Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber

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The natural intelligence of the Gael

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, being ‘capped’ in Edinburgh by principal and vice-chancellor Professor Swann.

 Alastair Cameron's gravestone beside the Strontian Parish Church. Photograph: Iain Thornber
Alastair Cameron’s gravestone beside the Strontian Parish Church. Photograph: Iain Thornber

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 proposed 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. To join with Inverness, he claimed, would bring far greater employment and commercial benefits if the administrative, postal and health services came from the north and not by way of 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 subject of 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?’

Iain Thornber