Allan MacRae - an Appreciation
ALLAN MACRAE, chairman of the Assynt Crofters Trust, died in the hill not more than an hour’s walk from his house at Torbreck, near Lochinver, on Monday of last week. A life-long bachelor, he was in his seventy-fourth year.
“Now that the numbness is wearing off,” a friend said, “the enormity is sinking in. I can think of nothing comparable. We’ve had tragedy aplenty here, but nothing that touches so many people so profoundly.
“If any one individual represented the spirit of Assynt, it was Allan.”
Another said: “I went down yesterday to Lochinver. On the way down I stopped to speak to some of the roadmen, went down to the fishselling company, was talking to Kenny John in the garage, was talking to Betty in the newsagents, and the topic on everybody’s lips was Alan MacRae and the shock that this has brought to the community.”
“Allan was as straight as an arrow,” a friend from his childhood days said, repeating a Gaelic proverb which, he felt, aptly described his friend — a man who never brought grist to his own mill.
Who was this man whose passing had such an effect on the people of his native airt and in the days following his death was praised in debating chambers and in news media up and down the land?
Allan was one of four sons of a Gaelic-speaking Asainteach, Johnny MacRae, general manager for the Little Assynt sheep farm for much of his life, and his North London-born wife, Cora. “Aye, a Sassenach!” he would say of his mother. “But she was a very adaptable person — supposing she’d married an Eskimo she would just have got on with things — she could turn her hand to anything.”
After primary school in Lochinver, Allan attended the Sutherland Technical School where he particularly enjoyed working on the school farm.
Like many down the generations, he was often forced to earn a living away from home. He worked on farms in Ayrshire and the Lothians as well as at various jobs in other parts of the Highlands, including spells employed on the construction of hydro-electric dams. While working in Lochaber he took part in the Ben Nevis Hill Race, which attracts up to 500 contestants every year, coming in first once and second on four occasions. From Lochaber he would cycle home to Assynt every fortnight to see his folk and think nothing of it.
Allan MacRae was not a tall man, but he was well built, evidently very fit and immensely strong. His physical strength, allied to immense will power, impressed. “I remember watching him doing stone clearing in a collapsed drain down by the pottery over twenty years ago,” recalls a friend. “All I saw was rocks the size of suitcases flying out and thinking, “Don’t ever, ever, mess with this man.”
He did much more than clear drains, though. Self-taught, he created out of stone a building on his croft which contains the flat he lived in — all to his own design, a unique structure and monument to the builder’s self-reliance, skill and imagination.
“I doubt if there’s anybody in this community, even in perhaps the last generation or two, who was able to match Alan MacRae’s ability,” explained another friend, an engineer by training.
Allan’s strength of purpose and tenacity played an immense part in bringing about the transformation in land ownership now enjoyed by his fellow crofters on the North Lochinver Estate.
In 1992, the Ostgota Enskilda Bank of Stockholm, major creditors of the by-then bankrupt Swedish property company that had previously owned the estate — they had bought it from the Vestey family for more than £1m — announced it would be offered for sale in seven different lots. Virtually every crofter between Torbreck and Drumbeg, including Allan, would be affected by the multitude of new landowners that might now gain a stake in their lives.
“The media just honed in on Alan because of his unique personality,” remembers a crofter who campaigned alongside Allan for the tenants themselves to purchase the estate. Allan’s innate ability to identify with crofters and communicate their aspirations to the general public in speeches and interviews during the ultimately successful and famous fund-raising campaign was unmatched, he said.
Less well known, perhaps, was his ability to deal with pressures, whether from environmental quangos intent on muscling in on trust policy or the outrageous behaviour of government departments resisting regular grants to the crofter-owned estate while readily doling out cash to rich and powerful landowners.
Allan MacRae had no time for either and regularly faced down those who would enlarge membership of the trust to include non-crofters, popularly known as “community ownership”.
In an interview published by Am Bratach in November 2007, he outlined his objections. He said: “I think community ownership, the way it’s been set out, does, in effect, empower the government because crofters can’t buy the land unless they include everybody on it. The government know then that they can dictate their agenda through the wider community.” His position didn’t change in the intervening years and remains without serious challenge to this day.
Allan MacRae was a serious man, especially in matters regarding the wellbeing of his own society. In particular, he savoured the freedom it conferred on him to be unconventional and Allan’s unconventional side naturally lent itself to many stories savoured by friends and neighbours..
Unusually, he only began smoking in his forties and had a reputation for being, if not exactly accident prone, certainly no health and safety enthusiast. “A famous trick of his from his plant-operating and building days involved dynamite,” said a former colleague, “which he’d light from the roll-up in his mouth, wait until the fuse was about to go and then throw from behind a rock at the area he wished to ‘excavate’”.
Another story concerns his driving. “I recall an altercation outside the old Culag many years ago when, reversing his pick-up, he dented somebody’s bumper,” said the same colleague. “What’s your problem, man?” Allan asked the indignant victim. “Why do you think it’s called a ‘bumper’?” Even the notoriously short-tempered gentleman whose pride and joy he dented was stuck for a response to that.”
Unconventional, yes, a radical in the finest tradition, yes, but Allan MacRae was also a kind, thoughtful man. Every time a particular couple met Allan in the shop with their children in tow he’d give the children a pound each. “He was like this,” relates the grateful parent. “Bachelor he may have been, but our children’s future was as important to him as anything else. He was one of the few who, when he spoke of future generations, actually meant what he said.”
He is already much missed and will be more so in the days that lie ahead. The sense of loss will be keenly felt far beyond Assynt, wherever crofters and their kind gather together feel that something needs to be done, and can be done, about the distribution of land.
It was a privilege to know Allan MacRae and he will not be forgotten.
Allan is survived by his brothers John, in Clachtoll, and Harry, in France. Another brother, Sandy, died a few years ago. — DMM