The man behind the mighty pen

NO F34 Iain Thorber
Iain enjoying himself at a local gathering in the summer of 2019.

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I recently received the very worrying news that my friend of 50 years, and the Oban Time’s letter writer and columnist for even longer, Iain Thornber had suffered a minor stroke.

Firstly let me assure you that he is very much on the mend and has even been rude to me, which is surely a good sign that he is still his old self and will soon be back writing his amazing columns for the OT.

As a former columnist myself, my first thought was to phone him and ask if I could help him keep his columns going as I think they have made a peerless contribution to our understanding of the history of Morvern and was anxious that the momentum should not be broken, both for his sake and ours.

His reply was friendly and he gave me a carte blanche to contact the paper and write what I liked in the space kept for his column, and so here goes.

The subject I want to write about is Iain Thornber himself, which is rather like volunteering to do an eightsome reel in a minefield as he has so often been drawn to controversy that whatever I write is bound to upset someone. But there is an old maxim in journalism that any column that doesn’t upset at least one person isn’t journalism at all, but public relations.

So if anything I write is going to be controversial then why  should I  bother? Well, because I see Iain as having been someone who for all his contentiousness has made a hugely valuable contribution and indeed is widely known to both his readership and beyond, and yet he has never been fully acknowledged or explained in the pages of the paper in which he has published so many hundreds of letters and columns over half a century.

I suppose I first met him back in the seventies (I’m 69 years old) after a landowner in Morvern wrote to my father, George, and said that he was slightly worried about the son of one of his senior staff who was obviously immensely intelligent, well read, and able and yet drawn to controversy like a magnet to iron. My father passed the letter on to me and within a few weeks Iain was teaching me to both stalk and fish in ways that couldn’t be learned from any text book.

Being on the hill with Iain is always an educational experience. He often bangs on your bedroom door at an ungodly hour with the merciless shout: ‘Get up, get up, but all I can offer you is blood sweat and tears’ – and he means it. A lengthy breakfast is seldom allowed and you are soon following him up some rain drenched ravine or geo at a breakneck speed, with constant instructions to both keep up, and indeed down, and not to make either a noise or a fuss. I would not be the first of his fellow stalkers to have spent the first half hour of such a day wondering why I was there.

It’s once you catch your second breath and start listening to his whispered commentary that the learning starts. Clouds, wind, terrain, birds and all manner of beasts from butterflies to bulls are explained with a punctilious accuracy, and should you come across ruins of cot houses you are told not only their Gaelic names but stories of those who lived in them – tales that may never have been written down and go back hundreds of years. He is without a shadow of a doubt the most important collector of folk tales to have lived in Morvern for the last 50 years and well worthy of an honourary doctorate from any Scottish university.

Once you are amongst the deer, he becomes a strange mixture of the professional and the sentimentalist. I have never known any stalker to have shot so well and with such a strange combination of the stone-hearted professional and the reluctant killer. He truly loves deer and seems to be as much on their side as he is of his clients.

If you do indicate any kind of interest in anything he tells you on the hill, you will then no doubt be taken back to his comprehensive library where, through a combination of Google and library shelf searches, the subject of your interest will be both explored and dissected, and notes taken and emailed on to you. And I have not been alone in receiving such kindnesses. His lists of contacts runs to thousands and include not only noted professors but youngsters asking for help with school projects, or elderly Americans wanting help on tracing ancestors. All are treated with equal deference and few, if any, disappointed.

Then, of course, there has been his career as a noted politician at Lochaber District Council and a pioneer worker and factor at Glensanda, and indeed as both a Justice of the Peace and a Deputy Lieutenant.

However, for me, Iain’s greatest days to date were back in the eighties when he was working as friend, factor, factotum and amanuensis to the amazing Mrs Cameron-Head, the former ambulance driver who had inherited Lochailort Estate and who, with Iain’s assistance ran it as one of the last open house estates in the Highlands.

This was an extraordinary place with no sense of elitism and where it was as likely that you would find yourself sitting at dinner next door to a professor from Glasgow as a poor soul looking for a break from a single end in Govan. Lochailort was the last vestige of  a style of living that had been common in the Highlands for hundreds of years and saw fantastic evenings where guests would discuss everything  from nationalism to deer management, and were expected in return to chop wood and give a hand with the washing up.

Iain was a sort of John Brown to Mrs Cameron–Head and together they ran an exemplary estate that seemed to be part college and part community and should perhaps be studied as something to be emulated.

He has still to write his autobiography and I very much hope that a few weeks rest will give him the opportunity to both make a start on that – it could make a valuable contribution to our current discussions on land reform and I might finally learn where he himself stands on the issue.

Maxwell MacLeod.