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Born: December 6, 1934. Died November 16, 2018.
Bill was born and bred in Strathpeffer with his three brothers by his mother
and master carpenter father.
Wartime was an exciting time for the four youngsters and, following requisition of the family home by ATS and later the Seaforth Highlanders, their memories of the period included regular security checks as they trudged to Sunday School and the Boys’ Brigade, the sound of bombers overhead, gas masks accompanying school bags and the BBC Home Service 9 o’clock news every night.
Also recalled was the old gentleman appointed as replacement for the
primary school head teacher and whose predilection for gardening clearly
influenced Bill in later life, coaxing an annual crop of strawberries.
With west of Scotland ancestry including grandparents from Oban and
Bunessan on the Isle of Mull, the sea was from a very early age in Bill’s blood. During the period 1950-51 he twice attended the Moray Sea School, co-founded barely one year before by Kurt Hahn and whose maxim – ‘There is more to us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less’ – was to become a tenet for the rest of Bill’s life.
At 16 years old he joined the Shell Tanker Company as a deck apprentice and for the next 20 years, while traversing the globe honing and practising his navigation skills, he gazed upwards wondrously to the star-studded night skies – visible in all its glory only from the world’s mid oceans, engendering a lifelong passion for the constellations and planets.
During 1966, in continuance of his studies and as a means to supplement
income, part-time teaching Lossiemouth fishermen and at Lossie High School, he was introduced to Frances, a daughter of the then Provost of Lossiemouth.
They married two years later and, until the arrival of their sons, their happiest times were when Frances had seized the opportunity to accompany her husband aboard the various oil tankers in which he sailed as a deck officer during world-girdling voyages. Shortly after however, the pressures of a young family led to Bill’s forsaking the sea, in favour of commencement of studies at Aberdeen University to attain formal teaching qualifications.
With fond memories of childhood Oban holidays, on qualifying he delighted in his appointment as teacher of nautical subjects at Oban High School – one of only six Scottish Schools at the time offering this specialised subject.
Settling at Oban with his young family, Bill quickly developed a reputation for naval discipline in the classroom, much appreciated in the later lives of ex-pupils and usually rewarded in the form of the very freshest of fish during evening strolls around Oban’s harbour.
Bill’s sea legs were maintained especially during school holidays when, again as a means to supplement income, he would take on temporary positions including command of the Lundy Ferry, a North Sea ‘rig boat’, weekly remote island ventures while transporting cruising ornithologists and assisting at the nearby marina at Kilmelfort.
In time and as a money saving measure, the Highland Regional Council decided to drop nautical from the school curriculum, causing Bill to settle for teaching mainly maths, but regularly called upon to act as a ‘stand-in’, when charged with alternative subjects such as art and modern studies.
With retirement from the classroom, Bill returned to sea for a year serving
aboard a pollution control vessel, and later while applying his seafaring skills to good use in the form of a Royal Yachting Association instructor and
examiner, he chanced upon and responded to an Oban Times letter whose
author – the late Ronnie MacIntyre – was advocating establishment of a Second World War commemorative venture.
In time, Ronnie and Bill set to in research and collection of war photographs and related paraphernalia, enlisted a network of volunteer supporters, resulting in the opening of a display in a George Street shop, while feeding Bill’s passion for the sea and a fascination of photography, duly spiced with a sense of history.
During the next 11 years, however, such was the success of the venture, that a series of ever larger premises was needed. This culminated in the establishment of a small Oban War and Peace Museum and, with Bill as its curator, while located on the North Pier, it was to be visited by HM the Queen.
With the aid of lottery and other grant funding, a now permanent home was established at the old Oban Times building on the Corran Esplanade, featuring photographs, artefacts and other memorabilia covering local history and the war years.
It was when Frances had commenced music studies and teacher training at Glasgow University that Bill discovered to his great delight, access to its library and that of the Mitchell nearby, spending many happy hours in research of both war and genealogy, leading to his production of family trees for both sides of his and Frances’s families and ever more material for the War and Peace museum.
Around 2008, he discovered Glasgow’s tallship – the 1896 Clyde-built restored sailing vessel, the barque Glenlee – berthed only minutes’ walk from the university and he soon enlisted as a volunteer. With the vessel relocated to a berth adjacent to the newly-opened (mid 2011) Glasgow Museum of Transport at Riverside, Bill continued his research related duties mainly on matters concerning the vessel’s navigation, tramp trading routes, ports of call and cargoes carried during her 23 years a commercial ‘windjammer’ drawn down from her old rough, deck and official logbooks and other sources.
Many of the descriptive material and artefacts to be found aboard Glenlee today are a result of Bill’s dedication to this particularly exacting and time consuming work. Only recently he received a much treasured letter from the chief executive of the Clyde Maritime Trust commending him for his invaluable and unique contribution to its history.
Throughout his life, Bill recorded probably tens of thousands of interesting snippets and observations in a series of notebooks, all duly retained for posterity.
At his memorial service at Oban Parish Church on November 23, many leaves from his stock of notebooks were placed on the pews with the request that attendees append their reflections of Bill and his life. Relatives and friends concluded: ‘An iceberg: There is so much more to him beneath the surface.’ From an ex-pupil: ‘Inspirational.’ From Canadian relatives: ‘Kind, funny, thoughtful, interesting, steadfast and ever present, expected to go on for ever.’ From a brother: ‘A custodian of family tradition with a keen sense of history.’ And from his co-workers and others: ‘Meticulous – yes, meticulous!’
Bill is survived by his wife, with whom he celebrated 50 years of marriage only a matter of a few weeks before his death, three sons, two grandsons and three brothers.
It was not too long ago when Bill had declared that as a seafarer, he had been blessed with 20/20/20 vision; 20 years at sea, 20 years’ teaching, and 20 years’ volunteering.
He will be so remembered with great affection by most as truly ‘an old man of the sea’.