stone from each of the 1,760 parishes in Scotland.

It was his prowess as a poacher that earned him the nickname “Duncan Stalker”.

The former Merchant navy seaman was born in camusluini­e, Kintail – the same home in which he died last month. He was the seventh child in a family of ten boys and two girls born to John Matheson and his wife christina MacRae.

Retired schoolteac­her Peter MacKenna, from Plockton, said: “Duncan was immersed in a near total Gaelic culture – very different to what prevails today. Raised in an environmen­t of self-sufficienc­y, he developed skills and interests which were to make him a legend in his own lifetime, both here and around the world.”

Educated entirely at Killilan school, in contrast to the institutio­nalised hostility towards Gaelic which persisted elsewhere, Matheson was fortunate to benefit from extra-curricular tuition in his native tongue from Mr urquhart, his teacher’s father. He had no knowledge of English before starting school.

Matheson developed a passion for reading which remained with him until illness deprived him of that pleasure in the last few years of his life. Visitors to his home will recall the books on Highland history, folklore and rural crafts piled beside him.

He left school at the age of 14 and helped out on the family croft or doing odd jobs on Killilan estate. One day he was dispatched to Dornie for some provisions, and apparently fell into conversati­on there with the captain of a coaster. It would be two years before he returned home.

Having been somewhat inventive with his age on signing up with the Merchant navy in 1944, he went on to become the youngest bosun there. While at sea he was frequently in the company of fellow Gaels and enduring friendship­s were formed.

asong he composed, which was recorded by the School of Scottish Studies in 1972, recalls the welcome he received from Gaels at St John’s, newfoundla­nd, on one of his trips.

He left the Merchant navy in 1952 to take over the running of the family croft after the death of his father. One of the first tasks was renovating and rethatchin­g the large cruck-built barn which stands across the road from the house.

Much later in life, he began commercial thatching with sons John and Duncan and they undertook the complete rethatchin­g of Burns’ cottage.

They also did Jeannie Macalpine’s Inn at aberfoyle, a long-house near aberfeldy and a cottage at Scarista, Harris. Son Duncan is following in his father’s footsteps as a profession­al thatcher.

In June, 1959, Matheson married Mary ann McDougall, a daughter of a gamekeeper from Glen Feshie. In 1960, a little after the birth of their first child, John, he starred in a documentar­y on crofting called At the Back of the Sun – a reference to camusluini­e’s north-facing aspect.

Duncan’s interest in and prodigious memory for the traditions, folklore and people of Kintail and his ability to communicat­e these in rich and fluent Gaelic brought him to the attention of scholars and folklorist­s. From 1972 he made numerous recordings for the School of Scottish Studies, and people from around the world beat a path to his door, trying to trace their Kintail ancestors.

an equally fine conversati­onalist in English and a master of repartee, he was an immensely sociable character at home in any company.

What brought him to internatio­nal attention was his constructi­on of the Scottish australian Bicentenni­al cairn at Rawson Park, Mosman in Sydney, in 1988.

It incorporat­ed a stone from each parish in Scotland, and he contribute­d a stone from the ruins of Tigh ali Mal, a noted “smuggler” or distiller of illicit whisky who lived about a mile away from camusluini­e.

When Matheson’s parents were married in 1910, it was ali Mal’s whisky that enlivened the wedding celebratio­ns in the big barn.

The stone from ali Mal’s house is prominentl­y displayed on the cairn and inscribed and signed by Matheson.

His skill and artistry as a carver led to a commission for walking sticks for presentati­on from the people of Ross-shire to Prince charles and Lady Diana on the occasion of their wedding in 1981. MacKenna says: “as Duncan himself might have quipped, the privilege was all theirs.”

as well as his involvemen­t with Highlander and Hamish MacBeth, he featured in Moshaoghal-sa for Grampian TV and on BBc Radio’s Passing Places.

This is far from being a comprehens­ive appraisal of his life, which, primarily lived as a working crofter, was one of comparativ­e poverty, especially as a young man striving to support a large family.

an archetypic­al Highlander, he lived according to the precept which every true son of the soil regarded as his birthright – a deer from the hill, a fish from the river and a stick from the wood.

MacKenna adds: “Beyond any doubt, here was an extraordin­ary man – intelligen­t, skilful, creative, knowledgea­ble, resourcefu­l, sociable, witty and generous.”

Duncan Matheson is survived by his wife, Mary ann, their children John, Ileis, Teresa, Jeannie, Kenna and Duncan, 11 grandchild­ren and one great grand-daughter, and by siblings Lachlan in new Zealand, Farquhar, charlie and chrissie.

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